Orchids galore at Chelsea Flower Show

If the 1985 Chelsea Flower Show in London is remembered for one particular thing, it is bound to be the orchids. This was the 64th of the spectacular spring flower shows staged on the grounds of the Royal Chelsea Hospital, home of 500 Army veterans, and the pride-of-show exhibit was a breathtaking celebration of the orchid in all its strangeness, rich color, and exotic form. There were orchids like giant moths and butterflies, orchids of weightless daintiness, orchids with heavy heads, with flowers subtly streaked or blotched, speckled like eggshells or looking as if a splash of raspberry juice had run down the petal. Orchids with pouches, orchids with wings, orchids mysterious, orchids declamatory, orchids reticent, orchids with dim secretive coloring, and innocent orchids with open faces and fresh colors.

``Chelsea,'' as it is succinctly known by hordes of flower-thirsty gardeners and plant lovers who flock to its fountain of extravagant floriculture every May, is a peculiar and probably very British phenomenon. It is markedly royal, always started off by a visit from members of the royal family (the Queen and Princess Anne this year), and is organized by the Royal Horticultural Society.

But behind the show's fashionable popularity lurks serious horticultural intent. It is competitive. Medals are awarded for stands in the marquee, for individual plants, and for the best of the remarkable temporary gardens outside it -- which often seem so permanent that it is hard to believe they have taken only a few weeks to make.

Chelsea is largely about plants and flowers. It may attract a considerable range of equipment and sundries, anything from sundials and ``sculpture'' (but mercifully no gnomes) to fountains and books, patio furniture and pruning scissors. But the overwhelming majority of the things exhibited do have roots.

Each year, in addition to the newcomers, old familiar exhibitors return. Blackmore & Langdon Ltd., for instance, is a name almost indistinguishable from the delphinium, and Chelsea wouldn't be Chelsea without this firm's spires of intense blue and other colors. Allwood Brothers has a similarly indelible relationship with carnations and pinks. Ingwersen's alpines unfailingly appeal to those who prefer plants small, wild, and natural. This firm's trilliums illustrated the truism that one country's commonplaces are sometimes another's rarities. Trilliums may flourish like the green bay tree in a damp, acid woodland in Pennsylvania or Vermont -- but in Britain they are difficult.

Some of the exhibitors were of more recent vintage. One of the most delightful garden plants to reassert itself in the last few years is the viola, that smaller, prettier, more long-lived relation of the pansy. Richard Cawthorne is mainly responsible for this revival, and his bank of violas at Chelsea was sheer pleasure.

The perennial popularity of the rose shows no signs of diminishing, and new forms with new names are habitually announced each Chelsea to a flourish of metaphorical trumpets and a clicking of cameras.

It is hard to think of a type of garden flower not represented, almost regardless of season -- though winter-flowering plants and shrubs are not much seen. Entire stands are devoted to clematis, to herbs, to ivies, to conifers, to sweet peas, to succulents, to tulips, to lupins, to daffodils. Many flowers have to be forced or delayed to fit the show's dates. In this respect, few are as extraordinary as the dahlias exhibited by Phillip Tivey & Sons. For three Chelseas now this firm has managed to flower an impressive number of dahlia varieties at least three months ahead of their normal August-September flowering period. No one else has tried it since the 1960s. The crucial factor is a lot of light.

Bonsai, the miniaturizing of trees by pruning and restriction, is immensely popular in Britain today, as a number of stands at Chelsea bore witness. However, the British still think of it as ``gardening'' rather than ``art,'' even though, as John Ainsworth, one of the leading bonsai growers at Chelsea, pointed out, the Japanese government officially designated it an ``art'' as long ago as 1935.

City parks departments indulge their own sort of gardening artistry, and several contribute evidence of it at Chelsea. Parks gardeners are keen ``bedding planters'' of bright summer annuals that make vivid patches of color. Some get quite carried away by their own skills and fantasies, none more than the gardeners from Torbay.

This Devon seaside resort is twinned with the German town of Hameln, and this year its gardeners illustrated the legend of the Pied Piper in their extraordinary technique of 3-D bedding.

Beth Chatto with her ``unusual plants'' has helped foster in Britain -- and at successive Chelseas -- a peculiarly English-feeling respect for quiet contrasts and telling harmonies of foliage and form in gardens. Her principles are the antithesis to most parks department thinking. She is a practicing gardener first, and a nurseryman second. Her commercial success is a considerable achievement in the age of the supermarket ``garden center,'' often run by people who know more about accounting than about plants.

Ms. Chatto knows a lot about plants. Advocating a naturalistic sort of planting, she insists that plants should be grown in conditions that best suit them -- dry, damp, set, sunny, or shaded. But she is not just a naturalist; she also has the eye and judgment of an artist.

By contrast, the seedsman John Chambers is a naturalist through and through. His stands at Chelsea have come to represent and promote a facet of gardening in Britain today that is literally gaining ground. He has found a snowballing market in Britain for native wildflowers and grasses. A vast loss of wildflowers in Britain has occurred. ``Since the war,'' he says, ``I believe we have lost 95 percent of our meadowland.'' His answer to this loss lies in the fact that there are ``about a million acres of gardens'' in this country, waiting to be turned at least partly into little meadows of wildflowers. His exhibits are persuasively modest and beautiful: The native species are as delicately lovely as any nurtured, cultivated garden hybrids. And many Britons are beginning to think they are actually more attractive.

Even the parks departments are taking notice. It's all happened in little more than the last five years. ``Now,'' says Mr. Chambers, ``every landscape architect tries to incorporate some wildflower mixture or feature in anything he is doing. They put them round schools, hospitals, along motorway verges, in city parks, in country parks. . . .'' What could be more natural? And Chelsea can take credit for allowing such an unorthodox attitude into its conventional midst. This year Mr. Chambers exhibited a ``mini-meadow'' and a ``damp spot.'' Once upon a time such patches of weeds weren't so welcome in British gardens -- not to mention at the prestigious Chelsea show.

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