Come springtime in the US or UK, if someone asks, "Are you going to Chelsea?" it can only mean one thing. Serious gardeners the world over look forward to May for the annual Chelsea Flower Show. Americans do everything on a grand scale, and their plant shows are no exception, says Tovah Martin on a visit to the Philadelphia Flower Show
For five days, the Royal Horticultural Society turns the grounds of The Royal Hospital, Chelsea into a series of fabulous show gardens, small gardens, horticultural displays and designs. This is where designers, plantsmen and plants women set the latest garden trends and where breeders launch their latest varieties.
Showing at Chelsea is very competitive and designers from around the world compete to be selected to create the 20 show gardens. Up and coming younger garden designers often get a chance to show their stuff in smaller gardens. And there are designs for urban gardens, courtyard gardens and rural gardens.
The Philadelphia Flower Show is the world’s largest indoor flower show. It doesn’t get much attention in Britain, where Chelsea and Hampton Court trump all, but in the United States it’s a big deal. Growers, amateur and professional, travel in from all over the country to exhibit around a different theme each year, and attract more than 250,000 visitors. Last year the subject was “springtime in Paris”. This year things took a more exotic turn, inspired by the 50th state, Hawaii.
Never has Philadelphia seen so many surfboards, or flower garlands (leis, as the Hawaiians say). Shirts emblazoned with hibiscus flowers were the standard dress code. With temperatures hovering just above freezing outdoors, however, flip flops were conspicuously absent, and hula skirts were (mostly) confined to the dancers on stage.
Still, there was no shortage of brightness on display. Some folk found themselves wondering why they left the sunglasses at home, as bromeliads, dracaenas, Colossians, and anthodium’s in a strident spectrum swarmed around the 10 acres of exhibits indoors. They were scattered between a thundering 28ft waterfall, innumerable grass huts and outdoor showers galore. It was proof again that even in the stodgy town of Philadelphia, the 4,000 people responsible for pulling this enormous event together are willing to crack a smile.
If this year’s event, held at the Pennsylvania Convention Center during the first full week in March, made a noticeable u-turn from previous stiff upper lips, it was intentional. Drew Becher, president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS), which hosts the event, said the theme was meant to push the envelope into a more "electric realm”.
For some, it was a stretch. Not so long ago the show was fairly buttoned down. The oldest in the US, dating from 1829 when a group of gentlemen farmers got together to strut their stuff at the Masonic Hall.