It all started for Philadelphia way back in 1829. The Pennsylvania Horticulture Society (PHS) was founded in 1827 and the first show was held at the Masonic Hall on Chestnut Street in 1829. The Show was moved to the Civic Center in the 1960’s and stayed there until 1996 when it was moved to its current location at the Convention Center. The Civic Center was where I first encountered it along with my “bestest” gardening buddy, Glo. We had met in the vanpool in 1992 and had discovered right off the bat that we both loved growing things. During those long slow morning commutes, we talked about flowers and growing things and maybe going to the world famous Philadelphia Flower Show.
If you garden on the east coast (or anywhere in America really), you will, no doubt, have heard of the Philadelphia Flower Show. Glo and I decided that we needed to go and so we did. And we continued going for, gosh, maybe 15 years. The Horticultural Society has a long tradition of conducting the shows and we have our long tradition of going to see them. It works out for both sides of that equation.
For Glo and me, tradition was simple. We took the train from New Carrollton to Philadelphia. On the way, we caught up on things and enjoyed a brunch – well, sort of – we always had a Bloody Mary and some bagels with cream cheese. There is nothing quite like relaxing and enjoying a late breakfast and libations as the train rumbles through the Maryland and Pennsylvania countryside on its way to Philly. Our adventure usually continued with a taxi ride to the Convention Center and an exhausting day at the show. We are creatures of habit so we usually stroll through the exhibits for several hours….okay, strolling as much as the crowds will allow…..sometimes we crept and bumped our way through the exhibits. Then we headed upstairs to the food court for a snack and to take a load off our feet. Then, after another couple hours going through the vendor side of the show and buying those things we couldn’t possibly do without but still small enough to lug home on the train, we walked the 6 blocks or so down to the Irish Pub – 12th Street Location – on Walnut Street (gotta love Philly). After a dinner and a nice Irish Coffee, we grabbed a cab and headed back to the train station where we caught our train and mostly nodded and dozed our way back to Maryland.
And so it went for many years – this tradition of ours – until arthritis put my walking and roaming days on hold. Our last show together was in 2007 and we talked about it and missed it every year since then. I just couldn’t trust my knees to hold up even after having total replacements in 2011…that is, until this year. I had been thinking it was time to get back up on the horse and give the show another try. So we started making plans. We opted to drive this year and I recruited Jerry to go along as our driver. He wasn’t keen on going to the show but thought a weekend (in the middle of the week – we would never try to brave the crowds on the actual weekend) in Philadelphia might be fun. So this year, we revived our tradition – Bloody Marys and all – and headed back to the show. In case you’re wondering, our driver was not keen on the fact that he had to drive and was only allowed the bagels part of the breakfast but that is just the way it goes – drivers get nothing. Our plan was to go to the show and send Jerry off to find our hotel for the night. ( I’ll take a moment to give a plug – the Holiday Inn Express – Midtown on Walnut Street was very nice and very accommodating and maybe about 4 blocks from the Convention Center…..close enough to walk if your tired feet will allow it after viewing the 10 acres of exhibits at the show.) Just one more little note – the flower show includes 33 indoor acres with 10 acres of exhibits. More than 250,000 visitors attend the show each year. If you go in the future, plan to spend at least one day and expect to be very tired when you are done.
The show this year was called “ARTiculture” to celebrate the combination of “Art” in “Horticulture”. You can find out more about the theme at the official PHS website – Philadelphia Flower Show. You can also find highlights of the show with photos at that site. I would not normally refer you to another site for highlights and photos but I had my own Murphy’s Law moment no sooner than we arrived at the show and started checking out the exhibits. I had decided to leave the good camera in the car and just take my small Sony point & click camera into the show. My rationale was that the Sony was small, easy to carry, and we’d be taking photos of displays in crowded conditions and wouldn’t require too much zoom, etc. SO I took maybe three photos and, of course, got the dead battery signal just before it went kaput entirely. No problem, I will just do like everyone else and use my phone to take photos. The phone photos are not bad but they are also not great. Mea culpa – we get what we get and it is what it is.
