It was during the dead of winter in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1829 when the first large scale garden and flower show was first held. Hosted by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, the Philadelphia Flower Show featured displays and competitions in flower artistry, garden design, and horticulture. Years later, an indoor marketplace opened featuring the latest plants – from mail order nurseries and local garden centers, to photography and tabletop décor contests. As the show grew, numerous weeklong festivities sponsored by big companies kicked-off the spring garden season months ahead of the event. The surrounding local economy benefitted, now attracting over 250,000 people, and generating over $8,000,000 dollars annually in tax revenue (provided the intrusion of foul winter weather).
As this American show in Philadelphia gained prominence, other flower and garden events blossomed around the country, inspiring the growth of other garden shows and events. These shows include:
- The Rose Parade in Pasadena, California, the youngest on the block opening in 1989
- The Northwest Flower & Garden Show in Seattle, Washington
- The notable and much lauded Chelsea Flower Show in London, England.
Each year thousands of people stricken with spring fever come together inside halls, botanical gardens, and an outdoor marketplace to view living plants – or in the case of our local Rose Parade, line along streets on New Year’s Day for hours to admire floral covered floats. These are activities can be difficult for non-participants to understand unless you’ve been to one of these events yourself.
It takes years to plan the largest of flower and garden shows. The largest of the consumer shows and parades are logistically complex to plan, many which are held during the dead of winter or at the dawn of spring. As someone who has coordinated plants for these events, I can share insight about the challenges related to shipping dormant plants intended for display for only a few days, or maybe even only a couple of hours.
Being a lover of evergreen foliage, I always wondered how a consumer could find beauty in a tree or shrub without any foliage. It inspired me to figure out how to bottle up the excitement I saw over a plant that looked like red sticks inside an exhibit hall at the Northwest Flower & Garden Show and bring it back to Southern California. Even without foliage Cornus sericea ‘Kelseyi’ (Red-Osier Dogwood) could present a welcome relief in Los Angeles where eternal green foliage is seemingly on everyone’s planting list. I have been fortunate enough to find just the right places and spaces to celebrate these winter dormant colorful architectural shrubs in Los Angeles.
In March, it may still be snowing outside in Philadelphia, but year after year gardening enthusiasts bring their plants to the city for judging. Their dedicated efforts face a panel of critical judges who inspect each specimen, leaf by leaf and stem by stem, searching the perfect plant according to theme or class of plants. Countless tropical plants and orchids are on display all along tables for judging, and competition is really fierce, with significant prizes at stake. I once attended a Camellia show at Descanso Gardens where tables lined with sparkly Waterford crystal were offered as trophies!
During the Great Recession, many of these larger flower and garden shows struggled. The costs were too high for many nurseries to continue exhibiting at these events. For the average American struggling with rising living costs and less disposable income to spend on gardening and traveling, attendance dropped dramatically, only seeing an uptick from 2014 on. Today, these shows still struggle to appeal to gardeners beyond the aging Baby Boomer generation.
My favorite garden shows are local events featuring a specific type of plant, like succulents, cacti, orchids, ferns or bonsai. Even though I have been in the horticulture industry for over 25 years, I always discover amazing plants at these dedicated shows, revealing fresh observations that creatively inspire me or help me mentor a younger designer with a passion for plants. Recently, I went to the Fern and Exotic Plant Show where I saw tables of terrarium and hanging plants, presenting me with new ways to look at ferns, specifically their foliage and the spores underneath each leaf!
The value of plant and flower shows for landscape professionals is they allow us all the opportunity to get really up close and personal with specimens, allowing attendees to glean knowledge for future landscape design projects and opening the doors to countless creative possibilities (Tip: I do recommend attending these shows with friends with the patience to permit enough time to study each leaf or flower obsessively).
I harbor hopes younger generations will become interested in flower and plant shows, including the more focused local events, planting the seeds to grow new horticulture communities online that might flourish into new careers and help continue the celebration of plants throughout the year, across the country, and throughout the world!