Arabella Dane, left, Laura Haley and Wanda Davis evaluate entries in the PHS Philadelphia Flower Show.Scott Lewis for The Wall Street Journal
In my imagination, the PHS Philadelphia Flower Show, which I’ve heard about for years, consisted of several upper-crust ladies in white gloves who knew their roses, walking around someone’s garden and affixing blue ribbons to their favorite specimens.
A visit to the show at the Pennsylvania Convention Center Friday morning, before it opened to the public but with judging already furiously under way, proved I was off by several orders of magnitude. Think more of the boat show or the toy show at the Javits Center, only instead of cabin cruisers or zombie action figures, the stars are rare orchids and succulents. (Although it should be pointed out that Subaru is the flower show’s lead sponsor.)
In fact, perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned at the flower show, which runs through March 9, wasn’t how to arrange a window box for maximum impact, but that a household membership to the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, which runs the event, comes with savings of between $1,300 and $3,300 off the Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price on your next Subaru.
As exciting as the news, I’d come down on the train with no thought of buying a new car. My plan was to shadow Arabella Dane, an esteemed judge who was part of a special awards panel covering floral arrangements.
When I think of floral arrangements, I think of overpriced bouquets filled with long-stemmed roses and perhaps some baby’s breath thrown in. That’s not what this was.
Ms. Dane, joined by Laura Haley, chairman of the Garden Club of America’s flower show committee, and Wanda Davis, head of the nominating committee of the National Garden Clubs, were judging categories that involved challenges such as interpreting a sculpture and a textile; and creating an arrangement, or a hat, in the style of a famous artist.
All using flowers and plant materials, of course.
A floral hat inspired by artist Salvador Dali Scott Lewis for The Wall Street Journal
“Exquisite rhythm,” Ms. Haley proclaimed as the ladies stood in front of some sort of purple plant wrapped in its own leaves whose motion apparently mimicked the grain in a wooden box standing beside it. That was the sculpture to be interpreted.
Behind them were two PHS volunteers in vests that said “Artistic Barrier Aide.” They stretched what looked like police tape that proclaimed “judging in progress” so that the panel wouldn’t be disturbed by the hoi polloi as they went about their deliberations.
Another entry in the sculpture category lost points because a piece of kale used in the arrangement had fallen to the floor. “That would affect distinction,” Ms. Haley said, though she added: “There’s great texture involved here with the kale.”
Her fellow judges nodded in agreement.
I suggested they must be hell on florists when they go in to buy arrangements. For example, if they’ve been invited to somebody’s house for dinner.
“We don’t buy flower arrangements,” Ms. Haley corrected me. “Mostly we go to wholesalers.”
“She’s one of the top designers in the country,” Ms. Dane confided.
An orange flower entwined with a sculptureScott Lewis for The Wall Street Journal
Now that I felt properly chastened, and with a blue ribbon having been awarded to that plant that picked up the wood grain, we made our way across the aisle to the textile-design contestants.
The flower show, the nation’s largest, was first held in 1829. Among the flowers introduced to the public by the show were the now-ubiquitous Christmas season poinsettia, in 1829, and, according to Ms. Dane, the chrysanthemum.
This year’s newbies include Digiplexis, a foxglove hybrid; an eye-popping begonia, “Unstoppable Upright Fire”; and Viola Hip Hop, which the PHS’s hot sheet claims captures the “cute factor” with “its bunny ears and happy face.”
Ms. Haley explained that the judges not only award ribbons but also offer constructive advice to entrants, though they don’t call it criticism. Their comments come in two varieties—”positive” and “constructive.” The flower show might seem frivolous to those who don’t take flowers seriously, but Ms. Dane explained it has a larger purpose: “They’re teaching people like us to become better growers.”
She was speaking (I suspect with excessive modesty, since her credentials include former chairwoman of the American Horticultural Society’s board of directors) of people such as Mrs. Samuel M.V. Hamilton, a flower-show superstar, or so I gathered. I didn’t get to meet Mrs. Hamilton, but I may as well have: There was an exhibition of her prize-winning specimens, and the ribbons they garnered, in the “Hamilton Horticourt,” the flower show’s beating heart. A banner described Mrs. Hamilton as an individual possessed of a warm and gentle disposition, as well as a fierce competitor. She retired from competition this year.
The judges suggested I take a crack at judging the “Medium Niche: Threads” category. That’s the one where the contestant is supposed to interpret a textile design. The pressure was on, because we were also joined by Linda Nelson, president of the 190,000-member National Garden Clubs.
“I curtsey every time I see her,” Ms. Davis said.
“She’s trouble, too,” Ms. Dane added. “We were state presidents together.”
“They try to clip my wings,” Ms. Nelson said in good fun.
I examined the entries, pausing at one that I found singularly unattractive. To my unpracticed eye, the arrangement resembled a couple of mini pizzas with the works. I pronounced it “ugly.”
There was a collective gasp.
“We’d never say that,” someone said.
“We’d leave that at the door,” Ms. Haley added.
“We’re trying to find a nice way to say the negative thing,” Ms. Nelson explained. “So it will be helpful for the exhibitors.”
Ms. Dane tried to help me out. “Fussy?” she suggested. “Maybe it stops your eye.”
I agreed that stop my eye it did, and we moved on to the next category—dots. Just as it sounds, the challenge was to artfully incorporate dots into the arrangement. As lovely and fanciful as some of them were, I decided to keep my opinions to myself.