The Philadelphia Flower show celebrates 180 years and its parent Pennsylvania Horticultural Society its 182nd year. Happy Birthday!
Over a thousand bloom-hungry patrons in gowns and black tie flocked to Preview Night last Saturday, enjoying the sights, sounds and tastes of Italy, the show’s 2009 theme, an eye, ear, nose and throat exam for stir-crazy Philly gardeners. I saw a few wonderful exhibits: a whimsical Sienese “palio” with the colorful flags and drama of the city’s famous horse race; an attractively weird grotto motif and Spinal Tap-like display of the Mediterranean region’s myths and gods, including African—flawlessly executed, very imaginative and lots of fun; a handsome but dreary Venetian canal with a depressing black gondola; a Roman castle complete with a spectacular allee of columns and strolling singers; a little hill of Lake Como pines; a terrace from Tuscany; a striking Florentine Duomo cleverly suggested by a giant garden gazebo; an odd but popular Milanese fashion showroom or “bottega” of women’s hats, shoes and even dresses made of plant parts; a post-modern, edgy and stylish art sculpture of cut flowers in hundreds of little bottom-lit bottles in two rows flanking a large cubic space of European-style plant sculptures that was peculiarly static; and finally, a series of lonely-looking painted trees weeping, no less, that was technically marvelous. These are just the highlights I could recall of the main exhibits.
The entire exhibition area suffers from poor lighting. As soon as you enter, there’s a magnificent 20 foot tall bouquet of flowers. Beyond that, the place goes almost dark. It’s quite melancholic or what the Europeans call “lugubrious”. In several places you need a coal miner’s helmet. This is bizarre in a flower exhibit, and, furthermore, it is ironic that both the amateur competition and sales booth areas are very well lit, and the crowd was moving to them like moths.
An operatic duo began howling in the dreadful acoustics so I retreated to the outermost edges where the aforementioned amateur Victorian-style indoor-plant competitions were displayed on the simple judging benches. This was a pleasant contrast as well as a bit of a relief. The various plant clubs and societies do an excellent job working with the fine folks at PHS growing and showing an astonishingly wide range of cacti, euphorbias, orchids, primulas and countless others. This is an excellent feature of the show, and I only wished it was twice as big.. One special highlight was to see the “Batman Begins” inspiration for the magic Himalayan flower that alters Christian Bale. It’s a little gentian with a haunting blue flower. (There are not enough gentians in the world.) This timelessly classic exhibition space is the Westminster Dog Show trot-run of potted ornamental horticulture.
Complaints? If you’re going to have an Italian-themed show in Philadelphia, you’d do well to include a homage to Frank Sinatra. This is the only city in the world that broadcasts 5 hours of Ol’ Blue Eyes every week, and has done for 30 years. Also, “doo-wop” was cradled if not born here, mostly by Italians. A bit of informality was wanted. Also, no Italian supermodels, male or female, which was a tragedy. The glamour of flowers, the romance of gardens, the famous heritage of Roman beauty . . . and no supermodels? America without baseball? Texas with no cowboys? A picnic without sweet corn? “Bella Italia” with no bellas? Besides a couple of marble statues and an insipid painting, there were no classic beauties to be seen.
This “missing Venus”, so to speak, was a bit too obvious, at least to me. Maybe I’m obsessed. Venus, a.k.a. Aphrodite, Ishtar and so on, remains much loved in Italy. They’re more obsessed than I am. In some ways she defines Italy: patroness or goddess of Eros, the energy that spurs human passions. Venus ruled with her physical beauty. Perhaps few know also that she calmed the waters of the sea, thus making her a sailor’s favorite. The mermaid on the old sailing ship’s prows reminds us of her. Indeed, love has a calming effect, reordering things here and there so that peace might return, as the ships find their way back to port.
If there was an equivalent to Venus at the show, at least in terms of providing a relaxing or calming tranquility, it was the small but welcome Ikebana exhibit. The Oriental aesthetic it provided was the sole counterpoint to the gobbling overkill of the rest of the show. Asian art is a careful, simple human gesture—a brief moment that “appears” in the world—as contrasted to the ideal “recreation of the world” in Western art. This is a huge difference, and in stark display at this attractive exhibit. Check it out. Circulate through the show and take in each exhibit—what’s the point, social statement, etc. and then go to “Okenobo” in the section where the amateur societies are featured. The relief is palpable, like a washcloth to the forehead. The eyes relax immediately. Similarly, Chinese painters don’t busily fill up a stretched canvas with the world. Rather, they just place a daub here and another there, suggesting a moment of human presence in time. They’re content with their flicker in eternity.
Finally, I can understand avoiding the “Rocky” clichés and even eschewing the pizza garden, so to speak, but I cannot, for the life of me, comprehend the absence of the tomato, one of Italy’s great contributions to horticulture. True, the Aztecs created the cultivated tomato, but it was Italy that popularized it and sent it around the world. Granted, I have a vested interest as CEO of Burpee. But it’s the most popular vegetable in the home garden and as Italian as garlic. Italians literally invented modern European cuisine—much of it with vegetables—yet this tremendously important aspect of its culture was missing at the show.
But at least the Vespa dealership had a fleet of sharp looking 2009 models—Italian design at its best. I’d look odd on one—a bit like Louis Prima on a tricycle—but it would still be fun. There was a Colavita stand nearby that was selling Umbrian extra virgin olive oil—by far the best—for $8.00 for two 17 oz. bottles. One of these normally goes for $9-10.00. WOW.
You can’t have it all. But, if you’re a gardener or even an interested passerby, the 2009 Philadelphia Flower show comes fairly close.
I just wish they’d work out the lighting.
P.S. I’ll be speaking again on The Money Garden at 1:00 P.M. Wednesday, March 4, and 1:00 P.M. Saturday, March 7th.
P.S.S. The annuals and perennials at the show were especially well grown this year by our friends at Meadow Brook Farm.