You can leave winter behind, forget your money woes, and, if you hurry, be in Italy before dark. The Philadelphia Flower Show, the nation’s oldest and largest flower show, is going all Italian this year.

Travel for less than an hour, and you will find yourself enjoying a fragrant virtual tour of Roman gardens, Tuscan hills, Venetian canals, Alpine landscapes, and Milanese fashion boutiques.

The flower show is a yearly production of the Pennyslvania Horticultural Society (PHS), the nation’s oldest horticultural society. PHS brought spring to Philadelphia winters by staging America’s first flower show, back in 1829. The show, which takes place in the Philadelphia Convention Center now through Sunday, March 8, fills 10 acres of space with elaborate floral tableau set in meandering paths overhung with trees in full bloom and a riot of bright, fragrant flowers.

A big deal in many ways, the annual flower show attracts 250,000 people each year and brings in some $30 million to Philadelphia through ticket and merchandise sales, and also through hotel rooms, restaurant meals, and all the other activities on which the show’s visitors spend money while they’re in town for the event.

This year an area florist, Adriene Presti, owner of Pennington’s Dahlia, is contributing to one of the main displays at the show. A flower show veteran — she won a top award for the central feature in 2002 show — Presti is familiar with what it takes to participate in the annual event.

She worked for months on just one part of this year’s Milanese exhibit, which was designed and put together by the American Institute of Floral Designers (AIFD). Her contribution is a unique wall hanging. “It’s layers and layers of natural threads and fibers, preserved skeleton leaves, rose petals, beading, and buttons,” she says, naming just some of the elements that went into the 3-foot by 6-foot wall hanging.

After being transported to the show in the back of her Tahoe, the floral art was hung in a window of the Milanese fashion display. While Presti has taken the lead in designing Philadelphia Flower Show exhibits in the past and has been involved to one extent or another for 12 years, this exhibit was designed by her best friend, Ron Mulray, owner of the Philadelphia Flower Company on Academy Road in Philadelphia.

A call to the shop one week before the show turned up the information that “Ron isn’t here. He’ll be gone for two weeks.” Would he be calling in for messages? “Probably not.”

Reached on his cellphone, Mulray was in the midst of pre-flower show craziness — tons of mulch, dozens of trucks, armies of power tool wielding carpenters and electricians — and loving every second of it. “All I have ever wanted to do is to work with flowers,” he says. He has this in common with Presti. Although she studied interior design at FIT in New York, she says that “I have always worked in flower shops. Always.” Mulray began his work with flowers at age 11. “I sold roses on Vine Street,” he says. For Presti, a career in the floral world also began in the pre-teen years.

Now the mother of a two-year-old boy, Quinn, she spent her own childhood in Bucks County. Her father, Louis Presti, has just retired from NJN, where he produced and directed documentaries, many of them about New Jersey. Among the Emmy-award winning director’s films are “On the Run”, a film about runaway children, “In the Barnegat Bay Tradition”, and “My Pine Barrens Land”. After a nearly 40-year film career, Louis Presti is now a part-time flower deliverer and enthusiastic babysitter. His wife, Cynthia Presti, a former caterer and Commodities Corp. employee, is also helping out at her daughter’s shop.

Presti’s husband, Scott Brennan, helps out with building the flower show sets and does some work in the shop. Also on the team is Bubbles, a very social orange and white cat who came to the shop as a struggling farm cat and stayed on to become an exuberant greeter. The family is assisted by about five employees, a number that goes up or down as wedding season peaks and wanes.

A lifelong love of flowers ties Presti and Mulray together, and both revel in the total floral immersion that is the Philadelphia Flower Show. “In the years that you are in charge, you live there,” says Presti. The week before the show, when everything takes shape, is a dusty, dirty, noisy — and totally glorious — experience. The flowers, really, are the least of it at this stage. They will come later, just before the show is set to begin. The pre-show week is all about construction. “It’s a huge, huge undertaking,” she says. “There are backhoes, people moving dirt.”

Everywhere in the cavernous convention center there are the sounds of hammering, sawing, and drilling. All labor is union, says Presti, rolling her eyes just a bit. “You’re not allowed to lift a hammer, to move a board.” It can be frustrating, she says. But, the wife of a finish carpenter, she understands.