Let me start by saying this year’s show like every show that I remember was overwhelming. This is the grandmother of all American flower shows and it shows (pun intended) in every single exhibit. From the grand display at the entrance to the tiniest miniature exhibit at the back, this show is about flowers. We have been to other shows in Washington, DC and Baltimore but those are more “home and garden” shows and tend to focus on the vendors and what they sell. The Philadelphia show is a “faire extraordinaire” and the focus is on flowers and exhibits and competition. (Yes, I am aware that you usually don’t see “faire” and “extraordinaire” together in this way in normal text. I googled it and checked Wikipedia and decided to use it anyway. My intended meaning is a great big fair that was totally awesome…incorrect use of French phrase notwithstanding.) The exhibits are judged and ribbons are given for 1st, 2nd, 3rd place and honorable mention so it is like a country fair in that context. Most home and garden shows do not do this but at Philly, I think this competition brings out the creativity in the exhibits. You never know what you will see or how flowers and plants will be used in a particular exhibit. It is not about some vendor’s product line – it is about the plants. To win a blue ribbon is quite an accomplishment and reading the judge’s critiques adds to the pleasure of seeing the exhibits.
Back to this year’s theme – it was right on point for Glo who was fascinated with all the different crafts and artwork on display. Art was the theme and all of the exhibits were about art. For me, it was a little disappointing. I like the flowers and plants and landscaping displays more than the art. Don’t get me wrong, I dearly love art (and junk) in the garden but many of the exhibits this year were so focused on the art that they didn’t do much with landscaping. There were plenty of huge floral arrangements and plenty of exhibits covered with organic materials. If you like the Rose Bowl Parade each year at Thanksgiving, you would have loved the Philly show this year. Art pieces were created using organic materials – like the big Rose Bowl floats – and some of it was quite good and, to use my overworked word, extraordinary. Glo loved it and came away with so many ideas for art projects to do back at home that I expect not to see her for months while she goes into a creative frenzy implementing all those ideas.
I cannot begin to describe all of the beautiful exhibits but I will tell you about my favorite from the show. Okay, one of my favorites. There was a section of landscaping exhibits that were inspired by paintings. The exhibit included the painting so that you could see the inspiration piece and decide how well the exhibitor captured the art in the display. It was also one of the more controversial ones, I suppose. It showed what I would call a winter garden. Every gardener knows the value of having good “bones” in the garden and including those structural elements that add interest to the garden in winter. But this exhibit took that a little further and appeared to feature the beauty in winter-dead plants in the garden. I loved it. I am notorious for not cutting down dead plants until spring. I like the look of golden grasses and seed heads and I also like that birds love those seed heads and hiding in the grasses during the winter. The neighbors might not approve and see nothing more than dead things when every brown stem is not cleared from the yard in autumn but I like it. One other thing to consider – it is not unusual to see a floral arrangement with bright blooms but imagine that someone took the time to “arrange” dead grasses and thistle and milkweed in about a 20X20 foot space to make it look like a lovely winter meadow. To me, that was amazing. Do you suppose they just went out to a field and took up the sod with the plants intact to create the space? You never know with these displays.
Glo’s favorite: There was a display with giant balls covered and filled with organic materials – seeds and petals and nuts and leaves – and arranged into colorful displays. Glo has giant vine-woven balls in her garden already so I fully expect to see giant hoops and circles and balls covered with dried flower petals in her flower beds the next time I visit her garden.
Of course, the miniature exhibits caught her eye too. Her sister is also an artist who specializes in miniatures. If you think creating regular artwork is difficult, try doing it in miniature. One of my favorite miniature pieces was in the “jewelry” section and was a piece depicting a bird, of course. The photo I’ve included doesn’t do it justice – it was an incredible piece.
