They lined up early yesterday at the Convention Center, waiting almost an hour to get into the Flower Show preview.

It's like this every year, but with the winter we're having - four major snowstorms, flurries yesterday, and the possibility of more snow this week - the search for relief seemed a little more urgent.

"We really need the color and the warmth, more than other years," said Linda Wogan, a vegetable gardener from Haddon Township.

The newly named Philadelphia International Flower Show, a tradition in this town since 1829, opens to the public today and runs through next Sunday. Produced by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, whose members had an early look yesterday, the 2010 show is called "Passport to the World."

The flavor is international, with the central feature - the first thing visitors see - comprising six showcase gardens from Brazil, India, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Singapore, and South Africa. They're clustered around a 28-foot, flower-covered, hot-air balloon in an Explorer's Garden that celebrates plants from around the world, including some, like the Mexican poinsettia, that made their U.S. debut at the first Flower Show here.

The crowds were appreciative of the big stuff: the Brazilian rain forest, the Indian wedding scene, the Dutch canal lined with bicycles and tulips, the fabulous orchid "tree" in Singapore, and the striking Zulu village.

But it took some small birds - 14 sun conures - to loosen visitors up.

People smiled, they laughed, they snapped pictures of these frisky South American parrots. They delighted in the feathers - bright yellow, red, orange, blue, and green - and the spontaneous ruckus.

On command from their Philadelphia Zoo handlers, the birds looped from the Brazil exhibit to the front of the hall and back again. They squawked insistently from trees on this side and that - duck, everybody! - before returning to their trainers' treat-filled hands. "They're like rainbows in flight," said the zoo's Phung Luu. The birds will be "performing" all week.

Another crowd-pleaser was even more unconventional for a flower show: MODA Botanica's exhibit of six huge shipping containers purchased from the Camden and Baltimore waterfronts and filled with . . . how on earth to describe this?

One container, called "the urban jungle," was covered with graffiti. Another, all white and nicknamed "the accident" by its creators, shows delicate white orchids about to dump out on a floor of white packing peanuts. MODA's Armas Koehler said designers loved the contrast between soft flowers and industrial exteriors, and were having some fun with the idea that "you have these precious flowers sent to you and they're tilting over."

Koehler had predicted visitors would either love or hate the MODA exhibit. Yesterday, it seemed pretty clear. It's a hit.

"It's very different. It's artistic. It's like being in a subway station," said Art Mengucci of Wilson Borough, Lehigh County.

Companion Sandi Scherer added, "It's really youthful, very unusual, a contrast to the more traditional items you see."

Some other interesting highlights:

This is Jane Pepper's last Flower Show as president of the horticultural society, a position she's held for 25 years. In her honor, friends - calling themselves Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club - created a tribute garden behind the New Zealand exhibit. It's called "We Love You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah."

Like many of her fellow boomers, Pepper, a native of Scotland, is a big-time Beatles fan. In this Scottish-themed garden are Scottish heathers, a stone footbridge, a "Yellow Submarine" mailbox, Pepper's old hiking boots, a Trek bicycle (she's a hiker and cyclist), and absolutely nothing orange.

"Jane does not like orange in the garden," explained volunteer Midge Ingersoll, one of the garden's organizers.

White dominates Schaffer Designs' "Polar Fantasy" exhibit, a frosty confection of 10,000 white dendrobium and phalaenopsis orchids, carnations, and jumbo calla lilies.

"Polar Fantasy" required other splashes of inspiration. The "ice" on the ice cap is three white, silk parachutes. And those calla lilies that look like they're melting? They're covered with 100 pounds of melted paraffin wax, poured by hand. "It was so cold in the Convention Center during setup, it only took one coat," said Bill Schaffer.

Here's a new thing for the show: a 19-stop (free) audio tour. And this: the Mid-Atlantic Horticultural Therapy Network, a first-time exhibitor.

Its display includes vertical garden beds, raised planters, and adaptive tools that are shorter, lighter, or made to strap around the wrist to make gardening easier for stroke patients or people with arthritis.

Kevin McDevitt, a floral designer and horticultural therapist on hand yesterday, said he works with mentally ill adults and has seen the beneficial effects gardening has on them.

"Plants make people smile and feel good about themselves, even if it's only for two hours a day. They find peace with themselves," said McDevitt, who, like most Flower Show visitors, knows a thing or two about that.

McDevitt worked in sales for 30 years before turning to horticulture, which is less lucrative but much more fun. "The rewards are better than any commission I ever received," he said.

Philadelphia International Flower Show

When: Through next Sunday.

Where: Convention Center, 12th and Arch Streets.

Hours: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays, 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Saturday.

Advance tickets: $23, $18 for students ages 17 to 24; $13 for children ages 2 to 16, and free for children younger than 2. Tickets at the box office are more, depending on the day.

Information:

215-988-8899 or www.theflowershow.comEndText

Yesterday's Major Awards

Awards of Distinction

Academic Educational: Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades, Media

Display Garden, Floral: Schaffer Designs

Invitational: Mark Cook Landscape & Contracting

Display Garden, Landscape: Michael Petrie's Handmade Gardens

Nonacademic Educational: Mid-Atlantic Horticultural Therapy Network

Plant Societies: Delaware Valley Fern and Wildflower Society

Showcase Garden: Robertson's Flowers; Jamie Rothstein Distinctive Floral Designs Inc.

Awards of Excellence

Newcomer Florist: Beautiful Blooms

Newcomer Landscape: J. Downend Landscaping

Best in Show

Academic Educational: School of Environmental Design, Temple University at Ambler; Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades

Display Garden, Floral: MODA Botanica

Invitational: OuterSpaces Inc.

Display Garden, Landscape: Romano's Landscaping

Nonacademic Educational: Fairmount Park

Plant Societies: North American Rock Garden Society, Delaware Valley Chapter

Showcase Garden: American Institute of Floral Designers

Others

Pennsylvania Horticultural Society Council Trophy: Jamie Rothstein Distinctive Floral Designs Inc.

Alfred M. Campbell Memorial Trophy: OuterSpaces Inc.

Governor's Trophy: Mark Cook Landscape & Contracting

Mayor's Trophy: Stoney Bank Nurseries

Silver Trophy: MODA Botanica

Philadelphia Trophy: Michael Petrie's Handmade Gardens

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