By Jill Brooke
On everyone bucket’s list should be the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in London, the most dazzling floral extravaganza in the world. Taking place at the end of May since 1913, the show attracts exhibitors from around the globe. They create lavish displays that entice horticulturists to sample their newest strains and hybrids and enjoy the variety of flora available.
It is not only educational, but visually stimulating as vendors literally import thousands of flowers – Alliums, roses, peonies, tulips, foxgloves, lupines and more – resulting in a symphony of color and fragrances that delight more than 160,000 visitors during the week-long show. It sells out as soon as tickets are available.
Although a themed “Back to Nature” garden, co-designed by Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, garnered a lot of attention including a special shout-out and visit from Queen Elizabeth, it had no flowers in its pleasing rustic design.
However, I was happy to see another Queen represented where flowers were the crowning achievement.
In honor of Queen Victoria’s 200th birthday, the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) in association with the British Florist Association came up with the idea to create floral crowns for the Florist of the Year competition.
After all, it is Queen Victoria who created trends by using live flowers in her wedding attire to Prince Albert as well as sparking interest in the language of flowers and their special meanings.
Helen Pannitt of Helen James Flowers won the coveted RHS Chelsea Florist of the Year award. Her crown used colorful tangerine and bright yellow blooms as well as fit into the more natural earthy themes of this year’s show.
I also liked Jackie Le Jehan’s design which took inspiration from young Victoria’s dress fabrics and the idea of a floral fabric coming to life through flowers. Instead of the traditional jewel placements are portraits of Queen Victoria’s nine children, which were created originally for a bracelet given to her by Prince Albert. This crown won the Silver award.
While Victoria’s 63-year reign was known for its buttoned-up morality and emphasis on family values, not far from this exhibition was Primrose Hall Peonies, whose display was anything but restrained or covered up.
Owner Alec White hired artist Liz Bylett to paint peonies strategically placed on a nude model – who wore only a thong – and have her walk around the cavernous Great Pavilion and surrounding walkways filled with floral themed pop-up stores, food stands and featured gardens to gain attention for his prized “All That Jazz” new peony.
“It certainly worked,” White says, laughing. “We were a lead story on TV and other shows as well.”
Over at their stand in the Great Pavilion along with 100 other exhibits, White decorated the area with a large bathtub overflowing with peonies and a neon sign with the hashtag, #Love Peonies. There he and his team gave an instructional on peonies, including his Itoh or intersectional peonies.
They are a cross between the familiar herbaceous peonies and tree peonies and considered the most beautiful and most collectible. White then heaped praise on All That Jazz, bred by grower Don Smith.
“What makes it really special are how they open into this raspberry cherry red and have a beautiful apricot fleck,” White said. “As it gets older, as it matures. it is 20 centimeters wide, fully double, and is lightly fragrant and a bit paler with a darker burgundy fleck. It’s absolutely fantastic and low maintenance to grow. Easy for beginners, perfect in pots or the garden, it will last 50 or 60 years. Nor does it get eaten by slugs, rabbits or deer. It’s perfect for everyone.”
Other beautiful Itoh peonies included one called Morning Lilac and Cora Louise. Cora Louise has a lavender tone with raspberry flecks that I found absolutely enticing. /florist of the year competition
Roses were also in bloom at the show. There was a special tribute area honoring famed rose breeder and author David Austin, who passed in December, 2018, at the age of 92.
His team, led by his son and namesake, David Austin, created a breathtaking circular display filled with a rainbow of colorful roses winding around a white fence, which won a Gold medal – the 25th in the company’s stellar history.
Although the English rose, which Austin senior championed and now is often called the Austin Rose, was featured, so were two new additions to the company’s roster – Rosa Eustacia Vye (Ausegdon) and Rosa Gabriel Oak (Auscrowd). Turns out these roses were named after characters from Thomas Hardy’s classic novels.
When you breed such an abundance of interesting varieties, you can be whimsical in picking names, although breeding roses is a serious business. It takes 120,000 variations and nine years of patience, dedication and expertise to select one new rose variety.
Another popular rose breeder, who won the Silver-Gild medal was the Real Flower Company led by the exuberant and indefatigable Rosebie Morton. “If you want fragrant flowers, it’s not how you grow them but the variety you choose,” she explained, noting how the Harkness variety of Margaret Merrill and her offspring are winners.
Why so few scented roses anymore? Morton says commercially grown flowers have had their scent gene genetically removed to increase their longevity. But these suggested varieties offer scent and durability as “nature intended.”
Alliums, which are one of my favorite flowers with their puffball charm, was well represented by the famed Dutch company, W.S. Warmenhoven. What is the best choice for any soil as well as any climate – whether sunny or shady? Called “Purple Rain,” it is a prince of a flower.
As far as eye-popping and awe-inspiring, Birmingham City Council wisely joined with Baroness Floella Brown to create a garden about water conservation. Although the design – with a large stone head drinking from a faucet and live train – entertained, it was also educational. Since so many are suffering from asthma and allergies, all the flowers in the display were allergy friendly so “people can enjoy them without sneezing.”
Flowers including begonias, verbena, clematis, Salvia, and petunias get low pollen ratings and this display proved that one can have a beautiful garden and be considerate to friends and family who may suffer from allergies. I learned that mostly male plants are keen to spray pollen to attract female plants – surprise surprise – and a little focus and knowledge goes a long way. This frolicking fun display won the Gold medal and will also be recreated at the Gardener’s World Live Show in June in Birmingham, England, June 15-18th.
Outside the pavilion, aside from strolling and seeing fabulous gardens, including one designed for Facebook, was a fabulous display that wants to attract pollinators – aka – bees. Richard Eagleton, CEO of McQueens Flowers, was asked to create Per Oculus Apum -Through the Eyes of Bees, a display to highlight the plight and importance of the honey bee.
McQueens flower display created a helix studded with bee-friendly flowers and an upside-down lavender field. It became one of the most popular places to take pictures.
A lover of bees and their industriousness – his niece is even named Beatrice and called Bee – his display educated many on bees and their likes and dislikes. In fact, I learned that bees are very loyal.
“Bees marry the first color flower they see,” informed Eagleton. “The first color they pollinate is the flower they will always go to.” Armed with his trusty flashlight, he showed visitors how the bees see a flower.
As far as plants, The Sedum takesimense atlantis took home top honors at the Chelsea Flower Show.
“An attractive, easy to grow, versatile and multi-functional plant, it forms high cushions of variegated foliage topped with yellow flowers from June to September. Plants are robust and drought resistance and blooms are attractive to insect pollinators,” is what sold the judges. Sounds interesting. And even if you can’t remember the names, the visuals move you to sigh with appreciation and write down options for your own home garden.
For anyone wanting fun, a learning experience and visual stimulation, you can’t beat the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Aside from the show, 80 stores, hotels and restaurants in London participated in creating floral designs that also wowed crowds who were visiting the show. The theme this year was Under the Sea.
In fact, many who couldn’t get the coveted RHS Chelsea Flower Show tickets got these displays as a worthwhile consolation prize. So to be safe, plan a trip for next year which takes place May 19-23, 2020.