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The Flower Show

The Story of Orange: How One Tree Changed the Lives of Kent and Betty Riegel

April 25, 2024

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By Amanda Baez

It is often no surprise that houseplants can steal the hearts of their owners. With their colorful blooms and eye-catching foliage, it’s no wonder they can enhance any environment in which they are placed. For one Pennsylvanian couple, their hearts have been charmed for over 56 years by a very special houseplant they consider as old as the length of their marriage, since it was purchased when the two were newlyweds!

In a recent interview, we had the wonderful opportunity to delve into the lives of Kent and Betty Riegel, a dedicated couple who took in an unexpected family member in the form of an orange tree 56 years ago from a Miami kiosk. Their journey in caring for and appreciating the beauty of “Orange” — what some would call 'an ordinary houseplant' — is heartfelt and inspirational for any passionate gardener.

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Kent and Betty Riegel at the 2024 Philadelphia Flower Show, “United by Flowers.”

New Beginnings as Newlyweds

Kent Riegel, a former Marine Captain, and Betty Riegel, a former PanAm flight attendant, met in San Francisco, California on a blind date. After developing a loving appreciation for each other, the two married in 1968 on Treasure Island. Shortly after their marriage, Betty had an exciting opportunity to strengthen her aircraft qualifications and made the journey to Miami for training. After spending a few weeks in Florida, the time came for Betty to return home to Kent. While preparing for her flight home, an airport kiosk selling orange saplings caught her attention. Suddenly compelled by the idea of having a ‘souvenir’ from her memorable Miami trip, she purchased what is now known today as “Orange,” at the time a rather ordinary orange tree.

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Orange making an appearance in the cocktail lounge of Kent and Betty's club during their 40th anniversary celebration.

Orange’s Sweet Start

At the time of its purchase, the sapling was merely the size of a sprig with the thickness of a knitting needle. Kent recalls, “We lived in Washington D.C when Betty had bought Orange, and while there, we immediately potted the tree and kept it inside our home. However, we moved throughout the years to Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania, and with each new move, Betty and I noticed that Orange was getting larger. Initially, we had always kept Orange inside during each move, but as she started to take up more space, we would take her outside during the spring and summer so that bees could pollinate her.” Today, Orange stands over 8 feet tall and spends the fall and winter seasons at Chadds Ford Greenhouse until she can return home for the spring and summer in the Riegel home.

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Orange in her usual spring and summer spot.

An A-Peeling Family Member

Kent and Betty repeatedly admit that they do not consider Orange a ‘simple houseplant.’ When asked how having Orange has impacted their lives as a couple, Betty lovingly compares Orange to a family member, stating, “Orange is indeed a member of our family. People may have dogs and cats that they consider family. We have Orange. She has been with us through every move and every journey since our marriage.”

Kent chimes in next, explaining their two sons' bond towards the tree. “They treated Orange like she was a family member. They played in Orange, and their friends would come over and join in. Our sons’ friends would refer to her as their cousin! It was a beautiful experience to see them all develop such a close bond.”

With the help of PHS’s volunteers, Orange was carefully transported to the 2024 Philadelphia Flower Show, “United by Flowers.”

A Zesty Debut at The Philadelphia Flower Show

This past year, the 2024 PHS Philadelphia Flower Show, United by Flowers, welcomed Orange as a contestant in three competitive classes. However, Orange's debut as a first-time competitor is a bit unique. Kent explains, "We never intended to enroll Orange into any competitive class because Betty and I had practical limitations that would make the tree transportation process difficult. Frankly, we both didn't think it would be possible for us to compete. Despite all of that, I wanted to write a letter to the chairman of PHS and ask if there was any way a future category could be added to the Show that showcases plants that owners considered 'part of the family.' As I wrote this letter, the morning show was playing in the background, and they announced it was National Houseplant Appreciation Day! I was completely surprised! I included that bit in my letter, and a few weeks before the Flower Show was scheduled to start, I received an email from the Flower Show competitive class manager, Gabrielle Baugh. She had expressed her knowledge of our tree and asked how PHS could support us in bringing Orange to the Show! I couldn't believe it!"

Betty also couldn't contain her excitement. She says, "We were so grateful when we saw how many PHS volunteers wanted to help us get Orange to the Pennsylvania Convention Center. They pruned the tree, made sure it was in an appropriate-sized pot, placed mulch around the trunk, found someone with a large truck, carefully loaded Orange inside, and transported her to the Show! We cannot take credit for getting Orange to the was all possible because of the volunteers!”

In the end, eight PHS volunteers assisted in transporting Orange to the Flower Show, fulfilling Kent and Betty's dream of participating in the competitive classes.

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Orange on full display at the 2024 Philadelphia Flower Shower, United by Flowers.

Unpeeling Orange’s Impact at the Flower Show

Winning a coveted blue ribbon in every competition Kent and Betty had entered her in, Orange was an evident favorite among the judges for her vibrant foliage and impressive size! However, the judges were not the only ones who seemed amazed by Orange -- many onlookers stopped to admire the award-winning tree, frequently expressing a high level of praise to Kent and Betty.

When asked if either of them expected Orange to receive all the love during the Flower Show, Kent immediately shook his head. "We honestly did not expect to win anything. We weren't interested in competing until the competitive classes manager contacted us! All we wanted to do was tell the story of Orange and our family." Betty nodded along, picking up where he had left off. "We were so clueless about everything!" We did not even think we were qualified to compete since we knew none of the requirements. As Kent said, we wanted to tell our story because we felt it was appropriate for this year's theme, United by Flowers. We felt united at the Show with everyone who stopped to talk to us. One instance that stood out to us was when we had the pleasure of meeting a Chinese mother and daughter during one of the Show days. They were so excited when they saw Orange because the orange plant represents good fortune in their culture. Not only that, but Chinese Lunar New Year had just finished a few days before the Show, making them even more thrilled! It was such an unforgettable experience.”

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Orange returned to Kent and Betty’s front entrance.

For decades, Orange has brought the couple lasting happiness and unforgettable memories. Today, Orange spends the spring and summer seasons with Kent and Betty and can be often found basking in the sunlight on the couple’s front porch. When fall and winter approach, Orange is then transported to Chadds Ford Greenhouse to escape the cold weather until she can be reunited with her loving family. After 56 years of being together, Kent and Betty’s story is a touching reminder that anyone can find joy and adventure through the simple art of gardening.

Interested in becoming an exhibitor at the next Flower Show?