RHS London Early Spring Plant Fair 2018

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One event in my calendar heralds the approach of spring like no other: the RHS London Early Spring Plant Fair. Throughout the first, frozen days of February I have been yearning for Westminster’s Horticultural Halls to throw open their doors and let me feast my eyes on delicate blooms and breath in the sweet scent of snowdrops, narcissi, sweet box and paperbush.

Since last year the RHS London shows have stepped up a gear, and last week’s event was no exception. Both horticultural halls, the Lindley and the Lawrence, were open and packed with visitors, none of whom seemed phased by the recent introduction of a £5 entry fee, even for members. I confess that I am still slightly irritated by this charge, but if it keeps the London shows running then I will cough up without further complaint.

Working within five minutes of the Royal Horticultural Society’s headquarters in Vincent Square is a huge bonus, but it means I tend to pop to the London shows during a lunch break, or after work, rather than take a day off to enjoy them. When the shows occupy two halls, an hour or even two hours is not enough. Added to which, I am beginning to recognise fellow bloggers and some of my followers, so of course it’s nice to stop and chat to them too. If being a gentleman of leisure were a viable option, that’s the career path I would be following.

I can never recall which of the halls is which, even having written a post about their history once upon a time. The first one (the Lindley Hall, I checked) housed two beautiful installations. The first, designed by garden designer Fiona Silk, was named ‘Celebration of Snowdrops‘. It took the form of a classic Islamic Chahar Bagh (four-quartered garden), only the plants were suspended from the ceiling rather than growing up from the ground. In four blocks over 700 tiny clumps of the common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, were suspended from lengths of fishing wire, interspersed with carefully spaced dried oak leaves. At the centre was a selection of rare and unusual snowdrop varieties loaned to the RHS by galanthophiles and specialist nurserymen from around the UK. The RHS president, Sir Nicholas Bacon, had offered G. ‘Barbara’s Double’, ‘Orchards No.1’ and ‘Orchards No.2’; Nick Hamilton, the son of the late Geoff Hamilton, proffered G. ‘Mrs Backhouse No. 12’, G.plicatus ‘Celadon’ and G. plicatus ‘Sibbertoft Manor’.

Prices for rarer and more unusual snowdrops were, as usual, eye watering. Since I have nowhere suitable to grow them I gave the whole lot a wide bearth, stopping only to admire green-flushed G. ‘Rosemary Burnham’, pictured at the foot of this post.

Although devilishly hard to photograph because of its central location and transparency, ‘Celebration of Snowdrops’ was magical to behold, even if you’ve yet to fall under the snowdrop spell. Suspending the snowdrops brought them to eye level, where every detail of the tiny flowers could be examined.

A second installation, a table setting transported straight from Narnia, sprung from the imagination of event florist and RHS London Artist in Residence Zita Elze. The long table was groaning with ice-white linen, crystal glass, snow-covered foliage and thousands of snowdrops planted in urns, bowls and small pots. Practically speaking it might have been a trifle cramped dining here, and one might have lost an eye on the hazel branches that arched from behind each chair. If I ever had a winter wedding, preferably with a handsome prince on my arm, this is how I’d like my wedding breakfast to be arranged. If my guests got frosted ivy in their soup, so be it!

Elsewhere at the show there was plenty to see and lots to buy. Needless to say I indulged, mainly in begonias from Dibleys (B. foliosa var. miniata, whiskery B. sizemoreae and B. ‘Orange Rubra’), assorted succulents from Ottershaw Cacti (who were awarded a gold medal for their display, below) and a new yellow-flowered Correa with a name I have already forgotten and am too lazy to go outside and check. That’s it, I have broken the seal on my plant spending pot for 2018 and there’s no going back. I could barely move in the garden room even before I struggled home on the train with a dozen new treasures to find homes for. Thankfully the paperwhites are now going over and so can be moved outside to make space. It’s only February and it’s already like musical chairs in the garden.

A standout exhibit at the show was a representation of the Winter Walk at Wisely, in which I admired a thicket of Edgeworthia chrysantha ‘Grandiflora’ and striking Salix gracilistyla ‘Mount Aso’ (rose gold pussy willow). The walk itself takes about 45 minutes, but 4-5 minutes would have been sufficient to take in a succession of flaming dogwoods, colourful evergreens, gleaming birches and sweetly-scented shrubs. A great reminder that no garden, however small, need look drab at this time of year.

The RHS organise several workshops and talks for those visitors with time to linger at the show. With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, the Chelsea School of Botanical Art was offering the opportunity to paint a snowdrop and turn it into a card for the love of your life. One could also create a romantic bouquet using the language of flowers, which attributes a meaning to different flower types and colours. It’s a bit like a love letter or a text message, replacing words with flowers. I know which I’d rather receive.

