Cape Town Flower Show

November 30, 2006

I should be telling you about the excitements happening in my garden, but I want to tell you about a recent adventure in South Africa. At Chelsea, I was invited to go to Cape Town Flower Show ( cradled in a valley below the magnificent Hottentot Holland mountains. Understandably, I found it hard to say no.

I was determined not to compare this show with any other for two main reasons. First, it was only in its fourth year, compared with Chelsea, which started in 1862 on the site where the Science Museum and Imperial College stand today (moving to the gardens of The Royal Hospital in 1913). Second, the sort of generous sponsorship paying for show gardens at our leading shows does not apply to Cape Town Flower Show. In only one ins-tance were potted plants dug into the ground to give a more realistic effect, paving tended to be a little uneven and so on, but no one minded in the least, and I found it really rather refreshing not to find the sort of perfectionism that is demanded of a garden at Chelsea.

Most South Africans are very poor by Western standards. Countless thousands pour in to the cities whose pavements, they are promised, are paved with gold. The reality is very different. These population surges have resulted in ever growing shanty towns that sprawl into the far distance, some way from the cities themselves. Acre upon acre of crude huts made of scrap, cardboard and corrugated iron sheets jostle for space and it is not uncommon for 25 families to share one stand pipe and five families to share one lavatory. There are very few gardens as such and hardly a tree in sight.

There are restrictions making it illegal to water gardens between 10am and 4pm for the simple reason that water evaporation is much higher during those hours. This is, surely, a far more sympathetic approach than certain British water companies’ total bans.

It was not surprising, therefore, to find many gardens with ecological and ‘better management’ messages. Some showed the importance of recycling domestic waste as well as water in an attempt to become self-sufficient, even to the extent of being able to sell off the surplus, although this is only possible for the better off who live in areas where their gardens are not going to be burgled regularly.

On a brighter side, if you are interested in plants, South Africa is the place to go, as it is the natural habitat of about 22,000 different species. The proteas are the most famous, there being well over 100 species with a wide range of colour and size of flower. The national flower of South Africa, the giant or king protea (P. cynaroides) was much in evidence in the show gardens, although here in the UK, we can only grow it under glass. There are, however, other smaller, perennial plants that hail from this part of the world that will succeed in our climate, in milder areas, anyway.

Agapanthus is one, although we tend to steer towards the hardier Headbourne hybrids which we often entertain in large containers on terraces and patios, and protect in bubble wrap for the winter. Angel’s Fishing Rod (Dierama pulcherrimum), a wonderful plant I have mentioned already on this page, is another. Its graceful arching stems support clusters of pink bells hanging from fuse-wire-thin growth at the top, a plant I successfully grew on my terrace in the Cotswolds without any winter protection at all.

As time goes by, and as our winters become increasingly mild, as predicted, we may also be able to grow aloes (A. vera, however, prefers sub- or tropical conditions) and the wonderfully coloured dimorphothecas outside in the future in the hope that they may perennate. There were orchids aplenty. I had a fascinating chat with an orchid grower there who told me that this genus gets its name from orchis, the Greek for testicle, as their swollen roots are the same shape as this male organ.

South Africa is an irresistible destination during our winter, not only for the caressing climate, but also because there is little time change. A combination of Cape Town Flower Show, a visit to the gardens of Kirstenbosch and a drive round the Cape region is guaranteed to soothe the spirits of any plant lover.

This article first appeared in COUNTRY LIFE magazine on November 30, 2006