In Chelsea’s Great Pavilion this year I was completely charmed by the display of bright-as-a-button auriculas exhibited by W. & S. Lockyer - so much so, in fact, that it was one of our Favourite Things from Chelsea.
The passion of the Lockyer family for this endearing and historic little plant really came across in the display. The family nursery is the holder of the National Collection of auriculas, and happily enough, adjacent to the Lockyer exhibit was located the equally-striking Plant Heritage display - the perfect place to find out more about the National Collections and the work of Plant Heritage.
I’d certainly heard of the National Collections, and have even visited several. I realised they could be described as a ‘living library’ of varieties within a plant genus - but that was the extent of my knowledge. So I was fascinated to talk to Gill Groombridge from Plant Heritage, who was kind enough to fill in some details for me, by showing me around the display.
Plant collections can often be the amalgamation of several lifetimes’ work - hundreds of years of expertise, selective breeding, and careful development. And just as an inanimate object which represents a pinnacle of achievement - a Mona Lisa or a David - can be documented, protected and preserved, a collection of living plants must also be the recipient of ongoing care and attention. More so, in fact - since if the attention falls away, these irreplaceable plants will simply be lost.
That’s why the holders of the National Collections play such a key role in the gardening life of the UK. The three areas of Plant Heritage’s Chelsea display represented the three areas of the work of the National Collections: the Horticultural, the Historic, and the Reference collections, with Scientific Status collections showing excellence in research.
At the Horticultural end of the exhibit, ornamental alliums took centre stage. The display highlighted the work of garden designer Jackie Currie, who found a passion for alliums so strong that she ended up holding the National Collection! Intrigued by these stately blooms and their sometime hit-or-miss success rates, Jackie used the land she had available - which was actually her allotment - to start to investigate the growing requirements of different varieties. Keen to see how they responded to the growing conditions of their native habitats, she even used an oven to simulate their natural environment. The results have been able to steer advice on which varieties to plant for spectacular and successful flowering. A Horticultural Collection to be proud of.
The centre of the exhibit showcased a reference collection of delicate Epimedium, while the gorgeous backdrop of pre-1900 shrub roses from National Trust Mottisfont Abbey showcased a Historical collection celebrating the work of plantsman Graham Stuart Thomas. So many plants have historic, cultural, economic or social importance - and of course, unless they’re looked after, these varieties will be lost. Capturing and preserving historic varieties can help to recreate history in vivid living colour - the restoration of the Gertrude Jekyll garden at Manor House, Upton Grey is a perfect example.
Finally, at the Scientific Status end of the display, a group of lavenders caught my eye. Lavender is a particular favourite; with a heavenly scent, great appeal for pollinators, and an essential oil that I use to ease sunburn and for restful sleep, what’s not to love? I was interested to see that not only is the National Collection of lavenders held by Downderry Nursery helping to preserve two endangered species of lavender, but it’s assisting with scientific research into the medical uses of lavender. This really is putting cutting-edge science together with the people who know the plants best, in what can only be a fruitful collaboration.
Taking an exhibit to the Chelsea Flower Show can be seriously hard work; with 140,000 visitors over the six days of the show, as well as the eyes of the national and even international media on your contribution, the pressure is on - to an extraordinary degree. So how had Gill and her colleagues enjoyed their first Chelsea? “Everyone’s been so helpful and kind. They’ve been showing us the little Chelsea tricks to give the display that extra wow factor,” she explained. I was pleased to spot the RHS-endorsed stainless steel trowels that we’d provided for the display in pride of place in the Horticultural Collections section; it’s lovely to be a (very!) small part of such a gorgeous, creative and interesting exhibit.
Not only did the display look wonderful, hopefully it will also have done a lot to publicise the work of Plant Heritage. It certainly caught the RHS judges’ eye; congratulations to Gill and the Plant Heritage team on their silver gilt medal.
Plant Heritage celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, and if it’s not an organisation you’re familiar with, we recommend you visit www.nccpg.com to find out more.