I’d love to have stayed at the show longer or returned the following day, but work commitments got in the way. Nevertheless I left the horticultural halls with a spring in my step, a hole in pocket and a clutch of lovely plants. If only every lunchtime were so rewarding.

Categories: Bulbs, Flower Shows, fragrance, Plants

Posted by The Frustrated Gardener

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36 comments On "RHS London Early Spring Plant Fair 2018"

  1. Thank you for sharing this Dan. The £5 charge once again kept me away, but by 2019 I might have gotten over that! There are a couple of things that I have read in the last 12 months that might have influenced the introduction of the charge – firstly, I read in passing about a court case in which a charity was denied VAT relief on event costs because they provided free entry to it. I’m not sure if this has influenced the RHS, but if it has, then the entry cost would make even more sense. Secondly, I understand that it’s less than 2% of the membership that attend the dedicated London shows (not the flower shows), so in light of these figures it does make sense that there is a small charge for attendance and support the production costs through entry fees. So, I might be back in 2019! I wondered though, do you not apply for a press pass for all the shows? Your excellent coverage would justify it.


  2. What a treat this early dark morning to see your blog accompanying the colourful photos. Loved the glistening table setting. Likiing the idea of hanging plants at eye level. Shame you could only get a short time to take it all in, but thanks for sharing the displays at this wonderful RHS early Spring Show. Birds twittering to beat the band here in Westport!!!

  3. Wow, the last show I attended in London was a little underwhelming; your post made me regret not giving the Spring show a visit. I would have enjoyed seeing how they brought the Winter Walk to life in 5-6 minutes- it is absolutely glorious at the moment now we’ve had some wintery sun in Surrey.

    1. I’d like to see the real thing but it’s a little awkward for me to get to Surrey. This weekend would have been the perfect opportunity weather wise. Do give one of the London shows a try. They are definitely improving.

  4. They certainly know how to do it in London. The San Francisco Flower and Garden Show has been struggling for years. It is very different of course, and very Californian.

    1. Well, we love our flowers and gardens here Tony. Most folk start out not being interested and get into it once they buy their first property. Chelsea and Hampton Court are really where it’s at in terms of the big bucks, but the London shows are great for serious plant lovers and enthusiasts.

      1. The Show in Chelsea is famous even here. It is what the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show strives to be, although it is VERY different. (I do not even know if it will continue this year!) The Shows in Seattle and Philadelphia are famous too.

  5. Green with envy Dan..🤢.what a beautiful exhibition….those stunning snowdrops remind me of a trade show we did a few years ago..same concept with tomato seedlings 🍅in water filled plastic bags suspended on fishing wire….they became Jurassic Park in 5 days with 300watt lights and all that water…😂😂😂

  6. Beautiful. You did very well with the photography – snowdrops are tricksy at the best of times, never mind dangling from the ceiling and with hundreds of people milling about.
    £5 feels about right if they maintain this standard. It looks like an art installation, after all. As long as there are concessions.

    1. I like a challenge. Where I object to a charge, in any circumstances, is where it’s essentially a selling event. I’ve been in retail for over 20 years and can’t imagine charging customers to come into our shops. Most just wouldn’t come and we’d lose their custom. Fortunately the crowd that go the London events are passionate, devoted and probably quite affluent.

  7. A feast for the eyes, all of that. I would love to see it myself and wouldn’t think twice about the cover charge, even if I had to convert it to Aussie dollars! Gosh, snowdrops really are a thing in Britain: everyone is so happy to see them make an appearance.

    1. Oh my goodness, they are such a ‘thing’ Jane! Many gardens have special snowdrop viewing days, even if they are generally closed in the winter months. The prices some sell for are stellar. I deliberately dialled-down the snowdrop content for this post as it gets a bit repetitive after a while. Of course they are all different and charming, but give me a big carpet of the bog-standard G. nivalis any day.

  8. Fabulous table display and shocking beautiful plants everywhere, lucky you! We’ve had 10 days of above freezing temps in the Upstate of South Carolina, so our Edgeworthia chrysantha has burst into glorious bloom, scenting every corner of the garden. It’s a fabulous late-winter shrub here, but some of my British gardening friends say it doesn’t thrive for them.

    1. I haven’t often seen it grown well Marian, but then, I need to get out more! It’s an unusual looking shrub, but the flowers are scent-sational. Oh to be in South Carolina to enjoy them with you! Dan

  9. I love the Celebration of Snowdrops – it’s whimsical, stylish and folksy all at the same time. Thanks for this glimpse of springtime. ‘Rosemary Burnham’ is one of my favourite snowdrops and you’ve captured ‘her’ perfectly!

