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Flowers take center stage

| Saturday, March 15, 2008

When Michele Frey McCann thinks about March Madness, a clear-cut victory comes to mind.

But it is a triumph of orchids and hyacinths, not power forwards and guards.

"Water, light and flowers," says the exhibit director and designer at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Oakland. "You can't beat it."

March Madness -- or "March and April Madness," as she points out -- starts at Phipps today as the Spring Flower Show opens its month-long run.

This year's show, she says, is dedicated to a restoration of Phipps as Western Pennsylvania's flower and plant centerpiece, rather than the site of a massively popular art exhibit.

"We don't really have a theme this year," she says. "But, if we were to look for one, it would be Garden Mania. It's just getting people thinking about flowers and their gardens again."

Richard V. Piacentini, executive director of the conservatory, agrees.

"This is traditionally our most popular show," he says. "It comes when people are tired of winter. It gives them a chance to spend some time in a nice, warm atmosphere."

He says the spring show usually draws between 40,000 and 45,000 people a year, which is a sizable portion of the year's visitors. That reached 191,000 in 2006.

In 2007, however, the conservatory was the site of a show of the glass art of Seattle artist Dale Chihuly, which drew 375,000 people there in nine months.

Now it is back to business, a task that is a bit challenging this year. Some Chihuly exhibits will remain, such as the gold snake-like chandelier in the entrance area.

But overall, it is time to bring the conservatory back to its usual appearance, says Margie Radebaugh, director of horticulture and education. That transformation provides a test tor the building and grounds and horticulture crews, along with volunteers that total about 40 workers, she says.

But she and McCann believe Phipps is up to the task of showing it is more about flowers than glass.

"Some people say, 'Oh, isn't the place going look empty?'" McCann says with a bit of a grin.

"I don't think so."

From the first steps into the display area, it is obvious Phipps is far from empty.

In the Palm Court, where a huge, Medusa-like piece of Chihuly art reigned, a Charleston, S.C., feel has taken over, with triple-tiered fountains and cast iron urns decorating the setting.

Big baskets of hydrangeas hang overhead, and "Poor Man's Orchids" -- formally known as schizanthus -- dominate the ground.

Rooms don't have thematic decoration as they did in 2007's "Proverbs in Bloom," which was built around floral representations of well-known expressions,

But they do take on life of their own.

The Serpentine Room, for instance, is decorated by large chess pieces. Rather than simply being a look at the way such pieces could be used in a garden, the room has a more chessboard appearance.

Colored squares are the homes of the pieces and they reflect the flowers around them. For instance, blue delphinium and snapdragons surround the pieces on a blue-and-orange setting.

The pieces are more than 3 feet tall and dominate the room. Missing, however, is the strongest piece in the game, the queen.

Almost.

"I knew I needed a queen," McCann says, walking to some tulips just coming into bloom. "I didn't have one. So I got one. The Beauty Queen Tulip is my queen."

Other rooms have similar strong features.

• The Orchid Room is not featuring any special decoration for the show, but the collection of flowers in the room make it "incredibly florific," McCann says.

• The South Conservatory, site of a ship display in the Chihuly exhibit, is being transformed into a topiary-laden room. "It will become the formal garden familiar to you," she says, "and go from four-fifths water to four-fifths dirt."

• The Sunken Garden, which was raised in level during the glass exhibit, is going back to its lower setting, and filled with delphinium, pansies and blue primula.

One of McCann's favorite rooms, however, is the Victoria Room. It is highlighted by an interactive, lighted fountain that had been quieted during the Chihuly display for fear of damage to the glass.

But it is back, and McCann loves it.

"This is just great," she says, her hands spread over the buttons that control the sprays of water and lights. "Playing with this is, I don't know, just so relaxing."

She also likes the noise the water makes as its force is increased or lessened. The interactive fountain now is flanked by statues of Venus de Milo and low, arching fountains.

McCann also points out how that sound is lost immediately in the room next door, the Broderie, which is garden-like and filled with Dusty Miller and rhubarb.

She and Piacentini believe the show will bring back Phipps to its more traditional role.

"During Chihuly, many people commented on the high quality of the horticulture at the show," he says. "We think that same attention to detail will be obvious in the spring show."

Additional Information:

Spring Flower Show

When: 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. all days; 9:30-10 p.m. Fridays through April 13.

Admission: $10; $9 for senior citizens; $7 for ages 2-18; free for Phipps members

Where: Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, Schenley Park, Oakland

Details: 412-622-6914 or online

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