March 6, 2013
Brandon Huber is no stranger to success at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Philadelphia Flower Show.
In the eight years that he has been showing off the best of his ever-growing — and admittedly weird — menagerie of plants at the Flower Show’s “Horticourt,” he has amassed more ribbons than he has wall space, surpassing 275 ribbons after continued good fortune at the 2013 show.
This year, he has collected two Gesneriad Society Rosettes for the best foliage gesneriads (a type of tropical plant), and astounding 18 first place blue ribbons and more than 125 ribbons total — a personal best by a wide margin. You won’t find any orchids or typical blooming buds among his entries. Huber, 23, is always looking for the “showstopper” — that plant that will really give visitors cause to pause. His first class entries for 2013 include a hanging begonia of monstrous proportions; a climbing onion — an onion growing on the surface of the soil “with a crazy vine growing out of it;” and a variegated ivy that he has trained to grow around a structure in a circle.
And that’s just the tip of the leafy green iceberg for Huber’s collection of more than 300 plants, which includes all manner of carnivores and cacti and takes up every available window sill and sunny spot in his parents’ home in Northeast Philadelphia.
“My parents took me to the Flower Show every year starting when I was about 8-years-old; it was a big influence for me. The Horticourt has some of the most diverse, exotic and unusual plants that you’re likely to see anywhere — I knew I wanted to be a part of it,” said Huber, a senior Horticulture major in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Horticulture, part of Temple’s School of Environmental Design, who is also Student Government president at the Ambler Campus. “I thrive on the challenge of it and the chance to push the plants to their limit; to see what I can do. I’m the only big exhibitor my age competing against legends in the horticulture field that have been at it for decades — the more you enter, the more you want it.”
His crowning achievement, so far, has been a Best in Show Award in 2009 for his “amorphophallus konjac,” a massive six-foot tall, dark purple nightmare that feels like vinyl and has one of the largest flowers in the world. It’s more common and colorful name is “corpse plant,” an appellation it lives up to by giving off a stench of rotting meat when in full bloom that could fell an unsuspecting nose from 100 feet away. One of the plant’s offspring won a first place ribbon at this year’s show during the second judging day.
“The amorphophallus smells just like a dead body! It’s actually a pollinating technique; just like other flowers use nice smells to attract bees and butterflies. The corpse plant attracts carrion beetles and house flies — anything that would be attracted to road kill,” he said. “It really stinks up the show — you’d think people would be repelled by it, but they can’t get enough of it. When I first added it to my collection I hid it in my basement to see if my parents would notice the smell — they definitely did!”
So far no neighbors have called the police fearing a budding Hannibal Lecter next door, “but it would be a pretty cool story if they did,” he said.
While Huber’s corpse plants might be his pride and joy, they are certainly not alone in the “just plain weird” category of his collection. They are joined by more than 100 cacti and succulents — some in shapes and sizes that would look at home on any alien world — and pumpkins that weigh in each year at hundreds of pounds each.
Then there are the carnivores, more than 30 Venus flytraps, long throated pitcher plants, and sticky tentacled sundews that thrive not on sunshine and soil but on live meat.
“The flytraps are native to the Carolinas. They live in bogs, which are very anaerobic environments, very poor in nutrients. They evolved to feed themselves — if you stick your finger in, the flytraps will close right on it,” Huber said with pride. “You can actually watch them move to catch things — it’s like watching a predator. They digest the enzymes and leave a dried out carcass. While it’s mostly insects they’ll occasionally catch frogs and even small lizards.”
According to Anne Brennan, Horticulture Supervisor for the Ambler Arboretum of Temple University, carnivorous plants often grow in the understory of forests where not as much sunlight shines through and leaf space is at a premium. Becoming carnivorous has helped them survive “and become quite hearty.”
“I think people tend to think of plants as passive creatures so they are fascinated with the carnivorous plant’s desire to eat bugs. Most plants just want soil, water and sun, but these attract ‘prey’ chemically and physically and then eat them,” she said. “People love the novelty of it. We often use carnivorous plants in our Flower Show exhibits — there are pitcher plants in the bog portion of this year’s exhibit — because they winter well and they look great.”
Huber said carnivorous plants don’t, however, tend to be the belle of the ball at the Flower Show, at least not when it comes to individual judging.
“Sometimes, I think, some of the judges are a little put off by them,” he said. “Some of these are scary looking plants — some look like they have fangs! When you think about a plant devouring meat, that creeps some people out.”
Huber, of course, is not one of those people. Applying to graduate school for Plant Pathology, Plant Biology and Plant Breeding he has visions of the future that would make Dr. Frankenstein proud.
“Temple’s program has been terrific in helping me build upon my existing knowledge, particularly the science of growing, plant physiology and chemistry,” he said. “I want to be a plant breeder; that’s always been my passion. I want to breed new plants — exotics that are even more bizarre and crazy. I want to create the next showstopper!”
CONTACT: James Duffy, 267-468-8108, firstname.lastname@example.org, release available by e-mail