Phipps celebrates autumn with harvest colors

| Friday, Oct. 12, 2012, 9:00 p.m.

Mum's the word — and practically the entire vocabulary — for the next three weeks at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, which is opening its annual Fall Flower Show on Saturday.

You won't see at this show many of the expected pumpkins, which filled the Oakland conservatory last year. The one giant exception is a 406-pound pumpkin, obtained via forklift from a Somerset farmer. That gargantuan gourd will stand outside in the edible rooftop garden, where visitors can gape at it.

But the rest of the conservatory bursts mostly with fall's signature flower: mums, in a rainbow of shades including reds, purples, yellows and golds, whites and oranges.

“I wanted to do something different,” says Laura Schoch, who designed the exhibit. “It's going to be great when they all bloom. ... I think it's all about color.”

Nearly 3,000 chrysanthemums — including multi-blooming pompoms, tall single disbuds, and cascading mums — will fill several rooms in the conservatory, and many of the rooms have special themes. In the curvy Serpentine Room, written displays accompany the flowers to tell visitors the story of how and why leaves change color in the fall.

A doubleheaded, snakelike dragon winds through the Sunken Garden, which is filled with mums in shades of red and gold. The dragon — with heads made of deep red, preserved oak leaves and body scales made out of painted, recycled foam — centers a Chinese-themed room to celebrate Chinese astrology's Year of the Dragon. And to celebrate Phipps' upcoming 120th anniversary, 120 paper lanterns hang from the ceiling.

Another highlight of the Fall Flower Show is the East Room with an “Under the Sea” theme. Colorful fish windsocks hang over the room, which has fish topiaries, plant arrangements that look like coral reefs, shrimp plants with shrimp-shaped flowers and hanging baskets filled with cascading dichondra to depict jellyfish. Sensors in the East Room activate the waterfalls when visitors enter.

People often touch the mums in disbelief, Schoch says.

“They don't believe that they're real,” she says. “But it's a conservatory, so yes they are.”

The new show only lasts 23 days, due to blooming times and the need to prepare for the winter show, which usually opens the day after Thanksgiving, Schoch says.

One of the most anticipated parts of the Fall Flower Show is the annual return of Phipps' Garden Railroad, a giant toy-train village that changes themes every year in the South Conservatory. This year's display takes visitors back to the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, which is the year that Phipps opened. The train village has G-scale buildings from the fair including a Ferris wheel, scenes of farms and industrial centers and scenes from Western Pennsylvania, including a giant model of Phipps.

The conservatory got its first palm trees from the fair, says Jordyn Melino, the exhibit coordinator who designed this year's Garden Railroad, which stays through February.

Visitors, especially the kids, get so excited when they see the railroad setup, she says.

“I think the best part of this is the small details,” Melino says. “It's what keeps you looking.”

Kellie B. Gormly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at or 412-320-7824.

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