2011 Philadelphia Flower Show Review

New president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, Drew Becher, had some large and magical shoes to fill—those of Jane Pepper, who transformed the PHS, both its annual indoor flower show and its urban horticulture project, into the nation’s largest and most effective. Jane Pepper’s leadership was also larger than life and spanned most of her adulthood until she retired last year. So far, the smart and hard-charging Becher has acquitted himself admirably in the tough twin arenas of continuity and innovation. The PHS board of trustees should be thanked for making the bold decision in favor of the latter, which the previous board did when it hired the utterly remarkable Mrs. Pepper.

On with the Show. Its director, Sam Lemhenny, gets better and better making improvements with the challenging space and inherent difficulties of a dark, cavernous interior, since the show is entirely indoors. We aren’t talking glass here, either. This year, Lemhenny exceeded even my infamous expectations everywhere, but especially around the main display, a recreation of the foundation of the Eiffel Tower. The Eiffel Tower posed a problem: its aesthetic value is the tower, not the bottom. Thus, it looked remarkably as much like the Thames Tower Bridge as the base of the Eiffel Tower. The structure was handsome and the lighting was magnificently done. The distinctive lattice-like ironwork of the Paris landmark was itself beautifully spot-lit, but the triumph was the colored spots that bathed the convention floor in a dynamic criss-cross of spectacular, tasteful flower-colored tones.

While the grand entrance peacock did not look much like a peacock, and the lion had no face—odd as could be—the giant cricket and especially the ostrich were quite striking and great crowd-pleasers. There were many tulips (which caused some gossip, but, as Lee Dorsey sang, ‘People Will Talk’). The tsk-tsk about the dominance of tulips was entirely wrong. The French adore tulips more than any other nation and Paris in spring is cheerfully festooned with elegant beds of them in virtually every park, large or small. However, the French plant more diverse spring annuals among them to a confetti-like effect. Yet tulips dominate, so their use at the PHS show was both lovely and horticulturally pitch-perfect. I might have wished for more variety—myosotis and chieranthus—but I’m not in Paris. Also, the “French painting” display—complete with painters painting “en plein air” was a big hit, as was Le Salon des Fleurs, full of huge extravagant floral displays, an opulent interior setting and timeless French furniture. The French invented style.

The next staged area after the Eiffel was a seemingly enormous carousel stage—well designed since it was actually rather small. Another popular exhibit, it featured periodic performances of an ensemble doing modern traditional French songs. The lovely chanteuse had a gorgeous voice and a classic female Gallic nose. The guitarist played hot, but wasn’t mic’d high enough. The floral carousel animals were “genial”, a superbly crafted snail, dragonfly and rabbit.

I found it very interesting that, as I walked around the show, the soft background music—all French recordings—sounded curiously like either Dolly Parton or Hank Williams. I was amused. Both Parton and Williams grew up in and around Louisiana, singing and being sung to by Cajuns—more French than the French. Check it out sometime.

The nearby “Timeless Paris” exhibit was intentionally dark and therefore dull. Plus, its design seemed to result from a struggle between light and dark as well. The allegedly timeless sculptures were drab repros of banal figurative marbles and stone. However, since they had no texture, their gray color was flat. Also, the blue tone chosen for the vertical columns was oddly garish, too bright and not sufficiently suggestive of “French blue”. With the water pools and channel the darkness was reflected and the result was a bit depressing. Perhaps the design was too ambitious. Nice try!

Across the path, the French flower market, while welcome, was too small and suffered from having no credit given to the great painter, Alphonse Mucha, whose iconic panel designs and female portrait atop the display was its most attractive—and historically important—feature. Mucha! Mucha! Mucha!

