Philly Showtime!

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.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009 at 10:19 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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43 Responses to “Philly Showtime!”

  1. Jeanne said:

    How sad! I have been to 14 of the last 15 Floral Shows and I found this one exceptionally beautiful. I think you come off sounding stuffy. I heard some Frank Sinatra but Italy is NOT about DoWop. I don’t care that the flower show was in Philly. I enjoyed every moment of the 4 1/2 hours I was there and only 20 minutes of that time was spent in the vendor area.

  2. George said:

    Dear Jeanne – Who’s sad? Not me! I was impressed by much of the beauty, as I said in very specific detail. The lighting was poor in the beginning of the week, and I believe that by the end they had turned on more lights. Many folks complained, so it might’ve paid off. By the way, Italian street singing is not only distinctive but commonplace—that’s all I meant. I’m glad there was some Sinatra. I heard none the four days I attended. I hope you enjoyed the well-lit amateur section. Thanks.

  3. Lydia Wisner said:

    As a professional gardener in the Philadelphia area I’ve been to the Phila. Flower Show many, many times. The crush of people,the lines in front of every exhibit, the baby carriages that run over my feet, the lack of air and all the food smells are always memorable. For me, the flowers get lost in the shuffle.

  4. George said:

    Dear Lydia – I love the hustle and bustle when I’m relaxed, as odd as that sounds. Also, the din of a crowd is unique and somehow comforting. However, in a hurry, the stress becomes unbearable. Since I mostly “work” the show, I’m often in a sweat. So, go on a day off. It’s quite marvelous. And the flowers—especially in the amateur section, are exquisite this year. Thanks, George

  5. TC said:

    I missed this year’s show George. The first since 2004. But knowing there were no tomatoes makes me feel some better. :~)

  6. George said:

    Dear TC – Sorry you missed it. Apparently, I was mistaken about the tomatoes being missing. They are in several school, university and agriculture society displays. But I saw no major emphasis. But I wasn’t thorough. Sorry about that. George

  7. Rick Porter said:

    And all this time I thought I was the most facetious, sarcastic person around. Seems as though I have a brother! Neat observations; thanks.

  8. George said:

    Dear Rick – I don’t think I’m being facetious—that suggests deception or obfuscation. I’m usually straightforward. As for sarcasm, maybe a tiny bit here and there. I hope you find me fairly amusing, and thank you for your comments.

  9. rick ray said:

    George,I agree the lighting was terrible. It is my understanding the cost of the lighting is out of sight…thousands of $$$$ for the week for a small exhibit.
    Rick

  10. George said:

    Dear Rick – Nice to see you and Liz there. I got the same answer from the show staff. They said they’re aware of various points of view. It was my only serious complaint, and since the low light is only on about half the exhibits, and the entire rest of the show is very well lit, it’s not a disaster. Thanks. George

  11. Jennifer Davies said:

    I agree that the lighting was atrocious. I couldn’t see much at all and it was such a strain to see the plants in the dark ( all color was gone) that we gave up after a couple of hours. The bonsai was wonderful, fascinating as was the japanese flower arranging. I was appalled at the painted trees, just like spraying baby chicks colors at Easter time, a real affront to a living being that has its own nature.

  12. George said:

    Dear Jennifer – I agree on the Bonsai Show. And I forgot to mention the pressed plant pictures competition and the Society of Botanical Artists exhibit, which were superb. I don’t think the painted trees were bad, just very unusual and, I thought, technically brilliant. George

  13. John Ferguson said:

    I dropped my membership in the PHS and stopped going to the flower show. I think the show has declined over the last few years and last year was the worst. Between the blare of amplified brass band, the poor man trying to simultanesouly give a lecture, and the roar of the crowd and the decline of the display gardens I felt it didn’t deserve the four hour drive to the show.

  14. George said:

    Dear John – This year is a bit better than last year in my view. The return to formality was welcome—all things considered—and the noise level wasn’t bad. I’m just not an opera fan. But you’re right—the blare in ’08 was rude. Thanks. George

  15. EB said:

    I saw the show on Tues. March 3 from 5-8 pm and was pleasantly surprised that the crowd was not as large as I’ve experienced in the past. When I got home I read George’s comments and they are spot on. I mostly enjoyed the modernistic floral displays (because it appears that they incorporate the Italian flair for style and design more than many of the traditional ones), and the increased emphasis on recycling/ ecology/ sustainability (such as PECO’s green roof).

  16. George said:

    Dear EB – Thanks for the compliment. I agree about the PECO display—it was both impressive and informative. I hope folks don’t feel that I disliked the show. I loved it. George

  17. Have they forgotten the KISS principle (keep it simple sweetie? We have our opportunity to try elegant simplicity in Nashville this weekend.

  18. George said:

    Dear Judith – Interesting thought. I had a notion walking around the main exhibit area that perhaps they might concentrate on one huge display and do it fantastically well, and let the rest of the folks take a year off. Probably a political problem with the exhibitor group. Thanks. George

  19. Ann Weber said:

    I go to a couple of minor flower shows (by the Philadelphia show standards) in the southeastern Virginia area, and the lighting near the landcsape displays is one of the main differences between them. The darker one appeals to me a lot more because it creates a different ambiance and separates it from the vendors area. The bright one just like going to a grocery store. There’s no magic in that.

  20. George said:

    Right you are, but there was a general problem of sufficiency. The lights weren’t hanging low enough and the power was costly. The place is a cavern. Thanks. George

  21. Paula said:

    I have always thought the show was dark, glad I’m not the only one who thinks so. Even if you go during the dinner hour, as advised, to miss the crowds, it’s still packed. The last time I went I made the mistake of deciding to eat there, which is a big no no. No where to sit down, the few (10?) chairs they had, back in the darkest section of the floor, were taken, with people waiting to get them next.

