Throughout history, art and nature have intertwined and informed each other. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Philadelphia Flower Show’s annual celebration of all things floral, which rejoices in the coalescence of the two, both organic and cultivated. According to the event’s website, the “nation’s largest and longest-running horticultural event” has a different theme each year. With an eye on this year’s theme, “Flower Power,” many exhibits examined the hippie counterculture movement of the 1970’s, as well as nature’s role in wellness and equality.
Flowers have long been associated with spring, a time of renewal and rejuvenation after the stagnancy of winter. Seasonal Affective Disorder (aptly acronymized as SAD) is a significant issue for students of Northeast colleges like Swarthmore. While many students embarked on a lucky escape to the West Coast or Miami’s sunny beaches, many students were unable to afford to travel to somewhere warm during spring break. Beyond the important cultural experience that traveling brings, the yearly migration of students flying south for spring break has created a social capital phenomenon as well. In high schools and colleges across the nation, this stereotypical week of parties on beaches is guaranteed to generate an Instagram feed clogged with beautiful sandy oceans, blossoming flowers, and bikini pictures. This is not to say that such an event is a sinful, decadent luxury, or that Swarthmore students who made their way closer to the equator were doing anything wrong. Quite the opposite is true. Exploration, the beauty of nature, and sunny skies are all important components of happiness and health. But the fact remains that these joys remain exclusive to those who can afford them, and the “spring break phenomenon” presents a clear class dichotomy.
Flowers have carried meaning in many societies and class settings, becoming a universal and thus equalizing force. During the flower power movement, anti-war protestors employed nonviolent tactics, earning them the rhyming title to describe the strength of this commitment to peace. At the entrance, my friend and I were greeted by an enormous sculpture suspended in the sky. Rather than being made of marble or clay, the artwork was comprised of a much more delicate medium: flowers. Just like the collective force of passive protest during the Vietnam era, hundreds of tiny petals came together to form tremendous daisies, stems, and butterflies. Nature begets art begets nature. Immediately, the message of “Flower Power” was clear. Flowers were here, and they were powerful.
The show had two main components. In the first part of the event, the focus was on the aesthetic quality flowers can provide, and how they can be used as an artistic medium. Underneath the floating meadow was an international floral arrangement contest. These luxurious compositions not only included natural mediums, but synthetic textiles as well; textured rugs, painted walls, velvet ottomans, and occasional wine glasses completing the decor. Another notable piece functioned as a color wheel, each spoke separated by neon tubing and filled with flowers and plants of the corresponding color, the neon contrasting with the natural stems and buds.
In the second part of the event, the show turned into a more practical exploration of the positive role nature can play in our lives. These exhibits were less man-made, instead displaying idyllic backwards, outdoor landscaping, sustainable solutions, or benefits in wellbeing. Structures such as “Cultivating Wellness from the Ground Up,” focused on the beneficial role that nature has on stress levels. My favorite display was “The Mindfulness Minute,” which encouraged viewers to take a minute to enjoy nature with their different senses. For example, a purple painted panel was covered in lavender and offered its relaxing scent. By the time the Flower Show closed (we stayed there until the very end — 9:00 p.m.), the rainy downpour outside had turned to snow. But the feeling of spring remained.
Swarthmore, too, could have many of the types of peaceful natural spaces that were on display. We are fortunate to live on one of the most beautiful campuses in the world. However, one of the things about an arboretum being a collection of trees is that they do what trees do — lose their leaves in the winter. While the grand branches of Swarthmore’s hundreds of trees provides beautiful silhouettes and receptacles of snow, the campus can feel barren and lifeless in the winter. As Spring break is not available to everyone, The Philadelphia Flower Show provides an excellent example on how the nature already present in Swarthmore can be transformed into pieces of art and practices of wellbeing. However, tickets to the event are on the expensive side (a little over $20 if you buy them early and with a student discount). With its status as an arboretum and commitment to sustainability, Swarthmore presents as passionate caretakers of the natural world. But this doesn’t necessarily translate to the student body, as the classification and upkeep of trees is quite out of our hands. Perhaps creating a wall of lavender or growing flowers indoor to bloom all year long would be a start.