A visit to RHS Wisley Flower Show

A flower lover’s excursion just outside of London

RHS Wisley Banner
The RHS banner flies high above the gardens at Wisley. It’s mounted on the roof of the Water Lily Pavilion.
queem elizabeth
Tributes to Queen Elizabeth appeared everywhere as Londoners mourned her death. This image appeared in London’s subway stations.

One month ago I spent 48 hours in London, traveling between Scotland and Iceland.

I had just spent four glorious days in and around St. Andrews, Scotland and attended a soul-lifting floral retreat at Cambo Estate.

I was on the five-hour train trip from Leuchars, Scotland, to Kings Cross Station in London when Sarah Statham of Simply by Arrangement (my workshop hostess) messaged me about Queen Elizabeth’s declining health and news that the Royal Family were called to Balmoral Castle.

Fifteen minutes after checking into my London hotel, the news reader shared an announcement of Queen Elizabeth’s death. Surreal, really, to be there at that time.

I was comforted as a solo traveler to meet up with three Seattle friends for dinner near Chelsea, as they were en route to France for a Northwest Horticultural Society tour.

Prince Charles
HRH The Prince of Wales, 2016, painted by Eileen Hogan. “The portrait shows the Prince at his desk in his study at Birkhall on the Balmoral estate. The enormous and densely rich arrangement of massed flowers in the composition came from the Birkhall gardens.

I only had two days by  myself in London. On the first, I took in The Garden Museum, my second visit. As there was no special exhibition, I spent more time studying the permanent collections, reading placards more closely than usual. This painting of Prince Charles (suddenly we are calling him King Charles III), drew my eye. Lunch in the lovely museum cafe was also fulfilling, a bowl of delicious and nourishing root vegetable soup, homemade bread, salted butter, and a glass of wine.

Dahlia display at Wisley
The dahlia trials at Wisley drew me away from the flower show to take lots of photos and notes.
amazing topiary
Amazing topiary at RHS Wisley Gardens. So impressive!
The long pond
A central feature of RHS Wisley, The Jellicoe Canal, an iconic long pond.

I kept thinking, “What shall I do on Saturday?” My 10 p.m. departure for Reykjavik meant I could fill the entire day with something ambitious. I remembered visiting the RHS Garden Wisley in Surrey on my first garden trip to London in 2004 (Bruce surprised me with that trip for a significant birthday). Reach not too far outside of London by train, the garden has stayed in my fond memories — can it possibly have been 18 years? I went online that Friday afternoon and discovered a big surprise. It was the week of RHS Wisley’s annual garden show. Then I saw the show was sold out for Saturday. Fortunately, there was just enough time before close of business hours to call the Press Office and request media credentials. I knew I was in the RHS media database from three prior times covering the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and, yes, a lovely press aid named Francesca Timpson listened to my request and arranged for me to gain entry the next day.

Dahlia bench
The dahlia swing, perfect for selfie photos! Part of a display by Dahlia Beach.

The Wisley Flower Show doesn’t have big display gardens like we see at the Philadelphia Flower Show or the Northwest Flower & Garden Show here in the U.S. And why would they need something like that when the garden itself is mind-blowing in beauty, plant collections and landscape design ideas? With more than 45 of Britain’s top nurseries displaying and selling plants, I was in heaven. My mood was lifted with each display, and I kept counting my good fortune to stumble upon the Flower Show on the one day I was able to (and permitted to) attend. The plant displays were not large, but they were impressive. A favorite, just inside the entry, was the Dahlia Beach display, complete with a bloom-decorated swing for selfie pics.

Hardy Geraniums
Potash Nursery is a fuchsia and hardy geranium specialist. I loved their geranium/pelargonium display!
carnation display
This display by Calamazag Plant Nursery wowed me, too. They specialize in hardy scented dianthus.

Growers specializing in any genus or plant family you could imagine were tucked into curving sections of the borders and beds; many had a sales tent in back and a plant display in front. I loved each one: hardy geraniums and fuchsias, gladiolas, heucheras, alpine plants, succulents, dianthus (carnations), willow topiaries, chrysanthemums — oh, how much plant envy I experienced!

Meeting Local Flower Farmers

I lucked into this day but I also lucked into the National Dahlia Society Show, on display in a bit white marquee tent. Like many dahlia shows I’ve seen in North America, there were rows of tables and stems of single dahlia specimens displayed in vases, staged by tiers for easy viewing. It was pretty and fun to see, but what was that in the far back corner?

