I love a visit to a flower show. As an exhibitor at RHS Chelsea Flower Show each year I don’t really get the visitor experience; the opportunity to wander as one of the crowd soaking up the spectacle. A day at a flower show on your own or with a gardening friend is an indulgent affair; particularly if you have to opportunity to buy what you see. Having visited shows in the UK, US and Japan I suspect this is a universal pleasure. Recently I paid a visit to the BBC Gardener’s World Live Show which seems to be both traditional flower show and shopping destination.
Most floral exhibits are timeless spectacles; they have a somewhat retro charm. Blooms are displayed in mounds, pyramids or fans, displaying the individual blooms for maximum impact. These displays are not about showcasing the subjects as garden plants and how they associate with others. These are all about the quality of individual flowers. Chrysanthemum blooms are a classic example that are rarely seen nowadays but are still to be admired for their solid perfection. These challenge the skills of the grower who goes through a whole season tending his plants to produce that perfect flower which lasts for a couple of weeks.
Lilies mean white, aloof blooms associated with churches and funerals to many people. A display of colourful blooms at a flower show quickly dismisses that myth. Colour range and flower form becomes more amazing with every season of plant breeding. The great pyramids of lilies have an alluring vulgarity; the individual blooms are undisputedly photogenic. I’ve noticed many more pollen-free, double varieties which avoid staining from orange lily pollen.
Flower Shows are full of flowers that you either love or you hate. Gladioli and dahlias are good examples. A display of these in regimented order may be enough to put you off them for life, or you may be bedazzled by the colours and fall in love. Blooms displayed in this way give no clue as to their appearance in a garden. This is all about the quality and perfection of the individual.
The fuchsia is another enthusiast’s plant. Much more than a summer bedding subject for hanging baskets and pots this is a collector’s item. Fuchsia societies still abound where groups of fuchsia lovers get together and delight one another with their tales of success and triumph. The traditional banked display of fuchsias at a flower show may leave some cold but it will set the hearts of fuchsia lovers racing with delight. I remain impressed but unmoved.
Pelargoniums are in the same class. Specialist nurseries have their precious show plants which are kept and groomed for the purpose. Great mounds of colour that have been cosseted are to be wondered at. Of course they give little clue as to the reality of one of these subjects in your garden. In my experience the zonal pelargoniums are fussy creatures that only look good in fair weather or a conservatory.
The calla lily is a more plant of passion; jettisoned into the flower show spotlight by its popularity as a cut flower. Sleek, waxy, simple, elegant and perhaps a tad impersonal these flowers offer some rich and enticing colours. Perhaps these will become the new fuchsias and pelargoniums that have survived through the decades?
Gardeners have come to love heucheras. These are a new generation of collector’s plants as well as delighting designers and real gardeners. Their enduring foliage colour and variety combined with attractive cultivar names make for great appeal. What’s more they are hardy: they do not need a greenhouse or hours of regular devotion to enjoy them. Plantagogo, a specialist heuchera nursery owned by Vicky and Richard Fox is a regular at many shows; it’s a must on the list of many show goers.
Despite their appeal to slugs and snails hostas remain popular and collectable. In some ways I think their appeal is somewhere between calla lilies and heucheras. They may not be the most colourful creatures but their leaf forms, patterns and shapes are fascinating. They are good in pots and containers and most thrive in shady situations so they suit small gardens of today. They are hardy outdoor subjects and enough of a challenge to grow well, but without the need for a greenhouse.
Of course roses remain our favourite flowers. Their scent, warmth and poise are hard to resist. You’ve already heard from Michael Marriott about the David Austin RHS Chelsea exhibit and believe me the attraction of the David Austin exhibits at other summer shows is just as great. The difference at BBC Gardeners World and Hampton Court and shows I’ve visited elsewhere in the world is that visitors can buy the plants. Equipped with pull along trolleys and shopping bags they do more than gaze longingly at the objects of their desire: they buy. The plant crèche, a kind of cloakroom for plants is overflowing by mid morning and visitors prepare themselves to buy even more.
I always find it quite fascinating what people will buy at a show and how quickly they make a decision. A plant that could be considered, picked up, and put back a few times before being left behind or purchased in a garden centre or nursery is snapped up in seconds at a flower show. This is no time for hesitation: what if someone else gets there first?
So what are your thoughts on Flower shows in your part of the world? Do they still retain their magic? Do you like to buy, or just look – let me know your thoughts.