May 24, 2010 / 6:22 PM / 9 years ago

Heat, hope and the homeless at Chelsea Flower Show

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Dying rainforests, the world’s best known physicist, tongue twisting Latin names and the saving grace for the hard up homeless of London’s east end were all themes at Britain’s Chelsea Flower Show.

Garden co-designer, Jeanne Noua, an indigenous woman from Cameroon, squats in the Green & Black's Rainforest Garden at the Chelsea Flower Show in London May 24, 2010. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett

Recession-inspired gardens were less of a theme, but the lavish glitz of previous years remained muted at the launch pad of the British summer social season, where some 150,000 visitors sip Champagne and rub shoulders with royals and celebrities.

That’s not to say that there was anything dour or dire to see on Monday at the show’s press day.

Models in body paint, ladies in parasols and babes in bikinis frolicking in the pool all adorned exhibits, while celebrities took in a sneak preview and the Laurent Perrier Crocus garden was only one of a number of places to cadge a glass of bubbly.

Film star Richard E. Grant told Reuters he was looking for ideas to sate his obsession with building an evergreen garden.

“I come every year,” the star of “Gosford Park” and “Love Hurts” said as he wandered the show. “I’m a fanatical gardener and there is no other show like it on Earth.”

Show gardens, sponsored by businesses but raising awareness for various charities, took pride of place on the Main Avenue, where tastes ranged from the teenage-friendly plunge pool, foxgloves and the outdoor oven of the Children’s Society Garden to the elegant stand of birch trees along a path leading to a black timber slatted canopy over a deck for Cancer Research UK.

British television presenter Gaby Roslin said she had come this year to support Cancer UK, and loved visiting the show organized by Britain’s Royal Horticultural Society to see all the many ideas she might incorporate into her own garden.

“It’s quite wonderful to see what I could do, but I don’t do, what I should do and what I couldn’t do,” she said.

On a hot and sunny press day, the Trailfinders Australian Garden attracted a large crowd with a bubbling jacuzzi, lap pool, decking, bar and a chill out zone thronging with Aussies in red bikinis and swim suits, all flanked by jungle-style planting including mature Strelitzia alba and bamboo.


Nearby, garden designer Sue Hayward anxiously awaited the arrival of “Brief History of Time” author and well known British physicist Stephen Hawking at the Stephen Hawking Garden for motor neurone disease.

The garden incorporates an ancient clock in a dry stone wall surrounding a “black hole” water feature. Visitors walk around passing by the gentle green-leafed prehistoric plants like the gingko biloba to modern Mediterranean figs, vines and olives.

“There’s a primordial swamp,” Hayward said pointing to a small water feature. “Then the planting gives way to more plants we might use in the future.”

Inside the main show hall, exhibitors kept a weather eye on gaggles of judges rushing from one stand to another, marking on their clipboards, pointing and talking animatedly.

John Jacques Armand — whose family gardening business has been going since 1927, showing at Chelsea since the 1950s when his father was in charge and won its 23rd gold medal last year — said gardening just became a passion that has provided him with a lifetime of joy at home and income at work.

“You get bitten by the bug,” said Armand, who is one of the world’s leading experts in rare bulbs. “It’s my business, it’s my hobby, it’s everything to me.”

Helping and aid are two other themes which appear at Chelsea with a display sponsored by chocolate-maker Green & Black’s that has been made by women from Cameroon to raise awareness about the plight of the rainforest and another built and planted with the help of some 500 people who use homelessness services.

The Rain Forest Garden was created with the help of Margerite Akom, Jeanne Noah and Mathilde Zang from the Baka and Bagyeli “hunter gatherer” peoples, who traveled from Cameroon to help set up the red-earthed exhibit planted with tropical plants and featuring a forest-dweller’s mongulu shelter.

An AK47 assault rifle, mining gear and a chainsaw in the display give a nod to the plight of the indigenous forest people whose departure from the forest as a result of deforestation and mining have left them in a quandary over land rights, housing, education, healthcare and adrift from their traditions.

“All the Baka and Bagyeli people are crying because the forest is being destroyed,” said 54-year-old Noah. “We don’t know what to do or where to go.”

Slideshow (3 Images)

Paul Pulford, a 49-year-old former homeless heroin addict’s part of the Places of Change garden was built by the Grounded and Scruffy gardening group the Londoner started as he began the long road from addiction five years ago.

Asked what he enjoyed most when he was taken in by a hostel, he recalled the gardening he used to do with his disabled dad before his death when Pulford was 12.

“Now I’ve designed and built a garden at Chelsea Flower Show,” he said. “No one would have believed that five years ago when I was dying on the streets.”

Editing by Patricia Reaney

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