The budget for mounting a major exhibit, provided by the Philadelphia Horticultural Society (PHS), is substantial. The budget for her 2002 central feature was $250,000, Presti says. She guesses that the smaller exhibit in which she is participating this year will have a budget that is more like $30,000 to $40,000. Mulray, asked the exact figure, demurs, saying that the PHS does not like to release budget details. Alan Jaffe, spokesperson for PHS, does not to name figures either, but he says that his organization does subsidize exhibitors.

Jaffe, reached by phone just two days before the show’s grand opening, says that preparations for this year’s show went smoothly. “There was some worry beforehand,” he says. Most of the tropical flowers and plants for the show’s exhibits are grown in Florida, he explains, and there was some fear that the state’s unusually cold winter would keep them from reaching their peak in time. But their growers did manage to deliver the tropicals in perfect shape.

Jaffe doesn’t think that the recession will have much of an impact on attendance. It might even help.

“People can’t afford to go to Italy, but they can afford a ticket to the flower show,” says Jaffe. “After a miserable, cold winter, it’s something to look forward to.” He says that the Italian theme was chosen because of the tremendous diversity of landscapes in that country. “You have Alpine rock gardens,” he says. “You have the Italian Riviera, Venice, Milan. You have opera, art, food.”

New for this year is an Italian piazza. “There will be music, food, and shopping,” he says. “Dozens of merchants from Italy are bringing food, clothing, and homewares that you can’t get in the Philadelphia area — or anywhere in the country.” This year for the first time there will also be a wine shop at the show.

In addition to the elaborate exhibits for which the flower show is known, Jaffe says that there is a large and growing competitive art category. Included is a popular pressed flower category. Artists working in this medium come from all over to compete. But the flower show draws an especially large number of floral artists from China and from Japan.

The PHS website, at philadelphiahorticulturalsociety.org, is chock-a-block with tips for making the most of the show — take Amtrak and get a 20% discount, wear comfortable shoes, bring a sweater (the flowers like it cool), turn your camera’s flash off unless you’re going for a close-up shot. Asked for his number one tip, Jaffe says that visitors should give themselves plenty of time to enjoy the show. “It’s big,” he says, “and this year it is bigger than ever.” A one-day ticket is good for the entire day, which stretches into the late evening on most days. Visitors are free to come and go. There will be refreshment stands, but it is also possible to spend a few hours in Italy, go out to a favorite French or Thai restaurant — or the to Reading Market, which is right across the street — and then to go back to enjoy more of the flower show.

Going to the flower show is more than an escape from winter. It is also a way to enrich Philadelphia’s environment and children. PHS uses about $1 million from the show’s proceeds to help fund Philadelphia Green, an organization that works to establish community gardens, plant trees, and educate young people. Money comes in through admissions — at $22 to $28 a person, less for children. It is also raised through sponsorships and from the 150 vendors who sell everything from garden tools to botanical art at the flower show.

Working on the framework for the Milanese fashion exhibit a full week before the first visitors crowd into the show, Mulray says that he could have gone two ways in capturing the essence of Milan in flowers. “We could have been figurative,” he says. That option would have involved having designers create an feel for the spirit of the city in an impressionistic way. But Mulray went in another direction. “Milan is the capital of Italy’s fashion industry,” he says. “We decided to go literal with it.” The exhibit he designed is all about fashion, it’s couture is practically wearable.

“There are four different designers making dresses,” Mulray says in an interview during the early stages of the run-up to the show. “There are 20 pairs of shoes, 16 handbags, 10 to 15 sets of jewelry.” One dress is made of branches and sticks, another of dried flowers, a third of fresh flowers. Each set of jewelry includes a floral interpretation of a necklace, a bracelet, earrings, and in some cases a broach. In addition to the couture, there are 15 to 20 “cutting-edge art pieces by people like Adriene,” he says. Contributors to the Milan exhibit, and to the central feature of which it is a part, come from across the country and from around the world. The Milan exhibit alone used the talents of 11 floral designers, 20 floral artists, and 25 volunteers.

“In the week before the show we’re here day and night,” says Mulray. “It’s non-stop, and I love it. I’m lucky to get up every morning and do work that I love.”

The hard lifting is over when the show opens, but the work is far from over. Exhibitors stay close throughout the show. “We greet the public. We watch for any problems,” say Presti. The exhibitors try to discourage visitors from picking, falling into, or otherwise molesting the flowers. This is a largely impossible task, she says, but staying close does help. Exhibitors generally do so, and are on hand to answer questions about the blossoms in their displays.

