Changing the climate at the Philadelphia Flower Show

Not just another pretty vase

Within the stone-and-steel framework of Arch Street’s Pennsylvania Convention Center blooms the Philadelphia Horticultural Society’s (PHS) showy, stagey Holland: Flowering the World, the tulip-topped theme for the 2017 Philadelphia Flower Show. There is, of course, much to remind visitors that the Netherlands is a place of wooden shoes, windmills and dedication to bicycling culture, to say nothing of its precious plant cargo.

A mass of tulips at the 2017 Philadelphia Flower show. (Photo by Reese Amorosi)

From its immense and colorful 5,000 tulip-filled entrance garden to a 36-foot-tall geodesic eco-dome donated by the Dutch government, there are still intimate moments of wonder, such as the specially designed blood-red Philly Belle Tulips, gifted to our city from the Royal Netherlands embassy, or handsomely designed miniature topiary set pieces filled with tiny tulips and clinging foliage.

Protecting the protectors

However, this exhibition isn’t just designed to wow and flutter tulip aficionados. It also serves as an inspiration and showcase for American visionary botanists, horticulturists, and ornamentalists interested in modern urban greening, eco-design and sustainability. This theme stands in stark contrast to our political moment, wherein the Trump administration -- and its new Environmental Protection Agency head, Scott Pruitt -- are climate change deniers.

During Pruitt’s recent appearance on CNBC's Squawk Box, when asked if CO2 is a “primary control knob” for climate change, he replied, "No, I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do, and there's tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact, so no, I would not agree that it's a primary contributor to the global warming that we see."

Philly Belle Tulips, a gift to the city from the Royal Netherlands embassy. (Photo by Reese Amorosi)
Philly Belle Tulips, a gift to the city from the Royal Netherlands embassy. (Photo by Reese Amorosi)

Actually, it’s not that hard, and there isn’t much disagreement among scientists. Perhaps a visit to this year’s flower show might help him understand the scope of the problem.

Certainly the rows upon rows of vendors selling hungry consumers everything from pressed-flower earrings to lifelong guaranteed watering nozzles -- and of course, rare and unusual plants and flowers -- are focused on the show’s decorative end, not apocalyptic climate change rhetoric. Still, the Dutch have always been innovators in their approaches to sustainability. (All those windmills!)

Ask an expert

Carl Vivaldi, a botanist, plant pathologist, and viticulturist from Washington’s Crossing, Pennsylvania, was one of several PHS experts in the show’s “Horticourt,” there to offer visitors gardening advice. Vivaldi also lived in the Netherlands for years and had much to say about all matters EPA, climate change and how Holland handles its environmental business.

Vivaldi explained, “The EPA’s Scott Pruitt will affect us because, so far, he’s denying that there is global warming, period. The EPA is not being sensitive to issues of water shortages that are crucial to our existence on this planet.” Regarding the flower show, Vivaldi noted that Pruitt’s policies won’t impact only ornamental displays. “He may just affect the way humans live... When the EPA stops regulating certain harmful pesticides and herbicides, that will affect all of us and damage all life on the planet.”

Modern horticulturists and botanists have furthered the cause of old-fashioned organics and planting methods for both food and ornamental purposes. Reversing these bans will destroy that progress. Vivaldi says, “We want to go the other way; we want more organic, less chemical processes, like the old ways of using beneficial insects to help us control things or the natural approaches to horticulture as they do in Europe.”

Having lived in the Netherlands, Vivaldi was able to speak to that country’s finest export: The good sense to plant without odious chemicals. “They use a lot of manures. They take the petals from their tulips, cut the flowers from the bulb, and feed the bulb flowers to their cattle in the area so that it is a thoroughly sustainable product. They study vernalization. They’ve been fighting the ill effects of rising seas for years by reclaiming certain portions of lands and using electric windmills and hydraulic pumps to keep those areas pure for planting purposes. The United States could truly learn from the all the innovations of the Netherlanders.”

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