In Full Bloom

Now in its 174th year, the Philadelphia Flower Show has become an annual, bustling rite for gardeners.

Cover Story

February 09, 2003|By Susan Reimer | By Susan Reimer,SUN COLUMNIST

Just when it seems that winter will never end, when it seems as if the cold grayness will never lift and the world will never bloom again, then comes the Philadelphia Flower Show.

For the past 174 years, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society has been filling a cavernous arena in the city with millions of flowers, creating not just a late-winter oasis of greenery, but a magical place of beauty and imagination.

"It is a spectacle," said Bartie Cole of Green-spring Valley, purveyor of an extraordinary garden of her own, who has been going to the flower show every year for more than a decade.

"I always go to learn," she said. "The artistic talents have become unbelievable. The attention to detail is amazing."

The Philadelphia Flower Show is considered the granddaddy of them all. It is not just the oldest and most spectacular indoor garden event, it is also the most prestigious. Judges come from all over the world to review the exhibits. And in horticultural circles, a ribbon from this show is the most coveted.

The flower show is also the place where hobbyists -- from beginners to those whose gardens are featured on tours -- go to see the freshest ideas in color and plant combinations and to buy the hottest new plant. This year's must-have is the cold-weather-hardy Japanese camellia, 'Korean Fire.'

"I am in love with new plants," said Doris Brumback of Balti-more, who has been going to the flower show for about 40 years. "Any plant you see there, you can find for your own garden."

The show is perhaps best known for its pure spectacle, though, and as a result it draws huge crowds. This year, from March 2 to March 9, visitors to the Pennsylvania Convention Center will be transported to the tiny village of Loiza in Puerto Rico for the "Festival de las Flores." There, they will encounter a religious festival, an island wedding and a beach party, complete with musicians and dancers.

The theme for the show was hatched five years ago by show designer and director Edward Lindemann, who has been designing these shows since 1980. His imagination was sparked by the Latino and Caribbean flavors showing up in food, clothing, travel, restaurants and home decor.

But it was his request for advice from Iris Brown, a member of the Puerto Rican community in Philadelphia, with which the horticultural society does many neighborhood projects, that brought this year's theme to full flower.

"I was looking for some advice for a location in Puerto Rico known for a festival. I wanted the visitors to the flower show to walk through the entrance and be thrown into a festival atmosphere," Lindemann said. "I asked Iris if she could help, and she just smiled. She understood immediately. She said, 'Let me tell you about Loiza, my village.'

"She brought out her photo albums," he added, "and that was that."

Brown took Lindemann's set designers to her home in Loiza for a tour only a native could provide.

"They came back with a good feeling and 5,000 ideas," Linde-mann said. "We would never have gotten what Iris was able to show us. There is a lot of authenticity as a result."

Authenticity, but not re-creation. Lindemann promises to use a lot of creative license. "We took her village and we embellished it with flowers," he said.

The result will be judged by perhaps 300,000 visitors. But there will be more than the village of Iris Brown's birth and Ed Lindemann's imagination.

The nation's premier florists and landscape designers will have spent a week turning 10 acres of the convention center into a floral fantasyland.

The transformation will require 300 tractor-trailer loads of material, including 50 truckloads of mulch and 7,000 Belgian stone blocks to outline the beds.

Heated trailer trucks will bring plant material from as far away as San Diego, where the massive topiaries that will populate the "Old Tijuana Cantina" have been growing for 2 1/2 years. The piano player, poker players, dancers, bartender -- even the old, sleeping dog -- are all life-size topiaries created by well-known designer Pat Hammer.

"Getting them here will cause a few sleepless nights, to be sure, Lindemann said.

City goes all out

The entire city of Philadelphia embraces the flower show with a week of activities -- as well it should, since it is estimated that the show generates $25 million in tourist dollars.

Not only does the city dress itself up in flowers, but during Flower Show Week, hotels offer package deals, restaurants offer flower show menus and even the city's transit service has reduced rates for show attendees.

The flower show itself costs about $6.5 million to stage, and the horticultural society expects to turn a $1 million profit. That money will be used to fund "Philadelphia Green" projects throughout the city -- the kinds of projects that brought Linde-mann together with Brown.

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