The Magazine

Britain in Bloom

The Chelsea Flower Show celebrates its centennial.

Jun 17, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 38 • By SARA LODGE
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In his short story “The Occasional Garden,” Saki pinpoints a subject dear to the British heart, but also key to its social anxieties. Elinor Rapsley is about to receive a lunch visit from a woman whom she detests, Gwenda Pottingdon. Gwenda’s garden is the envy of the neighborhood; Elinor’s is a barren wasteland. Gwenda is coming on purpose to crow over Elinor’s pathetic pansies while describing her own rare and sumptuous roses. 

Chelsea Pensioner

Chelsea Pensioner

Sara Lodge

Elinor, however, has a surprise in store. A friend has told her about the Occasional-Oasis Supply Association, which, for a fee, can transform her garden for a few hours into a backdrop of cinematic splendor. When Gwenda arrives, she is startled to see “the pomegranate and lemon trees, the terraced fountain, where golden carp slithered and wriggled amid the roots of gorgeous-hued irises,” the “banked masses of exotic blooms [and] the pagoda-like enclosure, where Japanese sand-badgers disported themselves.” 

She chokes on her lunch, and we—the reader—laugh into our sleeves. For we understand that in Britain, having an exquisite garden is the ultimate social trump card. Even if the garden only lasts for an afternoon.

In 1913, the Royal Horticultural Society held its Great Spring Show for the first time in Chelsea: a display designed to demonstrate, through the construction of temporary gardens and plant exhibits, the abundance of new and exciting varieties and the visual effects the keen gardener could achieve. Nowadays, the Chelsea Flower Show is a firmly established part of the London Season. Attended by the queen and other celebrities, it transforms the 66 acres around the Royal Hospital Chelsea into a series of temporary Edens quite as elaborate and competitive as anything that Saki could have imagined. 

For five days in May, over 160,000 eager ticket-holders pour through the Garden Gate to enjoy an event that is both a tribute to Britain’s past—a throwback to the Victorian days of Great Exhibitions—and a hotbed of contemporary fashion, where gardens may be suspended from cranes, or feature space-age structures, novelty fabrics, or digital effects.

The first thing you will see as you follow the gravel path past Christopher Wren’s Royal Hospital Chelsea, an elegant, symmetrical edifice built in 1692 and dedicated to housing retired soldiers, is the Chelsea Pensioners themselves. These veterans wear a distinctive red uniform, often with medals and a tricorn hat. Their average age is 83, and they sway like cheerful scarlet poppies amidst the corn of incoming garden-lovers, collecting donations for military charities. This is their home, and you sense that the annual frenzy of floribundance is a source of quiet amusement to them.

Onward you press, along the grand, tree-lined Eastern Avenue, ignoring meantime the many commercial stalls that want to woo you with Wellington boots or secure your order for twine. You are heading for the Great Pavilion, the vast tent at the heart of the show. Here, growers specializing in particular types of plants advertise their prowess by creating displays of extravagant wonder. There is so much eye-popping color that it is easy to wander in a daze, like a child in a candy store, simply marveling at the panoply of different species in their infinite variety of form. 

There are dioramas of daffodils, crowds of cacti, hosts of hostas, and fusillades of fuchsias. Some of the nurseries represented here have been in business since the Victorian era, and their gardeners still wear their trademark bowler hats and waistcoats. Jim Durrant of McBean’s Orchids, which was founded in 1879 and has always had a stand at Chelsea, explained that orchids are worth a great deal less now than in 1913. Back then, individual specimens sold to wealthy collectors for the equivalent of £20,000 apiece. McBean’s would make enough money from orders at Chelsea to pay for the running of its Sussex nursery for a whole year. 

Now, owing to modern propagation methods that produce orchids in large numbers, those plants sell for around £30. Although the stand rental itself is free, transport and accommodation costs mean that McBean’s takes a loss at Chelsea. But being there is a point of pride and of profile: It broadens the customer base. As I gazed entranced at the rising slope of spotted, slender--throated cream and bronze and magenta blooms behind Durrant, more hard-headed and deep-pocketed visitors were waving their order forms and credit cards, pointing fingers to indicate that they wanted five of these, and nine of those.

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