A behind-the-scenes look at the Phipps Conservatory’s Winter Flower Show
WWhen visitors enter the “Season’s Greenings” display of magical winter flowers at the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, they will see thousands of LED lights, hundreds of blooming poinsettias and other plants, a topiary cat, whimsical gnomes, a bioluminescent outdoor garden and for the first time a “tree singing”.
What they won’t see are the months of careful planning, design and installation; Careful research and occasional travel to tropical destinations to ensure the performances are as authentic as possible; The crew waters most of the plants in the show by hand before the exhibits open each day, as well as a careful approach to reusing as many plants as possible from one show to the next.
The culmination of all these preparations appears in exhibitions such as the Winter Flowers Show, which opened on November 17 and continues until Sunday, January 7.
Lakin Burns, Phipps’ horticulturist, offered me a tour of the latest display to talk all about its situation.
When you walk into Palm Court, you might think you’ve walked into someone’s living room. You are greeted by a Christmas tree, pitcher plant wallpaper, a bed of poinsettias and a dried sphagnum moss topiary cat sitting in a leafy armchair. Above the fireplace hangs a wreath of southern magnolia leaves. Above you are two hanging ornaments. Its circular frame is supported by a yoga ball and surrounded by 3- to 4-inch plants, and it took months to train.
The Southern Conservatory’s Miniature Railroad Garden brings childhood curiosity to life. This year’s theme is “The Four Seasons in Pennsylvania.” The summer section loosely mimics Presque Isle State Park in Erie. Guests are encouraged to find a bottle of Heinz Ketchup, which will be hidden in various locations throughout the show.
Everything in the room is interactive and touch-free. Make your mini Ferris wheel, trains or ski lift move with a wave of your hand. Look close enough and you may see the hidden steps gardeners use to weed and water plants.
Just a few days ago, staff were hurriedly moving carts in and out of the Sunken Garden Room, the last room to change before the show opened. Burns directed me to the clipboard containing the design sheets the team used to navigate the installation. Color-coded maps for each room tell them what plants they need, how many and exactly where they need them.
Many of these designs are planned months in advance. For example, the “Garden Railroad” theme has already been decided for next year, with designs being worked on. For the Tropical Forest Institute, the theme was chosen Panama for 2025. To produce an authentic environment, the team conducts research and communicates with people who live in the places they want to replicate, and some designers even travel there to experience the rainforest themselves.
Each seasonal display can take weeks to install. While the spring display only lasts four weeks, and between 50,000 and 80,000 bulbs are planted for it, gardeners have to replace ephemerals — i.e., a short-lived plant — more often because they only look good for more than a few. week.
For the current display, three giant dwarves are on display in the exhibition room. They are made from dried leaves, decorated with pine cones, and designs of garlic and mushrooms. The ornaments on the Christmas trees were made by local schoolchildren from recycled materials. Fairchild Challenge “It’s part of a larger program to encourage local schools to think more sustainably or do different challenges that meet environmentally conscious goals,” Burns says.
Phipps is committed to sustainable operations, so much so that its electricity is renewable for nearly 20 years, and all carbon emissions have been offset since 2010. Whenever they can, pest specialists release beneficial insects instead of pesticides. As seasonal displays rotate, old plants may be composted or even find new homes with staff and volunteers. The staff is always finding creative ways to reuse plant materials.
In the Broderie Room, you’ll find wreaths made from spray-painted palm trees and bird toys, and in the Serpentine Room, about 100 bromeliads are hand-attached to a metal frame under each of the six trees. Perhaps the most magical is the outdoor conservatory, where thousands of energy-efficient LED lights light up the night sky. This year is the debut of the “Singing Tree,” which interacts with the carols.
Some plants and flowers commonly used in a winter display are violets, dusty moss, and cyclamen. And of course the poinsettia, with 21 species planted throughout the conservatory.
Poinsettias, originally from Mexico, naturally bloom when the nights are longer and the days are shorter. Burns recounts the Mexican folklore legend surrounding them. A little girl named Pepita, unable to afford a gift to bring to the baby Jesus, was advised by an angel to pick a bunch of weeds. When she entered the church and placed the herbs at his feet, they turned into a beautiful poinsettia, the plant we now associate with the Christmas season.
Just as poinsettias are a natural part of Veep’s winter ecosystem, so are the chirping crickets and coqui frogs that typically come out at night. The pool in the Victoria Room is 2 to 3 feet deep, and its water is dyed with beetroot powder. A bird of paradise plant can be seen in the fireplace room. And in the desert room is the African milk tree, whose sap can cause a person to go blind if eye protection equipment is not worn while pruning, Burns says.
Gardeners are a bit like scientists, training plants in a variety of ways in production greenhouses, which are not open to the public. For example, Green House D is obscured.
“We’re manipulating the light levels out there to force flowering when we want it to change growth,” Burns says.
Some plants are cut and placed in frames, such as cascading mums that do not naturally grow that way. Burns says they used diluted alcohol on white paper daffodils to retard flower growth and flowering.
In one greenhouse, amaryllis bulbs are still awake for a winter display. Some of the plants installed for this display have been growing patiently since the summer.
Timed tickets Available for viewing that is sure to impress this winter season.