Spring is blooming at Phipps Botanical Garden show


John Blair | Senior Staff Photographer

Large watering cans add to a display inside Phipps Conservatory’s spring flower show.

By Trinity Foster, Senior Staff Writer

Phipps Botanical Garden has managed to emulate the fresh fragrance, peaceful sounds, vibrant flowers and cleansing nature of spring under a single glass roof. 

Phipps’ spring show, Five Senses of Splendor, opened in March to give visitors the opportunity to enjoy spring early. The show features a giant perfume bottle, elevated birdhouses and whimsical faux birds “flying” from the ceiling, a fountain accompanied by upbeat music and tens of thousands of spring flowers. The show runs through April 16.

Mike Bechtel, display manager at Phipps, said planning for the spring show began a year ago. 

Long before each show, designers pitch three concepts to a planning committee with representatives from each department. Committee members then choose the winning theme, and display horticulturists get to work. Bechtel oversees this process and is responsible for a handful of display horticulturists who work on the seasonal rooms that change with each show, he said.

A close up of a green and purple flower inside Phipps Conservatory’s spring flower show. ( John Blair | Senior Staff Photographer)

One such employee is Natalie Sciulli, resident of Plum Borough, who started as a display horticulturist in 2021. Sciulli maintains the fern, stove and desert rooms through pruning, watering, planting and yellow-leafing. She also helps with installations, a tough but rewarding process, she said. 

“[Installation] is really physically demanding, but I think the whole process is really awesome. It’s great to get something on paper and bring it to life. To see the artistic concept and bring it into something tangible,” Sciulli said.

Transitioning to a new show takes anywhere from two to three weeks, according to Bechtel, and involves systematically replanting two rooms at a time. Although the Five Senses of Splendor show officially ends on April 16, some rooms will briefly remain available as horticulturists slowly install the summer show, Bechtel said.

Visitors look at the floral displays inside Phipps Conservatory’s spring flower show. ( John Blair | Senior Staff Photographer)

About half of Phipps’ rooms are collection rooms, meaning they stay the same throughout the seasons, Bechtel said. These include the two-story Hawaiian-themed tropical forest, spice room, cactus-filled desert room, fern room and stove room adorned with tropical blooms. But the display rooms, including Sunken Garden, Victoria Room, East Room and others, are constantly changing.

Phipps grows many of the exhibit’s structural plants in its own nursery, including trees, shrubs, and annuals, Sciulli said. To create the rainbow of colors and textures throughout the exhibit, Phipps outsourced many of its flower bulbs from Erich Gumto Greenhouse. Sciulli said it takes a certain expertise to create an exhibit like this.

A bridge scene inside Phipps Conservatory’s spring flower show with theme Five Seasons of Splendor. ( John Blair | Senior Staff Photographer)

“I think anybody could get into horticulture, but it takes a certain set of skills and attention to detail. You could take it from a creative approach or scientific approach. It’s like a combination of art and science,” Sciulli said.

Designers intentionally choose plants and flowers to reflect the broader theme of the show, for their high performance, and for aesthetics, Bechtel said. According to Phipps’ website, this show includes lilies, amaryllis, petunias, daffodils, tulips, hyacinths and more. 

“There are certain plants that we tend to use year after year because we know how they will perform. There’s a bit of knowing atmospheres – what rooms like the sunny stuff, which areas of a room will take shady stuff. There’s also choosing new varieties. Something that we haven’t had before, we’ll trial during a show,” Bechtel said.

A sign displaying Phipps Conservatory’s spring flower show theme — Five Seasons of Splendor. ( John Blair | Senior Staff Photographer)

Although representing sight and smell is easy using brightly-colored and aromatic flowers, Associate Director of Exhibits Jordyn Melino had to creatively integrate the other senses, according to Bechtel.

“A smaller room we have, called the gallery, tends to stay vegetable-themed. That room, we could lend to taste. In our sunken garden, there are wind chimes. In the Victoria Room, we used the plants that have different textures or leaves that respond to touch. It’s definitely a very thought-out, intentional show,” Bechtel said.

Bechtel added that although Phipps is known for its beautiful displays, its contribution to the public goes beyond pretty flowers.

A close up of a pink and white flower inside Phipps Conservatory’s spring flower show. ( John Blair | Senior Staff Photographer)

“It’s very important to have refuge. You can imagine in Oakland there are a lot of hospitals. Maybe family members are visiting someone in the hospital and need somewhere to ease their pain. Same could be said for exams – so many students are able to come and relax,” Bechtel said. 

Sciulli agrees that Phipps is about more than just plants and said she hopes that visitors can find comfort in the exhibit.

“I would really like for them to have a place of respite, a way to refresh your spirit and kind of get away from all the busyness of the world. To come in, take a breath of the fresh flowers, and enjoy it,” Sciulli said.