Flower Show offers model trains, climbing walls, passport station - and flowers

In a conference room at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, Sam Lemheney unfurled a floor plan of the PHS Philadelphia Flower Show.

He pointed out where, starting Saturday, visitors would enter the hall of the Convention Center, through a "Big Timber Lodge," with screens showcasing the year's theme, "Explore America," a celebration of the National Park Service's centennial. He dragged a finger up to the Find Your Park Pavilion, a ranger station. He mentioned a climbing wall, a model-train display, a butterfly habitat, a beer garden, a wine-tasting bar, and an expo of camping and hiking gear.

"The words Flower Show sometimes scare people off, because they think it's more of your grandmother's show," said Lemheney, the designer who came to PHS by way of Disney in 2004. "But I can tell you that my experience is of creating an entertainment menu. It's using plants and flowers, honestly, as the star of the show, but this is really an entertainment experience."

It raises the question: When is the Flower Show no longer a flower show? Is horticulture still the point of the event?

Whereas the showstoppers once were the scent of hyacinths and the massive floral arch at the entrance, PHS can't necessarily count on flowers alone to bring in the more diverse crowd it needs to make the weeklong show sustainable. That includes not just your grandmother, but also millennials, families with kids, and men. (Typically, 87 percent of Flower Show visitors are female.)

So this year's attractions - mixed in with florist- and landscaper-designed homages to parks from Acadia to Arches - include an Adventure Moments stage featuring ranger presentations and live streams of Yellowstone geysers and Denali sled dogs. There's also a Junior Ranger Guide: Young visitors can complete activities around the show floor, then claim a Junior Ranger Badge. And, there's the added-cost railway garden, winding through miniature park landscapes.

In particular, a space called Base Camp - with a beer garden, a stage for live music, an inflatable climbing wall, and dining and shopping opportunities - is directly targeting the 75,000 twenty- and thirtysomethings added to PHS' mailing list via its summerlong beer-forward Pop-Up Gardens.

At a news conference, flanked by rangers and the Park Service's Buddy Bison mascot, Lemheney answered the most-asked question about this year's show: "Yes, there will be geysers."

For those starting to wonder, there will also be flowers.

Lots and lots

Barb King of Valley Forge Flowers, which provides cut flowers for the central display, promised at least 15,000 stems. That includes hanging chandeliers and towering arrangements of meadow flowers and wildflowers.

"Our biggest request from people is 'Can we have more flowers?' so we're giving it to them: lots of flowers, lots of color," she said. But, "not your typical flower that you see at every flower shop or supermarket."

And then there's the competitive Hamilton Horticourt, which will showcase more than 5,000 specimens, from succulents to tulips to orchids. And the Design Gallery, filled with balcony gardens, window boxes, and tablescapes; the demonstrations and lectures in the Gardener's Studio and Designer's Studio; and terrarium building in the Make and Take Studio. There are garden clubs specializing in ferns, cacti, and rhododendrons, and the new addition of a display by a Japanese flower exporter.

As for the major exhibits - which correspond to landscapes ranging from desert to forest to open fields - how actual flowers fit into the equation was a puzzle for exhibitors to solve or ignore, each according to his or her preference.

This year's guest designers are the California-based landscape designer Walter Hood (his tribute to Muir Woods will include fern undergrowth below a towering structure evocative of a redwood forest) and Susan Dolan, the National Park Service landscape manager (she'll produce a rustic amphitheater).

Michael Petrie of Swarthmore, who runs the landscape design company Handmade Gardens, is mostly omitting flowers from his display this year. His tribute to Olympic National Park will be a tiny house set amid a lush green landscape of trees, ferns, and shrubs trucked in from the West Coast. Even the $7,000 freight bill, he decided, was more affordable than the energy- and labor-intensive process of forcing plants to leaf and bloom off season.

Traditionally, exhibitors would accomplish the work of forcing in their own greenhouses. But Petrie doesn't have one. He said most landscape firms and garden centers don't these days.

"In the old days, almost all the big exhibitors had greenhouses," he said. "That's not true anymore. Someone changed the game and no one was paying attention." As a result, "it's become more and more difficult for the major exhibits to produce good horticulture."

That's not to say that they're not still trying.

Stoney Bank Nurseries in Glen Mills is forcing more than 100 varieties of plants for its representation of Yellowstone National Park after a wildfire, showcasing a blanket of wildflowers and grasses below pine saplings, charred logs, and wafting geothermal steam.

Tom Morris, of J. Downend Landscaping in Crum Lynne, contracted with Stoney Bank to supply flowers he'll mix in with boulders and evergreens for a rendition of Acadia National Park.

"We used a Plants of Acadia National Park book," he said, "Right now, we're 95 percent true to the list." But he's also cheating the theme a bit, sneaking in a colorful flower garden inspired by ones he's seen near Acadia on Mount Desert Island in Maine. It's a way to make the design relatable to show visitors who might be potential clients - in spite of a theme that made that a challenge.

Toughest task

Perhaps no one had a more difficult task of incorporating flowers than Eric Schellack, design lead at Robertson's Flowers in Wyndmoor. His assignment: Arches National Park, a desert of red rock vistas and geological formations. He decided to create a series of sculptural plant "postcards," using materials shipped from all over the world. He even got a vendor from Montana to FedEx him tumbleweeds.

Amid these feats of horticulture and design, PHS is casting a wide net with its dining options (from a DIY trail-mix bar to a Stella Artois "glamping" pub), programming (country-music night to a bridal fair, a kids' jamboree and a dog-friendly Fido Friday), and lectures (the history of the park service to organic gardening).

With the new attraction and theme, Lemheney hopes to expand on what's come to be more of a girls'-day-out event, and match or improve on last year's attendance of 250,000 people.

The show usually brings in about $1 million to support PHS' year-round activities, and nets the city $8 million in taxes.

The National Park Service is hoping the Flower Show also will be powerful marketing for the represented parks, which are prevented by law from advertising for themselves. And maybe, in turn, the parks will help market the show - especially among those more reluctant demographics.

smelamed@phillynews.com

215-854-5053@samanthamelamed


PHS Philadelphia Flower Show

March 5-13, at the Convention Center, 12th and Arch Streets, 215-988-8899, theflowershow.com.

Tickets at the gate: adults $34; students $22; children 2-16 $17.

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