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Entering a 'rainforest' at the Philadelphia Flower Show

The 2018 Philadelphia Flower Show’s theme was “Wonders of Water.” Even if you wandered in, urged by your gardening partner, without knowing the topic, you would have figured it out: Water, water everywhere! Walking through the entrance garden was a fantasy stroll beneath a rainforest canopy.

The PHS (Pennsylvania Horticultural Society) chief of shows explained, “We want to capture all the sensory elements of the rainforest ‑ its fantastic colors, scents and sounds ‑ and demonstrate its unique and vital role in purifying water and sustaining our environment.”

The sensory elements were certainly part of the experience.

Sounds: screeching, imploring, warning calls from tropical birds far above, and the rush of a 25-foot waterfall and another cascade pouring over a six-tier bamboo structure into a stream.

Breathtaking visuals: riotous colors of tropical plants with huge flowers (bird of paradise), sometimes garish foliage patterns and greens from neon lime to nearly black.

Perhaps best of all, after winter days in the dry heat of our homes, the humidity. My skin felt happy (and hair went limp). It was a simulated rainforest, after all. Kudos to the PHS for the rainforest immersion, albeit brief.

Learning from the show

Upon hearing the show theme I had expectations. Exhibits would provide education on these points:

(a) We are all part of a watershed, and what we do affects water quality and health of our water bodies and groundwater. Learn more from Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper.

(b) The amount of fresh water in the world is finite - about 2.5 percent of all the water. Most of that is frozen, and less than .75 percent of that is surface water (in lakes, swamps, rivers). As populations increase, water demand increases especially for agriculture (70 percent of global freshwater use). We will face water crises in the future with devastating implications. The five Great Lakes are the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth (by area) and second largest by volume; we’re sitting next to 21 percent of the world’s surface fresh water.

(c) We as gardeners can be water-wise: Learn how to water, and xeriscape to decrease water use.

The Flower Show met some of those expectations ‑ those points were reflected here and there - but not to the degree I hoped. A display about the Delaware River Watershed clearly told its story of pollution and efforts to salvage it. A one-day event, the first ever Philadelphia Water Summit, presented panels and workshops about the importance of water in our lives (but that was not my group’s day).

But most people, I believe, could take in the show’s beauty, the sensations of the entry rainforest, the judged plant displays, front entry design competition, landscape gardens, and super shopping (from art to plants to hats) without absorbing much new information about water.

I did appreciate displays that showed plantings for different regions or microclimates: an arid scene with huge cacti (with “Do Not Sit” signs for a bit of humor, familiar woodland plants in a typical northeast setting, etc. Some plants were grouped by water needs, but I really wanted the messages to be shouted from every site: “Take care of this water; it’s all we have!”

Perhaps I’ve been teaching too long and know how many times you have to communicate a message before it sinks in.

Water use in the house

In the U.S. each person uses more than 80 to 100 gallons of water per day, the greatest amounts from flushing toilets and taking showers or baths. Showers use 2 to 5 gallons per minute. Baths could use 30 gallons plus. Bathroom sink faucets use 1 or 2 gallons per minute (as in brushing teeth). Dishwashing uses 6 to 16 gallons and washing dishes by hand usually uses even more. Estimates vary greatly, but it’s clear that every person can do better ‑ from water-saving appliances to just turning off the faucet.

We as gardeners can be water-wise: Learn how to water, and 'xeriscape' to decrease water use.

Water use in the garden

As planting and watering season nears, I hope to assist with many of your choices as you plan gardens and consider the water implications. For now, consider some basic principles of Xeriscaping (“xeri” = “dry” in Greek):

1. At home and in the community, weigh best conservation practices when considering land uses. Respect streams and wetlands.

2. Group plants by water usage; choose plants that suit the site.

3. Replace water-guzzling turfgrass types (bluegrass) with efficient turfgrass blends or with drought tolerant groundcovers or perennials.

4. Amend soil with compost, to absorb water better and to encourage root growth.

5. Water efficiently, not daily but deeply enough to reach plant roots.

6. Reduce water evaporation by watering at coolest times of day, and by mulching.

Next time

I will go as often as possible to experience this fine show (oldest and largest in the country), now 189 years old. Next year, the theme is “Flower Power,” March 2-10. Meanwhile let’s think about our individual impacts on water quality and use, both for our plants and our planet.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

A rainforest moment: A few things to know

• Rainforests are often called “the lungs of the world,” in part because the provide about 20 percent of the world’s oxygen.

• Rainforests help to stabilize climate, by absorbing carbon dioxide.

• Rainforests are the oldest eco-systems on earth, supporting more than 50 percent of all animal species and 65 percent of plant species.

• They are the earth’s natural infiltration system. A rainforest can absorb and use one inch of rain every single day all year.

• Rainforests cover only 7 percent of the earth’s surface, but they have been the source of 25 percent of modern medicines (most originally used by indigenous people). Less than 1 percent of tropical forest plants have yet been tested for pharmaceutical value.

• Rainforest deforestation is on the rise from logging, agriculture, cattle ranching, dam-building, and mining. Estimates from science organizations report we are losing about 80,000 acres of tropical rainforest daily, and degrading another 80,000 daily.

• Species extinction follows deforestation. Sources estimate a daily loss of about 135 species or 50,000 species per year.

Sources: Scientific American magazine;;; Rainforest Action Network (,; the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO):

* Read Sally Cunningham's "Great Gardening" column from last week:

Trees can take a big hit on 'snow days'

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