Skip to content

Chelsea Flower Show focuses on Health, Happiness and Horticulture

Annual spring event a 'florist shop that goes on forever'

LONDON: If you have ever stopped to smell the roses, take a moment now to close your eyes – to imagine a place where thousands of plants and flowers and all kinds of gardens surround you with their myriad colours, shapes, fragrances.

Now open your eyes: You are at the world famous Chelsea Flower Show held for five days in May by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) in the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea in Chelsea, London. (And Canada has a starring role. The Royal Bank’s water appreciation show garden won a silver-gilt award, placing between silver and gold.)

What a treat. Outdoors, you can visit more than 30 show gardens, artisan gardens and theme gardens – plus several hundred garden-related businesses. You admire their creativity – whether it’s a Winnie-the-Pooh sculpture, rotating trees or a clothing store’s mannequins with flowers for heads.

Indoors, the Great Pavilion features some 200 flower, plant and related displays.

You marvel at four dozen dark yellow, pale yellow and white single and double daffodil varieties, you breathe in the fragrance of a dozen colours of hyacinths or of a rare orchid, you smile at the “slide salad” display promoting healthy eating by featuring a variety of salad veggies on a playground slide, you inspect the yellow/cream nodding heads of the Clematis chiisanensis AMBER which was chosen as the 2016 Flower of the Year.

The sponsoring Royal Horticultural Society has 445,000 members who spend an average of 10 hours a week gardening. No wonder the show, now in its 103rd year, regularly sells out. (Scalpers were asking around $2,000 for a ticket, 20 times its face value.)

Greening Grey (rather than Great) Britain for Health, Happiness and Horticulture has been the theme of this year’s five-day show.

“We believe everyone should benefit from growing plants to enhance lives, build stronger, healthier, happier communities, and create better places to live,” said Sir Nicholas Bacon, RHS president, and Sue Biggs, RHS director general.

Amid heightened security because of recent terrorism incidents, several royal family members visited the show. Queen Elizabeth attended her 50th show which featured several displays honouring her 90th birthday. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (Prince William and Kate Middleton) visited for the first time to admire the Princess Charlotte chrysanthemum named after their daughter.

Following my visit to the show several years ago, I described it as “a florist shop that goes on forever.” Only a shop that big could feature so many and varied attractions. For example:
– Some 460 flowers, ferns, grasses and bulbs (plus 100 hours of labour) went into the M&G Dress a model wore to reflect the theme of the variety in the M&G woodland show garden, which won one of the show’s seven gold medals.

– The Modern Slavery fresh garden also won a gold medal – the first time a black designer has created a garden at the show. Tanzanian-born Juliet Sargeant’s garden contrasted a bright exterior with a darker centre to hint at the “hidden reality: people are being kept in captivity and forced to work in every part of the UK today.”

– Several young Einsteins took measurements and checked calculations in the Winton Beauty of Mathematics show garden which featured a flowing copper band etched with plant growth algorithms representing an emerging seedling.

– The award-winning Royal Bank of Canada show garden drew on the Mediterranean pine habitat of Jordan, one of the most water-short countries, to show how arid landscapes can have beautiful flora requiring minimal rainfall.

– Some 300,000 individually hand-crafted poppies covered nearly 2,000sq m (21,000sq ft) in front of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, which houses war veterans, in a display sponsored by Australia’s Victoria State Government – based on an original project by Lynn Berry and Margaret Knight to crochet 120 poppies to “plant” at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne.

– Sculptures, large and small, in bronze, stone, wood and various other materials celebrated everything from scenes in famous children’s books like Alice in Wonderland to horses and other animals created out of various pieces of naturally twisted wood.

– Health featured in several displays like The Low Allergy Garden, with a variety of flowering plants, shrubs and trees not linked to allergies in humans. And Coventry University’s Healthy Garden, Healthy Gardener, with skeletons demonstrating the results of motion capture technology to measure and analyze the effect of gardening on muscle strength, joint flexibility and postural stability.

– The Harrods British Eccentrics Garden featured trees and flowers – plus vegetation and other items that periodically spun around, bobbed up and down and performed other mechanical feats – more eccentric than one would expect from the venerable London department store sponsor.

But there’s nothing eccentric about this year’s theme at the flower show, nothing cliché about taking time to smell the roses. Both can grow your health and happiness.

News money columnist and travel writer Mike Grenby teaches journalism at Bond University on Australia’s Gold Coast –