Sunday, 17 May 2015

British Flowers, The Chelsea 2015 Edition Part 2

It's a word we know, and most of us understand but in a world where we can pretty much get anything at any time if the year, it's hard to remember that the vast majority of things that are grown, are only available for a limited time in the year. It's somewhat bizarre that strawberries can be bought at Christmas and asparagus at any other time than mid May to June is little short of sacrilege, and yet they are both pretty much available all year round. 
But if you've eaten strawberries at Christmas, you'll know they pale into nothingness in comparison to the deep sunfilled sweetness of a strawberry picked and eaten in mid summer. They lack taste, fragrance and their texture is usually too hard or too soft but they're strawberries out of season and so they are bought,with little thought of how they arrived or from where.
So what does this have to do with flowers or RHS Chelsea? 
Well every year the floral marquee at RHS Chelsea is filled with the most spectacular displays from our amazing nurseries and growers from all across the UK. There are everything from stunning narcissi, to tulips and hyacinths and alliums-all plants and flowers you would expect to see within a six week window at either end of the show week. There is always a strawberry display that you can smell long before you can see it. The bulb companies show off their spring and early summer flowerers whilst the larger nurseries show what they have new for the year ahead. It's an amazing, inspiring, fragrant pavilion that you know you're entering by the fanfare of scents and colours that meet you as you enter, and I for one have been rendered speechless by the beauty of the exhibits on more than one occasion. It can be emotional, particularly when you understand the pressure these growers put onto themselves to produce the perfect bloom, the perfect plant. 
At a nursery I formerly worked at we called it the Chelsea dance. Plants being taken from sun, to shade, from heat to cool and back again, often all in the space of a day,to ensure they were in perfect condition for the day they finally went to the show ground. Working 18-20 hour days in the run up to the show is normal and a culmination of months of preparation and specialist growing. As a grower it's exciting and challenging and although the pressure was huge, and everyone says that's my last year, never again, if I'm honest I miss it. 
The RHS proudly announced last year that 95% of the Chelsea Floral Marquee was British grown. The pedants among us might have said why not 100% but there are a few stands where clearly there are going to be some foreign grown plants, such as the quite incredible South African and Carribean stands that are so inspirational and educational. 
So with all this being really at the heart of what the Floral Marquee is about, beautifully, mainly seasonal, British produced plants that speak of our horticultural heritage, you would hope that the foral displays produced by Interflora who are bringing us a stand that by design is about the Britishness of garden parties, drinking tea and presumably being surrounded by quintessentially British gardens, would want to support the British flower industry as it rises like a Phoenix from its own ashes, reinventing itself all across the country, and bringing us those perfect early summer blooms. Sweet Williams, one of the British flower growers staples, beautiful scented pinks, Larkspur, Ammi, Geums, Sweet Peas......the list goes on, are all available here and now. 
But instead they chose to try to source Paeonias, Roses, Stocks and Allium Gadiator from UK growers whilst sourcing what else was needed from Holland, but failed to check these would be available or, and more importantly, order the plants with plenty of warning so that the Chelsea Dance could begin. The reality of the stand is that less than 20% was ever going to be British grown and today I estimate that it is far, far less than that. If Marks and Spencer could see that they would need to work with UK growers last year so that their paeonias were ready in time for the show, how on earth did Interflora not look to do the same?  To check that there was a large scale producer of English roses as cut blooms might have been wise, not to mention ensuring that the required Allium variety was grown commercially, and it's horrifying to be in the knowledge that this was never done. No Chelsea garden's planting is set in stone until the day it is finished for this reason precisely and to take into account that things go wrong, so why would the designers involved with the Interflora stand not have used that thinking as they were designing? 
And sadly the answer is a lack of understanding or care for seasonality. An expectation that they can have what they want, when they want it, regardless of the cost to the environment or the industry which they are snubbing. Hinting that they felt let down by the UK industry when they actually hadn't even engaged with them, but just gone through a wholesaler, is far from being acceptable but the saddest part is their lack of understanding of the business in which they are set and its dependence on the seasons and the way it regularly reinvents itself when needed due to the vagaries of the British weather and the pressures of the market. And so they will present a stand tomorrow with un scented Carnations from South Anerica whilst next to them are Whetman's Pinks with their stunning display that not only looks like English summer but smells of it too, bringing true seasonality and excellent nurserymanship to the Floral Marquee.
Our British flower industry is blooming, but it needs support from the people who are at the centre of the flower industry as well as from us all. Yes British grown flowers tend to be dearer but they are also beautifully grown by people who are passionate about what they do and long for the recognition they deserve. Often they are grown in places where the environment is being nurtured as closely as the flowers, free of chemicals and by growers who understand the importance of keeping our soils healthy and full of life. These people don't see growing as a job but a lifestyle choice, a way of supporting themselves as they support the land. Going into an uncertain future would you rather spend a fiver on a bunch of garish flowers from the supermarket that are chemically treated and have travelled thousands of air miles or save that money for a monthly treat from a grower at your local farmers market or an online florist? And having read this morning that the huge Dutch greenhouses produce blooms that have a higher carbon footprint than flowers imported from Kenya, can anyone happily buy these chemically produced blooms? 
Interflora could be at the forefront of showing how flowers can be bought seasonally and still be beautiful and bespoke. Théy could encourage their franchisees to buy British blooms where possible and to highlight them as a premium range where possible. Théy could be producing seasonal bouquets of British flowers , encouraging florists to become engaged with the industry that so many assume are behind them, whilst demanding that the Dutch lower that carbon footprint. They could be running a range of organically grown blooms and highlighting the reasons why they are a premium range. And for certain they should be saying to anyone who buys from them that sometimes substitutions need to be made because to guarantee a rose in February really in the UK. Is like guaranteeing strawberries at Christmas-a sad lack of understanding of seasonality and proof that we think if we want something we should be able to have it whatever the cost. 
Part 3 will follow.........

Proof British flowers are available all year-these received from Common Farm Flowers in January!! 


  1. Thanks Sara for this well thought out article. I've added a link to it in my blog as you can say it all much better than me!

  2. Pipley Flowers30 May 2015 at 22:04

    Very well said! As a newbie to flower farming it feels that one of the biggest challenges will be justifying why my product costs more than something from the supermarket. As you say, companies like Interflora are in a great position to help steer people towards understanding the benefits of British grown flowers.