The arch, minimalist designs by Moda Botanica, so cherished by showgoers during the past three years, left me a bit cold. I confess that I do not like minimalism or archness, so perhaps I should “recuse” myself from reviewing this year’s strange exhibit. I think I understood the erotic, lozenge-shaped glass “spectacles” as well as voyeurism suggested. It felt a little like I was looking at a “cage” of the sort they used in early 20th century Paris bordellos. (Brassai photographed them.) But why “gild the rose”, so to speak? White roses mainly. “I got it, I got it”, I said to myself. But its edginess was spooky and disconcerting like the last scenes of the astronaut in ‘2011 A Space Odyssey’—all white and sterile. Perhaps that was the point—to deconstruct beauty. It was very compelling, but incomplete and unresolved. The designers designed a design, so to speak. To their credit, this is an element of French philosophy and aesthetics. And this one was certainly ambitious. I can’t wait to see what Moda Botanica does to Hawaii, next year’s extremely challenging show theme.

Suddenly, amidst the mild boredom, there appeared the best exhibit of the show. It was wonderful how it crept toward me as I approached it. The hands-down best display in every conceivable sense—amidst some tough competition—was Flowers By David’s enchanting French “dream catchers” exhibit. A lavish and inviting double bed, off to one corner, was both eerily and elegantly surrounded in a wide foreground space and sides by gently rotating and utterly inspired French style Native American dream catchers, those popular ‘90s car windshield mirror and female bedroom items woven with yarn and feathers. But Robin Heller of F.B.D., a true genius, reimagined them, enlarged them, hybridized Native American forms with French style, and made them slightly deceptive by hanging them at odd angles (12°, 30°, 45°, et al). The effect was, literally, dream-like. The exhibit stood unique in both space and time. No joke! Lyrical and narrative at once, and understated yet oddly lush, it was perfect.

Other highlights included a “Chef’s Garden”, which was less garden and more kitchen, but was one of the phenomenal crowd-pleasers. The lighting in the kitchen display was excellent and the espaliers were attractive and well made. I’m not a “foodie”, yet I found it inviting. Kudos to Stoney Bank Nurseries. Well done!

I wish the QVC people would disappear. But I do not watch television so I suppose I should “ferme la bouche”. In fact, there was too much branding in general this year—too many large logos. In this matter of the show I’m a purist’s purist. I don’t think there should be any logos within sight of the exhibits, but there were several this year and the effect was distasteful. Garden designs and logo designs do not mix. There was nothing wrong except the proximity. I admit the Convention Center is a tough space. And the logos certainly bring in money. But I suggest that PHS push them away from the artistic endeavors.

Also, I know that blueberry devices, cell phones, mini-cameras, et al, are becoming pervasive. But they destroy public space, interpersonal dynamics of crowds, and negate the beauty of the human figure. However, the telecom lobby is so powerful, they will resist more regulation of their use. On the other hand cell phone cameras create memorable souvenirs of the show. So I guess nothing is thoroughly negative, even the annoyance of people unconsciously playing “bumper cars” with their bodies.

The American Orchid Society made a shockingly good, four square display that was well designed—variable and textured—and full of a wide assortment of truly gorgeous exotic as well as common orchids. It was a small exhibit that I spent about 20 minutes inspecting, which is an extraordinary amount of time at the show. And I wasn’t alone.

In conclusion, the 2011 Philadelphia Flower Show was more interactive everywhere you turned. Demos were emphasized. And the main PHS area where they feature their charitable work in the city and state seemed larger and more attractive. Great PHS signage with witty and exciting messages hung overhead. They grew a lot more vegetables to promote the City Harvest program. They even grew a block of sweet corn, first I’ve seen at any flower show.

I got to say hello to our good friends at Cobrahead. Noel, Geoff and the spritely Annaliese had a booth 50% larger than last year, promoting their excellent tools. I got to see my Ethiopian Christian parking lot attendants again, since I never go to conventions at other times of the year. They work at the first $25.00 per car lot on the corner off the expressway. I think an Albanian owns it. I got to say hello to my friend at the small Chinese Christian Church a block down from the parking lot. This is a great country, isn’t it?

Finally, the PHS gave both Heronswood and Burpee a few opportunities to promote our new items in concert with Tourism Ireland, and in the lecture series I even got laughs at my speech. So “everyone was zoomin”, as we used to say. The show was “up”. I’m sure Jane is proud of the continuation of her legacy.

