Watching people as they first enter a major flower show is always interesting. First their faces light up - and then their eyes begin to dart everywhere. Where to start? What to look at first?
Then they do something amazing. They shut their eyes, and a smile of pure pleasure creeps across their faces. They have noticed the scent - that glorious blend of freshly turned earth and greenery that is spring's best perfume. After the gray of winter, one sniff is enough to make them believe that spring will really come.
Then the eyes open once more on a scene that is at once dreamlike and yet realistic. It is March at the Philadelphia Flower Show - still winter for many of us - yet here, indoors, are thousands of flowers and plants in glorious bloom - acres of them. Ten acres to be exact, holding 60 or so fantastic gardens. There are another 23 acres for a marketplace, lectures, demonstrations, book fairs, plant exhibits, flower arrangements, miniature gardens, bonsai, and more.
The Philadelphia Flower Show, which began in an 82- by 69-foot room in 1829, is the oldest indoor flower show in the US. And it has grown until it is the largest indoor show in the world. Last year 285,000 people attended.
Water is a feature in many exhibits, with the accompanying rush of a waterfall or the gentle burbling of a pond and fountain. Some ponds are almost Zen-like in their serene stillness; others are in constant motion.
At one garden, visitors appeared to be waving wildly at a waterfall. You could hear over and over: "Is that me?" And then a wave or a gesture gave them the answer. The falls cascaded over a giant mirror - an illusion that had at least one visitor sighing, "Don't you wish you could just put it in your bag and take it home?"
No one seems to mind the crowds. They are too happy to see growing things, too excited at all the new ideas. Flower shows are a means of revitalization, but they are also a wonderful source of inspiration.
According to Steve Maurer of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, a recent survey showed that more than half of the people who walk through the entrance every year are there to learn, to take home new ideas and inspiration.
Between rare gaps in the crowd, one can see cameras flashing. Visitors busily scribble notes about plant combinations and arrangements, or capture their ideas and reactions on small tape recorders. Others search out exhibitors to find out the name of that fabulous plant next to the pond or who made that sensational wrought-iron gate - hastily scribbling the answer on a napkin liberated from one of the food stands.
Novice gardeners beware. Many of these displays are fantasies in more ways than one. Time has no meaning at a flower show, where spring-flowering snowdrops and jonquils can mingle with autumn-blooming chrysanthemums in gardens that are exempt from the limitations of nature - miniature paradises where all things are possible.
Still, as Mr. Maurer points out, this sense of being out of time is liberating. It frees the imagination to accept new ideas, to experiment. Flower-show exhibits are about creativity. And with so many lectures, demonstrations, and instructional exhibits going on at once, most gardeners leave with a happy sense of "Look what I've learned!"
Everywhere showgoers turn, there are gardens from fairy tales and myths, gardens of the past and future, as well as from destinations around the globe. Here are sand castles far more elaborate than our best childhood visions. There are pink flamingos brighter and even more flexible than those in that infamous croquet game in Alice's Wonderland.
The theme of this year's Philadelphia Flower Show is Great Gardeners of the World, and will feature re-creations of the gardens of numerous famous people in the plant world. Many well-known gardening authors will be giving talks and demonstrations, including Ken Druse, Tovah Martin, and Anne Lovejoy.
Noted British author and garden designer Penelope Hobhouse, horticultural adviser to the queen of England, will sign books on March 5 - and presumably also be peeking at the show's re-creation of her home garden.
"Many people are amazed to discover that our judges and lecturers are not paid to attend the show," says Maurer. "They pay their own way, and, if not staying with friends, are also paying for a hotel room." Such is the prestige of the Philadelphia Flower Show.
One of Pennsylvania's own showplaces, the gardens of Chanticleer, will be a highlight of the Philadelphia show, blending romantic ruins with woodland wildflowers, exotic plants, living sculpture, and a waterfall that functions as a movie screen. According to its designer, Christopher Woods, the garden is "a challenge to gardeners to create their dreams in the garden."
The entire city seems to get into the mood at flower-show time, throwing out the "green carpet" for visitors. "The people of Philadelphia are happier during flower-show time than they are at Christmas," says Maurer.
The Philadelphia Flower Show takes place March 4-11 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. For more information, visit www.philaflowershow.com.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society