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Flower show bursts with color, panache

The New England Spring Flower Show, which once celebrated early tulips and daffodils, feels more like an early-summer flower show this year, thanks to the swaths of towering blue delphiniums, bell flowers, astilbes, and roses.

Temple ruins and a virtual tour of downtown Boston's future Rose Kennedy Greenway are highlights of this year's show, which has plenty of floral color and design panache. There's less whimsy and more flower-filled gardens than last year's show, as the overall level of horticultural expertise continues to rise with the availability of ever more sophisticated plant material. Though flowering trees provide the canopy, it's the perennials that are real eye-catchers. Garden sculptures, water features, and stonework are also more sophisticated than in many past shows.

The theme of "Deeply Rooted" refers to the 175th anniversary year of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, which stages the event. The upbeat mood among exhibitors reflects the society's embrace of the new leadership of board co-chairs Elaine W. Fiske and Keith A. Hutchins after the resignation last year of the increasingly controversial longtime director, John C. Peterson.

A cheerful farm scene with a John Deere tractor and live turkeys from Wilson Farms in Lexington greets show-goers at the main South Lobby entrance. From here, you have the choice of two directions. I suggest you head right into the smaller Hall B toward M. Garvey Landscape Design of Natick's flower-filled exhibit, with its towering blue delphiniums.

Continue bearing right between two scenes of rustic garden sheds. On the righthand side is a woodland ably constructed by the students of Minuteman Regional High School. On the left is Pennoyer Newman LLC, of New York, creator of lightweight containers cast from molds of antique urns and pots. These showcase sophisticated container plantings by Judith Maniatis, who specializes in rooftop Manhattan gardens and counts Bette Midler among her clients. In the far corner is a fascinating exhibit by the Central Artery Tunnel Project, with a 10-minute virtual reality tour (which looks a bit like a computer game) of downtown Boston's new post-Big Dig greenspace. It includes a glimpse of the horticultural society's proposed garden under glass, which Mayor Thomas Menino endorsed last week.

Round the corner of the excellent Federal Reserve Bank of Boston exhibit to find the demonstration platform (landscaped by Winston Flowers of Boston), with hourly live presentations.

Now you will be facing an Asian-inspired water garden by R. L. Stevens Construction Company of Hopkinton. Plantings include uncommon Chinese peonies, one of which is shaded by a painted and waxed parasol of the type traditionally used in China to protect and frame these large and amazing blooms. Karen Howard of Howard Design Associates of Newton has designed this garden around carved wood statues and furniture imported from Burma by Sonny Crawford and Emily Gopen of Shelburne Falls.

After circling an impressive naturalistic waterfall by Envision Waterfalls of New Boston, N.H., you'll find yourself confronting the much larger Hall A. But relax. You've already seen much of the best stuff in the show with very little effort.

Stop to admire the small but high-impact delphinium garden by Parterre Garden Services of Cambridge, and then head toward the left of Hall A. There, Michael Mazur of Earthworks in Leverett has built a Stonehenge-like ruin with massive cut stones weighing as much as 2 1/2 tons apiece. Centered in the archway is a large globe fountain of mortared mixed fieldstone and moss built by Christopher Carolla (it can be yours for $5,000).

Across the aisle is an outstanding garden by Mahoney's Garden Centers. Straight ahead is a large exhibit designed by Garden Design magazine, meant to suggest three hidden backyards of Beacon Hill. A formal, Federal-looking courtyard with a brick terrace and boxwood hedges segues into an Asian-inspired garden of bamboo, cold-hardy camellias, and a dry-gravel stream meant to evoke the course of the Charles River. A contemporary garden has high-end furnishings.

From here you can continue left toward the hundreds of commercial booths selling everything from fencing to ferns -- and the exit.

Or you can bear right, and delve into the heart of Exhibit Hall A, where you will be greeted by the Bartlett Tree Expert Company's large flowering dogwoods. They are underplanted with creamy white Canadian bunchberry, wildflowers that look like very short dogwood blossoms -- because they are. Cornus canadensis is actually a species of dogwood tree that has no trunk, so it grows horizontally underground instead of vertically.

Wander the rest of the exhibits, which include an educational woodland scene by the New England Wild Flower Society and an interpretation of Elm Bank's new Weezie's Garden for Children designed by Mass. Hort's new director of horticulture and education, Tom Strangfeld. Amateur plant, flower design, and garden competitions include the labors of more than 100 different garden clubs. The Fox Hill Garden Club, the Milton Garden Club, and the Noanett Garden Club have produced notable small gardens this year on a New England theme.

If your feet start to hurt, find the lecture hall where a series of authors and experts will address gratefully seated audiences.

The New England Spring Flower Show runs daily 10 a.m.-9:30 p.m. through Sunday, when hours are 10 a.m..-5:30 p.m. Admission is $20 weekends, $17 weekdays; $7 children 4-12. Call 617-933-4980 for information. Tomorrow's Children's Festival from 4:30 to 8 p.m. has special performances and activities. An $85 family membership entitles you to two Flower Show tickets, members-only show hours (9-10 a.m. tomorrow, 7-10 a.m. weekends), free admission to 100 botanical gardens nationwide, gift shop and class discounts, and a year's subscription to Horticulture magazine. The Bayside Exposition Center is walking distance from the Red Line UMass Station. There's a weekend shuttle. From the south driving, take exit 14 off the Southeast Expressway and follow signs for flower show parking. From the north, take exit 15 and follow signs. Parking is $12.

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more flower show info
Early bloomers
"Deeply Rooted" is the theme of the 133rd New England Spring Flower Show, which combines both tradition and novelty to get the jump on spring through March 21 at the Bayside Exposition Center in Dorchester.
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