Just when it seems that winter will never end, when it seems as if the cold grayness will never lift and the world will never bloom again, then comes the Philadelphia Flower Show.
For the past 174 years, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society has been filling a cavernous arena in the city with millions of flowers, creating not just a late-winter oasis of greenery, but a magical place of beauty and imagination.
"It is a spectacle," said Bartie Cole of Green-spring Valley, purveyor of an extraordinary garden of her own, who has been going to the flower show every year for more than a decade.
"I always go to learn," she said. "The artistic talents have become unbelievable. The attention to detail is amazing."
The Philadelphia Flower Show is considered the granddaddy of them all. It is not just the oldest and most spectacular indoor garden event, it is also the most prestigious. Judges come from all over the world to review the exhibits. And in horticultural circles, a ribbon from this show is the most coveted.
The flower show is also the place where hobbyists -- from beginners to those whose gardens are featured on tours -- go to see the freshest ideas in color and plant combinations and to buy the hottest new plant. This year's must-have is the cold-weather-hardy Japanese camellia, 'Korean Fire.'
"I am in love with new plants," said Doris Brumback of Balti-more, who has been going to the flower show for about 40 years. "Any plant you see there, you can find for your own garden."
The show is perhaps best known for its pure spectacle, though, and as a result it draws huge crowds. This year, from March 2 to March 9, visitors to the Pennsylvania Convention Center will be transported to the tiny village of Loiza in Puerto Rico for the "Festival de las Flores." There, they will encounter a religious festival, an island wedding and a beach party, complete with musicians and dancers.
The theme for the show was hatched five years ago by show designer and director Edward Lindemann, who has been designing these shows since 1980. His imagination was sparked by the Latino and Caribbean flavors showing up in food, clothing, travel, restaurants and home decor.
But it was his request for advice from Iris Brown, a member of the Puerto Rican community in Philadelphia, with which the horticultural society does many neighborhood projects, that brought this year's theme to full flower.
"I was looking for some advice for a location in Puerto Rico known for a festival. I wanted the visitors to the flower show to walk through the entrance and be thrown into a festival atmosphere," Lindemann said. "I asked Iris if she could help, and she just smiled. She understood immediately. She said, 'Let me tell you about Loiza, my village.'
"She brought out her photo albums," he added, "and that was that."
Brown took Lindemann's set designers to her home in Loiza for a tour only a native could provide.
"They came back with a good feeling and 5,000 ideas," Linde-mann said. "We would never have gotten what Iris was able to show us. There is a lot of authenticity as a result."
Authenticity, but not re-creation. Lindemann promises to use a lot of creative license. "We took her village and we embellished it with flowers," he said.
The result will be judged by perhaps 300,000 visitors. But there will be more than the village of Iris Brown's birth and Ed Lindemann's imagination.
The nation's premier florists and landscape designers will have spent a week turning 10 acres of the convention center into a floral fantasyland.
The transformation will require 300 tractor-trailer loads of material, including 50 truckloads of mulch and 7,000 Belgian stone blocks to outline the beds.
Heated trailer trucks will bring plant material from as far away as San Diego, where the massive topiaries that will populate the "Old Tijuana Cantina" have been growing for 2 1/2 years. The piano player, poker players, dancers, bartender -- even the old, sleeping dog -- are all life-size topiaries created by well-known designer Pat Hammer.
"Getting them here will cause a few sleepless nights, to be sure, Lindemann said.
City goes all out
The entire city of Philadelphia embraces the flower show with a week of activities -- as well it should, since it is estimated that the show generates $25 million in tourist dollars.
Not only does the city dress itself up in flowers, but during Flower Show Week, hotels offer package deals, restaurants offer flower show menus and even the city's transit service has reduced rates for show attendees.
The flower show itself costs about $6.5 million to stage, and the horticultural society expects to turn a $1 million profit. That money will be used to fund "Philadelphia Green" projects throughout the city -- the kinds of projects that brought Linde-mann together with Brown.
The convention center will be filled with more than a million flowers -- almost all of them blossoming out of season -- a trick made possible by the magic of "forcing," the greenhouse process by which flowers and trees are made to bloom together during the week of the show.
