The last time I was here, I must have been ten years old. Mom and Mrs. Heller, her best friend, would go every year and take us children with them, at least sometimes. Resolved not to keep putting off experiences, I booked my ticket and an Amtrak trip, and here I am.
What I remember most about those long-ago visits is the overpowering smell of damp earth and flowers. When I mentioned this to our tour guide, she told me that back then the show was in a different place, where you took an escalator down to the main floor, inhaling the scent of banks of blooming hyacinths as you descended. That must have been it. This show didn’t have the same scents, but it certainly had the flowers.
The theme was Hawaii, about as far from Philadelphia as you can get. You enter through a wavy canopy ringed with white orchids and other tropical flowers, with computer-generated images of waves swooping and swirling around to make you feel as though you’re underwater. Next up is a thirty-foot high waterfall ringed with tropicals, mostly orchids, and illuminated with lights in every vivid tropical color you can imagine. Adjacent is a huge screen with Hawaiian images projected on it, and a stage in front of it where hula dancers appear several times each day. There’s an arbor with Hawaiian flowers threaded through it, and an elegant display of white orchids illuminated by blue lights at either end.
The most over-the-top display must have been this one, a three-part display that involved bamboo, sparkling lights, dangling sparkling things, and dyed flowers. YES! We happened to run into the designer during our behind the scenes
tour, and he told us there is a new technique for dying that mimics what you can do with hydrangeas: adding chemicals to the soil rather than actually dying the flowers. Here’s the result with some orchids: definitely wild but more subtly colored than you might expect. Not to my taste, but worthy of admiration.
Anthuriums were everywhere. Mom and I always agreed that they weren’t quite nice, not to say icky, but when you see them used right they can actually be attractive. Or, at least, interesting. I’m still not convinced. The greenish ones are less intrusive than the more common red ones.
This poolside garden exhibit appealed mightily to me. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m the kind of gardener who could sustain the gorgeous simplicity of this row of geometric pot fountains. But I can certainly admire it from afar.
The simple pool was enhanced by the reflection of an enormous tropical leaf from the plantings nearby.
The plant collector in me noted the following interesting possibilities.
Nephrolepsis Exaltata ‘Rita’s Gold’ looks like a golden fern and turns out to be the plain old Boston fern, only gold.
Aloe ‘Christmas Carol’ is so pretty that I bought one!
Monanthes polyphylla had a fascinating texture.
Lavandula stoechas had interesting flowers.
If you are visiting Hawaii, you have to expect volcanoes. Here’s a response by designers that included “lava rocks,” “fire,” and “smoke.” All done with mirrors of course, that is, with lighting and plenty of red flowers. One of the designers is English and has exhibited at Chelsea. I wonder if she’s ever done something like this in England! This exhibit won best of show.
After all this abundance and color, it’s refreshing to see the Garden of the Gods, emphasizing succulents, cactus, and other native plants that display a muted palate and thrive on little water. This installation was very effective, and who
would ever have guessed that the lava rocks were really made of Styrofoam?
Once you’re over the dazzling colors of the tropicals, you start to notice the beautiful array of leaf colors and textures. Here is a simple but effective display of colocasias.
Someone civic – I forgot who – installed a miniature cityscape showing the benefits of plantings in an urban setting, including roof plantings. Sedums made up the bulk of these plantings, and they were adorable.
Although the focus is on the installations – one a typical Hawaiian fruit stand complete with hidden pool, another a display of Pennsylvania natives that echo the colors of Hawaii – I was drawn to the individual entries in a million different categories, from miniature succulents, to forced bulbs, to house plants. The begonias particularly caught my eye, and here are a few that I now long for. Note to self: find a good book on begonias.
Begonia ‘Bethlehem Star’ and
Begonia ‘A Little Night Music’
Who says gardeners don’t have a sense of humor? Check out this inventive mailbox planting.
This display showed the results of an earthquake on outdoor dining.
Then there was the display of succulents formed into the bodice of a dress. Wonderful!
Among the bulbs, I kept coming back to the Topolino narcissus, which would make a good addition to the cut flower garden.
One of my favorite exhibits was from the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society, which mounted a mixed vegetable and flower garden display that knocked my socks off. First there is the WALL of lettuce, with a one-way mirror inserted. Love the quote.
You see how beautiful rows of lettuce can look. Inside it was funky and countrified, with rows of canned fruits and vegetables and found objects turned into garden features. Aren’t these lamps great?
The behind the scenes tour first thing Monday morning gave us a chance to visit the exhibits without crowds of people and was well worth it. We heard a couple stories about putting the show together, including the minor disasters. A sandy beach, imported with great difficulty, slid into the pool it was bordering, and the whole thing had to be drained and redone. Tick tick tick, as they have two weeks to prepare and then they have to open, ready or not.
I also heard a couple lectures, one on Irish castles and gardens that had more about the Titanic than necessary (100th anniversary, it launched from Belfast) but offered some good hints about gardens worth visiting. The other was by Amy Goldman, heirloom vegetable gardener, who had lots of luscious words to describe the squash, tomatoes and melons she grows by the acre in upstate New York.
The verdict? You never can recapture the Flower Show of yore, but I enjoyed this one. Next year, “Brilliant” – aka England – is the theme, and I might just have to come back.
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