This entry was posted on Monday, March 14th, 2011 at 4:15 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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26 Responses to “2011 Philadelphia Flower Show Review”

  1. lee said:

    need more unusual vendors everyone is saying this more hard to find bulbs and native plants

    • George said:

      Dear Lee,

      Thanks for posting. Unusual vendors tend to be the ones suffering the most in the present economy. I know this from our rare plant sales, which are down. However, Linden Hill had a booth, as did Hudson Valley Art Seeds, I think they are called. I am in the business and even I never heard of them. As for native plants and bulbs, try your local botanic garden. Most have seasonal rare plant and bulb sales. Thanks again.

  2. Glad to hear you enjoyed it (mostly). I was impressed and could have spent more time there than I did. You liked pretty much the same things I did, including the always delightful Valdes family. Anneliese joined us for dinner on Wednesday night and a bit of city sightseeing on foot. Now if I just hadn’t dropped the 50 pound stone cat I purchased on its ear in the hotel room. :-(

    • George said:

      Thanks, Kylee. I try to play “critic” for fun mainly, but I enjoyed myself the whole time. Cobrahead makes great tools. Great family. Sorry to hear about the cat. One of my employees bought the “pig” and hauled it several blocks to his car, struggling the entire way. Thanks again.

  3. Elizabeth Kessler said:

    I prefer more flower beds and less architectural floral extravaganzas. I want to come home with ideas that I can try to use. I kept looking for a pond with koi and a waterfall, but couldn’t find it.I felt that art students in a masters design program were told to make something with fresh flowers – try to impress everyone.

    • George said:

      Dear Elizabeth,

      Thanks very much for posting. Flower beds are almost impossible to make look good, or even “ok”, indoors. This is one reason formal designs are used. Another is that formal designs provide both variety as well as a larger meaning for flowers and gardens. Being in the business, I actually hunger for the unusual and strange effects found at the show. Some I love, some I simply like. But I appreciate them all. And don’t you know the joke? “A horticulturist is a gardener with a student loan.” Give the kids a little bit of slack. Thanks again.

  4. Mary Jane said:

    I was at the show and try to attend every year. I agree that the arch itself was not as spectacular as usual but the show was wonderul. When the light show on the tower started everyone stopped to look and started to dance. My personal favorite was the garden shed in the middle of woodlands, it was wonderful. I wanted to move in. Thanks for everyone who every year works their magic and transports us from a dreary winter to a magic land.

    • George said:

      Dear Mary Jane,

      I agree that the lighting especially below the Eiffel Tower was magically beautiful. I missed the woodland garden shed, unless it was the one surrounded by hydrangeas. Thanks very much for posting, as well as attending the show every year. You are so right about the gratitude the exhibitors deserve. They work extremely hard.

  5. Leslie Davis said:

    ‘Blueberry?’In reference to cell phones.
    I love it!!! Actually I thought they were BLACKberry!!! LOL!!!

    • George said:

      Sorry, my mistake. Someone else caught this, one of my rare slip-ups. Thanks for not making it worse. And, hey, we sell blackberries too. And thanks much for posting.

  6. Beth Creveling said:

    “blueberry devices”???

    • George said:

      Thanks for posting. Excuse me, “blackberry” devices. I am a technophobe and did not catch it. Supposedly the keys on the keypads look like blackberry droops, the little aggregated things that burst in your mouth. Maybe the little buttons burst in peoples’ brains. As you may have guessed, I don’t even have a cell phone. Thanks again.

  7. Eileen said:

    I have attended the Flower Show every year for more than 20 years and for the first time I have to say I was not impressed. Yes, there were some lovely exhibits but there was nothing that WOWed me. Nothing as creative as the the Pussey Willow house and garden presented by Styers several years ago or the magical brass horns and piano fountain displays of the past New Orleans presentation. I realize I came to the Flower show (some years I went 2 or 3 times in the week!) for the artistic, fanciful and potentially reproducable garden designs. I took copious notes and photos and still bought the PHS DVD/video If I want to see how I can incorporate manufactured block into my landscape or ideas for my backyard “kitchen”, I will go to the local Home and Garden Show ($7 admission w/coupon)or my big box home and garden center. Please, for the 2012 Flower Show give the fans the WOW!!(not the Huh?) factor. BTW, I enjoyed the creativity and magic of the shadow image display and sorry that I don’t know who created those settings. See you next year!!!

