Chelsea’s Annual World of Flowers
by “Awake!” correspondent in the British Isles
EXOTIC orchids from Barbados; South Africa’s strange proteas and strelitzias; colorful daffodils and hyacinths from Holland and Belgium; fragrant roses of England, and flax from New Zealand—yes, gorgeous blooms from every corner of the globe brilliantly exhibited together. Where? At London’s Chelsea Flower Show. The Royal Horticultural Society organizes about 13 shows each year, the highlight being this international one at Chelsea, held in the month of May and known officially as the “Great Spring Show.”
Since the year 1913 the show has been staged on 23 acres in the grounds of the Royal Hospital, a stately edifice designed in the 17th century by Sir Christopher Wren. This extensive building is the home for over 500 old soldiers, “Chelsea Pensioners,” as they are called. During the exhibition, many of them, dressed in long scarlet coats, distribute programs and care for other duties. Why not join us in viewing one of these exhibitions?
Blooms for All Seasons
Despite the press of 40,000 people attending today, special arrangements have been made for those in wheelchairs. There are also guides for the blind. Though unable to see the glorious blends of color, they certainly can enjoy the variety of scents that have been cultivated so carefully in recent years.
We will go straight to the famous three-and-a-half-acre marquee, where 85 exhibitors have brought their beautiful products together. All endeavor to have their plants in bloom simultaneously. This is no mean feat when one considers that daffodils usually bloom in early spring and chrysanthemums normally flower in the autumn! How do they do it?
Spring-flowering bulbs can be held back by planting them extra deep in the earth during the winter instead of the previous autumn. Some flowers can be retarded by keeping the bulbs or plants in a low temperature. Conversely, autumn-flowering plants can be brought to bloom more quickly by proper control of light, heat and humidity.
Are you an indoor-plant enthusiast? Note that large rectangular area right in the middle. See that elegant white gazebo surrounded by pure-white hydrangeas on an island amid a pool with scattered water plants and ferns. Just look at those African violets in the foreground—all shades of mauve, pink, purple, white and magenta. These plants are a foot (30 centimeters) across! At each stand, the growers are very happy to share helpful tips concerning amounts of light, feeding and watering needed by individual types of plants.
We must not miss those oddly shaped cacti, with their startlingly large flowers. And do look over there at the miniature elegance of the Japanese bonsai trees! Though only 15 inches (38 centimeters) high, some of them are well over 100 years old and are very valuable.
Plants Without Soil
Here is an unusual exhibit of plants grown without soil. Hydroponics, as this modern science is called, has been used extensively in the past for experiments by students of plant nutrition. This is because it is a simple matter to vary at will the chemical composition of a solution, and accurate measurements can be taken.
Do you see the pebbles in place of soil? They merely serve to support the plants, as nutritional needs are met by a balanced solution of minerals regularly applied. The plants certainly seem to thrive just as well as they do in soil. Sand, cinders, gravel or vermiculite can be used instead of pebbles. In fact, suitable is any medium that will absorb the fertilizer solution and still give adequate drainage.
This method of cultivation is being used now by some growers of indoor plants. However, it is of great value for growing crops in lands where there is no natural soil covering, for example, on some of the Pacific coral islands.
In the scientific section of the great marquee, 17 specialist organizations are represented. They deal with pest control, diseases, fertilizers and aspects of organic gardening. Very timely in this age of vanishing species is a display showing fruit and vegetable varieties that are in danger of extinction. There is also a list providing available sources of plants so that they will not be lost forever.
Of particular interest to those preferring not to use chemical insecticides is a stand where one can get information about biological control of pests. Individual gardeners can obtain predator insects to control unwanted species. For instance, there is a minute wasp that controls greenhouse whitefly in the same way as a ladybird controls the number of aphids on a plant.
The year 1977 was the Silver Jubilee of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, and the Chelsea Show reflected this in many of its exhibits that year. The crowd jostled to get a peek at one of the new roses cultivated specially for that Jubilee. That miniature beauty, only 10 inches (25 centimeters) high, had gained great publicity and many thousands were sold. Another Jubilee rose, a hybrid tea, was an apricot pink, sculptured like porcelain and said to be disease resistant.
Then there was the centerpiece of the whole show, an immense crown, towering regally above the visitors. It was made of silver-colored plants and succulents and purple flowers. The whole crown was 15 feet (4.6 meters) high and was mounted on a huge purple cushion with silver tassels. Most of the six and a half thousand plants were set in the wire shapes many months before.
Every year the magnificent displays of orchids are always an exciting feature and one of the biggest security risks. In early days, growers used to remove all the pollen with a small brush so that no one could steal it and breed their own plants. The right temperature is all-important. That is why each orchid grower is on tenterhooks, hoping that there will not be a sudden cold spell, which could make his plants very sick.
Now take a look over there. Those strawberries—how tempting their juicy redness! The vegetables and fruits displayed are of such mouth-watering quality that it is hard to pass them by. Indeed, one year a child was rushed to the first-aid section, having swallowed a fruit stone. Nobody asked the youngster where it came from, but one exhibitor was not at all sympathetic about the youngster’s pains!
We could spend hours looking at the breathtaking displays of rhododendrons, roses, poppies, poinsettias, delphiniums, dahlias, carnations, iris, geraniums—the list seems endless. But let us venture out into the sun once again to see the gardens. These are designed to help us to plan our own outdoor gardens, whether small or large, and they cater to many tastes and practical uses. Nearly all of them have used water, for swimming pools, lakes, fountains or canals.
As we turn into the long avenue of shops, we could spend hours browsing in the bookstalls, or evaluating the never-ending variety of garden tools. Would you like to relax in that folding chair, or choose a statue for your pond? All these gardening requisites are for sale, and it is certainly good to be able to touch and handle them after being so careful not even to breathe on the flowers displayed in the tent!
Before we turn to leave, we can get a snack in the adjoining Ranelagh Gardens and sit and listen to the band, which plays all afternoon from the bandstand in the center of an open glade. Here on the grass between the old trees, relax for a while and imagine this scene almost unchanged over 60 years of Chelsea shows.
At the end of the afternoon, if this were the last day of this four-day show, we would form part of a moving flower procession. Plants are sold at the conclusion of the event and are carried home on shoulders, towering over heads, under arms, trailing from carrier bags or hanging around necks. In fact, the expression “cash and carry” so much in use today is supposed to have originated at the Chelsea Flower Shows.
After such a memorable day, what impressions are left in your mind? You have seen varieties of plants from all parts of the world in less than a day—something you might never be able to do otherwise in a lifetime. How stimulating the concentration of color, beauty of form and arrangement, along with the mixture of subtle scents! Truly, these are magnificent gifts from a bountiful Creator for our delight!