But when the long show day ends, at 9:30 p.m. on most days, the work is far from over. “We go in the middle of the night to check water levels,” say Presti. “We replace any broken flowers.” Maintenance is big, she says. “They give prizes for maintenance.”

Halfway through the show, says Presti, all of the flowers in all of the exhibits are thrown away and replaced with new flowers.

Many of the flowers come from abroad. Presti says that flowers from Holland are nearly guaranteed to arrive in perfect condition. But “nearly guaranteed” is not enough. Not for the biggest flower show. “I order back-ups,” she says. “I’ll have local and Dutch. I’ll use whichever comes in better.” This caution springs from the year that her flowers arrived with broken stems. But, interestingly, she doesn’t worry all that much about what most people would think of as the biggest challenge of a very-early-March flower show — getting a huge variety of glorious flowers in full bloom in the dead of winter.

“There are flowers. We can always find flowers,” says Presti. “We’re pretty flexible. If we can’t find one kind of flower, we’ll use something else.” She can’t recall a single flower calamity in all her years of exhibiting at the show. There have been other crises, however. “The year I chaired the central feature I got a call at 6 a.m.,” she recounts. “A piece of the exhibit had collapsed. Someone had watered too much.”

The marathon that is the flower show, an eight day event preceded by one solid week of work, can pay dividends other than the pride of creation and the pleasure of being surrounded by like-minded people. Presti says that she has frequently won business as a direct result of her participation. The best way for a floral designer to achieve this, she has found, is to give presentations. This year there are dozens. There are presentations on how to care for specific flowers — daffodils, African violets, orchids, roses, cacti. There are also presentations on caring for young trees, hardscaping in the garden, forcing bulbs, flower arranging, and attracting birds to gardens.

Among the presentations in the Gardener’s Studio section of the flower show is “Great Gardens for a Green Lifestyle.” This is a popular topic in the flower world right now. Asked about the biggest change she has seen in her work as a florist, Presti says right away that there is a growing shift to green — not the color, but the movement.

“I’m seeing brides who want an eco-friendly wedding,” Presti says. Weddings are a big part of her business, so Presti has already become an authority on the subject. She has identified overseas growers who “provide a good environment for the workers and use different methods of growing that are environmentally friendly.

“I have vases made of recycled glass,” she adds, “and tablecloths made of natural fibers.”

In addition to weddings and other large events, Presti does corporate work, placing fresh vases of flowers on reception desks every Monday. Among her clients, until a very recent budget cut-back, was the Drumthwacket Foundation, the non-profit group that restored the governor’s mansion, curates its public rooms, and keeps it looking its best. Presti confides that Governor Corzine is partial to lilies and fragrant flowers (he may now have to go to the flower show to smell them), and that her floral shop is “bi-partisan.” She did the flower arrangements for Christie Whitman’s daughter’s wedding, and has gotten along well with all of Drumthwacket’s tenants — save one. “Dina McGreevey was always complaining about something,” she says.

Presti’s business did not feel the recession until last fall, but she says that it has already started to pick up. “Valentine’s Day was just about what I expected,” she says. “It was on a Saturday, and when it’s on Saturday, people go out to dinner. They like to send flowers to offices, not to homes.” This makes sense, as a big part of receiving a big bouquet of roses is showing it off to workmates. So Valentine’s Day was a little slow. But it seems that, recession/depression or no, people are still getting married. Presti’s calendar is full of wedings. She is finding, however, that “people are shopping around more.”

All-in-all, the business that Presti started 10 years ago is doing well. Presti thinks that flowers, luxury that they may be, can provide an outsized lift in tough economic times. She predicts that when everything is tallied, the Philadelphia Flower Show will turn out to be a big success this year. “I have no concern that it will be hurt by the recession,” she says. “It’s uplifting.”

Dahlia Floral Concepts, 7 Route 31 North, Pennington, 08534, 609-737-0556, www.dahliapenningtonnj.com.

If You Go

Getting There: The flower show takes place in the Pennsylvania Convention Center, at 12th and Arch streets. There are 8,000 parking spots within four blocks of the show. A map on the flower show website shows their locations. Go to www.theflowershow.com to download it.

Hours: The show is open from 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 4, through Friday, March 6. It is open from 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 7, and from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday, March 8.

Tickets: Tickets are $22 if purchased in advance. They are available online through Ticket Philadelphia (there’s a link on the flower show site) and also from PNC bank branches and ACME and Giant supermarkets. At the gate, tickets range up to $28.

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