Every year, I go to my local flower and garden show and contort my body into weird yoga poses that don’t exist. Why? Well, it’s not because I’m stretching (which would probably be good for my back) but because I’m trying to get a good look at the plants in the display gardens. The problem is I can’t see anything—ever. I see a glossy, pointy-leaf shrub and think, “Is that one of those evergreen Solomon’s Seals Dan Hinkley found on a remote mountain in China? Or is it just a parking lot Otto Luyken laurel?” The lighting is so drastically bright or so frustratingly dim that seeing a plant in its true form is often impossible.
Alas, it has been this way since the beginning of garden show time. Every year the shows use spotlights and floodlights to create “drama” in the display gardens while the public roams aimlessly around in the dark, squinting in vain to find the people they came with.
I do believe that the stars of the show are the gardens and the designers whose incredible planning and exhausting work lovingly get the “spotlight.” I just don’t think they should get a literal spotlight. When’s the last time you went to a botanical garden at night? And Christmas light displays or moon gardens don’t count. Your answer is probably never. You go (and the garden is open) during the day so that under the sunlit or cloudy sky, you can walk around and feast your eyes on all of the rare plants and soothing spaces you long for in your own yard. I think few people prefer to look at Stargazer lilies in the dark—when the pink color seems white and the delicate maroon specks completely disappear. We go during the daytime because that’s when we can see plants the best and admire all of their subtle characteristics.
It’s hard to admire a display garden’s subtle characteristics at the typical flower and garden show. Inevitably, there’s always a contorted filbert or curly willow whose branches are floodlit upward. Because of this, I never know how big the plant actually is, since its shadows are bouncing off of one another, creating an almost fun-house mirror effect where I see more branches than actually exist. Similarly, when I’m looking at a rare variety of daffodil that I think is a gorgeous peach color, I have to tip it away from the light to see that it’s actually yellow away from the spotlight’s reddish tint. I once actually mistook a hellebore for a dwarf rhododendron since the leaves absorbed so much of the shadow that they lost their boundaries and faded into a sea of black foliage. And I circled around that thing twice!
Still, I love the display gardens. There are always plenty of good ideas, including the ones that seem there just for the fun of it. I just wish designers would take advantage of the giant array of full-spectrum lights on the market now, so we can see every true flower color, every shrub’s actual shape, every boulder’s depression—in other words, have an experience that’s more like touring a botanical garden during the day. Then I could go home and practice some real yoga.