The Fretz family made it to the Philadelphia Flower Show last year just as COVID-19 was creeping into the news. Normally held at the Convention Center in late February or early March as a preview of springtime, the show that brings the Fretz siblings, their mother, and other relatives together for their annual reunion opened this year for the first time outdoors, on a 90-degree day in South Philadelphia’s FDR Park with the summery smell of coconut sunscreen in the air.
It was a different show, the Fretzes said as they stood in the shade of a tree, but they agreed any changes were worth it for being able to keep up with their annual tradition.
“I’d like to see it go back to indoors, but at the same time, I’m digging this,” said Ramsey Fretz, 63, of Collegeville. “It’s great being outdoors. But what I do miss is that early-spring feeling, walking in from the cold to that tropical air.”
Others on the grounds Saturday for the opening day of the 2021 PHS Philadelphia Flower Show were more effusive, saying the wider pathways and open grassy areas made for a less claustrophobic experience, that places to sit were more plentiful than in the Convention Center, and that the food was better. Fair trade-offs, some said, for parking that was more of a hassle — shuttle buses are needed to squire people to the entrance from some lots — and a layout that requires more walking.
“I love it, I absolutely love it,” said longtime attendee Roslyn Betsill, 66, of Southwest Philadelphia, as she rested on a bench near the bonsai display. “I think having it outside is the best thing that could have ever happened. They should do this every year.”
Sam Lemheney, chief of shows and events for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, said that’s already a common sentiment among the feedback he’s heard. Moving the show permanently would be complicated, he said, given the group’s contract with the Convention Center and the logistical challenges of building a village that requires electricity, bathrooms, the painstaking assembly of delicate floral displays, and enormous deliveries of water.
“It took us about three weeks to set up, whereas normally we’re looking at 10 days,” he said. “It is a completely new show we designed, and the biggest challenge to me was, we all did this from our homes, from our basements, over Zoom and Microsoft Teams.”
The Flower Show, which runs through June 13, has been held indoors every year since it began in 1829. PHS decided last August to move the show outdoors for safety reasons: COVID-19 vaccines were not yet on the horizon, and public health experts say the virus is much less transmissible outside.
Effective vaccines have since been rolled out throughout the country and in Pennsylvania, where an estimated 70% of the population is at least partially inoculated. On Saturday, few attendees wore face masks as they wandered among exhibits, and stopped only occasionally for squirts of hand sanitizer. Masks are still required in indoor spaces.
Just as the 2020 Flower Show was one of the last large public events in the city before the pandemic broke, its opening Saturday marks one of the first major public events of 2021 — a signal that the city is safely reopening, Mayor Jim Kenney said at a recent news conference.
The Flower Show typically attracts an average of 250,000 people per year. Sales figures were not yet available, but Lemheney said afternoon tickets had sold out for the first day.
“You look around at the faces here, I think people were just dying to get out and enjoy nature,” he said.
Stretching across 15 acres of the 348-acre park, the event is larger than past Convention Center shows and features more designers. In addition to large-scale landscape displays, the grounds include vendors, a butterfly tent, the show’s annual horticulture competition, and a beer garden.
Lila Fretz, the 89-year-old matriarch of the Fretz family reunion group, said the vast and unfamiliar layout made it harder to find some sections of the show. Her other son, Phalen Fretz, said the atmosphere made it feel indistinguishable from other outdoor botanical destinations, like Longwood Gardens.
“But there are much, much better food options this year,” he said. “Even if they bring it back inside, they’ve got to bring back these vendors.”
Sallie Wintz, visiting from North Carolina to see her nephew’s kokedama forest installation, was surprised to hear the event was normally held indoors.
“Maybe this can be one of the good things to come out of COVID,” she said.