Dorrance Hamilton leaves huge hole at Flower Show

Posted: March 06, 2014

If there's one name that consistently pops into mind at Philadelphia Flower Show time, it's "Dodo."

Even people who don't know Dorrance H. Hamilton, the show's premier competitor, feel comfortable using her nickname, as if she were family.

That's because, at this iconic event, she pretty much defines the term.

At 85, Hamilton is the last of the Flower Show's grandes dames, a woman whose legacy spans almost 30 years and includes more awards for her pampered plants than probably anyone in the history of the 185-year-old show.

Now, Hamilton's Olympic-size run at the podium is over. She has retired from competition at long last, paving the way for others to ascend, but also leaving, at least temporarily, a huge hole in the Flower Show experience.

"Dodo epitomizes the Flower Show spirit. Her contribution has been pretty spectacular," said Drew Becher, president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, which produces the show.

Hamilton "continually raised the bar in competition and across the show," he said, most recently by underwriting a million-dollar pavilion that provides better lighting and more room for plant competitions. The 20,000-square-foot structure, called the Hamilton Horticourt and dedicated to what Becher called "the historic heart of the show," was inaugurated in 2013.

Though famously competitive, the Horticourt's benefactor insists she has no sadness about turning this corner.

"I'm just so proud and delighted to have been a little part of this," Hamilton said last week as she and Joe Paolino, her longtime greenhouse manager, took a spin around the Convention Center, he on foot, she on a motorized scooter. Exhibitors were setting up for the nine-day show, which runs through Sunday.

Hamilton, heir to the Campbell Soup fortune and a noted philanthropist, does have a modest presence this year. PHS has created a tribute to her in the middle of the Horticourt. A 36- by 10-foot display highlights the history of the show and its arcane judging of plants by type, size, age, flower, fruit, foliage, and other characteristics.

But most eyes will be drawn to another part of the display: about 80 of Hamilton's best-known, most decorated entries.

Over the years, they've become stars in their own right, not just because they're so large or numerous, but because they've been indulged in a way most competitors can only dream of - by a knowledgeable staff, year-round, in heated and cooled greenhouses.

Those plants will be missed.

"They're perfection. I can't imagine a show without them," said orchid-lover Sandra Say of Medford, who has been going to the show for a half-century.

Perfection also describes Hamilton's meticulously pruned bay laurels, which will be trucked to her Rhode Island home after the show. "They get to spend the rest of their lives in Newport. Not bad," Paolino said.

Hamilton, who also owns a 10-acre estate in Wayne with nine greenhouses and a home in tony Boca Grande, Fla., is known, too, for her boxwoods, bulbs and clivias, euphorbias, lilies, and wisterias, all forced into exquisite out-of-season bloom for the show.

(This year, 360 competitors entered more than 4,500 plants in 816 horticultural classes.)

Hamilton is probably best known for her orchids - phalaenopsis, cymbidium, dendrobium, cattleya, and especially her Paphiopedilum Invincible 'Spread Eagle.' Connoisseurs call this type a "paph," and 'Spread Eagle' competed right to the end. It was also one of two plants Hamilton entered at her first show, in 1983, the other being a Martha Washington standard geranium.

In the years that followed, her submissions went from two to four to 10 to 20 and on and on until Hamilton, who learned to love flowers from her mother and grandmother, was routinely entering 300 to 500 plants per show.

This horticultural juggernaut brought home 2,000 first-place blue ribbons and too many seconds, thirds, honorable mentions, rosettes, and certificates of excellence than she and Paolino can count.

One thing Hamilton always stresses: "Joe does all the work."

So he gets a good bit of credit for the 19 times his boss won the show's coveted Sweepstakes Trophy for most points in the competitive horticulture classes.

"We were always so geared up for the show. We were completely show-oriented," said Paolino, a Hamilton employee for 31 years and one of four staff gardeners at her Wayne estate.

Paolino admits to being "a little bit sad and disappointed" when Hamilton told him in June that her competitive days were over. He's feeling a bit better now.

"We still have a job, there's still 10 acres in Wayne to take care of," he said, "and I'm looking forward to helping more at the show" as a volunteer.

Hamilton, a widow with three children, nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, looks forward to being there, too.

"I can't leave the Flower Show," she said.


vsmith@phillynews.com

215-854-5720

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