The history of the Philadelphia region is deeply intertwined with the Schuylkill River, a waterway many may not think about beyond driving over it during the hustle and bustle of a city workday.
During the industrial age, rivers served a similar purpose to the expressway that bears the Schuylkill’s name — they were the major interstate travel routes of the time. And while the Schuylkill came a little late to the party — the Delaware being Philadelphia’s star waterway while the Schuylkill was essentially hidden from settlers — the Schuylkill Navigation System (or Schuylkill Canal) helped move millions of tons of the resource that fueled the engines of industry, coal.
In many respects the Schuylkill River remains as hidden from the city and region today as it did for the early settlers. At the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s 2018 Philadelphia Flower Show, Temple University Ambler landscape architecture and horticulture students were hoping to change that.
Drawing deeply from the inspiration of the Flower Show theme — “Wonders of Water” — Temple’s exhibit brought visitors “Within Reach,” uncovering some of the history of the Schuylkill, “our hidden river.” The exhibit explored natural and human-induced effects on the Schuylkill River, particularly focusing on “the natural phenomena of tides and the human-induced technological wonder of the Schuylkill Navigation System (or Schuylkill Canal).”
Months of hard work, dedication and teamwork certainly paid off. Within Reach: Unlocking the Legacy of our Hidden River, was recognized with several awards. Within Reach was presented with a PHS Silver Medal; the Chicago Horticultural Society Flower Show Medal, presented to an Educational exhibit showing outstanding horticultural skill and knowledge in a nationally recognized flower show — only one Chicago Medal is presented at the Philadelphia Flower Show; and a Special Achievement Award of the Garden Club Federation of Pennsylvania.
“‘Wonders of Water’ was a wide open theme. Focusing on the Schuylkill River, we were able to connect it locally to something that many visitors were familiar with, but they may not know the importance the river has had to the history of this region,” said Adjunct Assistant Professor Michael LoFurno, who is coordinating Temple’s 2018 Flower Show exhibit with Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture Rob Kuper and Greenhouse Horticulturist Benjamin Snyder. “Before trains, before cars, the Schuylkill River was the primary means to navigate goods to cities that built up along its banks. Parts of the Schuylkill system still exist to this day, used for recreation or preserved as artifacts of the industrial age.”
Kuper said that the change in water elevation was a key theme in the 2018 exhibit, a variety of examples of which permeate the three thematic regions of the 23-foot-by-33-foot exhibit — the headwaters of the Schuylkill River in the Piedmont region to the “Fall Line, a significant drop in elevation where mills of every type were built to harness the power of the river; the Schuylkill Canal with its dams, locks, sluice gates; and a space that resembles a freshwater tidal marsh.
“Though the extent of tidal action on the Schuylkill reaches the Fairmount Dam, almost no tidal freshwater marshlands exist along the water’s edge. Tidal freshwater marshlands are ecologically rich, contribute to positive water quality, and are an ecologic relic of the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia,” said Kuper. “The primary goal of our exhibit it to get people to act, to take lessons from this exhibit to protect the headwaters of the river, to learn about water infiltration from the canals, to take the proper practical and political action to restore the ecology along the Schuylkill’s banks. As with each of our Flower Show exhibits, we try to approach the theme in a way that would be practical for visitors to replicate at home, reflected through the plants that have been selected, the materials that we use and the story we seek to tell.”
Within Reach, Kuper said, also thematically explored various forms of “power.”
“The power of plants to filter water. The power of engineering exhibited by the canal system. Hydropower evidenced by our water wheel. The power of the moon to affect water and tides and how that, in turn, affects plants,” he said. “Water features have always been an important part of our exhibits — they are challenging, interesting and fun. They also help us convey the essential part water plays in all of our lives.”
Entering the exhibit, LoFurno said, visitors will be met with remnants of a coal mine. Coming out of the mine, the pathway travels through a forest that appears to slowly return after years of industrialized use. Passing the water wheels and change in elevation, travelers will discover the canal area and exit through the tidal marsh.
“Unlike many of the exhibits at the Flower Show, Temple’s exhibit gives people an opportunity to get up close to the concepts we’re seeking to convey,” he said. “We want people to look at the plants, smell the flowers, touch the water. We want them to make a connection with the exhibit that might provide them with the impetus to explore further, learn more.”
The recent move of the Ambler Campus Bookstore to the campus Learning Center opened up new opportunities to create academic spaces, providing a new design-build studio within which to plan and build Temple’s Flower Show exhibit.
“It is making coordinating the work that needs to go into completing the exhibit much more convenient. I think in years past, sometimes teams weren’t sure what other teams were working on at any given time,” said Kuper. “Now, for the most part, we’re all together and able to collaborate on all aspects of the exhibit. I think it can only improve the teaching experience while also providing the program with greater visability and a stronger identity and connection with the campus community.”
Landscape Architecture junior Bryan Green said the “build” side of the design-build studio that it working on the exhibit “is all very new to me.”