And there were the bonsai. I am always captivated by these small trees and the age of some of the trees. This is a hobby that is a lifetime commitment. Some of the trees have been in “training” for decades. I suppose the bonsai artist (hobbyist? technician?) is really the one in training for all those years because it seems as if they are always perfecting the tree notwithstanding that they always look so perfect to me.
Was there something I hated? Yep. I absolutely do not think it is art to strip trees or shrubs of their leaves and paint the branches fluorescent colors. I love color in a garden especially a winter garden and I love seeing the shape of trees without their leaves in the winter, but painting a tree seems to me to be just this side of blasphemy.
I could go on forever….the show is just that big. We finally wound down and found that we were hungry and exhausted and pretty much broke. But it is impossible not to buy something with maybe 200 vendors selling everything from A to Z – seeds, plants, pots, jewelry, outdoor furniture….you name it. We always hit the tropical bulb vendors to see what new and AMAZING things are being sold. I got a great firecracker lily there a few years ago that is still thriving and blooms right around the 4th of July each year. How cool is that? Don’t ask how many things I bought, dragged them home, and then, using my inept green thumb, promptly killed – well, let die. This year I added Foxtail Lilies to my collection. At least I am hoping it lives long enough to become part of my garden. It is supposed to be hardy but I am questioning that so I’ll probably plant them (I got three rhizomes) in pots and see how it goes.
Unlike past years, I did not buy a bouquet of roses this year. There used to be a vendor at the show – a local nursery – who built a bleacher type display and had hundreds of containers of fresh cut roses in all colors and shades staged on the tiers of the bleachers. The rose stand was unbelievably beautiful and popular. Crowds of people would surround the stand to buy the roses. It was an adventure getting up to the front of the stand to buy a bouquet. The sellers were on a platform above the show floor in front of the roses so you had to reach up to give them your money. Then you would point to the roses you wanted – a single color or a variety of colors – your pick. For $5, you got a dozen roses and a little baby’s breath thrown in for good measure. When you got there, it was like you won the roses. It was special and it was a tradition – every year, I brought home a dozen roses but I do not buy the roses anymore. A few years ago, things got all civilized and they stopped selling roses that way. You can still buy roses, or course, but the rose stand is just the same as all the others and pretty much the same as you see at the local grocery store. No bleachers – no crowds – no 5 dollar bill clutched in your hand as you made your way inch by inch to the front of the crowd. It is just not the same.
As noted, after about five hours, we were plumb worn out and ready to leave. No, we did not see everything – not by a long shot – but we saw most of it and that will give us lots to talk about for months to come. Thank goodness the hotel was not far away. We were so tired and it was cold – we had left our jackets in the car so we didn’t have to tote them around all day. So we took a cab to the hotel – a dollar per block was well worth it. After a bit of rest – just a wee bit because we were hungry too, we headed out for dinner. The Irish Pub seemed like a thousand miles away so we asked the hotel bellhop for advice on good places to eat. We took the closest one – right next door – The Walnut Street Supper Club. I have to give kudos to the Supper Club. The food was great, the service good, and the atmosphere was even better. I’d eat there again in a flash.
It was a long and exhausting day. The old knees made it but I was tired and sore and my joints ached. I was glad we decided to stay overnight rather than try to drive home that evening. The best thing was not the show or the exhibits or the flowers – it was the time I have spent with my friend over the years and the memories we have made. Sometimes traditions seem to get in the way of progress and moving forward but traditions with friends and family are very much worth keeping. I expect that we will keep going to the Philly show as long as we possibly can and I hope that the Horticultural Society never loses its drive to keep the show going forever.
Now, speaking of making progress and new adventures – I hear the Chelsea Flower Show is really cool and includes both outside and indoor exhibits and is absolutely the place to go for anyone who thinks they might have a green thumb worth a plug nickel. Glo – are you reading this? Are you ready to start a new tradition?
See also The Tidewater Gardener’s blog on the Flower Show – he included some awesome photos. Guess he checked the camera battery before going to the show. 🙂