Saying it with flowers in Philadelphia


Pennsylvanians were probably not surprised when Punxsatawney Phil, the forecasting groundhog, predicted another six weeks of wintry weather. However, spring is already in the air as the 165th edition of the Philadelphia Flower Show begins its weeklong run today. Sponsored by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, it is billed as the world's largest indoor garden show, with nearly 1,700 entries expected in 583 artistic and horticultural competitive classes.

This year's show -- with its "Island in the Sun" theme -- is a lush creation of tropical floral vignettes. Fifty major exhibitors will fill six acres with waterfalls, beach hideaways, rain-forest settings and canopies of tropical blooms.

Entering the show, visitors will pass under a 60-foot-wide overhang festooned with more than 40 varieties of heliconias, ginger plants, banana bunches and other tropical foliage. A recording of the coqui, a frog native to Puerto Rico, will help put pTC attendees in a rain-forest mood.

"We want to make the arch as drippy as possible," says designer Judy Nelson of Marin Alto Tropicals, located on Puerto Rico's southeast coast, "We're going for the jungly look." In addition to the "sexy pink" and "King Kong" heliconias, (so named for their hairy coat), Ms. Nelson will be decorating the arch with ripsala, a mistletoe-like vine found at the edges of tropical rain forests.

Exhibitors from Barbados, Bermuda and Puerto Rico will lead visitors on tropical journeys complete with sandy beaches and thundering waterfalls. Visitors can explore a Fantasy Island lagoon containing hundreds of orchids flowing out of the bow of an ancient shipwreck while the Island Fare exhibit displays a dining table set with sumptuous tropical flowers, fruits and vegetables.

Adding to the spectacle, more than 700 amateur exhibitors will vie for blue ribbons in categories ranging from delicate miniature arrangements to 6-foot potted ferns in this horticultural Olympiad. Baltimore-based judge Anne Mulholland advises amateur gardeners to "look for perfection in the flower or plant itself." Though judging is not open to the public, scores and judge's comments are posted for all to critique. Plants are re-judged during the show's eight-day run, and exhibits are changed daily. More than 60 awards will be presented.

To help budding gardeners improve their techniques, there will be free lectures and demonstrations. And a marketplace selling everything from buds to rakes provides visitors with a jump-start toward creating their own landscapes.

Though the show's theme is tropical, not all exhibitors come from exotic locales. Closer to home, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's exhibit consists of urban "islands" planted participants in Philadelphia Green, the society's community-based greening and landscape program. Revenues from the show help support this program. Philadelphia Green assists with the restoration and revitalization of the city's greenways.

In a high-tech vein, the Delaware Valley College exhibit will employ state-of-the art computer imaging to illustrate how parts of parking lots and highway median strips can be transformed to green oases in asphalt seas.

Bugs were the highlight of last year's Show for Organic Gardening magazine editor Mike McGrath. Growing up in Philadelphia, Mr. McGrath "worshiped the flower show." Last year, he trucked in hundreds of ladybugs to show how insects can be used for natural pest control. Halfway through the show, he ran out of bugs.

This year, Mr. McGrath isn't taking any chances. He's bringing in hoards of hungry toads to devour garden pests. He's also displaying more than 150 varieties of hot peppers, the largest number ever to be grown side by side. Mr. McGrath says that "half of what we garden comes from the tropics," adding that "peppers originated in the Caribbean." Contrary to popular belief, Mr. McGrath says that the hottest peppers don't necessarily come from the Southwest. He explains that inhospitable climates "stress" peppers, encouraging the plants to produce peppery fireballs.

Whether it's bonsai trees, begonias or garden design, the Philadelphia Flower Show may just be the greatest green show on Earth. "It's all about dazzling," says Mr. McGrath. "If you're not exhausted and overwhelmed, then we're not doing a good job."


The Philadelphia Flower Show opens today and runs through next Sunday, at the Philadelphia Civic Center, 34th Street and Civic Center Boulevard.

Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays, 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Tickets are $11.50 for adults and $5.75 for children under 12. Adult advance sales are available by mail.

For group, travel and accommodation information, call the 24-hour Flower Show infoline at (215) 625-8253.

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