I imagine that at the turn of the 19th century, long before bomb cyclones headlined Doppler radar, gentlemen farmers and avid Philadelphia gardeners weathered the winter months with little more than brooms, shovels, and weather diaries. Garden club members and plant enthusiasts were known to gather, weather permitting, to discuss and share interesting and unusual plants. Perhaps, they reasoned between bites of cheesesteaks, there was a wider audience, individuals desperately seeking a breath of spring in anticipation of the first crocus.
We can thank Pennsylvania Horticulturists for planting the seed that has blossomed into the nation’s oldest and largest indoor flower show. The Philadelphia Flower Show was launched in 1829, housed at the Masonic Hall on Chestnut Street. It went on to various Horticultural Halls before spending decades at the Philadelphia Civic Center. The weeklong festivities were moved to the expansive Pennsylvania Convention Center in 1996.
Based on the tour bus gridlock lining Arch Street last week, the flower show continues to grow in popularity. Considered by some to be the most prestigious of flower shows, visitors gather in the City of Brotherly Love from far reaching destinations. Having relocated from Philly to New Jersey, it’s been years since I’ve attended the botanical festivities. Last week, I had the opportunity to come face to face (and tennis shoe to tennis shoe) with hundreds, no thousands, of attendees. Due in part to a winter storm plaguing the Philadelphia area, many flower seekers had rescheduled their bus tours, creating a tidal wave of ticket holders last Monday. Spilling out of buses, flower seekers crowded against the Convention Center's automatic doors. Once inside, they formed a haphazard line, attempting to gain entrance to a bank of escalators flanked by a topsy-turvy cup/saucer/spoon art installation. Impatient ticket holders opted for an early lunch at the Reading Terminal across the street.
Ticket scanners were at the opposite end of the lobby, forcing short-fused attendees to travel from one end of the convention center lobby to the rear and back again. Thankfully, my travel companion was exceedingly patient, maintaining her proper place in line, yet perfectly willing to raise an eyebrow should any interlopers attempt to jump ahead. Gingerly stepping onto the escalator, we arrived at the second floor and inhaled. I was disappointed to find only the subtlest fragrance of spring tempting from the entryway. We were pleasantly distracted by a floor-to- ceiling display of intricately crafted paper flowers. Once inside the exhibition hall, it was suggested to me that the best plan of attack was to circle the room first, affording an overview of exhibits, before returning to further explore our favorites. Lastly, we would head towards the flower stalls and crafts. The approach sounded sensible and honestly, who was I to question the sage advice of a woman well-acquainted with the flower show? With my mother in the lead, we
Despite the overwhelming number of attendees, I watched in amazement as my mother (aka Rommy) maneuvered nimbly in and out of the crowds, commenting on the overabundance of eucalyptus, tossing around phrases such as ‘sweet alyssum,’ ‘fiddlehead ferns,’ and ‘cymbidium orchids.’ Pausing to capture photographs on a cell phone, Rommy lamented retiring her former camera, wistfully remembering the lenses she carried for close-ups and panoramic views.
Winding her way through the crowds, leaning on a walker that she preferred not to use, she bumped into nary an ankle, nor a parade of over-priced big-wheel baby strollers, or the crowd of south Jersey-ites fixated on taking selfies. I found myself remembering how skilled my mother had been at parallel parking, particularly in the overcrowded streets of Manhattan. At 90, her navigation skills were as sharp as ever.
We sat only briefly for a cupcake break; my mother’s green jacket framed against tiers of roses and rows of grape hyacinth. “Hold this,” my mother said, handing me the cupcake. “I’d like to take another picture.” She adjusted the infernal cellphone, capturing a backdrop of orchids in varying shades of coral. Her enthusiasm was contagious; you would have thought we were on a European holiday. Our brief search for African violets was halted by the realization that we needed to find our way back to the entrance in order to reconvene with our traveling pals.
Stepping out into the cold, it was evident that March wasn’t quite ready to make room for spring. We were fortified however, from the Philadelphia Flower Show experience. Let’s just hope the kinder, gentler, version of Mother Nature that overfilled the convention center can sustain us through the next few weeks, or until March decides to shed its North Face Parka and don its lambswool.