By Marion McParland
This year’s Philadelphia Flower Show, “HABITAT: Nature’s Masterpiece,” has inspired more than 75 exhibitors — the largest number ever — to present their world-class designs and artistic vision to the world. This year, the Show welcomes eight new exhibitors making their Flower Show debut — no small feat as we emerge from the pandemic to an awe-inspiring, 15-acre venue of green vistas, expansive lawns, and wandering paths set within FDR Park in South Philadelphia. Here, get to know three exciting designers as they share their unique artistic voices and visions ahead of your visit!
Wambui Ippolito, horticulturist and landscape designer, developed her love for plants growing up in the Great Rift Valley of Kenya, East Africa. “I was the one out of four children who went on adventures with our mother,” says Ippolito. She credits her mother’s appreciation of plants and nature for instilling the love of horticulture in her. “We dug up papayas and explored riverbanks together,” says Ippolito. She recalls her mother pulling the car over and stopping whenever she spotted something beautiful or unusual on the side of the road. “We would always get out and examine it or dig it up.”
Living in and travelling to various countries around the world, she continued to learn more about plants, visiting botanical gardens and taking in the natural beauty of her surroundings wherever she was. It is her love of nature, and her vision of nature as home, or the womb, that inspires her. Ippolito's garden, “Etherea,” is her vision of peace and is inspired by her mother. With a triangle-shaped pond (a shape symbolic through history as the womb), her garden design is feminine, with lots of movement and color. “It’s an immersive, and emotional experience where one can find peace at home in their own backyard. Nature is home — for us, our children, our pets, and wildlife — a place to be nurtured and at peace,” says Ippolito.
“I work with nature, not against it,” says Ippolito. “I don’t want to rearrange everything. Instead, I work with, and around, what is already in place. She created “Etherea” with winding paths among viburnum, roses, hydrangeas, delphinium, and lots of rosemary right from her own garden. Another favorite, the lamiaceae (mint) family is planted throughout.
Ippolito is the founder of the BIPOC Hort Group, and advocates for the recognition of the First Nations, African American, and immigrant communities’ contributions to horticulture. A rendering of her exhibit, "Etherea," is pictured above.
Greeting visitors as they enter the Show, Jeff Leatham’s exhibit provides a look as souls are set free after 15 months of seclusion. To celebrate the event’s theme of “HABITAT: Nature's Masterpiece,” Leatham imagined what would happen if “nature looked a bit overgrown and wild in the pavilion, but in a beautiful, bright way that still respected the architecture itself.”
“The inspiration for this piece comes from our collective experience of being quarantined this past year,” said Leatham. “When I close my eyes, I see pent up and overgrown nature wanting to be free. The colors are inspired by the burning desire to bring back the fire of life.”
Using shape, color, and simplicity, Leatham’s explosive and eye-opening creation is sculpted around the iconic columns of FDR Park’s Olmsted Pavilion. Using plumosa ferns, baby’s breath, and orchids — in vibrant hues of orange, yellow, and hot pink — Leatham reveals his inner-most emotions with the unleashed beauty of this floral work of art.
Laura Santin, AEP, with Nomad, shares her priorities in an installation honoring the intricate relationship between soil micro-organisms and plants, showcasing them as unbreakable partners. Show visitors will enter this micro-woodland and be surrounded by the forest she has created with 1,300 levitating kokedama seedlings nested within an inverted dome carved from an intricate metal network. Kokedama translates to moss-ball in Japanese: koke meaning “moss” and dama meaning “ball.” Kokedama is an adaptation from the old Nearai Bonsai method, a centuries-old art form in gardening, “Kokedama Forest is a visual reflection on the hidden importance of the dwellers within the soil and their partnership with plants to create a suitable habitat for all of us,” says Santin.
“Habitat” is increasingly being used as a synonym for refuge, Santin explains. “This is probably because so many species, along with human communities, are being jeopardized by the loss of their habitat. Soil is the habitat that is normally overlooked, as attention is typically focused on the eye-catching habitats and creatures rather than on the humble beings living directly under our feet,” says Santin.
She hopes that her message will resonate with Flower Show guests. “Soil micro-organisms are indispensable as they are actively building fertile soil while nourishing their key partnerships with plants within an intricate network of relationships that make up healthy and resilient ecosystems.”
“Habitat is nature’s masterpiece -- the physical result of a hyper-connected and diverse living network that we all depend on,” says Santin. “It is imperative that we strongly commit to steward this sophisticated network.”
Spend time with these and many more floral and landscape installations at this year’s Philadelphia Flower Show. With 360-degree views available to guests, along with many designers remaining onsite during the event to talk with guests and share their experiences.