Hampton Court Flower Show 2013: My Top 10 Plants

Like a horticultural fashion show, Britain’s flower shows provide the launch pad for new ideas in gardening and the latest introductions from breeders and plant hunters.

The Hampton Court Palace Flower Show is the world’s biggest, and after Chelsea one of the most prestigious. Unlike Chelsea, exhibitors can sell their wares direct to the general public, making it one of the biggest plant buying opportunities of the year. With up to 70,000 visitors each day, this must be pretty lucrative and a good way of mitigating the high cost of staging an exhibit.

In my humble opinion this year’s show was a classic – great weather, intriguing conceptual gardens and classy summer gardens, topped off by some top notch exhibits in the floral marquee. The addition of a separate marquee for roses and floral art was inspired and offered visitors something new and original to enjoy.

My top 10 show plants this year have an unashamedly tropical bias. I’m loving hot colours and lush leaves in both gardens at the moment and was on the hunt for new additions to my burgeoning plant collection.

First to catch my eye on Tynings Cimbers‘ stand was Thunbergia gregorii, a giant, tangerine-flowered beauty with equally attractive hairy buds. Alas it doesn’t photograph particularly well, but what a stunning plant.

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1. Thunbergia gregorii

The plants on Hewitt-Cooper Carnivorous Plants‘ gold medal winning exhibit illicited strong reactions from showgoers. Carnivorous plants are not everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m always surprised by the delicacy of their flowers compared to their fearsome pitchers and sticky flytraps. Demure and nodding, the blooms of Heliamphora elongata from Venezuela were as pretty as any alpine, placing it firmly in my top 10.

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2. Heliamphora elongata

Norfolk-based Amulree Exotics payed homage to history’s great plant collectors with their jungle-like collection of foliage plants. Brightening up one corner was a large specimen of Erythina crista-galli, the cockspur coral tree from South America. Sadly not hardy outdoors in the UK, but according to the RHS it will get through the winter in a unheated greenhouse, or outside in very mild parts of the country.

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3. Erythina crista-galli

One of the obvious plants of the moment was violet-blue Salvia ‘Amistad’, closely followed by magenta S. ‘Wendy’s Wish’. These are both touted as hardy perennials, although I suspect they’d prefer a bit of winter protection. Tall and flowering from May to October above glossy green foliage, they are drought tolerant and attractive to bees. Judging by how many I saw poking out of bags and trolleys during the day, these salvias will be gracing many a garden this summer. Try Hayloft Plants if you’d like to track this beauty down.

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4. Salvia ‘Amistad’, (meaning friendship in Spanish)

At number five, a lily that could make an interesting companion for Salvia ‘Amistad’, Lilium ‘Tiger Babies’ from Avon Bulbs. Orange, rust, peach and coral-coloured flowers again played a big part in Hampton Court’s show gardens. Bred 30 years ago by an Amercian called Judith Freeman, L. ‘Tiger Babies’ combines peach petals and a darker throat with a scattering of fine russet spots. Those of you who don’t like the scent of lilies will also be happy to know that L. ‘Tiger Babies’ has a lighter, more delicate fragrance than most hybrids.

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5. Lilium ‘Tiger Babies’

Next an orchid which quite simply blew my socks off, the improbably named Epilaeliocattleya ‘May Bly’. Try saying that with a boiled sweet in your mouth! Again, I know orchids are not for everyone, but what a storming colour combination – bright lime green and lipstick pink. These exotic blooms would grace any Mardi Gras celebration and really appeal to my flambuoyant side – thanks to Chantelle Orchids for displaying this remarkable plant and literally making my day.

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6. Epilaeliocattleya ‘May Bly’

Taking me back to the 90’s and my clubbing days, when clothes, bags and ears were frequently adorned with neon spikes, was the porcupine tomato, Solanum pyracanthum, from Madagascar. This is where my willpower finally gave way, and the friendly chap at Plantbase managed to part me with my cash. Like most things from Madagascar it’s weird and spiny, but the mauve flowers are unmistakably those of a member of the potato/tomato family. I was advised to treat my new acquisition exactly like a tomato plant, with copious food and water, but not to eat the fruits which are poisonous. Not hardy during our cold winters, I was recommended to let my plant die down and rest at the end of the year, before waking it up again in spring. S. pyracanthum can also be grown easily from seed.

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7. Solanum pyracanthum

Just three plants left and it’s getting really hard to narrow it down. Before I move on to some temperate plants, I’m going to choose one final tropical treasure, Musa lasiocarpa, the Chinese yellow banana. This was presented in fine fettle by Desert to Jungle having been believed to be extinct only a decade ago. Thankfully, it was rediscovered growing in a remote part of the Himalayas in southwest China and is now back in cultivation. Mature plants produce long-lasting yellow flowers in summer, after which the whole thing will start to die. Offshoots are normally produced so that the plant lives to bloom another day. Hardy enough to surive outside given a bit of TLC.

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8. Musa lasiocarpa

Lest I be accused of putting together a list which is completely impractical for the average gardener, choices nine and ten will be a little more sensible. At number nine an unusual Campanula named ‘Pink Octopus’. It appeared in a number of displays, but looked its best with Barnsdale Gardens (best known for its late owner, the great and much missed Geoff Hamilton). I’m not always fond of split-petalled hybrids, particularly the foxgloves I’ve seen, but somehow this one works both in colour and form – a little reminiscent of a trailing begonia.

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9. Campanula ‘Pink Octopus’

And finally, plant number ten is Hydrangea arborescens ‘Invincibelle’, beating a couple of other contenders because it was shown by a local, Kentish nursery. Madrona Nursery of Pluckley, presented this antique pink form of H. arborescens amongst silver foliage and lemon yellow evening primroses. It would make a fantastic backdrop for C. ‘Pink Octopus’, enjoying similar conditions, and perhaps planted with yellow-edged hostas and lime green ferns in part shade.

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10. Last but not least, Hydrangea arborescens ‘Invincibelle’

I really hope you enjoyed my selection from this year’s Hampton Court and found something to excite and inspire you. I’d love to hear what you think and which plants would have made it onto your list. More on Hampton Court and the show gardens coming soon…..