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The Philadelphia Flower Show

Jacques Armand International exhibit at the Philadelphia Flower Show. Image ©GardenPhotos.comWe were at the Philadelphia Flower Show on Friday and it was quite an eye opener. Though quite why the country’s best known flower show is held in a dark and dingy exhibition hall when there’s 2ft/60cm of snow on the ground is baffling.

But both the landscapers and the individual exhibitors rose to the occasion, as they have done since 1829, with spring bulbs, orchids, tropical foliage and begonias in particular providing color.

There are two main types of horticultural exhibits: displays of plants staged by landscapers and the competitions for individual plants in staged by home gardeners. The tulips, daffodls and dwarf bulbs staged by Jacques Amand International (left, click to enlarge) and the orchids from Waldor Orchids stood out.

The Jacques Amand exhibit, along with bold clumps of tulips that were proving remarkably resilient after more than a week in the poor light, featured drifts of ‘Alida’, a lovely vivid blue reticulata iris which is a sterile sport of the old favorite ‘Harmony’. The orchids on the Waldor Orchids exhibit were mainly well established varieties – why risk your really special plants in such difficult conditions? – but included some dramatic specimens. I’ll not mention the name of the exhibit that featured a frost-hardy, moisture loving astilbe alongside a frost-tender, drought loving agave. Not a planting idea to be recommended.

Over in the better lit competitions for individual plants, the range of scented-leaved and foliage pelargoniums was impressive and there were also some rare orchids to be seen. The Black Orchid, Cymbidium Black Ruby, at the Philadelphia Flower Show. Image ©
Former trustee of the American Orchid Society, and author of Bloom-Again Orchids, judywhite – aka (if you dare!) Mrs Rice – picked one out. “There was an orchid hybrid, Cymbidium Black Ruby (C. canaliculatum x Ruby Eyes), that Lois Duffin of the Greater Philadelphia Orchid Society exhibited, that was one of the darkest blackest flowers I've seen. So much so that people seem to now be calling that cross the Black Orchid. But her unnamed cultivar was exceptionally dark, and also had a white picotee edge to it. Very nice, unusual.”

But here’s the thing. For most of the exhibitors the fact that show is held in the snowy Philadelphia winter is irrelevant, it may even be an advantage. After all, if you’re trying to sell people cruises and beach vacations, trudging through snow to get to the show probably makes them more inclined to yearn for a sunny getaway.

For there are far far more sales stands, many unrelated to gardening (dog treats, soap, jewelry…), than anything else. The Marketplace alone was filled with 195 sales stands, with more outside the main hall and among the 44 more-or-less horticultural exhibits. Some were definitely for gardeners, including the Hudson Valley Seed Library and Peony's Envy Flower Farm, but Disney and Subaru were everywhere. And, frankly, speaking as an A. A. Milne fan, a display that is “inspired by the movie Winnie The Pooh” starts off at a disadvantage, says he politely. Perhaps I’m just the wrong generation.

Dan Aykroyd promoting his Crystal Head vodka at the Philadelphia Flower Show. Image ©GardenPhotos.comThere was also, and I didn’t expect this, a lot of alcohol about. Glasses of wines and spirits were on sale at a number of sites in the main exhibit hall - I saw one visitor making off with a double sized bottle of red wine from one of the concessions. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, who run the show, even have its own brand of cider.

And then there was actor and comedian Dan Aykroyd (click to enlarge). He was up on the stage in the main exhibit hall promoting his Crystal Head vodka and then he cheerfully spent hours signing the labels for the long line of people queuing patiently to the accompaniment of a rock band.

So, having judged many times at The Chelsea Flower Show in London, can I suggest any lessons that Chelsea could learn from Philly? Keep up the good work, seems to be the main lesson, and don’t be tempted to expand the shopping or add vodka promotions.

But wait, it’s all very well for me to be snippy about the domination of shopping at the flower show. But the number of Americans who share the well-known British mania for gardening is limited and Americans love to shop more than Brits do (although Brits are catching up fast). So perhaps the show has it right after all? And without it the finances of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society would surely be in a very sad state.