It is difficult to know where to start. The wall of daffodils braving the 27 degree late May heat surprise? The pitchers full of undrinkable Pimms? Or the fact that somehow, someone, almost certainly a committee, decided to limit attendance over five days to 157,000, exactly?
Or maybe it’s just the guy with the hat.
But really, the place we started our visit to the Chelsea Flower Show in London last week turned out to be just down the street, in an amazing garden on Royal Hospital Road called the Chelsea Physic Garden. It’s only been there since 1673. One of the wonderful things about Britain is that just about everywhere there is something really amazing, there’s something else just as amazing about two blocks away. In this case, it’s a four-acre botanical garden that has been home base for over three centuries to some of the world’s leading botanists. Today it contains and, thanks to all kinds of helpful little signs, also explains, some 5000 different plants.
Its location was chosen because, sitting right beside the Thames, there is a warmer microclimate that allows non-native plants to survive. As a result, you have a chance to admire flowering plants from Crete, Madeira and the Canary Islands, including an impressive 8 foot tall plant that apparently comes from the top of the volcano in Tenerife, a place I thought was mainly famous for cheap rum.
For someone like me, whose personal self-improvement project is to remember the proper botanical name of one new plant every year, (I am now up to twelve, I think, but don’t ask me to remember them all at the same time, or I will Crocosmia Lucifer you) the prospect of learning the names of even a fraction of 5000 different plants feels like the work of several lifetimes. But the great thing about visiting a garden with an actual gardener is that every time you round another bend you hear, “Oh look, a magnifica minorus japonica!” (Don’t look it up; I just made it up.) How on earth does she remember all these things?
For our little visit the gardener’s highlight was the brand new section entitled Edible and Useful Plants. If it weren’t actually the case that all the plants identified in this area are in fact either edible or useful or both, you’d be forgiven for thinking you had dropped into a Monty Python skit. And now, ladies and gentlemen, it is time to visit the Edible and Useful Plant garden. Step this way, please.
For me, of course, the highlight was tea and a treat. An essential part of every British garden tour.
And then down the road and into the mob scene.
No one could possibly not enjoy the Chelsea Flower Show. If you don’t like the flowers, which are overwhelmingly stunning, or the gadgets – who knew there were so many different versions of trowels? - there’s some glorious people-watching. Fetching summer dresses – okay, I’m just looking. The most impossible combinations of green glen plaid sports jackets and insanely pink striped bankers’ shirts. Expensive up-to-the-minute-haircuts; some hair that looks like it’s never been cut. High heels in the mud. Every accent imaginable.
A huge tent called the Great Pavilion, housing what feels like acres of flowers and plants in glorious profusion. Some 80,000 orchids used in the Thailand display. Outside, cars covered in astro turf, and plastic flowers, and little country cottages installed just for the week of the show, and a strange display that looks like a concentration camp guardhouse honouring 60 years of the Korean DMZ. This year, everywhere you turned there was something in honour of the Queen’s Jubilee, including a display that consisted of pictures of Her Majesty’s visits to the Show stretching back sixty years. It’s all there, really. A stall that sells high priced vintage gardening books. A tree-shaded forest glen filled with different models of garden cottages. Paper flowers hanging from trees. Pink champagne on ice. A bandstand. And every conceivable garden ornament and sculpture you could never imagine putting in your own backyard, but isn’t amazing the things people seem to like?
And of course tea, and cakes. And yes, since you asked, I did add one more flower to the list. It’s the Chelsea Flower Show Plant of the Year 2012, Foxglove Digitalis Illumination Pink. As the English would say, brilliant.