    • George said:

      Thanks Eileen. I have to agree somewhat, but I think the economy really nailed the high-end landscape business. Creativity in their work is a function of meticulous craftsmanship. No one volunteers to hand make a giant floral display. That, to me, is the main difference. “Wows” are expensive. But I still saw a few as I mentioned. I forgot the shadow display—it was spectacular. I think it was called “Americans In Paris”. You might find the company’s name in your program book.

  8. ellen ward said:

    Its been afew years since i have been to the flower show. Ilive in the Poconos ,so its a two hour ride each way,but i was very disappointed. Granted the tower was beautiful,as were the orchids,the rest fell short.
    Having a pathway or footsteps would be helpful as you never know if you missed something. sorry i missed you. ellen

    • George said:

      Thank you, Ellen. Alas, the past few years have been a “golden age” for the Flower show. Therefore, you came to one in the midst of a recession. Several exhibitors chose to be absent or have closed. High-end landscaping and garden design is not booming at this time. This is why the main display area was a bit smaller and perhaps less “invested”. However, the exhibits overall were well above average in quality compared to the shows you attended. Sorry you were disappointed. Try again next year. Hawaii cannot fail.

  9. Sounds Pretty Amazing.

    • George said:

      Thanks, Patricia. It was a lot of fun. It is also something of a “see and be seen” for some folks. Big time local social event, since it is one of the largest volunteer-based charities in the region. Helping inner-city communities grow gardens and develop parks. Hope all is well.

  10. Kim said:

    I enjoy your blog, however Dolly is from Tennessee, Pigeon Forge.

    • George said:

      Thanks for posting, Kim. I had no idea she was from the mountains. I made this mistake because her first record was on Goldmark, an old Cajun label. Sorry for the confusion. But it was still odd, wandering through the convention and hearing music that sounded just like Dolly. Must be her vocal style. Plus my mistake, I guess.

  11. Rhea R. Doherty said:

    I too, enjoyed this years flower show, and found the revamped layout more user friendly.

    • George said:

      Thanks for posting, Rhea. I think the PHS used the space more efficiently as well. For example, the flower paintings competition surrounded the “Market” section, using walls that were blank in previous years. The competition used to have its own space and it was always cramped. This was an intelligent solution.

  12. trish harry said:

    I wasn’t terribly impressed with the show this year. I thought I am becoming jaded but seems as though others felt as I do. I agree on the QVC subject-don’t think they should be there. I do love to go to the show which makes my hands itch ready to play in the soil. My most important question is, are there going to be any Opens this year? Will Michael Dirr visiting?

    • George said:

      We are taking a break from the “outside speaker” approach this, our 135th anniversary year. Instead, we shall have me and others taking folks through the gardens at Fordhook—and at our research gardens at Heronswood West—and discussing our historical developments while walking from garden to garden. The dates are May 22 (the same day as The Garden Conservancy tours in Bucks County), and August 19, 20 and 21. At Heronswood West, the dates are May 14, June 26 (the same day as The Garden Conservancy tours in Bainbridge Island) and July 16 and September 10. Should be lots of fun. Stay tuned for more details and thanks for posting.

  13. As I mentioned in my post on my blog with my opinion of the flower show, I think it depends on if you go to a flower show for ideas you want to use in your garden, or you go to see how creatively and artistically flowers can be used. Good flower shows should have some of both, which the PFS did.

    That being said, I’m sure that having previous and/or many flower shows to compare, some are certain to be better.

    • George said:

      Thank you, Kylee. Last year’s show was a bit better. Everyone was geared to give Mrs. Pepper a warm, sweet and heartfelt good-bye. “Passport to the World” was an ideal theme. Curiously missing from this year’s show was the “light” of Paris, figuratively speaking. Paris led the world in philosophy for several important centuries after the Renaissance. Also, I thought their role in the American Revolution was not played out, nor was their tradition as hunters and trappers. But the theme was Paris, so I’m straying, I guess. It was a very good show, if perhaps not a great one. And a very good one particularly for the PHS charitable work coffers. Thanks again.

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