  22. George said:

    Dear Paula – Excellent point. There should be more benches for folks to sit, park-like, throughout the show. But I felt the PHS was doing its best with the chairs against the walls. They were numerous, if a bit hard to locate. The only place I couldn’t find a seat was on the concourse outside the exhibition hall. Thanks. George

  23. Margo said:

    The Phila. flower show has gone downhill along w/ the other shows, and Phila is (used to be) the best …. too crowded, too many vendors and apparently bad lighting…. it was better when it was the old show b4 it moved to the bigger space it is in now:-( Did you learn anything? Genetians are wonderful and underused!

  24. George said:

    Dear Margo – I would say only that I agree that the lighting was easier and thus better at the old Union Hall location, which I loved. However, it could be cold and drafty. The only complaint now is the high ceiling creates a black abyss. As in the home, lighting is crucial. Otherwise the show was as great as ever, if not better. Certainly was exciting and, at times, lots of fun. George

  25. Janice Bovino said:

    I so enjoy reading your web log.

  26. George said:

    Thank you, Janice.

  27. Corinne Applegate said:

    Right on, Mr. B. Was at the show yesterday 2 to 7. I agree with everything you said. I enjoyed the show but left with a “wanting more” feeling; or rather some things were left out. I expected Italian food to eat, along with their wonderful pastries. Termini’s is across the street in the Reading Terminal. I stopped there for some on the way home to NJ. Natives are big for us here in NJ this year and there was really only one Natives display, tho it was a good one. Also, only a small display on woodlands and wildflowers. (I’m a Heronswood customer!)

  28. George said:

    Thanks Corinne! But didn’t you love the blue-lit “Atlantis” grotto? And, I must say, the main entrance was the best I’ve ever seen in 15 years of going to the show. I also heard gossip that the plant exhibits will have a greater emphasis next year and beyond. Thanks again. George

  29. karen fredenburg said:

    there were some wonderful red, ripe tomatoes on living plants in the camden children’s garden! but yes, it was so dark a friend who is a wonderful photographer gave up after two or three hours of trying to get some good photos in the darkness of the venue. and yes, the acoustics are awful there.

  30. George said:

    Dear Karen – I’m so sorry I missed seeing the tomatoes. The children’s garden display was hard for me to find, but I feel bad that I left the wrong impression. Thanks for pointing that out. George

  31. Roseann said:

    You are right on with the lighting. It was so obvious when I entered that I asked an exhibitor what the problem was. She advised me of the expense and said that it was up to the individual exhibitors to provide lighting for their exhibit. I visited the show on Monday and is was great – no crowds – everyone must have stayed away becuse of the weather which tuned out no to be an issue at all. Other than the terrible acoustics and lighting I did enjoy the show – anything “flowers” will cheer me up this time of year!

  32. George said:

    Dear Roseann – We were apparently among a lot of folks who complained. Again, it is a tough space. I spoke on Monday and had a great audience—seems that “when the going gets tough, the tough get growing”. However, the freeways were perfectly clear. The “TV eye” should be replaced by everyone’s good old “weather eye”. Thanks. George

  33. Isabel wheat said:

    certainly better than the total lights out of the New England Spring Flower Show

  34. George said:

    Dear Isabel – Indeed. The PHS has survived by having excellent leadership, Jane Pepper in particular. Thanks. George

  35. jennifer Mickel said:

    I am saving this one. Very amusing and pleasant reading. THe picture is clear. But it makes me want to experience it myself. Thanks. THe light ing is sooo important. jkm

  36. George said:

    Thanks very much, Jennifer.

  37. Walt said:

    Yeah, it’s too bad about the lighting. It’s 100% due to the fact that the Flower Show Committee hired a different lighting company this year, likely to save a few dollars, and it definitely shows. It’s a real shame, too, because the exhibitors put so much time, energy, and money into their works of art and they were completely betrayed by the organizers. Maybe they’ll wise up and hire the other group back. They’ve been doing it for years and it was always nothing but spectacular!

  38. George said:

    Dear Walt, Didn’t know that. Thanks for the info.

  39. Bette Hawkins said:

    I think writer looked for the negative. Granted, the lighting did not enhance the exhibits, but the whole conception was marvelous, the flora and fauna in outsanding condition on Thursday, despite the warm weather, and I hardly think the tomato needed to be there to represent Bella Italia.

  40. George said:

    Dear Bette – Actually, I was positive about the show. The only criticism was lighting, and acoustics for opera. These negatives “looked for me”. Rest of the piece is mostly pro-show. Also, you mean “foliage” not “fauna”, and I complimented Meadowbrook—part of PHS—by name for their work, as I did also the amateurs. As for the tomato: to each his own. I still find it a bit odd that the “Bella Italia” symbol, the sunflower, is native to eastern Colorado, and not especially prominent in Italian horticulture. Russia is by far a greater—per capita—grower of sunflowers. The olive, yes; the red salvia, absolutely; the zinnia, much more common. Nevertheless, it was still a great show. Broke previous records for attendance I heard.

  41. susan said:

    I totally agree with you about the lighting! I thought that they were trying to save money. I was glad to see that you had a booth again selling your seeds. I am all set for planting.

  42. George said:

    Dear Susan, It was a real grind working that booth, I can tell you. Our staff is half-dead. Maybe next year we’ll offer a more limited selection or a computer kiosk, or just help out in other ways. Thanks.

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