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North Hills Monthly

Fall Exhibits at Phipps Conservatory Highlight Chrysanthemums, Fairy Tales

Aug 31, 2015 11:35AM ● By Jennifer Monahan
Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens has put an exciting new spin on its Fall Flower Show and Garden Railroad this year. The Fall Flower Show’s theme is the Japanese chrysanthemum, with a particular focus on its prominence in Japanese culture. The Garden Railroad, popular with guests of all ages, will highlight fairy tales and fables.

Display Horticulturist Laura Schoch was inspired to create the Japanese-themed Fall Flower Show by her travels to other gardens around the country. Having seen an exhibit featuring Kiku-no-hana or Kiku (Japanese for chrysanthemum) about a decade ago, Schoch was excited to design a whole show around the theme. Physical preparations began a year ago.

“A lot of the advance planning has to do with the need to get the stock ordered and then grow all of the chrysanthemums ourselves,” explained Schoch. “You won’t find the types of mums we grow in a typical greenhouse.” The exhibit will highlight Japanese growing techniques, illustrated with live plants that demonstrate each style. “People will see different mums that we haven’t displayed in many years,” said Schoch.

Designers pay meticulous attention to guests’ experiences while walking through the exhibit and attempt to create a cohesive journey through the show. The encounter begins in the Palm Court, with chrysanthemums in bright shades of red and orange and large origami peace cranes, created with assistance from the Origami Club of Pittsburgh. The Serpentine Room will feature gradations of white, yellow, golden yellow, orange and red mums, and will highlight types of Japanese growing techniques. As visitors progress through each area, highlights will include displays of cascading chrysanthemums and the Japanese royal crest created by chrysanthemums floating in a pond.

Set-up requires two intensive weeks of uninstalling one show and installing the next. In addition to a dozen horticulturists, Schoch is grateful for the many volunteers who assist with changing out exhibits. She explained, “Some volunteers work with us for a day, and some for many days; we need all of them. They are vital to our efforts and so appreciated.”

As with the fall show, planning begins months ahead for each new Garden Railroad exhibit. This year’s exhibit will include a large center display as well as two side beds, and will feature fairy tales and fables including Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, Paul Bunyan, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Peter Pan and The Little Engine that Could.

The Conservatory’s horticulturists and design team enjoy the creative brainstorming sessions that precede the exhibit. “My favorite feature this year is probably the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe scene,” said Jordyn Melino, exhibit coordinator for Phipps. “We are using a real, regular-sized work boot and turning it into a house full of children, with all of the details.”

The entire design is on a ‘G-scale,’ or garden scale, which is increasingly uncommon, according to Melino. She explained, “It’s a dying art; very few operating gardens today have a railroad.” For that reason, the Phipps design and facilities team makes a lot of the buildings and features in-house. When they are unable to build it, Melino said, “We hire local artists to create original pieces.”

The end result is a stunning exhibit that even includes interactive components. Melino explained, “We are excited about the Peter Pan exhibit; we have Neverland Island with Captain Hook’s ship. If you push the button, the ship will circle the island.” The team always tries to incorporate two or three interactive push-button activities because of their popularity with guests.

Both shows open Saturday, Oct. 17. The Fall Flower Show lasts three weeks, through Nov. 8. The railroad will remain on display through Feb. 28. For more information, visit