RHS London Early Spring Plant Fair 2018


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.