I went this afternoon to the monthly meeting of the Suffolk Plant Heritage group. Two of the members were talking about their rather different experiences of exhibiting at the Chelsea Flower Show. The first was the National Collection holder of Cedric Morris iris. He was a Suffolk based artist who ran an art school near Hadleigh (but of course you knew that) where Lucien Freud briefly trained as a very young man. He was also a great gardener who bred bearded iris cultivars, beautiful, elegant, understated flowers in subtle shades of mauve and brown, many of which were plunged into obscurity after his death in the 1960s as fashions moved on.
For more than a decade today's speaker has been on a mission to track down as many of the original Cedric Morris cultivars as possible and she is now up to almost thirty. She doesn't expect to get beyond that, barring some happy accident, since to obtain them for collection purposes she needs both the plant and a definitive name. Of the original ninety varieties some are probably extinct, while others may live on anonymously in gardens but with no method of assigning a name or provenance to them. Her own garden is now overflowing with old fashioned iris, named and unnamed, and she wonders what to do with the latter. The future of around twenty of the named ones is now more secure as she has passed material to a Norfolk wholesale grower, Howard Nurseries, and they have bulked them up to the point where they are starting to sell them via selected garden centres. Beth Chatto were offering a few varieties last year. They would have set you back about ten pounds which is a lot for an iris, but you would only need to buy one and be patient for a couple of years, given the way bearded iris normally spread.
Her experience of exhibiting at Chelsea was a happy one, albeit exhausting. Howard Nurseries who have a lot of practice at growing for Chelsea grew the plants and built the stand. She came up with the concept which incorporated a big drift of iris plants and a mock studio with cut iris flowers, and got an artist friend to paint the backdrop of the studio. With the help and cooperation of many people it went up without a hitch and won a Gold medal. She would never do it again. It got a lot of notice at the time and achieved her aim of getting Cedric Morris iris into the public eye and back into commerce. It also took some courage to do, since Howard started growing on two thousand pots of irs and the artist friend began painting the scenery before they knew they had been accepted for the show. Incidentally, of those two thousand pots seven hundred made the journey to Chelsea and five hundred were used on the stand. Before leaving Norfolk every individual flower was wrapped in a piece of kitchen roll held with a rubber band, Howard's skill in exhibiting being such that they had even tested what strength rubber band to use, and once on the stand every plant was dead headed each morning before the show opened, so the display had to be designed to allow access to all the pots.
The second speaker was a second generation grower specialising in hostas, who likewise has National Collection status. She did her first and only Chelsea in 2010, a cold spring in which the hostas were reluctant to grow. Selling plants for a living meant that she was also booked to go to the Malvern and Harrogate shows before Chelsea, and since she couldn't turn up at those with nothing most of the plants that had been earmarked for Chelsea got used before then. A hosta that has already been to Harrogate and back in a van is not in a fit state to exhibit in the great pavilion at Chelsea afterwards. She scraped together what plants she could muster and arrived at Chelsea to find that the staging on her allotted site was a foot too high. Nobody was around to adjust it for her. Her space was just next to one of the doors to the pavilion, and outside on a display garden they were still cutting stone after the deadline when they should have finished, so grit and dust blew in over the hostas. It was bad enough that when the team on the display garden came to hose down their finished stonework she got them to hose down her plants as well. The stand was also next to a water point, and every half hour or so one or another exhibitor would fill up their watering can to refresh their plants, reminding her that she would really like to go to the loo, but she was alone on the stand. She was thrilled with her Bronze medal given the circumstances, and has not done Chelsea since, but did eight other shows last year and won Gold at every one of them.