WASHINGTON CONTINUES its march toward the most floriferous spring in memory, with cherry trees, daffodils and tulips beginning to bloom, and mock orange, hydrangeas and roses leafing out months ahead of schedule.
Usually this unnatural combination of flowers is visible only at the Philadelphia Flower Show, where city-size plots manicured by top designers brim with fantasy: Full-grown trees, waterfalls and ponds, and plants that never bloom together are nurtured to peak in time for a floral extravaganza.
Each year has a theme. This time it’s Holland: Flowering the World, and a “controlled chaos” of flowers, according to the press release. Wander under a bridge inspired by the Dutch canals and decorated with Delft tile, brim-full flower boxes and hanging baskets, and enter the centerpiece of the show, a floral canopy of more than 6,000 cut and dried flowers hovering above thousands of tulips, fritillaria, narcissus and anemones.
As always, there will be many demonstrations and lectures and special events, including competitions, wherein the truly anal demonstrate their ability to spend the winter bringing their azaleas and whatnots into premature flowering perfection; and displays of miniature gardens with gnomes and itty-bitty twig cottages that make my skin crawl, but that is neither here nor there; new this year is a “spa experience,” for some reason.
There are always flower boxes dazzling in their inventiveness, marvelously inspirational, with so many tricks to try that sadly, more often than not, don’t pan out. Like inserting vases and margarita glasses to loft your display and add color and whimsy. The less said about my experiment with that, the better. Suffice it to say you have to be willing to stand in front of your personal display and keep adjusting and watering for four or five months.
In normal years, you leave the show panting for spring, knowing it’s weeks away and there’s nothing to look forward to but pale sun and chilly drizzle. So you stick your nose in a gardening book or two and daydream this year’s impossibilities; oh my goodness, how this and that will look—dreams that ultimately lead to what do I do about the damn black spot. Again.
Ah, but this year, this year . . . there’s already a flower show happening outside your door—a chaos that just needs to be controlled—and the Philadelphia Flower Show, run by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, is just the place to go for the brightest ideas on how to do that.
If you haven’t been before, play hooky from work and visit on a weekday; it’s marginally less crowded, though there are more strollers to trip over. In 2017, the show will run from March 11 through 19, with adult tickets priced at $28 if purchased online, $35 at the box office, and additional discounts for children and students.
Philadelphia has this event down to a science. There are plenty of lots for parking—or take the train, which I did one year. You get off and clear signs (!) lead you to the subway, which scoots you directly to the Convention Center.
Take a break for a cheese steak at the classic food market next door and return to the shopping area for garden ornaments and tools, books, bulbs, plants and cut stems.
Curly willow is a particular favorite of mine, with twisted stems four feet tall in red or green. The branches are occasionally available locally, for about twice the price, so they’re worth schlepping.
Stick them dry in a vase and they’ll stay until you start sneezing from the dust, which could take years depending on your housekeeping. Better still, trim a bit off the stem ends and stick them in water and within a couple of weeks they’ll leaf out most beautifully, a stunning tabletop display.
They let down a mass of roots and theoretically you can plant them. I have had absolutely no success with this, though I’ve seen them growing outside a florist in Old Town so I know it can be done. I suspect it may be a Gay Thing, as some things just are. You know?
There is a also variety of philodendron that I’ve seen only at the show that is sold in a bunch of foot-long branches or stems. If you can snag a few of these, stick them in water and they’ll grow for years, eventually poking at the ceiling, with absolutely no care whatsoever. They make an outstanding display in spots where you want a fuss-free and really dramatic accent.
One thing to avoid is the plumeria, and it will be tough to do. The flowers are like small orchids and the smell is so heady and tropical that you can pass out at a whiff. There are always sweet little Hawaiian women, so trustworthy, grandmotherly-looking, peddling these sticks, shyly smiling and swearing that there’s nothing to growing them. Just stick it in soil and you’ll be rewarded with a paradise of sight and scent. They lie.
While you will faithfully water and croon over that stick, months will pass before it sends forth a single green leaf, which will slowly blacken and the whole thing will rot and be tossed in the trash.
Consider yourself warned. Now go!
LittleBird Stephanie writes about city gardening. We agree with her that the Philadelphia Flower Show is a wonder of the New World.