“I think it’s a terrific part of the program. I want to know that my designs will work in the real world. I think it’s far easier to be able to explain what it takes to build something or why something is designed in a certain way if you understand how it functions in reality,” said Green, who is working on the exhibit’s “crib” walls and water basins. “Having this exhibit at the Flower Show is a very tangible way to show my family and friends what the landscape architecture profession is all about. I hope visitors to our exhibit gain a great understanding of what our students are doing at Temple Ambler and what they are learning in the landscape architecture and horticulture programs. My hope is that they’ll also learn more about and connect with the history of the Philadelphia region.”
Fellow landscape architecture junior Ciara Villers is working on the exit ramp within the tidal marsh. The area, she said, will include “several poles that reflect the height of the tide — some of them may be very tall, showing how high the water has risen during hurricanes and extreme events.”
“This exhibit reflects local areas — the tidal areas of the Schuylkill, the canal system. I hope it spurs people to go out and see the real thing,” she said. “I think one of the benefits of Temple’s landscape architecture program is its ecological focus and its emphasis on plant knowledge — that is something that, I think, a lot of programs don’t focus on. I’m looking forward to seeing visitors touching and experiencing and getting excited about the different plants and ideas we’re sharing.”
The 2018 exhibit continues a long tradition in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Horticulture of interdisciplinary and hands-on learning experiences. In the Ambler Campus Greenhouse, horticulture staff have been working for months to help select the plant palette for the exhibit and ensure the plants and trees are ready for the big show. Temple University Ambler is one of only a handful of exhibitors that forces its own plants for their exhibits.
“This year, we are using species almost entirely native to the region. We are using many different techniques to prepare the plants: humidity tents, supplemental lights, twine ‘trellises,’” said Benjamin Snyder. “We have two growing environments, so we move plants back and forth to control their growth rate. Each year we try new plant types and growing techniques, and we learn from the failures as well as the successes.”
The Philadelphia Flower Show is the largest indoor event of its kind in North America, welcoming more than 250,000 visitors a year.
Temple University Ambler has a long and illustrious history with the Flower Show, taking home “Best in Show” awards in 1987, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1993, 1997, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2010 and 2012 in addition prestigious honors from the Garden Club Federation of Pennsylvania in 2004 and 2011, the Horticultural Society in 2006 and the Alfred M. Campbell Memorial Trophy in 2013 and 2015.
In 2014, Temple University Ambler was awarded a Special Achievement Award of the Garden Club Federation of Pennsylvania, the Chicago Horticultural Society Flower Show Medal and a PHS Special Achievement Award. In 2015, Temple’s exhibit was awarded a Silver Medal by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society; and the American Horticultural Society Environmental Award. The exhibit also received a Special Achievement Award of the Garden Club Federation of Pennsylvania in the “creativity” category and a PHS Special Achievement Award.
In 2016, “After the Blast: Recollecting Roots and Resources at Hopewell Furnace,” was presented with a unique honor, the National Park System Director’s Award, awarded to the exhibit with the best interpretation of a national park in the 2016 Flower Show — only one Director’s Award was given. The exhibit was also awarded a Gold Medal by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, a PHS Gold Medal Plant Award, a Special Achievement Award of the Garden Club Federation of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Landscape and Nurseryman’s Association Trophy, the Philadelphia Unit of the Herb Society of America Award and a PHS Sustainability Award.
Temple's 2017 Flower Show Exhibit, Nieuwpolders: Regenerating the Dutch Custom of Land Recovery, was recognized with a PHS Gold Medal, awarded to a major exhibit that receives 95 or more points out of 100 in the criteria of design, horticulture, plantsmanship and educational value; and the Bulkley Medal of the Garden Club of America; awarded to a special exhibit in the fields of horticulture, botany or conservation — the exhibit must be one of exceptional educational merit that increases the knowledge and awareness of the viewing public. Only one Bulkley Medal is given out at the Flower Show each year. The exhibit also received a Special Achievement Award of the Garden Club Federation of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Landscape and Nurseryman’s Association Trophy, and a PHS Sustainability Award, presented to the educational major exhibit demonstrating the best use of sustainable gardening practices to the public.
Building upon a rich history of environmental teaching that dates back more than a century, Temple University Ambler is home to the Department of Landscape Architecture and Horticulture. The degree programs are a unique blend of disciplines, providing students with the design and plant background necessary to succeed in any aspect of the Green Industry.
The Department of Landscape Architecture and Horticulture at Temple University Ambler, part of the Division of Architecture and Environmental Design in the Tyler School of Art, is committed to excellence in ecologically based education. The department’s goal is to train leaders in the art and science of horticulture (A.S., B.S., and certificate programs) and landscape architecture (MLArch and B.S. programs). The programs provide students with knowledge and understanding of the environment so that they can improve the quality of our urban, suburban and rural communities.
For more information on the Horticulture and Landscape Architecture programs at Temple University Ambler, visit tyler.temple.edu/programs/landscape-architecture-horticulture. For more information about the 2018 Philadelphia Flower Show, visit theflowershow.com.