March 7, 2018

Wonders of Water at the Philadelphia Flower Show

Posted by Laura Guertin

Since 1829, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society has been hosting the nation’s largest and longest-running horticultural event, the PHS Philadelphia Flower Show. This competitive week-long event in early March has a different theme each year for major garden displays, presentations and gardening demonstrations. Annually, over 250,000 visitors converge on the Philadelphia Convention Center to see floral and plant creations themed on everything from Holland to Jazz to the National Parks. For 2018, the theme is Wonders of Water to “celebrate the beauty and life-sustaining interplay of horticulture and water.”

I have visited the Flower Show off and on over the years, but this year’s theme of water certainly grabbed my attention, especially as I’m teaching a course this semester titled Water: Science and Society. Of course, one can’t help but look at the flowers when visiting the show. But I was curious to see if the organizations constructed their displays to be educational as well as visually attractive.

The first exhibit upon entering the convention center is presented as a rainforest. I was pleased to see so many signs among the plants that described segments of the water cycle.

The Philadelphia Water Department did not complete for a floral prize, but instead had a great display where visitors could learn about rain gardens, rain barrels, permeable pavement, and more. Most importantly, their display emphasized how individuals could take action to green their homes. They also gave out packets of Coreopsis seeds and encouraged visitors to plant these seeds to help manage stormwater and beautify the city.

This display brought a smile to my face – not because of how creative the group was using flowers, but for the J.Downend Landscaping company having signage to discuss why not managing stormwater is a problem, and what products can be used for collecting runoff.

Not every display was as educational. Some just mentioned that water is important for soils and for flowers to grow. Some listed quotes from Sylvia Earle and Rachel Carson, but never explained who these individuals are. One display used scientific jargon that I thought would be too technical for the population attending the Flower show. But then there were displays that were quite informative, such as the Delaware River watershed pictured below. Unfortunately, I heard too many people say, “oh, this is local – it isn’t of interest or relevant to us.” The “Windows on the Watershed” presented by the William Penn Foundation had excellent information with small signage throughout the exhibit – alas, not everyone could see how the local applies to their own locations.

Of course, everyone goes to the Flower Show with a different goal in mind. I encouraged my students to visit the show this week during their spring break in hopes of seeing how pieces of water science are communicated to a very large public audience through signage. In my heart, I know the flowers are what brought everyone to Philadelphia – but I can hope each person took away with them a little piece of water science, too.