I remember a long ago image of my mother kneeling on the grass in the backyard of our family house in Ohio, planting bulbs along the side yard fence. I was standing beside her. Some time later, the bulbs grew into tulips — pink and yellow. On the front of our red brick house my father installed a trellis for climbing red roses to travel up along, and across the top of, the sandalwood garage door. The yellow of daffodils spotted the earth around a sapling maple tree in the center of our front lawn, giving way to orange marigolds later in the season. A thicket of honeysuckle from which I drank the juice hugged the fence at the far end of the yard. But the flower of special delight, that always made me pause, was the white lily of the valley bordering the steps to our kitchen door. It’s the flower for May, my birth month and my mother’s.
We find our fondness for flowers in a childhood garden, or an orchid corsage at a high school prom, or blue violets in the woods, or the sweet smell of roses.
The Philadelphia Flower Show is marking year 186. That means that in 1829, when women wore long elaborate dresses with puffy sleeves and men were graduating from breeches to trousers, PHS produced the first public flower show in America — an event, by the way, at which the poinsettia was introduced to the United States.
Going to “The Movies”
This year’s theme is “the movies,” although the organizers are being somewhat disingenuous in that only Disney movies are included, with Disney-Pixar a partner in the show. The Disney-only focus allows for marvelous flights of fancy but limits the emotional range, and emotional maturity, of the entries. Nevertheless, among others, there is a hearty nautical garden for the Pirates of the Caribbean; a whimsical look at Mary Poppins with multicolor kites and darling dwarf irises; an amiable representation of Aladdin using orange tenting around a magic carpet; an ice castle fronted by a lengthy ascending staircase that turns flowers into snow for Frozen; an exotic Peter Pan Neverland with orchids and an alligator made of green plants; and a peacefully sculpted Chinese-garden with lotus flowers for Mulan.
Throughout the hall there are multitudes of roses — bouquets, wheels, and nosegays, altogether the joy of roses! And yet there is not to be found a child’s sled made of rosebuds. Citizen Kane, not belonging to the pantheon of Disney, does not appear in flowers at all.
Three exhibits stand out: one from the realm of visions, one from the world of symbols, and one from the earth. As if from heaven, there is a tribute to Cinderella, lifting us to the goddess-realm. Designed by Robertson’s Flowers, the exhibit depicts an imagined rendition of Cinderella’s wedding reception, overcome with pink and white flowers. The vision is elevated, shimmering in blushing lacey drapery touched by blue ribbons and glittering with crystal. A sparkling glass slipper under pristine glass rests at the pinnacle. All could be a reflection. The whole is shaped in an elongated oval, bringing to mind the 25-foot train of lace-edged fabric flowing from the wedding gown of Princess Diana.
An enticing mystery
Michael Petrie’s Handmade Gardens has designed the most poetic and spiritual of the exhibits. Inspired by the film Into the Woods, the installation uses a variety of bushes, floral ground covers, dangling and weeping pussy willows, twisty things, undergrowth, rhododendron, and tall spikey stakes that were once the trunks or limbs of trees. The scene is enticing and spooky, suggesting mystery. There is a slight smoky fog playing among the tree trunk spikes, and deep within there is a light. The plant names sound strange: Helleborus, pink ice, contorted walking stick, Hedra helix, pendula, red-veined dock, Mt. Asama, upside down fern, cinnamon snow, and Primula vulgaris in the color of cream. Circumambulating the woods, one comes upon an eerie proposition propped in a thicket — a hairless doll baby in a white smock with weird strappings on her legs. The apparition is reminiscent of looking through the peepholes into Duchamp’s bucolic and freaky tableau Étant donnés, permanently installed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Woods exhibit invites us to “Look into the dark forest, down the narrow path and through the tangled vines . . . and find your way to a secret garden of light.” It’s a creative invitation to enter trepidation with confidence.
Though several exhibits boast pathways, in reality none can be entered (excepting a walk-through by Temple University, Ambler). Even if we would dare to do the artistic poetic thing of going into the woods in search of the light, at the Flower Show we are prohibited from doing so.
The earthiest and least fantastical of the exhibits was funded by Tourism Ireland, a non-competitor. Thus free to represent a non-Disney movie, the group chose Hollywood’s Quiet Man, set in Ireland. The exhibit features a child-sized white stucco cottage with thatched roof nestled into an Irish country hillside, where animals would once have grazed. Remnants of stone walls mark the edges. Wildflowers and native grasses have claimed the pastureland. It’s endearing, and with its sense of life passing, feels human.
John Ford got a Best Director Oscar for The Quiet Man in 1953. Walt Disney garnered 32 Academy Awards in his lifetime, mostly for cartoons in the category of Best Short, but never for Best Director or Best Picture. (He won an Honorary Award for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and another for Fantasia.) The great fairy tale animations, including Snow White (1937) and Cinderella (1950) might have deserved Best consideration, but these immutable ladies arrived before animation was recognized as an awardable category of its own. No matter, since Walt Disney is gone and so is the Hollywood that gave us Hollywood. Remaining for now are 11 Disney princesses, each uniquely honored in a red-carpeted exhibit called “Princesses” by the American Institute of Floral Designers, and each appearing not a day older than when she was born.
The Irish hillside reminded me of a week in May when my mother visited Philadelphia and I took her to walk along the Wissahickon Creek where we noticed color among the earthy green. When she died just two months ago, my office at Villanova University sent me a basket of all-white flowers, mostly lilies, though not lily of the valley. We do well in accepting our losses with flowers.