Breaking a 191-year-old tradition—necessitated by the current pandemic but long overdue in this gardener’s opinion—the Philadelphia Flower Show (PFS, shown above) will, this year, be held outside. It would seem natural to hold a flower show outside, but, in the US, it is not the norm. Seattle, Sacramento, Chicago, Boston, and even South Carolina all have indoor flower shows. Most have been cancelled for this upcoming season. The PFS is adapting and this is a change for the better.
It is surprising that, up until now, flower show organizers have not taken a lesson from the British, for whom gardening is a national obsession. The major flower shows in the UK are held outside. The Chelsea Flower Show is thirty years younger than the PFS and the Hampton Court Flower Show (above), said to be the largest flower show in the world, is just 28 years old this year.
The PFS, sponsored by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, was first held in 1889 inside the Masonic Hall on Chestnut Street in Philly. Last year, the show was held at the Pennsylvania Convention Center with over 250,000 people attending. An inside show does have advantages. Many US flower shows are held in late winter when, for most of us, the spirit is flagging and many are starved for the beauty of a spring and summer garden. I have attended the PFS several times and it is always a thrill to stroll or, in many cases, elbow one’s way through the hordes of people also suffering from Nature Deficit Disorder. Plants used in the show have to be manipulated and forced into bloom—creating spring while snow lies on the ground seems somewhat akin to magic. Weather is not a factor for inside flower shows. Lighting is controlled and often dramatic, if artificial. Temperatures are controlled to keep living plant material in the best of shape. An inside flower show must be easier to manage for those in charge of running an event. But, if you have never been to an outdoor flower show, one with demonstration gardens in a natural setting with clouds, sun, and, yes, sometimes even a bit of rain, you have missed the true sense of a flower show, which is nature not theater. Nature is on full display with gardens bathed in sunlight, slight breezes, and the sounds of birds. There is a palpable energy at flower shows held outside that’s missing from those held inside.
This year, the Philadelphia Flower Show will be held on over 15 acres of South Philly’s 348-acre FDR Park, which was designed by the firm of Frederick Law Olmsted. It will be held from Saturday, June 5 through Sunday, June 13th. There will be fewer tickets available than usual and advance purchases are required. All tickets have timed and dated entries and social distancing guidelines will be in place. Though it has taken a pandemic to bring this show outside, I hope that the new venue is embraced by organizers and attendees. It could even set a new standard for US flower shows.