Philadelphia, Unites States: The Philadelphia Flower Show is a yearly showcase of world-renowned competitions in horticulture and floral arrangement, massive garden displays, and gardening presentations. According to its website, the Flower Show “introduces the newest plant varieties, garden and design concepts, and organic and sustainable practices.” I’ve been going to the flower show every year for the past three years. It’s not far – equidistant from both Harrisburg and DC, no matter where I happen to be, I can make it there by car. The Show is dear to me because it feels like the crystallization of my own yearning for spring. By early March, I’ve spent the last few months in pseudo-hibernation. The world seems less possible, less traversable in the winter. I lose motivation to do anything when I need to be swaddled in multiple layers, so the Flower Show is the official start of spring for me. It’s surreal to see tropical plants and stretching ferns while it snows outside, as it did heavily this year.
The Pennsylvania Horticulture Society (PHS) started the Flower Show in 1829 and it has since been named one of the best events in the world by the International Festivals & Events Association. The proceeds of the show go to PHS to sustain year-round programs for urban gardening. Exhibitors enter their plants in a variety of different classes, from “orchid in a teacup” to terrariums and foliage plants. The winners and runners-up are displayed in the show. During the event, they also offer classes, host celebrities, and run a high tea and butterfly experience. The theme this year was “Wonders of Water,” meant to highlight the importance and beauty of water-dependent ecosystems, and the show’s Entrance Garden, through which all attendees enter, was transformed into a vivid towering rainforest.
Once I entered the room, I looked up, and up, and up at towers that included air plants, orchids, succulents, vines, and floral cuttings all intermingled in pillars of life. The sounds of bird calls projected from invisible speakers and the many waterfalls provided a comforting backdrop of white noise. The Garden Entrance is always a grand beginning and the jewel of the show, but this year was by far my favorite. The rainforest they created stretched up to the ceiling, featured orchids, mosses, vines, air plants, succulents, and other tropical plants. A rope “bridge” cut through a dense section of tall greenery while a misting pond kept the humidity-dependent plants happy. It culminated in a 25-foot waterfall tumbling across a six-tiered bamboo structure. As the PHS Chief of Shows and Events, Sam Lemhenev said, “We want to capture all the sensory elements of the rainforest – its fantastic colors, scents and sounds – and demonstrate its unique and vital role in purifying water and sustaining our environment.”
It’s true that rainforests are vital to the continuation of our planet. They are the oldest living type of ecosystem, and they act as the “lungs” of the world, creating vast amounts of oxygen, which nearly all life depends on. They’re also able to sustain remarkably diverse life thanks to warm climates across the center of the world and ample rain. They cover less than 7% of the world’s landmass, but host 50% of all known animal species, 65% of all plants, and 80% of all insects. They’re truly amazing ecosystems and need to be protected against deforestation; many companies are buying this precious land to put in plantations for crops such as palm trees for their oil. This was as close as I could get to experiencing the rainforest in the US, but perhaps better, since none of the insects were involved.
An environmental message permeated every part of the show, that of the importance of clean water. It didn’t come a moment too soon because, by 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population will be facing water shortages. One of the most socially important displays was put on by the American Institute of Floral Designers. They selected seven countries to represent in their arrangements, highlighting the struggles each faces regarding water. To represent India, PHS created a life-size elephant with ornate reins and a saddle, and highlighted that India has the greatest number of people living rurally without clean water, with 67% of the country living in rural areas and 7% of those without access to clean water, which comes to approximately 64 million people. Mexico, the “Bottled Water Country,” was represented by a towering cage filled with single-use plastic. Because the safety of drinking water in Mexico is so low, many only use bottled water to cook and even bathe. The country used about 127 gallons of bottled water per person per year, more than four times that of the US.
Related Post: Is Boxed Water Really Better Than Bottled Water?
I was glad that the exhibit brought attention to domestic issues as well – so often, people in the West assume that we are impervious to social ailments like those we see in the developing world. The flower designers specifically brought up pipe deterioration in the US, in which the city of Flint, Michigan still struggles with tainted drinking water, as many as 63 million people were exposed to unsafe water more than once over the past decade, and US residents face a 25% chance that their tap water is either unsafe to drink or is not properly monitored for contaminants. The combined feeling of overwhelming joy in the face of beauty and overwhelming sadness, when confronted with insurmountable problems, made this section the most memorable.
Another favorite display of mine was a Zen rock garden. While it doesn’t include a water element, it still taps into the theme, as according to Satuteiki, the oldest manual of Japanese gardening reads, “In a place where there is neither a lake or stream, one can put in place what is called a kara-sansui, or dry landscape.” Gardening without water could become a necessary artform as the world struggles to meet our collective water needs in the near future.
The Philadelphia Flower Show is still one of my favorite events of the year, though I have begun to recognize some overlap between years. It’s invigorating, important, and inspiring, and I highly recommend anyone on the East coast to consider going for the weekend. Next year’s theme is “Flower Power” so I expect to see lots of colorful blooms, English gardens, and perhaps psychedelic 70s influences.
Want to start gardening but don’t think you have enough space? This post will help: “Gardening in a (Really) Tiny Apartment.“