Phila. Flower Show promises to be "Brilliant!"

Aaron Morales stands on the root ball of a tree as he and coworkers from Wilmington work on the centerpiece exhibit for this year's show.
Aaron Morales stands on the root ball of a tree as he and coworkers from Wilmington work on the centerpiece exhibit for this year's show.
Posted: February 25, 2013

The 2013 Philadelphia Flower Show promises to be . . . interesting.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the show has a peculiar-sounding theme that, except for those who are intimately involved, evokes an almost universal response:

Say what?

This theme is one word - "Brilliant!" - and it's worth paying attention to. It could portend significant changes ahead: shows that are no longer predictably tied to geographic themes like Hawaii and Ireland, and that rise or fall on the artistry of their horticulture and landscape design, rather than touristy exhibits and entertainment.

"We would like everyone to keep in mind that we're in the 21st century," said Drew Becher, who became president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, the show's producer, in mid-2010 and has been shaking things up ever since.

"Brilliant!" is British slang for awesome or cool. It's meant to signal that the $9 million show - next Saturday to March 10 at the Convention Center - is cutting-edge and about Britain, England, London, the United Kingdom, or the British Isles, depending on who's explaining.

Americans and flower-show producers tend to toss these entities into one big bucket, when they're seriously different things. Britain is England, Scotland, and Wales. The United Kingdom is Britain and Northern Ireland. The British Isles are Britain, Ireland, and adjacent islands.

Though a marketer's nightmare, the theme's vagueness is deliberate, the result of a lot of collective head-mashing by the horticultural society and the Flower Show family. It's designed to liberate organizers, exhibitors, even visitors, from traditional expectations - Hawaiian volcanoes, Irish fairies - so they can creatively interpret on their own.

"The beauty of this dialed-down theme is that you can take liberties," Becher said. "You can be really different."

It does not mean that there will never be another geographic theme or that the show will never feature representative landscapes. "It does mean we'll aim for modern interpretation of those things," said show designer Sam Lemheney, a horticulturist hired away from Disney World in Orlando, Fla., in 2003 to liven up the Philadelphia show, which dates to 1829.

Lemheney, the third generation of his family to be involved in the show, noted that even though London, in particular, now sports extraordinary examples of contemporary architecture and garden design, most folks cling to familiar notions - Big Ben, all things royal, flowery cottage gardens.

"A lot of people have been to the U.K. and U.K. gardens," he said. "We don't want to re-create things people have already seen."

And so visitors to the 2013 Philadelphia Flower Show are promised a "reimagining of iconic images," interspersed with enough blush-colored, English-style, garden roses - with fragrance - to thaw the coldest winter heart.

According to Gary Radin, the show's set designer, there will be a "royal gateway" at the show's main entrance, with stylized Buckingham Palace-type arches and fencing and a birch-tree allee. The path leads to a "gardenesque" plaza with LED lighting and a 38-foot-tall "interpretation" of Big Ben in the middle.

Ben's four faces will have no numbers. Those, and pop-culture images, will be projected onto the tower every hour, on the hour, for three minutes.

Lemheney, the show's self-described "entertainment guy," struggled with what kind of live performance could best represent "Brilliant!"

Beatles look-alikes? Beefeaters?

"There are so many, and no one that was right," he said.

This means that for the first time since "Legends of Ireland" in 2007, there will be no live entertainment at the Flower Show. (This component has been somewhat controversial, pitting those wanting to attract a younger, more diverse audience against horticulturally minded traditionalists.)

Instead, visitors will be treated to projected video images of Benny Hill and Monty Python, "possibly some British gardens and stuff," mixed with songs by the Beatles, the Clash, the Who, Led Zeppelin, Queen, and maybe even some punk rockers like the Sex Pistols, according to Ricardo Rivera of Klip Collective, which created the "orchid wave" for the 2012 "Islands of Aloha" show.

"It'll be bright and smart without being snobby," he said.

A word about Queen. Rivera means the 1970s rockers, not the Queen, who dates back considerably further. And although the horticultural society has coyly hinted for months that "a member of the royal family" might be stopping by, the news is better than that. No royal could make it, but a fine fellow you've probably never heard of can - Mark Lane, manager of the Buckingham Palace gardens.

No doubt you have heard of Dorrance "Dodo" Hamilton. She's donated $1 million for a sleek new pavilion, called the Hamilton Horticort, for the show's plant competitions. Traditionalists, take note.

The Flower Show is the horticultural society's mega-fund-raiser. This year, it will be open an extra day (Saturday), which, if all goes as planned, will bring in lots more visitors and money. The 2012 show drew 270,000, the most since 1998, and raised $1.3 million for horticultural society programs.

Work has already begun on the 2014 show. The theme - here we go again - is "Masterpiece." Say what?

Watch crews prepare for the 2013 Flower Show

at www.


Contact Virginia A. Smith

at 215-854-5720 or

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