By varying light, water and temperature at the buds and roots, and by pruning limbs and compacting roots, growers put their flowers and trees under so much stress that they put up more blooms and they do it sooner. This is as true for the landscape artists whose canvases are hundreds of square feet as it is for the garden club member who enters one perfect blossom in the daffodil competition.
"I like to think of the show as the great equalizer," said Lindemann, who will retire next year after 33 years of designing the show. "We have 3,500 volunteers, and you are likely to find a domestic worker standing next to a bank president, and all they are talking about is the exhibits they are taking in."
Lindemann added: "We have exhibitors who force bulbs in their refrigerator who will find themselves in competition next to someone who has seven people working for them in their greenhouse. And that exhibitor working out of his fridge might just win the blue ribbon."
Baltimore resident Muffin Evander is one of the army of flower show volunteers. A member of the Horticultural Society of Maryland, she is a "passing judge," which means she will be accepting some of the more than 2,500 individual entries in the horticultural competitions.
"We are the ambassadors for the show," said Evander, who has her own container-garden business in Hunt Valley. She visited the show for many years before she became a volunteer.
"We are the first and maybe the only officials the exhibitors see. It's our job to make them feel welcome, and to make sure their entries are labeled correctly and are free of pests or disease."
Her reward is that she gets to watch the show being completed Friday night and she gets to tour it Saturday -- before the throngs come opening day.
Big crowds expected
If the Philadelphia Flower Show has a problem, for the organizers it's a happy one: crowds. Busloads -- nearly 700 tour buses -- of visitors travel from all over the region to the show.
Last year, attendance was 265,000, a number that was probably depressed by the mild winter. The cold and snow that has buffeted the East Coast this winter should boost the numbers of garden enthusiasts seeking "green therapy."
The show's designers have tried to relieve the pressure of 10-deep spectator lines at the displays by offering diversions away from the main floor.
There will be free hourly lectures and demonstrations on everything from gardening to arranging, including a lecture on floral arrangements for weddings. The experts from Fine Gardening magazine will be available, and twice daily there will be a traditional English garden tea. A book fair is also planned.
There will also be free daily culinary lectures. Celebrity chefs and designers will offer decorating and preparation tips from garden to table.
Not to be missed is the Marketplace, where 140 vendors -- many of whom have waited years to sell their wares at the show -- will offer the latest in seeds, bulbs, plants, garden artistry and tools.
Only the finest retailers are granted space at the flower show. Unlike typical home and garden shows, the Philadelphia show wants to be known not just for the quality of its shopping, but for the quality of its competitions.
Those competitions are called the Olympics of gardening, and there are 17 competitive classes and many subcategories. The folks who bring their orchids, terrariums, miniatures and arrangements to be judged are the backbone of the show.
That notion seems to make Deb Makie laugh with nervousness. The first-time exhibitor -- but longtime visitor to the show -- is entering a miniature garden scene titled "Chester's Wake."
"Most miniaturists do a garden party or a tea or a wedding," said the Elkton resident. "I thought I'd do something different. So I re-created my old cottage in Arden, Del. It was a goofy cottage in this Bohemian neighborhood, and Chester the cat was on my doorstep the day I moved in."
The cat was so beloved, Makie said, that when he died, "the whole neighborhood mourned him. He even got a big write-up in the local paper."
With the help of her husband, Jim, Makie has created the cottage and the funky gardens around it. There is a picture of Chester on the picnic table and cats all around. "Everyone is eating tuna," she said.
"I've always been a gardening nut," Makie explained. "I started with terrariums in mayonnaise jars with my mother when I was a kid."
She plans to take a week's vacation from work to "baby-sit" her miniature garden scene, keeping it fresh and watered for the eight days of the show.
Philadelphia Flower Show officials are demanding. All exhibits must be perfectly maintained so that they look as good on the last day of the show as they did on the first.
Tips for visitors
To get the most out of your visit to the Phila-delphia Flower Show, plan ahead by checking the show's Web site and studying the exhibition area floor plan. Here are some other tips:
* Don't be a morning person. The best viewing hours are in the evening on weekdays, after 4 p.m.
* Wear comfortable walking shoes. The convention center covers 33 indoor acres. Consider wearing a light jacket. The convention center is kept at a cool 68 degrees for the benefit of the flowers.
