Temple students prepare plants for the 2024 Philadelphia Flower Show

For Frankie Napoli, the Philadelphia Flower Show succeeds on every level in promoting the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's mission of building community through horticulture.

The Flower Show was his initial exposure to horticulture "in a very professional setting," he said.

"To be a part of this Flower Show exhibit, means a lot to me because it was truly my initial exposure to horticulture as a career. Since I was 10, I've been going with my sister every year — the Flower Show actually always happens around my birthday so it's my birthday present from my sister," he said. "We head over on the train; we have a little breakfast and then we just walk around the Flower Show for hours and hours. The show is the symbolic start to spring and from my experience everyone just leaves the show so hopeful coming out of the cold drab winter months — there's a real magic to it."

In the Tyler School of Art and Architecture Greenhouse Education and Research Complex at Temple Ambler, faculty and students are working their own sort of magic proving that Punxsutawney Phil was right — spring is already here — well, at least it is in the Greenhouse.

Benjamin Snyder, Manager of the Tyler School of Art and Architecture Greenhouse Education and Research Complex at Temple Ambler, Napoli, fellow Horticulture senior Zachary Quintois and Landscape Architecture juniors Owen Lambert and Zachary Neyen are working their magic to convince more than 500 plants from 60 different species that there's no real need to wait until spring to bloom. They essentially bring spring to the plants, ensuring they are ready for their debut in Temple's 2024 Philadelphia Flower Show exhibit, Piers, Progress & Processes: Charting a course for a more bountiful future.

While students in the Landscape Architecture Design-Build Studio are working hard to take their design to built completion, Snyder and the four students have spent months caring for the myriad plants and trees that are essential to the educational themes presented in Piers, Progress and Processes, which may be experienced at the Flower Show from Saturday, March 2, through Sunday, March 10 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Learn more about the exhibit here.

Temple continues to be one of only a handful of exhibitors that force their own plants for their exhibits, Snyder said.

"Being one the few exhibitors that force our own plants gives us a lot more flexibility when approaching what plants we can grow. A good example is skunk cabbage," he said. "There are very few wholesale growers that will force skunk cabbage for you. It also gives our students the opportunity for hands-on experience in the Greenhouse."

According to Snyder, the four main aspects that go into forcing a plant to bloom out of season are length of cold treatment, heat, light and humidity.

"We need to trick plants into thinking that winter is over and spring is here. To do that, they need to have an early winter," said Snyder, a Tyler Horticulture program alumnus. "We accomplish this through vernalization, which takes place in our on-campus coolers. Each plant is then brought out of the coolers and into our growing zones according to the schedule. For certain plants, extra heat, light, and/or humidity is needed — this is facilitated by heat mats, grow lights and forcing tents."

Preparing the Plants for the Big Show

Each year provides the opportunity to try new plants and plant combinations, Snyder said. 

"Since we are doing river wards along the Delaware, we're going to be including riparian plants this year; things like Sambucus, elderberry, skunk cabbage, equisetum, juncus and other native wetland plants," he said. "We're also including a dock in our theme so we're looking at plants that have been brought into the country, some of which may have been brought unintentionally. These include plants like Empress Tree (Paulownia tomentosa), which is now considered an invasive species in our region but was originally introduced to be a packing material for fragile items that were packed in crates."

According to Snyder some of the new plants that will populate Piers, Progress & Processes include additional non-native invasive species "as that is one of the things we want to highlight this year."

"In addition to the Empress Tree, which we are using for the first time, we're also including Northern Catalpa (Catalpa speciosa), which is a Paulownia lookalike. We hope this helps visitors learn how to tell the two apart because one is native and one is not," he said. "They are both early successional species so they will often be found in recently disturbed habitat."

Some returning favorites for the 2024 exhibit include river birches, Snyder said "as they fit into the riparian theme and also force really well."

"We always like to have a few reliable favorites where we know they are going to do what they are supposed to and be ready for the show," he said.  

Hands-on Experience in the Greenhouse

The students working on the Flower Show plants and trees, "have the opportunity to either do directed studies or explore volunteer opportunities to assist on the plant side of the Flower Show," Snyder said.

"For our students, they get practical experience working with the plants in the Greenhouse. This gives them the opportunity to plan ahead, try plant production and work on timing because we are trying to get these plants to either foliate or leaf out or flower for a very short window of time," he said. "There is a lot of planning that goes into that and a lot of forethought. They have to be able to react to how plants are changing. It also gives them hands-on experience using our Greenhouse controls, trying to manipulate plants with regard to light and temperature." 

Quintois and Napoli went hands-on, and hip deep to bring the skunk cabbage that will adorn areas of the exhibit out of a swampy area of the Ambler Arboretum

Napoli has been particularly focused on collecting wetland species for the exhibit, he said.

"It's been exciting — wetland ecosystems are some of my absolute favorites. In particular I've been collecting certain wetland species, which has been a great experience," he said. "Azolla caroliniana (commonly known as Fairy Moss, Eastern Mosquito Fren and Water Velvet) and skunk cabbage are two of the, in my opinion, all-time top natives. It's been really interesting to engage with those plants in their environment before bringing them in to add them to our display."

Quintois said he loves "being hands-on with the plants and getting to work with them."

"What made me want to work in the Greenhouse was the opportunity to work with (Snyder). He has such a deep knowledge of horticulture and the plants and I knew I could learn from that," he said. "Right now, I'm working directly with the plants for the Flower Show to prepare new foliage and ensuring they'll bloom in time. Having this real-world experience in turn helps me in my classes; it provides me with the opportunity to practically apply the knowledge I'm gaining in both the classroom and the Greenhouse."

Lambert is combining his landscape architecture design-build experience this semester with helping to prepare the plants and trees for the Flower Show.

"I think working in the Greenhouse, I get a better understanding of the plant communities that we are trying to teach people about when they go through the exhibit. I learn about why we place plants at certain locations to provide the best educational experience," he said. "This also provides me with a deeper understanding of the process of how everything comes together when we install it at the Convention Center. It's great to know about the design process in addition to learning the processes of getting the plants to bloom at just the right period of time."  

When visitors are exploring Temple's exhibit, Snyder said, "one of the things we hope they take away with them is a better understanding of how to use native plants to prevent soil erosion."

"The exhibit showcases a riparian habitat," he said. "Equisetum, juncus, Sambucus, those are all plants that you could put along a stream or wet area to help hold soil in and help prevent soil erosion, which, in turn, helps improve water quality downstream."

Getting ready to graduate with his Horticulture degree in May, Napoli said working with the plants for Temple's Piers, Progress & Processes exhibit "is a really nice way to end my time at Temple Ambler."

"It's a beautiful, full-circle moment. The Flower Show is what brought me into professional horticulture," said Napoli, who was also one of four Ambler Arboretum student gardeners to previously present Queer Roots of Nature: A Natural History of LGBTQ Botany at the 2022 Philadelphia Flower Show. "Having my educational horticultural career come to a close with the Flower Show feels like a really nice way to cap it off."

For more information about the Tyler School of Art and Architecture Landscape Architecture and Horticulture programs, visit https://tyler.temple.edu/programs/landscape-architecture-horticulture.

For more information about Temple University Ambler, visit https://ambler.temple.edu.