Venerable Philadelphia Flower Show hopes to draw younger crowd, urban gardeners

The Philadelphia Flower show features 50 major displays of plants forced into bloom, a prestigious plant contest for hobbyists and lots of horticultural vendors. The show, which takes place at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, continues through March 7.
By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, March 4, 2010

Floral designers Bailey Hale and Armas Koehler are perched on stools in a murky niche created by the rusty shipping containers around them. Four containers are on the floor, another two are set heavily above them; some are battered, others tagged with graffiti by artists known simply as Distraught and Distort.

This assemblage would have its own air of utilitarian menace were it not for the jaw-dropping floral displays encased in these industrial frames. In one, a party table has been set, dripping with Spanish moss in an edgy floral confection that also includes purple vanda orchids and fleshy succulents. You walk right through another container, past curtains of beargrass and walls of distorting mirrors. In a third, the whole light of the world seems to shine out onto the gloomy floor of the Pennsylvania Convention Center in the hub of downtown Philadelphia. Thousands of white blossoms -- Japanese dahlias, baby's breath, moth orchids, the daffodil-like eucharis -- are bathed in 18 fluorescent lamps, and all are a bit tilted to suggest lurching in transit.

"This is what we are calling 'The Accident,' " said Hale. Their exhibit is one of the draws this week at the Philadelphia Flower Show, where around 250,000 visitors between last Sunday and next will seek to shrug off winter with floral displays inspired by Indian weddings, Zulu rituals, bamboo labyrinths and creative mishaps in shipping containers.

Winter wonder

The notion of a winter flower show may seem quaint in today's plugged-in world, and several around the country have languished or folded in recent years. The Philly show, the largest and oldest, carries on, following a basic formula that hasn't really changed much over the decades: In the cavern of a convention center, blend 50 major displays of plants forced into bloom, with a prestigious plant contest for hobbyists and a large area of horticultural vendors, and the cabin-fevered folk keep coming.

Live shows this week have featured a troupe of squawking parrots flying just above head height, and a stage show that included a Brazilian dancer with her own feathers (black and sparse), plus fishnet stockings and an evident appeal to the aging guys in the crowd. The society says 46 percent of the show visitors are over 55. Eight out of 10 are female.


But the venerable show, and the organization that stages it, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society -- both rooted in the 1820s -- are at a crossroads of sorts.

"We have dedicated exhibitors now in their 80s, and we have to make sure we have people to replace them," said Jane G. Pepper, the elfin, bespectacled Scottish emigre who has been the face of the show and the society for nearly 30 years. Both have flourished under her leadership, but nearing 65, she's stepping down in a few weeks. On the floor of her last show, strangers come up to her to thank her. Pepper leans over and gives each a genteel hug. She is being succeeded by a dapper, pin-striped 40-year-old named Drew Becher, who directs a New York-based community greening program founded by Bette Midler. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and Midler's group have both been involved in urban greening and community gardening since long before they became popular.

But Becher sees vital links between the youthful, civically active local food movement and the Philadelphia show, which raises $1 million a year for the society's urban greening program. "I think the show is going to be more important than ever" in teaching visitors about sustainable gardening, while still entertaining people, he said. "We continually need to wow people." Many of the exhibits are by nursery companies who strive to emulate decorative and wild landscapes, with twisting streams through banks of rhododendrons and spring bulbs tricked into bloom in the greenhouse.

Other displays play up the oversize and exotic nature of jungle plants, including a pool where giant water lilies are being coaxed into life. Across the aisle, orchids cluster like monarch butterflies and elsewhere New Zealand tree ferns spring to life. The lushness evokes the floral imagination of the movie "Avatar," though in this Philly forum the 3-D experience requires no special eyeware and blue humanoids are thin on the ground. However, the artificial light is a constant challenge in the 10-acre concrete cavern, and though exhibitors pay a lot to augment the lighting, strong pink colors of azaleas look muddy and purple-leafed plants take on a maroon brown hue.

Not just for club ladies

Becher would like to entice to future shows more architects and other design professionals who would build on the green theme with a keen visual edge. This is why Hale, Koehler and Judith Campbell, the third member of their floral design company, Moda Botanica, may be the future of an institution that now calls itself, somewhat preciously, the Philadelphia International Flower Show.

The three thirtysomethings made a splash at their first display last year, an abstraction of Italian ballet that Hale says defies verbal description, followed by the shipping container exhibit this year.

As members of the crowd filed past, they craned upward to see rows of heliconias (a tropical banana relative) and exotic pitcher plants suspended in bags of water wrapped in brown paper. Hale and Koehler sat patiently as visitors asked the same two questions: What are the plants? What's in the bag?

"We think it's fabulous," says a woman, in a gushing, half whisper to them.

Hale turns to an observer. "We get a reaction. The worst thing for us is for someone to walk by and say, 'That's pretty.' "

"It's been good to see the youth respond to this," said Koehler. "It might not be the thing for the garden club ladies, but it's important to keep it fresh." He looks at a reporter scribbling notes. "Not to disparage garden club ladies. We love them, too."

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