Shock and weather, sore throats and Disney-love, freeze-dried roses and a hot-air balloon in six neat pieces.
This is the 2010 Philadelphia International Flower Show?
Center City's MODA botanica, which calls itself "an art-driven floral studio," caused a stir at the 2009 flower show with an imaginative interpretation of the traditional garden allée, terrace, and waterfall. "People either loved it or hated it," says Armas Koehler, one of the two-year-old firm's three founders.
Could be the story with MODA's second appearance this year, as well.
Koehler's cagey about the details, but suggests that the 2010 exhibit, in the show that opens Sunday, will be inspired by shipping, transportation, packaging, and "mass-market globalization" themes. And that the end result will, yes, "provoke and shock a little bit."
All this Sturm und Drang will be expressed through huge shipping containers, which you probably haven't seen artfully displayed in your neighborhood lately. But all over the world, they've been turned into houses, cafes, dormitories, schools, markets, and even museums.
MODA's containers will have passport stamps, graffiti, and who knows what else on them. "Visitors won't have any problem noticing us," Koehler says.
Not that it's ever been a problem for this crew.
It's still winter
Whenever folks are transporting flowers in winter, weather is a major worry. That is also true inside the Convention Center, where temperatures are kept in the mid-60s through show week.
It feels much colder during setup, when the back doors stay open to allow exhibitors to unload trucks, plants, and props. You see people moving very quickly. You see a lot of fleece.
Ron Mulray of the American Institute of Floral Designers recalls a flower show about 20 years ago, when it was still at the Civic Center in West Philly. Disaster struck after 400 tropical anthuriums destined for the AIFD exhibit were left outside on a loading dock at the airport.
Of course, these colorful beauties froze and turned an inky shade of black. Luckily, more were located and overnighted to Philadelphia in time for opening day.
"But what an expense," says Mulray, owner of the Philadelphia Flower Co. in the Far Northeast.
Last year, Mulray had a problem of a different sort.
All through setup, he'd been yakking with abandon. The temperature was predictably cool in the Convention Center, and mulch dust and diesel fumes filled the air.
But the night before the show opened to the public, the chatty Mulray suddenly had no voice. "It was horrible," he says.
He saw three ear, nose and throat doctors in a vain attempt to regain his voice for the show, but it took its good old time coming back: two weeks.
This year, during setup, Mulray was determined to stay healthy. He wore a mask.
A notable absentee
You'll still find African violets at the flower show, but for the first time in more than three decades, the African Violet Society of Philadelphia won't have an exhibit. The group simply doesn't have the money or bodies to design, build, and transport everything anymore.
As is the case with other African violet societies, which thrived through the flower's craze in the 1950s and beyond, local membership has been slowly dropping. Those that remain are getting older, and there's a pronounced shortage of able-bodied men to help out.
"A lot of our members can no longer bear the weight of large projects," says the group's president, Judy Smith, speaking literally and figuratively. "We're still in shock."
A touch of Disney
If you've been getting a distinct Disney rush at the flower show these last five years, it's no accident. It's all about Sam Lemheney, who designs the show for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.
By the time he arrived at PHS in 2003, the affable Lemheney - who assumed design duties in 2005 - had worked at Walt Disney World in Orlando for 13 years. At the end, he was managing the entire horticulture staff - more than 600 people.
Lemheney still loves everything Disney - the floral extravagance, the fantasy and showmanship, the millions of visitors who come every year. Clearly, he's channeling Disney into Philadelphia.
Lemheney loved his time in Orlando for another reason, too: He met his wife, Sally, there. And, no kidding, guess where they've been known to go for the occasional getaway?
Staying close to home
Sometimes the creators of the flower show's main exhibit go to the country they're illustrating to check out the gardens. For example, Jamie Rothstein of the eponymous design business in Queen Village traveled to Venice to check out the hidden gardens there, as part of research for the canal-side wedding scene she created at last year's Italian-themed show.
This year, Rothstein - the only person ever to have been married at the flower show, in 1998, inside her own exhibit - is doing an Indian wedding scene. The woman has a thing about weddings, but says the only time she might have gone to India last year was in the summer - monsoon season.
Other exhibitors cited the economy, which is understandable. We're not talking a trip down the Shore here. We're talking Brazil, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Singapore, and South Africa.
There was, however, a lot of armchair travel on the Internet.
A big balloon
The Philadelphia flower show is known for its size, and its central feature, the thing we see upon entering the Convention Center, is always huge. This year, its six international gardens are laid out around what Barbara King of Valley Forge Flowers in Wayne calls "the big balloon."
It's 28 feet high, with a dock and a genuine antique hot-air balloon basket (from Craigslist) down below. The balloon is covered with a map of the world, designed online and then hand-drawn on the balloon with Magic Markers.
The world's seas are fashioned from 55,400 blue pansy heads from the Netherlands, stuck on with craft glue. Each continent is a different color, filled in with 25,000 freeze-dried roses from Colombia, now the second-largest player in the international flower trade, after the Netherlands.
These frozen-in-time roses - stuck onto the Styrofoam globe with corsage pins - have the look and feel of real roses without the fragrance (sort of like those cut roses you bought for Valentine's Day!). Supposedly, with this new process, they'll last up to eight years.
The gluing and sticking went fast - two weeks - because it proved very addicting. "We just couldn't stop," says King, a third-generation florist.
As for the trip to the Convention Center, exactly how do you wrap a hot-air balloon for transport in a tractor-trailer?
"In six pieces," King says, "and you hire a very careful truck driver."
Philadelphia International Flower Show
When: Sunday through March 7. Open tomorrow for members of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society only.
Where: Convention Center, 12th and Arch Streets.
Hours: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays; 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; and 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Saturday, March 6.
Advance tickets: $23; $18 students (ages 17-24); $13 children (2-16); under 2 free. Tickets at the box office are more and vary according to the day.
Information: 215-988-8899 or www.theflowershow.com.
Read garden writer Virginia A. Smith's blog at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/gardening
Contact garden writer Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or firstname.lastname@example.org.