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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.


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Jeanne Cronce

I much appreciate the comments about the snow and the darkness of the show. I am all about gardening and plants and I am from the Seattle area in USA, we have a flower show put on every February. I have always wondered why they make them so dark. It is frustrating to say the least. But I walk through it amongst all the people and I find it very tiring. But this year we had a wonderful orchid display which I felt took the show. I don't think I will go back next year though. I will spend my time and money at a nursery.

Then there is the frenzy of buying stuff that doesn’t have anything to do with gardening that you had mentioned as in the Philadelphia show. We in America have a big problem with buying to say the least. I have thought about the Chelsea Flower Show and wondered if it is similar.

Graham Rice

At Chelsea the emphasis is very much on the floral displays and their plants, and the show gardens. There's certainly a large number of "trade stands" - sales booths - and there's even an award for the best. But no one selling river cruises and beach holidays in the sun.

At Britain's Hampton Court show in July, where the site is much much larger, there are far more trade stands but these are in addition to the superb floral and garden displays and not instead of them.

Michael Gadomski

My wife and I was there on Friday also. We may have even bumped shoulders in the crowd. The last time I was at the show was in 2008. I also seem to feel that there was a big increase in market sales stands and many unrelated to gardening as you said. Also I can't remember alcohol stands at past shows. I enjoy a sip of vodka now and then, but there is a time and place for everything.

Then in the early evening many people started walking in with dogs on leashes. Apparently there was a dog show in another part of the convention center. The dogs were beautiful and well behaved, but I was a little surprised that they were allowed in the flower show. But the displays and exhibits were great and maybe more than the last time I attended the show.

Graham Rice

Thanks, Michael. I'm amazed they let dogs into the show. With such crowds you'd be sure someone would trip over a leash and then the lawyers would take over... I can't see the Chelsea Flower Show allowing dogs in, thank goodness, or vodka promotions! So sorry not to have bumped into you

Lisa Dziuban

Agreed. The pumped in popcorn aroma was awful! No sure what their priorities are right now... I've been going for 35 years. They used to have themes such as "English Cottage Gardens" which were much more enjoyable and relatable to gardeners....lately they seem to be all about theatrics.

Graham Rice

Yes, theatrics... Everything seemed connected to Disney. OK, I'm sure they paid well for the privilege - but still.

Whatever happened to the idea that the point of a flower show is - well, flowers! But, if you hold a flower show in winter, flowers are going to be in short supply in spite of the skills of local growers forcing plants in their greenhouses. At least the plant competition - The Hamilton Horticourt I 'm sorry to say it was called - continued the tradition of showing good specimens of interesting plants.


It's called The Hamilton Horticourt because Mrs Hamilton very generously donated about a million dollars for all new staging and custom led lighting for the competitive classes competition.

Graham Rice

Thank you, T. And I'm sure visitors to the show appreciate Mrs Hamilton's generosity. But unfortunately the name chosen to mark her donation is extremely unappealing and uninviting.

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