As crews ready the Philadelphia Flower Show for its March 2-10 run at the Convention Center, organizers are preparing for a bigger spotlight than usual. That’s because this year the show is importing not just flowers but designers, too, as it hosts “the Olympics for florists.”
The Interflora World Cup is a nearly 50-year-old competition that sees floral designers from around the world duke it out in a series of timed challenges — many of which are surprises. Think the BBC’s Great British Bake Off, with boxes full of rare blooms instead of obscure recipes, and intricate floral sculptures instead of elaborately decorated cakes.
“Everyone in the floral world is watching this competition,” said Sam Lemheney, chief of shows and events for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. “These designers are the best in the world.”
This is the first time the Flower Show has hosted the competition, which hasn’t been held in the United States since 1985. Contenders from 23 countries, including Vietnam, Mexico, and Norway, will vie to be named Interflora World Cup champion. To qualify, they had to beat out fellow florists for national titles, like the FTD America’s Cup and Interflora Florist of the Year in the United Kingdom.
During the main competition on Friday, March 1, the designers will prepare four arrangements: a table for two, a bouquet, an architecture-inspired piece, and one surprise assignment — to be completed on the fly with flowers provided by competition officials. Judges will score Friday’s work the following day, narrowing the field to 10 semifinalists by Saturday evening. On Sunday, March 3, the semifinalists will tackle another surprise challenge before being whittled down to five finalists. They’ll take the stage Sunday evening for one last surprise task and the chance to be crowned champion.
The World Cup winner will receive around $17,000 and, of course, bragging rights. As on reality television shows, winners can become floral-industry celebrities overnight, allowing them to quit their day jobs and spend their careers on the lecture circuit.
The florists brainstorm and sketch designs for months in advance to prepare for the main competition. They hand-select the blossoms and greenery, which are then shipped to the Flower Show close to showtime. While they were understandably tight-lipped about the techniques and materials they’re bringing to the competition, they did share their anticipation.
Paul Jaras, Canada’s World Cup competitor, said he expects the surprise rounds to be the most difficult.
“During the first couple of minutes, you have to take a good look at what is given to you,” he said. “You have to identify what the purpose of a particular design is. At the same time, I’m looking at materials. There are usually some that I like more than others.”
“The most challenging part for me is keeping my nerves in check,” said California-based florist Katharina Stuart, who will represent the United States in the World Cup. “I am really excited about showing the world what I am capable of, but I am also excited about the time after the competition, when I am able to look back and tell myself that it was worth all the sleepless nights, worries, and anxieties.”
It may sound intense, but if you’re not a florist, watching the competition may be more akin to observing a sculptor at work rather than a runner completing a race. Flowers are handled with surgical precision — often with tweezers or twine — rather than speed. Often, you won’t know what the florist’s exact vision for the design is until the last blossom has been secured.
“Sometimes it’s confusing,” Jaras said. “It’s hard to read what’s going on. But I think people will be surprised because they don’t know what’s going on in the designer’s mind, and at the end it makes sense.”
If you’re watching the competition live, Jaras advised either staying for a little while to watch something take shape or coming back after it’s done, so you don’t worry about any blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments.
During the competition, judges use a weighted 100-point system to award points in four categories: execution of idea, composition, color, and technique.
“The judges are looking to see if the designers use the whole personality of flower,” said Thomas Ratschker, the chairman of the jury. “They’re looking to see if there’s movement with the materials used, as well as techniques that are kind of curious and innovative.”
“It’s always interesting to see the process of different designers,” sa
id Bart Hassam, Australia’s World Cup competitor. “Some people work very cleanly and precisely; others work in what looks like chaos.”
Hassam, whose decision to become a florist was influenced by the Saturdays he spent gardening with his grandmother as a child, said that making it to the World Cup is a dream come true for him.
“You always wonder if you will get here and what you would do if you did,” he said. “And now that it’s here, I’m doing my best to enjoy and be present for the process. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
All of the World Cup florists’ work will be on display during the Flower Show’s nine-day run. Pieces from the architecture-inspired challenge — which promises stunning 9-foot-tall sculptural floral arrangements — will be featured in the show’s entrance garden. The elaborate designs will be complemented by a suspended meadow hanging overhead. A few of the floral designers will also give technical demonstrations Monday, March 4. Tickets for those events must be purchased separately.