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Extravagant flower show banishes the winter blahs

Julie Robinson
A table sumptuously set with gold plates, candles and goblets and many arrangements in royal purple and red stands near a replica of Big Ben.
Julie Robinson
A flowerbed of riotous color softens the sharp edges of a water feature in a display of both informal and formal elements.
Julie Robinson
A painting at first glance, this seaside scene was created entirely from dried and pressed fresh flower material.
Julie Robinson
Ornamental cabbages and a green and purple mix of flowering plants brighten hypertufta containers, which are made from aggregate and concrete to resemble limestone.
Julie Robinson
Even the tubes or rails on the royal gates contain fresh flowers, as do the shields, crowns and toppers. The extravagant entrance heralds the splendid displays beyond the gates.
Julie Robinson
A visitor shoots a close-up of a lavish arrangement of ranaculus, lilies, roses, hydrangea and tulips that was entered in the 10 Downing Street category of arrangements suitable for a front hall or foyer.
Julie Robinson
A young visitor skips past a springtime garden. The landscape was one of many full-scale displays at the Philadelphia Flower Show.
Julie Robinson
Professor Sprout's greenhouse at Hogwarts, made famous in the Harry Potter books, is replicated in tiny and meticulous detail in this 12-inch-wide and 8-inch-deep miniature setting. The little plants, all living, resemble the plants described in the books.
PHILADELPHIA -- The Philadelphia Flower Show burst into colorful bloom last week with a dizzying array of over-the-top floral arrangements and tablescapes, landscapes featuring an avenue of towering birches, full-scale cottages, surrounding landscapes and woodlands and gardening innovations.What started in 1829 as a horticulture competition among growers to claim prizes for award-winning plant specimens has evolved into a 10-day extravaganza, ending March 10, that sprawls through 550,000 square feet of the Convention Center. It's the largest flower show in the world.Organizers named the English-themed event "Brilliant!" this year in an attempt to broaden the scope of attractions and to appeal to a younger audience. Judging from the hordes of twentysomethings, families and men who vied for vantage points on the show's busy opening day March 2, the plan succeeded.Visitors stepped through the show's entrance doors and faced a pair of towering gates, topped with oversize floral arrangements and giant crowns, that opened to formal gardens planted around a replica of Big Ben. Elaborate displays of London scenes designed by high-end florists flanked the clock.Big Ben's hourly strikes unleashed an eye-catching display of bright lights, British rock music and videos of caricatured U.K. icons. The loud music and flashy images drew criticism from purists who found the spectacle garish, but there was lots of toe-tapping and even dancing from the people standing around it."London Fog" was an imaginative display of umbrellas and "dripping" falls of crystal beads that watered the springtime arrangements below. Another scene depicted a quaint foxglove-lined stone path that borders a cricket field.Floral arrangements took center stage and interpreted themes such as Crown Jewels, My Fair Lady, Cotswold Cottage and 10 Downing Street and included enormous and glorious designs, breathtaking tablescapes and detailed miniatures. Fresh arrangements have a limited shelf life, so competitions are staggered throughout the week, providing returning guests with different themes and designs to view on subsequent visits. A woodland of ferns, native plants and blooming trees edging a pond provided calming contrast to bright lights and extravagant displays. It's difficult to imagine how the landscapers and designers manhandled towering trees into place. The mechanics and engineering required to create the impressive displays and full gardens boggles the mind.The timeless beauty of English gardens and springtime flowering bulbs shared space with educational but attractive gardens emphasizing garden-to-table, organic gardening, native and sustainable gardening practices and the latest in landscape materials and products.The show retained its emphasis on competition, but the classes are not limited to the same old daffodil and begonia specimens. Guests wander through rows of topiaries, terrariums, tiny stone planters and imaginative, miniature -- as in 16 inches wide -- patio settings planted with live miniature plants set among to-scale outdoor furniture.Creators of container gardens and window boxes filled with interesting plant combinations, and growers of pots of showy orchids and living walls -- vertical gardens stuffed with live plants -- all competed for top honors. A soothing wall of ferns and other green plants backed another green wall composed of ornamental cabbages, kales and chards.
A representation of a life-size ermine-edged cape worthy of the queen highlighted a display of royal accessories such as crowns and orbs created entirely of flowers.Pressed-flower designs resembled elaborate and detailed paintings rather than the floral arrangements typically represented in this medium. They were created by amateurs, as were many of the entries in other classes.The lines were longest at the miniature settings display. These remarkably detailed settings were 12 inches wide and 8 inches deep and viewed behind glass. A minuscule scene of an English courtyard behind a Tudor-timbered home wowed the visitors as they filed past, but the blue ribbon deservedly went to a greenhouse scene inspired by the Harry Potter books.In it, Professor Sprout nurtured spellbinding plants labeled and resembling those described in the books in a realistically dirty greenhouse complete with utility sink and a cluttered, but charming glassed-in corner office. Impatient people waiting their turns at the window tended to edge viewers away before they could take in all the details.
Beyond the displays -- too numerous to process in only one visit -- stood row upon row of vendors selling items for gardening and landscaping. They offered everything from whimsical statuary to the most practical of garden tools.In another hall, vendors tempted foot-weary visitors with such British cuisine as bangers and mash and fish and chips. Wine tastings and English teas offered further relaxation.Guests also took a breather and learned something along the way in numerous classes and seminars. Students who attended one make-and-take seminar were instantly recognizable in the floral fascinators they created and wore. The headwear experienced renewed popularity when guests wore them at Prince William and Kate Middleton's royal wedding.The show is indeed "Brilliant!" Next year's show is scheduled for March 1-9, with a theme to be announced.Proceeds from the show help fund outreach programs of the Philadelphia Horticulture Society. Current outreach programs emphasize neighborhood greening efforts such as planting trees in urban areas, maintaining neighborhood parks and community gardens.Tickets were priced at $27 for adults, $20 for students and $15 for children 2 and older. Ticket, lodging and travel packages were also available. For details, visit
Reach Julie Robinson at or 304-348-1230.
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