Chelsea Flower Show: a potted history

One hundred years ago this May, the first RHS Chelsea Flower Show was held in the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, Christopher Wren’s home for superannuated soldiers. The show has been held there ever since, with two breaks (1917-18, 1940-46) for world wars. So this will be the 92nd Chelsea rather than the 101st.

Chelsea’s alternative title is The Royal Horticultural Society’s Great Spring Show, and under that name it had been held at two previous venues: from 1862 at the RHS’s now vanished garden in Kensington, and from 1888 in the gardens of the Inner Temple, on the banks of the Thames.

In 1912, the Great Spring Show was cancelled so that the RHS could help stage the Royal International Horticultural Exhibition, which had special tents for French, Belgian and German exhibitors. That exhibition was a stunning success, and there is a lovely anecdote about a German visitor who “was heard to say, in slow, measured tones, “This is the happiest day of my life”.

At any rate, the site proved to be such a superb venue for a flower show that the RHS moved its Great Spring Show there from the following year.

Although the majority of exhibitors at Chelsea have always been British, there has been an international contribution ever since the first show in 1913, when the French rose growers Robichon had a stand.

Even in 1947, when it was hard to find an adequate number of British exhibitors for the revival of Chelsea, and many thought that it was premature to start the show again, there was a display by Plant Publicity Holland.

Over the course of the past century there have been some 200 exhibitors from outside the UK. The greatest proportion of them has naturally been European: there have been more exhibitors from the Netherlands (34) than from any other country. The British empire and its successor, the Commonwealth, have also been a steady supplier of exhibits; as early as 1920 the government of Victoria (Australia) staged a display of Australian plants. The coronation year of 1937 saw an Empire Exhibition, arranged by the Curator of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, with 15 different stands showing the characteristic flora of countries from Canada and India to Fiji and the Seychelles.

Visitors to Chelsea Flower Show in 1976

But second only to the Netherlands has been the US, with 22 exhibitors to date. The first American exhibitor at Chelsea was the Massachusetts orchid grower Albert C Burrage, in 1925, with a display of Paphiopedilums (slipper orchids). He was followed in 1929 by Mrs Sherman Hoyt, who staged what was probably the most celebrated exhibit in the show’s entire history.

Hoyt, who helped to create Joshua Tree National Park in southern California, was a tireless promoter of the beauties of the desert and the need to conserve desert environments. Her display was a modified version of one exhibited at the annual show of the Garden Club of America the year before: three tableaux, with painted scenic backdrops, stuffed animals, and a range of their native flora, representing the Mojave desert and similar Californian environments.

The exhibit won the Lawrence Medal for best of the year and the RHS made Hoyt an honorary Fellow. She later donated the plants and backdrops to Kew, which installed them in a new glasshouse, the Sherman Hoyt House, so that for 50 years one Chelsea Flower Show display was continuously on view to the public. Thirty years ago, the Hoyt House was demolished, and the cacti and Mojave desert backdrop were transferred to the new Princess of Wales Conservatory, where they remain.

The year 1982 saw the 300th anniversary of the founding of Philadelphia, and a Pennsylvania Tercentenary Gardens Collaborative was set up to celebrate. It took two years to plan and get the necessary plants for the resulting show garden, which was arranged to give the impression of walking along the edge of a New England forest.

Since 1971, one of the regular features of Chelsea has been the presence of displays by tourist companies or overseas horticultural societies, hoping to promote tourism by showing collections of exotic plants.

The Kenya Horticultural Society began the trend in 1971, and has been followed by long-repeated exhibits from Colombia, Brazil, South Africa and the West Indies. Since 1988 there has hardly been a year without the Kirstenbosch Botanic Garden from South Africa, and the Barbados Horticultural Society, in attendance.

The most recent addition to this number has been the Nong Nooch Tropical Botanic Garden in Thailand, which has stunned visitors with three successive floral displays incorporating model temples based on traditional Thai architecture. All three of these exhibitors will be present at this year’s show.

The greatest number of Chelsea’s exhibitors have been housed under canvas or its modern equivalent; the great marquee, which was first used in 1951, spent years in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s largest tent. In 2000 it was replaced by a modular pavilion. All the exhibits mentioned so far were in effect indoors. But out in the open air there are the show gardens, whether created by nurseries or garden designers, or more recently sponsored by business or charitable organisations.

The first important garden by a non-UK exhibitor was the Spanish courtyard garden, which was staged, complete with glazed tiles and a fountain, in 1952 by the Sociedad de Amigos del Paisaje y Jardines. In 1958 the great Parisian seed house of Vilmorin-Andrieux created a garden at Chelsea in the form of a potager: a French-style kitchen garden, the first harbinger of what would become a major trend in British gardening three decades later. The Gardeners’ Chronicle was described the carefully trained fruit trees as “real works of art”.

In recent years there have been several Japanese gardens, such as the work of designer Kay Yamada of the Barakura English Garden in Nagano.

Every year from 1998 to 2005, the founder of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayed bin al-Nahyan, sponsored a garden, while the Ishihara Kazuyuki Design Laboratory from Japan has created six gardens, with the seventh to follow this year.

Another regular contributor has been the Australian nursery, Fleming’s, which has collaborated on several gardens with sponsorship from travel agents Trailfinders. Annual publicity for its garden on Australian television has allowed the nursery to encourage continued spending on horticulture at a time of financial restraint.

One of the most striking show gardens last year was the South Korean gardener Jihae Hwang’s “Quiet time: the DMZ forbidden garden”, replicating the effect on wild vegetation of the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea.

In 2010, Jane Owen and Ann-Marie Powell created a rainforest garden for Green & Black’s, the chocolate makers, to highlight the plight of the indigenous peoples of Cameroon. A group of pygmy people travelled to Chelsea to plant the garden and build a traditional leaf house in a clearing, with a chainsaw, yellow helmet, and AK47 rifle providing hints of the threat that illegal logging poses to their lives.

The Chelsea Flower Show is not merely a British event but a global one. This year will see exhibits from the French iris nursery Cayeux, the Dutch bulb firms Warmenhoven and JS Pennings, and horticultural societies from Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago.

There will be gardens by Italian and New Zealand designers, and a garden inspired by Sentebale, the Lesotho-based charity founded by Prince Harry. There is a potential place at Chelsea for every nationality: come and see this year’s selection.

RHS historian Dr Brent Elliott is the author of ‘RHS Chelsea Flower Show’ (Frances Lincoln, 2013)

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