Dahlia specimens
Dahlia specimens at the National Dahlia Society Show.
Flowers from the Farm members
Flowers from the Farm members, from left: Rachel Prior, Little Beeches Farm; Rachel Collis, The Rockery Flowers; Jane Tripp, The Country FlowerShed; and Vicki Beddall, Ivy Primrose Flowers.
Orange dahlias
Orange dahlia varieties, displayed to give showgoers an idea of how to use dahlias in floral arrangements.

I spotted something familiar — a Flowers From the Farm logo on a popup banner. Adjacent to this was a long table display of floral arrangements and a color spectrum of dahlias, all grown by members of FFTF — this is the U.K. organization that’s most similar to Slow Flowers Society because it connects flower growers with floral designers and the public. Gillian Hodgson of Fieldhouse Flowers founded this British cut flower group in 2011 to champion artisan growers of local and seasonal blooms. I’ve met Gill in person a few times and twice hosted her on the Slow Flowers Podcast and you can listen here:

Episode 129 (February 2018): Reclaiming our Floral Heritage . . . Lessons from #Britishflowers (Episode 129)
Episode 310 (August 2017): Gill Hodgson and Flowers From the Farm — an update on the British-Grown Floral Community

Six or seven women and one guy wore hot pink polo shirts with the FFTF embroidered logo on the chest. I waited until one of them was free (as they were very busy answering lots of dahlia questions from show attendees) and I introduced myself as, “Debra, from Slow Flowers in the U.S.”

It was an instant recognition among like-minded flower friends and so fun to talk shop and learn about their stories with an easy fluency on both sides of the conversation. This was a highlight and I hope you can hear our conversation in this little recording I grabbed (there was quite a bit of background noise from other conversations in the tent). Thank you to those I met! It is wonderful to have new friends to follow now!

I was preparing to leave when someone said, “oh, you have to meet Claire!” Another pink-shirted FFTF member had returned from a lunch break and it turns out, she was one of the coordinators of their display at Wisley. I met Claire Brown, owner of Plant Passion, a cut flower farm in Surrey.

British Flowers Book

Claire authored and self-published The British Flowers Book in 2020. She gifted me a signed copy, which I’ll cherish. The book is arranged by month and by color (colour) scheme and has a useful index of flowers and foliage by month. It’s intended as a resource for professional florists and their clients but also a great roadmap to guide new flower farmers in choosing what to grow. “Most florists don’t know what’s available at what times of the year,” Claire wrote in the opening pages. “This book is designed to change that.”

I was tickled to see photos of British flowers arranged by a few British designers I follow, including Sarah Statham, with whom I had just spent four days in Scotland. Thank you, Claire! How fun to discover that you recommended the hashtag #slowflowers along with #britishflowers and #scottishflowers.

Creme de Cassis
Creme de Cassis dahlia

People + Places to Follow:

Cambo Estate: @cambo_gardens
Simply by Arrangement: @simplybyarrangement
The Garden Museum: @gardenmuseum
RHS Garden Wisley: @rhswisley
Dahlia Beach: @dahliabeach
National Dahlia Society: @thenationaldahliasocietyuk
Flowers from the Farm: @flowersfromthefarm
Fieldhouse Flowers: @fieldhouseflowers
Little Beeches Farm: @littlebeechesfarm
The Rockery Flowers: @therockery.flowers
The Country FlowerShed: @thecountryflowershed
Ivy Primrose Flowers: @ivyprimroseflowers
Plant Passion: @plantpassion
The British Flowers Book: @thebritishflowersbook

Debra Prinzing

Debra Prinzing is a Seattle-based writer, speaker and leading advocate for American-grown flowers. Through her many Slow Flowers-branded projects, she has convened a national conversation that encourages consumers and professionals alike to make conscious choices about their floral purchases. Debra is the producer of SlowFlowers.com, the weekly "Slow Flowers Podcast" and the American Flowers Week (June 28-July 4) campaign. Debra is author of 11 books, including Slow Flowers (2013), The 50 Mile Bouquet (2012) and Slow Flowers Journal (2020). She is the co-founder of BLOOM Imprint, the boutique publishing arm of Slow Flowers.

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Slow Flowers Journal is brought to you by SlowFlowers.com. Slow Flowers is an award-winning online directory created to help consumers find florists, studio designers, wedding and event planners, supermarket flower departments and flower farmers that supply American grown flowers. Founded in 2014, the site has grown to 850 members across the U.S.


Media Contact:

For more information, please contact Debra Prinzing
at 206-769-8211 or 844-SLOWFLO (844-756-9356); debra(at)slowflowers.com.