Fragrant roses on palace-style gates greet visitors to the PHS Philadelphia Flower Show. After that, more surprises.
You may not have even noticed, but after just three years, the Philadelphia International Flower Show is back to being the Philadelphia Flower Show.
The global moniker was always a stretch, but its quick demise was surprising, given the fanfare surrounding its debut.
"Calling something international doesn't really mean anything, and 'Philadelphia International Flower Show' was a mouthful," said Drew Becher, who became president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society in mid-2010, after the new name had gone into effect.
Produced by PHS, the show runs Saturday through March 10, at the Convention Center, following sneak peeks this afternoon and Saturday morning for members. [Tickets run from $15 in advance for children to $32 for adults at the door.]
Officially, the new name is PHS Philadelphia Flower Show - and it's all about branding.
Talk about surprises: Becher says PHS research over the last two years revealed that "90 percent of the people we spoke with did not know we were even involved in the Flower Show."
The show dates to 1829 and is PHS' biggest fund-raiser. In 2012, it brought in $1.3 million for the nonprofit's "green" programs, primarily City Harvest, which supports community gardens that grow for food cupboards.
This year's British theme is "Brilliant!"
"Brilliant" or "brill," as younger folks like to say, is British slang for "something of quite high quality, something fantastic, especially something - like a plan for the evening, or a Flower Show - that is finely and cleverly wrought," Robert Leonard, Hofstra University linguistics professor, wrote in a recent e-mail from London, where he happened to be traveling.
(As founder of the band Sha Na Na, Leonard knows a thing or two about idiosyncratic language.)
So that's the idea. PHS wants the show to be clever and fantastic.
Which pleases exhibitors like landscape designer Michael Petrie of Swarthmore. "It's open for interpretation, so that's good. It'll be a little more interesting," he said.
Petrie is already known for taking risks. For the 2012 Hawaii show, for example, he interpreted the island of Lanai, known for its lunarlike landscape. At a show brimming with postcard-pretty beach scenes, he was all about rocks.
This year, then, there will be no gauzy cottage gardens for Petrie. In "The Handmade Garden: A Metal Sculptor's Workspace," he'll combine steel and copper art installations with contemporary English garden design, drawing inspiration from Piet Mondrian and Louise Nevelson.
Bill Schaffer and his wife, Kristine Kratt, floral designers who held their wedding at the 2012 show, are also bending boundaries this year - with "Jack," an exhibit about "Jack the Ripper," who terrorized the impoverished East End of London in 1888.
Mindful of the recent mass killings in this country, Schaffer and Kratt have included "no body parts, no blood and guts, no weapons, no images of Jack."
Even so, the exhibit's edgy feel may shock.
"In the floral industry, especially at the Flower Show, everything is so bright and cheery. Being on the dark side is wonderful because it's really unexpected. It's not what people look for when they come in the front door," Schaffer said.
At the other end of the 2013 creative spectrum is Collingswood florist Michael Bruce, who got the idea for his playful exhibit from a Pinterest image - a Swedish hot tub shaped like a bowl.
"I looked at it and thought, in a split second, oh, that's a concept. If we took that shape and put portals around it and raised it up at different height levels and put flowers in it, people will go, 'What's that?' "
Thus was the "Talking Heads" exhibit born. You stick your head inside a bowllike container that's on stilts or suspended from above, flowers up to your neck, music playing inside - Beatles, maybe - and "all of a sudden you'll be looking at people in there and conversing with them.
"If you think you're just going to go to the Flower Show and see the same old, same old," Bruce said, "you're going to be surprised."
Another surprise: Hamilton Horticourt, a new competitive pavilion underwritten by a $1 million gift from primo competitor Dorrance "Dodo" Hamilton. Entries of succulents, bulbs, and the like have virtually doubled in the last decade to almost 6,000.
This should please horticulturally minded visitors, who may also be glad that the 2013 show will ditch the live entertainment. An hourly sound/light video projected onto a stylized Big Ben is the fun this year.
And here's a pleasant surprise for everyone: the sweet smell of roses as you enter the show. Barb King of Valley Forge Flowers is covering the central feature's Buckingham Palace-type gates with peonies and delphiniums, lilies, and clematis - and lots of old-fashioned, English-style garden roses in pink, coral, and peach.
Unlike most modern roses, these have fragrance bred back in. Which means that if you're one of the many who still miss the spring smells that greeted you when the show was held at the old Civic Center, you're headed, happily, back to the future.
That, by design, is truly "brill."