      1. I always enjoy your pictures – it’s difficult to be artful at such a busy event. No – so far, she’s always been a vicarious pleasure. I like snowdrops to be sturdy looking and love the green paintbrush effect. When I used to garden in earnest there was so much of an area to fill that nivalis was the most sensible option and common doubles, a wild luxury.

      2. Still a great choice though Susan. Quantity over quality works in this instance. Mind you, if you had an acre of Rosemary Burnham you’d be able to retire and live like an Oligarch. I’ve worked out, assuming 1000 bulbs per square metre (meaty clumps) that she would earn you £202 million 💷

  10. Oh, but there is something a smidge sinister about that table design though… I can’t tell exactly what it is – maybe a hazel-poked eye or a drop of blood from the cut glass, or the snowdrop blades is the price of admission… it’s gorgeous, but it’s definitely got the air of the sacrificial about it…

    1. Yes, someone described it to me as Miss Havisham’s dining table. And of course many fairytales have a dark side, which is perhaps what you are picking up on. I think it very much depends what kind of mindset you have. Since it’s meant to be an art installation I guess it’s OK that it provokes different reactions in different people.

      A few drops of blood would spice it up though 😉

  11. Fantastic post Dan, thank you for such a delicious read on Monday morning while the temp is -5C here, albeit with sunshine!
    Loved all the photos, but ESP the last one of G. Rosemary Burnham. Would love to have that species in my garden! Have a great day.

    1. She’s delightful isn’t she? The greenness is called ‘virescence’. Apparently she was discovered by a lady of the same name in Canada, back in the 1960s. Cornovium Snowdrops offer her, but are out of stock. A single bulb will set you back £50!

  12. Heavenly! Thank you for for providing a wonderful vehicle of transport to your part of the world where colours and scents stir the heart toward hope and re-birth. Love the visuals and wit (e.g., possible loss of an eye to the branches reaching toward the glittering table!).

  13. When did you go on lunch break, Dan? Either it was an early one or I missed you in the crowds (not difficult, for sure). If you pop over to my blog, I think you’ll definitely smile in recognition. I even took a picture of that very same Edgeworthia flower (though posted a different one)!
    Actually, it were your previous posts about the Early Spring Show that convinced me I definitely had to go – so thank you! x

  14. I travelled up from Cornwall for this. The visit was ‘made’ by the trade stands with plant displays and marred by the entry system. I don’t begrudge them a fiver to get in, but I stood in rain for 20 minutes [an hour after they opened] while they tried to get a card reader to work; and I was paying in cash! Occupying two halls nearly meant I missed the two specialist snowdrop stalls that were in the ‘other’ hall and away from all the other plants; it meant standing in the rain for another ten minutes even though by now I had a ticket. I couldn’t work up any enthusiasm for the gibbet of dying snowdrop bulbs [the ‘celebration of snowdrops’], which were clearly desiccating even though it was their first morning on display. I respect your restraint. I spent £140 for 4 different snowdrop bulbs. Thankfully they had run out of the one I wanted for £100! If they hadn’t included the decidedly non-horticultural gibbet and cramped table ware display there would have been room to space all the trade stands through the two halls and not had such ‘jostling’ simply to circulate. The RHS boasts about its ‘show team’ but they are getting basics wrong! It is still wonderful, but used to be so much more, and could be again if it was ‘organised’.


    1. What a pity your visit was marred by the entry system Chad. Especially after the long journey up from the south west. They had obviously sorted it out by lunchtime which is little consolation for you! I walked straight in at 12.30.

      I take your point about ‘celebration of snowdrops’. I had not viewed it in the same way, but that’s me all over – always trying to see the best in everything.

      Congratulations on your purchases. I hope they are safe and sound in Cornwall now, ready for some real snow! Dan

  15. Thanks for the review Chad, you certainly know your way around this event. Now on my 2019 list of things to do 🙂 I’m actually a new RHS member (it was a birthday gift) and wondered which of the many events throughout the year you’d strongly suggest I do not miss? I’m based in Essex near the Beth Chatto Gardens and looking for day trips, so kinda sticking to the South East and London area. Any suggestions would be most welcome. 🌱

    1. Well, certainly Chelsea and Hampton Court. The other London shows at the Horticultural Halls are worth a visit too. There’s an event at Olympia called Grow London in late June which might be interesting. Have a look at http://www.rareplantfair.co.uk as some of these events may be accessible to you too. I’m a sucker for a plant fair! Dan

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