The crowd seemed a little quieter than in past years, though those lucky enough to attend yesterday's preview of the 2009 Philadelphia Flower Show clearly enjoyed their vicarious visit to "Bella Italia."

And why not? The show, which opens to the public today and runs through next Sunday at the Convention Center, features sunflowers and Pavarotti recordings and more classic Italian waterfalls, fountains, ponds, and pools than you could wade through in a Renaissance.

It was three hours of welcome cheer for members of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, which has produced the nation's oldest flower show since 1829. They got to inspect the exhibits and poke around the competitive classes without a mob of gawkers getting in the way.

"It makes spring come a little quicker," said Sally Bedwell, a society member who had driven up from Elkton, Md.

Bedwell was among a crowd of women, six deep, inside the Milan exhibit, one of the few impenetrable spots in the show. The American Institute of Floral Designers created an inspired, high-end boutique to highlight Milan's prominence in the fashion world.

The women were snapping photos and buzzing about - what else - shoes, these made from dried and silk flowers, ostrich and peacock plumes, seeds, and other natural materials.

"What woman doesn't like shoes?" Bedwell asked.

Floral artist Michael Hasco's shoes defy gravity and sense - 81/2-inch heels! - and are thoroughly delightful and amusing as long as they aren't on your feet. He made Egyptian and Zulu shoes, shoes made of steamed and pressed corn husks, shoes dipped in hot glue and flax seeds, shoes covered with painted eucalyptus leaves embedded with "jewels."

"I love shoes. I'm a fashion freak," Hasco said.

Old City floral designer Jamie Rothstein's exhibit also caused a stir for its romantic depiction of a wedding night in Venice.

Rothstein knows a thing or two about weddings and flower shows; she has been married 11 years, to Bill Rosenberg, and exhibiting at the show for 23. In fact, these two bear the distinction of being the only people ever to get married at the Flower Show - in 1998 under a canopy inside another of Rothstein's exhibits, a re-creation of the Versailles Hall of Mirrors.

Last summer, Rothstein visited several private, walled gardens in Venice. Drawing on that and her own flower-filled wedding, she came up with the concept of a bride and groom on their wedding night. As darkness falls, they travel slowly down a deep canal, under a bridge, in a flat-bottomed, flower-festooned gondola, to their palazzo.

The gondola's for real, from Venice. "Gondolier Mike" Novack drove this half-ton, 36-footer - 70 years old, handmade of wood, and painted black in accordance with Venetian law - up from Florida on a boat trailer.

He called it "a big rowboat," and said it was a prize on The Price Is Right 50 years ago. "The person who won it didn't want it because they lived in Chicago," said the half-Italian Novack, who rents out his three gondolas for weddings, Valentine's Day, and other events for about $150 an hour. "It's romantic. People sit there and eat finger food and drink wine and listen to Italian music," Novack said, adding that most customers behaved themselves.

Dressed in traditional striped shirt and black pants, Novack works the Intracoastal Waterway in Florida, the Hackensack River in New Jersey, anywhere he can get a job, including one episode of The Sopranos (dream sequence with Tony's mother), a Cellular One commercial, and a stint with Disney.

No sopranos or striped shirts in this gondola. No one at all in the "rowboat" or palazzo. Just a bridal veil and bouquet on a chair and our own lovely fantasy of two young people in love in a magical place. "I wanted to do pretty Venice, and what's more beautiful than a wonderful wedding?" Rothstein said.

Other exhibits causing chatter yesterday: an entertaining "Atlantis" by Bob Schaffer, an evocative "Painted Tree" by Michael Petrie, and an imaginative waterfall illusion by Moda Botanica of Philadelphia.

Weather and the economy's impact on the show are big unknowns here, but the Horticultural Society reported that advance ticket sales had been running ahead of the last two years. The show, which typically raises about $1 million for the society's urban gardening programs, is still considered the best in the country. One indicator: Speakers and presenters clamor to be included even though they don't get paid.

Another storied event, the 137-year-old New England Spring Flower Show, was canceled this year due to severe financial problems and management turmoil at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.

And the well-regarded Northwest Flower and Garden Show in Seattle is for sale. The owner cites the economy, among other factors.

Flower Show Particulars

The 2009 Philadelphia Flower Show opens to the public today and runs through next Sunday at the Convention Center, 12th and Arch Streets.

Proceeds: Benefit Philadelphia Green, the urban-green program of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, which produces the show.

Hours: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays, 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. weekdays,

8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Saturday. Best viewing times are 4 to 9:30 weeknights; the box office closes one hour before the show ends.

Admission: Box-office ticket prices are $28 today, $26 Saturday and next Sunday, $24 weekdays, $13 for children ages 2 to 16. The show offers a family fun pack: $65 for two adults and two children younger than 16. Advance tickets are $22 for adults, $21.50 for groups of 25 or more, $13 for children 2 to 16. Visitors who get their hands stamped may leave and reenter the same day.

Where to buy tickets: SEPTA ticket outlets (discounts available), AAA Mid-Atlantic, Acme Markets, Giant Food Stores, Borders Books & Music, selected PNC Bank branches, local nurseries and florists, and online at Information: 215-988-8899.

Transportation: SEPTA customers can purchase a Bouquet Pass for $9 for unlimited travel on buses, trolleys, subways, and Regional Rail lines for one day during the show. (Use of the pass is prohibited on morning peak-hour Regional Rail trains and for all travel to and from Trenton.)

Amtrak riders can save 20 percent off the best available regular fare for coach travel to Philadelphia through March 10. Call 1-800- 872-7245 or book online at and refer to fare code V782 when making reservations.EndText

Contact gardening writer Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or