by Lou Mancinelli
The International Philadelphia Flower Show, that ran from March 6 -14, has a lot of history behind it.
Hosted by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Center City, it is the largest indoor exhibition of flowers in the world. The 182-year-old show was first held in an 82 by 69-foot building called the Masonic Hall on Chestnut Street. Twenty-five PHS members displayed their horticultural treasures.
At this year’s “Springtime in Paris” show, 25,000 tulips under a faux Eifel Tower lined with lights that at times flashed to green, red or blue welcomed visitors. The show now generates an estimated $60 million economic impact on the Greater Philadelphia region, hosts 250,000 people annually and features more than 150 vendors, educational and artistic displays, and more than 2,000 entries in classes ranging from miniature settings to pressed plants. It also has significant roots that stem from Chestnut Hill.
“This is the oldest and largest horticultural society in the country, I’m inheriting a tradition,” said Pennsylvania Horticultural Society president Drew Becher, a Chestnut Hill resident.
Becher, named president last year, moved to Chestnut Hill full-time with his partner last May, after splitting time between London, New York City, and his Chestnut Hill location for the previous four years. Becher said the “beautification of urban areas” is one of his major focuses.
Last week, he announced that proceeds from the show would help fund PHS’s initiative to plant one million trees in 13 counties in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.
For decades, Robertson’s Flowers at 8501 Germantown Ave. has been one of the show’s featured displayers. Last year, Robertson’s theme was based on a street scene in Holland with bicycles and lots of tulips.
This year, 40 tons of Wissahickon schist stone (donated by Wissahickon Stone Quarry) and thousands of succulent plants were used to create “Impressions of Notre Dame,” a romantic Parisian wedding-themed display. According to designer Erick Shellack, about 4,000 plants were used to construct each of the scene’s four gargoyles.
“I wanted it to be as romantic as possible,” Shellack said, Monday morning during a telephone interview. “We wanted to make a French wedding scene. We were doing all reds until about three weeks before the show. As the show got closer and I worked with the colors, they started to look almost sinister. So I changed to pink.”
“It’s exquisite, it’s elegant,” said Atlantic City resident Wendy Ruden of Robertson’s Impressions of Notre Dame. “I love everything about it, the crystal, the laurel, the chandelier … I like how it’s feminine. What a wedding it would be to attend.”
Shellack and his team at Robertson’s had been brainstorming about their design since this time last year. He envisioned the scene based on a trip to Paris to visit a friend who was studying French there 15 years ago. His imagination and Internet images did the rest.
Shellack, who has worked for Robertson’s for two years and for another prominent designer at the show for seven years prior, said he wanted to capture how he felt when he saw Paris’ prominent landmarks.
The wedding scene was colored with tones of pink and gray. A stone walkway lined with crush glass with a pink tint led to the wedding gazebo. The lighting had an incandescent dreamlike mood. Tables were topped with vivid tulips, ranunculus and sweet peas imported from a French grower, according to Shellack.
“The Flower Show is always something I look forward to every year,” said Shellack, 38, a Haddonfield, N.J. resident. “I think it’s just the pure joy of it. It’s at the time of year when everyone really needs it. It’s almost like a psychological thing, like our brains are ready for spring.”
Shellack acquired his floral design knowledge from experience. When he graduated from Rutgers years ago with a degree in biotechnology, he took summer work with a friend’s uncle at a flower shop on South Street. A few years later, he was manager. Now, he is a major design displayer at the world’s largest flower show.
Elsewhere, a myriad of flowers and shrubbery, of blues, yellows, greens and reds colored the room as one walked through the show. Pink Hippeastrum’s lined with streaks of white looked like strawberry and cream candies in the shape of rose petals.
There were tiny cactuses, and 200-year-old bonsai trees. There were horses you see on carousels made of flowers and vines by Valley Forge Flowers in Wayne. There was a dining room scene called opulent Paris.
“Monet’s Walk,” the people’s choice winner and Becher’s favorite, was a walkway lined by a hanging garden. In the middle of the show, next to the tower, was a stage were performers entertained and sang French songs.
Students from Delaware Valley Community College built a display dedicated to urban art and post-industrial agriculture. For this, students fabricated a bleak, abandoned warehouse covered with weeds and neglected for years. They used local leaf litter for mulch and compost and revitalized it into a canvas for a garden and art.
“The number one thing was sustainability and cost,” said junior environmental design major Ryan Miller. “When you are attracting people to a neighborhood garden you want the garden to appeal to all their senses, sight, sound, smell…”
Their garden featured chives, garlic, Red Maple, various tomatoes and lettuces, Elodie and Lollipop Asiatic Lilies, strawberries, beans and tulips, and dozens of other species.
Students also built an apparatus that acted like a seesaw, but with a bucket on each end. One bucket was filled with flowers and soil. It weighed the apparatus down where it struck a tin, making a percussive sound students hoped would attract more people to their garden.
“I used to do the setup for a major exhibitor,” said Eric Cummings, a Brookhaven resident who was perusing the show last Friday evening. “Now, I’m in landscaping, this is a good place to come and get new ideas.
The large displays at the show are usually built starting a month before the show, according to Shellack. Imagine cherry pickers, tractors and forklifts zipping around the large warehouse like Convention Center.
“You sort of show up one day and overnight, someone’s display has been transformed,” Shellack said.
The PHS was founded in 1827 for the promotion of farming, botany and plant enthusiasm. At that time, there were 53 members. Today, the PHS boasts more than 17,000 members. The theme of next year’s flower show is “Hawaii: Islands of Aloha.”