I’m quite pleased to present FPP’s first ever monthly review. This month we will be looking at the 100th annual Chelsea Flower Show, specifically the stunningly arranged South African exhibit which won us our 33rd gold medal in the competition in May 2013.
“100 Blooming Years” was intended as a celebration of the centenary of the Kirstenbosch Gardens in the Western Cape, which opened in the same year as the the British flower-show in Chelsea in 1913.
Situated in one of the oldest areas of the display area, the walk-through exhibit sought to recreate key parts of the gardens in miniature, making use of cycads, strelitzias, aloes, and of course, dozens of species’ of fynbos, of which the most iconic were, of course, the crimson and piquant proteas.
Exhibit designer David Davidson (What a name!), involved with the South African entries at Chelsea for two decades, told the Mail & Guardian in May that “the display features some of the ‘centenarians’, our oldest and most distinguished residents. These are plants that have been growing at Kirstenbosch for a hundred years or more, or were introduced during the first five years, from 1913 to 1917, and are still here today.”
Of course, the vast majority of the plants featured this year were cuttings, rather than live flowers, as the importation of soil from South Africa to Britain is restricted by British environmental authorities. The fact that Davidson and his colleagues managed a medal with mere cuttings against some of the world’s most spectacular live flower displays in the world is an achievement in and of itself, with gold being perhaps only the icing on the cake for the South African team.
Flowers as art:
Flowers and flower arrangements have been considered an art form for centuries, starting with the earliest depictions of lotus flowers on Egyptian motifs. By the late middle-ages, flowers started appearing in paintings and tapestries, with different varieties beginning to symbolise different emotions, messages, or themes. This trend continued in paintings, throughout the renaissance up until the present, and can be seen in a very wide range of paintings around the world.
Carvings and paintings were one thing, but actual flowers were quite another. Cuttings of wildflowers would wither and die soon after being picked, and maintaining an ancient garden in a time before complex irrigation systems was probably somewhat of a challenge for our ancestors. For this reason, gardens were historically considered symbols of wealth and power, and is probably why Buckingham Palace, Versailles, and South Africa’s Union Buildings have been adorned so magnificently. It is why the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were counted as one of the wonders of the ancient world, and why the Biblical account of creation takes place in a garden (If you think your deity is all-powerful and know that gardens mean power, then it makes sense to portray him as having had the universe’s first ever garden).
And as for the flower clippings, what better way to show your devotion to your lady-friend than toiling in a hot field all day, collecting blossoms as naturally beautiful and delicate as herself (though it was a time when giving her father a fat pig may have been a more surefire way to get her into bed with you)?
As national and global transport routes became more efficient, short-lived bouquets became more commercialised and cheaper, with arrangements of varying shapes and colours being made to suit your every need. The reasons flowers meant something has thus been all but abolished, but their symbolism remains potent to this day. Likewise, gardens have become much more affordable, and anyone who can afford some extra land can find themselves tending a small garden at minimal costs.
This year’s Chelsea Flower Show was a big one for the South African team. Their use of colour and shapes made for a truly magnificent display, whilst the arrangement of flowers and flower types elegantly and subtly represented the great diversity of South Africa, and the Western Cape in particular. The proteas, however, while gorgeous, were perhaps too much of a cliché. What do visitors expect of us every year at the show? Proteas! Excluding our national flower would be a travesty, as would even relegating it to a minor role, but there are countless other genera of flora in Southern Africa and perhaps it is time one of them take a turn in the limelight.
Overall, I give this year’s South African gold medal display Seven Petals out of Ten, and I look forward to seeing what happens next year.
Don’t agree with 7/10? Leave a comment below and let’s get talking, or go see the exhibit for yourself, recreated at the V & A Waterfront in Cape Town, on display until 24 September.
Welcome to FPP’s first monthly review, and welcome to Spring.