Philadelphia Flower Show preview wows

Displaying some petals of her own, Lucy Pierre of Philadelphia looks at an exhibit of Japanese flower arranging on Saturday's preview day at the Philadelphia International Flower Show. The Convention Center show opens to the general public Sunday.
Displaying some petals of her own, Lucy Pierre of Philadelphia looks at an exhibit of Japanese flower arranging on Saturday's preview day at the Philadelphia International Flower Show. The Convention Center show opens to the general public Sunday. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 04, 2012

Visitors lined up well before Saturday's private preview of the Philadelphia International Flower Show, clogging two lobbies of the Convention Center and snaking out the doors and down Arch Street.

Like so many plant groupies, they surged through the doors at noon, into Hawaii: Islands of Aloha, which opens to the public Sunday and runs through next Sunday.

"Looks like Vegas," one man remarked as he stood under the "orchid wave" that greets visitors at the show. It is a stylized, wavelike structure that is covered with hundreds of white orchids. It is also a sensory experience that projects the sounds of crashing water, the delicate scent of orchids, and digitalized images of bubbles, sea turtles, and fish.

Vegaslike it may be, but the wave was a hit for all sorts of reasons with the preview set, who are members of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, the show's producer since 1829. Some enjoyed a lovely fantasy on a late-winter afternoon in the city; others, such as Susan Lee of Coatesville, found the orchids "gorgeous," even as she lamented that, "as a landscaping idea, they aren't something that would translate to our property."

Over the last nine years, since the arrival at the society of horticulturist/designer Sam Lemheney from Disney, the show's central features have gotten bigger, more spectacular, and more entertainment-driven, a trend that delights some and disappoints others.

But the society is trying to attract a younger, more diverse audience to the show, which historically has been the province of a primarily middle-aged, female audience. That is slowly changing, with more - and more hip - advertising and new elements at the show, including themed nights aimed at target audiences.

There is a "girls' night out" now, and evenings tailored to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities; young families; and couples engaged to marry.

On Saturday, any and all were drawn to the orchid-covered, 25-foot waterfall, volcanic flames, and booming narrator, along with the handsome cadre of young Hawaiians dancing traditional hula on the main stage.

To make the Hawaiian features authentic, the society consulted with the Oahu Visitors Bureau and others in the islands. Kainoa Daines, the bureau's sales director, attended the preview Saturday and pronounced himself "blown away. The attention to detail, the use of tropicals and native plants . . . I wasn't sure what I would see here, but it's wonderful."

Daines was speaking about the society's central feature. He had less praise for some of the mannequins wearing un-Hawaiilike outfits and "The Big Kahuna" drink in the show's new Man Cave, Room 204B, where men - and women - are welcome to unwind with drinks, fries, wide-screen TVs, manly chairs, and sports contests on the tube.

"Kahuna in Hawaii is a priest, someone we revere, not someone we would make fun of," he said.

But there is plenty of authenticity here - the artisans, the music, and the entertainers, especially the hula dancers. After performing, they mingled with the crowd, getting their pictures taken and listening to stories of other people's trips to Hawaii.

"I'm not used to having my picture taken," said a bare-chested Kohl - "like the store" - Nauahi, a dancer with the Polynesian Cultural Center in Oahu, who rediscovered his Hawaiian heritage a few years ago.

"It's good to live our traditions," said Nauahi, who has already visited the Liberty Bell.

Showgoers seemed to gravitate to a couple of other features, such as Michael Bruce Florist's Pu'ili (musical instruments) bamboo and orchid exhibit; MODA Botanica's Lauana (flower pattern), a colorful montage with moving panels; and an interesting one by Celebrations Design Group that fuses iconic performers - Beyoncé, Kanye West, and Rihanna among them - with floral interpretations of their music.

Orchid leis were selling well at $12. The new layout moved foot traffic along. And given the wide interest in growing vegetables, the society's 40-foot-long lettuce wall and other food-centered elements were considerable hits.

Despite the society's efforts to add seating, visitors continued to complain that chairs were hard to come by, as were recycling containers in the show. A few were spotted in the Grand Hall Concourse.

As always, Flower Show visitors agree on one thing: Everyone has an opinion.

Kitty Cone of Cheltenham liked the Hawaiian theme, but she noted that "the show feels a lot more commercial. There are Subarus parked everywhere." Subaru is the show's premier sponsor, and the commercial touch is no accident.

Society president Drew Becher has allowed exhibitors to show videos and other promotional materials, in an effort to help them drum up business at the show. It can cost tens of thousands, or more, to mount an exhibit.


Flower Show

The Philadelphia International Flower Show

runs through next Sunday at the Convention Center,

at 12th

and Arch Streets.

Information: theflowershow.com.


See all things floral at www.philly.com/flowershow.


Contact Virginia A. Smith

at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

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