New Orleans may be easier to interpret with flowers and music than words, given the one-dimensional nature of words - even ones that sound about right, like magical and serendipitous.

Still, it won't be easy for the organizers of this year's Philadelphia Flower Show, which opens Sunday. No medium alone, or paired with another, could possibly capture the elusive essence of the place author TJ Fisher calls "a bewitching oasis of culture and civilization sculpted from a hostile swamp."

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But Sam Lemheney, show designer for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, isn't one to ponder the impenetrable for long. The theme for the Flower Show this year is "Jazz It Up," a tribute to the gardens and music of New Orleans, and by gumbo, Lemheney predicts, "it's gonna be very spectacular."

We'll see angel-wing begonias and foxtail palms, bananas and ferns. We'll hear jazz and swing, R&B and funk. And though inadequate, words like this will come to mind: hot, lush, languorous, bright, bawdy, beautiful.

Since this is primarily a flower show, secondarily a musicfest, here are some thoughts on the famous gardens of the venerable Vieux Carré, or French Quarter of New Orleans, that will be mirrored in the show. They come from Stephen Swain, president of the 350-member Patio Planters, the Quarter's garden club:

(They sound remarkably like some of Center City's hidden gardens, come August.)

There are patios and balconies and small courtyards along narrow alleys and carriageways. They're flush with hanging baskets, planters, urns and containers filled with tropicals. Vines tootle up the brick walls and flowers tumble down, providing exotic cover and privacy.

Some gardens have formal French designs, others breezy British, and, despite the Quarter's French name and influence, many homes have a Spanish look from that nation's colonial period in the city.

Fountains, fish ponds and decorative ironwork are all very typical, as are tiny tables and rich colors and a jungle feel. And oh, is it humid.

"There are so many styles and they're all completely different, but people like a very private, secluded, tropical look," says Swain, who has what's called a gallery-style garden, really just a balcony supported by posts.

Though we might think magnolias when the subject is Southern gardens, bromeliads actually are the ubiquitous ones in New Orleans, says Swain, who showed Lemheney about a half-dozen gardens in the Quarter during his visit last year.

Lemheney ran with the bromeliad idea, promising showgoers hundreds of these fascinating flora, part of a plant family that spans Spanish moss to pineapples.

He also promises caladiums or elephant ears, some ostentatiously huge, others demure and velvety; white-flowering bacopa and wildly pink coleus; lime-green sweet potato vine, and purple wandering Jew.

"Lots of purple, green and gold, Mardi Gras colors," Lemheney says.

All those colors will infuse 13 varieties of bromeliads planted in huge sweeps for the show's central feature. They'll range from a few inches to 3 feet across, with spiral leaves and a spiky forest of red, yellow and orange.

"They have a different feel from plants we know," Lemheney says. "They're thick and tropical."

Once found exclusively in royal botanical gardens and the private collections of wealthy Europeans, bromeliads are widely available now to the hoi polloi. And though some might be intimidated by their strange aspect, they're a lovely, low-maintenance houseplant (here, that is).

They flower only once, then make new shoots or babies, but don't call them shoots and, for heaven's sake, "calling them 'babies' is even worse," says John W. Story, general manager of Meadowbrook Farm, who grows hundreds of plants for the Flower Show each year.

These babies (oh, heck) are "offsets" or "pups," though why pup flies and baby doesn't is another impenetrable to ponder.

No mystery about one thing, unspoken but not forgotten in any discussion of New Orleans, and that is the legacy of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Despite devastation elsewhere, the French Quarter remained relatively intact because of its higher elevation.

But the New Orleans Botanical Garden, situated in 1,400-acre City Park, lost most everything to flooding and later, heat, including about 2,000 greenhouse orchids.

The Philadelphia Society of Botanical Illustrators, which will be exhibiting paintings at the Flower Show, raised about $2,000 last fall through the sale of orchid notecards its members designed to help replenish the garden's supply. A percentage of the proceeds from painting sales at the show also will go for that purpose.

"We're all orchid people," says Fran Phaneuf of Downingtown, the society's program chair. "We all illustrate orchids and a lot of us grow them, but mostly we paint them. We wanted to do something specific to help the botanical garden."

Paul Soniat, the garden's director, says he received about 40 "nice quality" orchids from the Philadelphia illustrators, from Waldor Orchids in Linwood, N.J.

"Everyone's been very supportive, but it's still a struggle," Soniat says, predicting that when all is said and done, the park and garden will be in better shape than before Katrina.

Sounding a bit like a Fairmount Park advocate, he adds, "This park is a public park, and it's never really been funded properly. Now, we have a lot of different money coming in."

Be sure to bring lots of money to the Flower Show. You won't need it to review the 5,000 entries in nearly 600 artistic and horticultural classes. Or to check out the 55 major exhibits. Or to partake of the dozens of lectures, demonstrations, performances and culinary presentations.

But you'll want a stash of cash when you hit the Marketplace, for this is the place to go for plants, garden furniture, artwork, crafts, jewelry, birdhouses, gloves and all else.

And then to rest. Till spring.

Flower Show's Musical Fare

Two stages will host live music during the Philadelphia Flower Show: New Orleans-style on the Bourbon Street Stage and Settlement Music School students, staff and alumni on the Legends Stage. All performances are free. They'll be held Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. On the opening and closing Sundays, performances will run from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

The UCC Royal Brass Band from Camden, the Hoppin' John Orchestra from Philly, and Big Sam's Funky Nation from New Orleans will perform on the Bourbon Street stage, located inside the French Quarter section of the show's central feature. The likelihood is high that you'll find yourself "second-lining," a uniquely New Orleans kind of street-dancing, or responding to the musicians' calls. You won't be able to sit, or stand, still, in other words.

Legends Stage, located just behind the archway as you enter the show, will highlight the music school folks, including the Sam Ruttenberg Trio, pianist David Posmontier, Crosstown Brass Quintet, guitarist Mark Johnstone, and the Peter Dugan Trio.

Performance schedules will be posted on concourse monitors and stage signs. You can also find them online at http://theflowershow.com/attractions/special.html.                        - Virginia A. SmithEndText

Flower Show Particulars

The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society opens this year's Philadelphia Flower Show on Sunday, and the show continues through March 9 at the Convention Center, 12th and Arch Streets. Proceeds benefit Philadelphia Green, the society's urban-greening program.

Hours: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays; 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. weekdays; and 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Saturday. The best viewing times are 4 to 9:30 weeknights. Box office closes one hour before the show ends.

Admission: Box office prices for adults are $28 Sunday, $26 Saturday and March 9, $24 weekdays, and $13 for children ages 2 to 16. The show offers a family fun pack, $65 for two adults and two children under 16. Advance tickets are $22 for adults, $21.50 for groups of 25 or more, and $13 for children 2 to 16. Visitors who get their hands stamped can leave and reenter the same day without paying a readmission fee.

Where to buy tickets: SEPTA ticket outlets, AAA Mid-Atlantic, Acme Markets, Clemens Family Markets, Philadelphia-area Borders Books & Music stores, select PNC Bank branches, local nurseries and florists, and online at www.theflowershow.com.

Information: 215-988-8899.

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Go behind-the- scenes at the Flower Show: Video and

more at http//go.philly.com/phillyflowers.EndText

Contact gardening writer Virginia Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.