* Make a note of your home garden and growing conditions before coming to the show so you can get ideas for your own garden. Bring a pad, pencils and a camera to record plant groupings, landscape ideas and to make notes on specific plants and to record advice from the experts.
* Enjoy the city. During Flower Show Week, many hotels, restaurants and cultural attractions offer discounts and programs with a spring theme. Pick up a free "Bloomin' Fun Pass" book at the show for information about these deals and events.
* Hungry? Snacks are available on the show floor at various locations. You can also leave the show for a meal and return later. Look for restaurants participating in Flower Show Week.
* Decide on a location to meet if you become separated from your group. A good place to find missing family or friends is "PNC Park," which has a convenient message board to leave notes and also has seating and nearby restrooms.
* Pick up a daily schedule at all flower show entrances for a listing of lectures, demonstrations, culinary presentations and other events. Also, TV monitors throughout the convention center list up-to-the-minute schedules and updates.
* Make the Marketplace your last stop so you don't have to carry cumbersome purchases around the show all day.
When you go
Getting there: By car, take I-95 north to Exit 22, Central Philadelphia / I-676. Follow signs for I-676 west to the first exit, Broad Street. This will bring you to 15th Street. Follow signs for Broad Street, and then make a left onto Vine Street. Follow signs for Vine Street / Pennsylvania Convention Center. There are numerous parking lots in the area surrounding the convention center.
* Many charter bus trips to the show are available. Contact Goucher College Alumni (Beverly Winter, 410-583-2356), the Community College of Baltimore County in Essex (410-780-6717), or local commercial tour bus companies for more information.
* By train: Amtrak riders should connect to the Southeastern Pennsylva-nia Transportation Authority's regional rail service at the 30th Street Station and travel to Market East Station. Show the conductor your Amtrak ticket stub and ride the train for free coming and going. SEPTA offers a Flower Show Special that includes unlimited transportation on any SEPTA bus, trolley, subway or regional rail train and an adult flower show ticket. For more information, contact SEPTA: 215-580-7800; www.septa.org.
Philadelphia Flower Show, Pennsylvania Convention Center, 12th and Arch streets
* March 2-9. Hours: Sundays, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
* Admission: Tickets are valid for one day only and are available at the door or in advance through the Web site. At the door: opening Sunday $24; weekends $22; weekdays $20; children ages 2-12, $10 for all days. Group rates are available; check the Web site.
Lodging: Many city hotels participate in Flower Show Week and offer package deals, including:
* Four Seasons Hotel, 1 Logan Square (215-567-5309, www.fourseasons.com)
* Hilton Garden Inn, 1100 Arch St. (215-923-0100, www.hiltongardenphilly.com)
* Loews Philadelphia Hotel, 1200 Market St. (215-627-1200, www.loewshotels.com);
* Omni Hotel Independence Park, 401 Chestnut St. (215-925-0000, www.omnihotels.com)
* Radisson Plaza-Warwick Hotel, 1701 Locust St. (215-735-6000, www.radisson.com / philadelphiapa)
* Sofitel Philadelphia, 120 S. 17th St. (215-569-8300, www.accor.com)
Sheraton Rittenhouse Square Hotel, 227 S. 18th St.
(215-546-9400; www.sheraton philadelphia.com)
For more information about lodging, dining and attractions in Philadelphia, visit the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation's Web site, www.gophila.com, or contact the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau, 800-537-7676; www.pcvb.org.
Other regional flower shows: The Philadelphia Flower Show is billed as the largest indoor flower show in the world, but there are many other regional events -- indoors and out -- where gardeners and flower lovers can satisfy their itch for spring. Here's a sample:
* Welcome Spring at Longwood Gardens, through April 11, Kennett Square, Pa.: 610-388-1000; www.longwoodgardens.org
* Maymont Flower & Garden Show, Feb. 20-23, Greater Richmond Convention Center, Richmond, Va.: 804-358-7166; www.maymont.org
* York Mid-Atlantic Garden & Flower Show, Feb. 27-March 2, York Fairgrounds, York, Pa.:
717-755-8115; www.midatlantic gardenshow.com
* Maryland Home & Flower Show, Feb. 28-March 2; March 7-9, Maryland State Fairgrounds, Timonium: 410-863-1180; www.mdhomeandgarden.com
* Washington Home & Garden Show, March 6-9, Washington Convention Center, Washington: