Trapped in one of the snowiest and coldest winters in recent memory, the people who ventured outside Wednesday night were able to find a brief respite inside the Portland Company Complex on Fore Street.

They were greeted by the scent of fresh soil, sweet-smelling flora, the sound of gurgling water fountains and a greenhouse-like warmth as the Portland Flower Show opened its doors, kicking off a four-day event that is viewed by many as one of the first signs of spring.

Heather Tooker of Brooksville came with her friend of 45 years, Emily Keith of Cape Elizabeth. Both women enjoy gardening but they also came to forget about the mounds of snow piled outside.

“We are done (with winter),” Tooker said. “I love winter because I like to snowshoe and ski but it’s been too cold. For God’s sake, it’s March.”

“It gives you hope that spring is coming,” Keith added.

Joanna Sprague, the flower show’s spokeswoman, said the opening gala night event typically attracts about 500 people. The exhibit halls inside the cavernous red-brick buildings that make up the complex are less crowded because admission ticket prices are triple what they cost during the rest of flower show week.

But guests who are willing to pay a little extra can chat with professional gardeners and landscape designers, while listening to live music and sampling from a wide array of hors d’oeuvres.

“Everyone is thinking I am done hibernating. I think everyone is cold and they are fired up for spring to come,” said Sprague. She said flower show attendance usually falls in the 10,000 to 12,000 range but the harsh winter conditions could see those numbers increase.

“It’s a sign that spring is coming. If it is still snowing in June then I would be complaining,” said Connie Loughran of Gorham, who accompanies her daughter, Becky Curtis, each year to the show.

Curtis, who celebrates her birthday each March by coming to the show, said she is inspired by the garden displays and bright colors.

While it’s true that spring is just around the corner – the first day of the new season falls on Thursday, March 20 – meteorologist Mike Kistner warns against becoming overly optimistic.

Portland could tie an unofficial record Thursday if temperatures don’t exceed the freezing mark – 32 degrees. Kistner, who works for the National Weather Service in Gray, said the last time Portland experienced 10 consecutive days of below-freezing temperatures this late in the winter season was back in 1994 when temperatures remained below freezing from Feb. 23 to March 4. Kistner said he would be surprised if Thursday’s temperatures get higher than the mid-20s, which means it is likely the city will tie the old record.

When will it warm up again?

Kistner said Portland should get a break on Saturday when it is expected to reach 40 degrees but after that extreme cold will return for the foreseeable future.

“It’s tough to say when things will warm up. Hopefully by June,” he joked.

“This is therapy,” said Amy Dulac, who came to the flower show’s opening night with two friends. “Tonight we walked in and said, ‘Smell that dirt!’ ”

Dulac, who lives in Greene, is a native of Buffalo, N.Y. She said Buffalo’s coldest winter days would not even rival some of the cold weather Maine has seen this winter.

“It has been an awful winter,” she said.

Sandy Fussell of Scarborough and her friend, Doris Cannon of Biddeford, were admiring “A Pig’s Trail” display. Developed by Campbell’s Landscape and Design of Lisbon, the exhibit, modeled after the “Three Little Pigs” fable, features a straw house and a house made from sticks as well as several plantings.

Fussell and Cannon cast secret ballot votes for “A Pig’s Trail” under the People’s Choice Award category. The winner of that category will be announced Sunday afternoon.

Cannon said she was thoroughly enjoying the exhibits, especially the smells.

“It makes you forget how cold it is outside,” she said.

“It’s a really nice escape,” Fussell added.

Dixie Love of Topsham said cloudy skies and lack of sunshine earlier in the day had made her feel depressed.

Her mood improved significantly when she started poking around the flower show’s exhibits with her 2-year-old daughter, Katarina.

“It’s so warm and appealing,” Love said. “Every corner has something new and fresh to look at. I really love the theme.”

“Storybook Gardens” – the theme of this year’s show – will run through Sunday.

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

dhoey@pressherald.com