At this time of year, when winter hangs on stubbornly, you need not head toward the equator for a sustaining dose of spring.
Simply head north to the Philadelphia Flower Show. At 177 years old, it is the oldest, largest and certainly the most ambitious display of horticulture in the United States.
Covering 10 acres in the cavernous Pennsylvania Convention Center beginning tomorrow and continuing through next Sunday, the flower show annually attracts more than a quarter of a million garden enthusiasts during its weeklong stay.
And this year, Mother Nature herself is attending.
The theme of the show, executed by show designer Sam Lemheney, is "Enchanted Spring ... A Tribute to Mother Nature."
And tribute it is.
The gracefully reclining figure of Natura, the goddess of nature, is the centerpiece of the flower show. It is made of hundreds of thousands of leafy plants, trees and flowers, rises 25 feet from the show floor and measures 60 feet in length.
The floral sculpture, designed by Life3 and staged by J. Franklin Styer Nurseries of Delaware, will also have a waterfall cascading from Natura's outstretched hand.
Life3, World Cup award-winning floral designers from the Netherlands, Sweden and Belgium exhibiting for the first time in the United States, also will fill six grottos around Natura with gravity-defying sculptural floral arrangements. The construction took about 10 days.
"The sheer size of her has made this a challenge," said Lemheney. "She is not a topiary, with a wire frame and plant life growing through it. And that has required a lot of mulch and a lot of Styrofoam for support."
After years of giving international flavor to the flower show, Lemheney decided to bring it back to its essentials.
"I looked back at the themes over the last 25 years and I thought that there should be more fantasy," he said. "And Mother Nature was the perfect character for that. I mean, who plays a more important role in all we do in the garden?"
Natura may be the most spectacular attraction but she is by no means the only one. Among more than 100 features are:
A Floratopia Tree, a 16-foot tree of life made of fragrant cut flowers woven in a canopy and dotted with birds and butterflies. It will greet visitors to the show.
Mother Nature's Garden, which is heralded by the show's host, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, as "the most elaborate and impressive series of displays ever created for the show."
It includes nature's key elements of water, wind and fire, with dancing fountains, giant lily pads, massive kites above a colorful meadow and a Gothic ruin that shimmers with tropical and desert plants simulating molten lava flows.
Garden Delights, which was inspired by the English Cotswold house and grounds at Philadelphia's Meadowbrook Farm and will offer gardeners inspiration for their own homes and yards. It is a realistic, semiformal display featuring alpines, begonias, succulents and orchids.
Also throughout the week will be free lectures and demonstrations on gardening, flower arranging and the culinary arts. A new interactive display called "It's Your Garden" gives visitors the chance to judge a mock competition like the hundreds of competitions taking place throughout the show.
As always, the Flower Show Marketplace is the place for shopping. More than 140 vendors will be selling seeds, bulbs, herbs, fresh flowers, garden structures, tools, gadgets, garden architecture, garden art and crafts and more.
You'll find plenty of food stands on the perimeter of the flower show, and same-day re-entry with a hand stamp allows visitors to sample food at nearby restaurants and return to the show.
Or, make a reservation for a delightful respite at the flower show Garden Tea.
New this year at the show is the Hive, a lounge featuring musicians, a cash bar and food from local restaurants -- the ideal place to relax after a day at the flower show.
At a glance
The Philadelphia Flower Show
"Enchanted Spring ... A Tribute to Mother Nature."
Pennsylvania Convention Center, 12th and Arch streets, Philadelphia
Tomorrow through March 12
8 a.m. to 6 p.m. tomorrow and next Sunday; 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Saturday.
Available at the box office or online at theflowershow.com: Tomorrow, $26; Saturday and next Sunday, $24; Monday through Friday, $22. Children ages 2 to 12, $12. Advance tickets are $20 for any day; $19.50 for groups of 20 or more. Same day re-entry is permitted with a hand stamp.
Tips for visitors
The best viewing hours, and the smallest crowds, are after 3 p.m. on weekdays.
Wear comfortable shoes. The flower show covers 10 indoor acres. And consider wearing a light jacket. The convention center is kept at a cool 68 degrees for the benefit of the flowers.
Bring a pad, pencils and a camera to record plant groupings and landscape ideas, to make notes on specific plants and to record advice from the experts.