Popular plants banned from RHS Chelsea

Plant disease risk will affect gardens at RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2018 says Matt Appleby

Could Mediterranean plants be a things of the past at Chelsea?
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Chelsea Flower Show could look very different in 2018 after organisers of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) show banned nine popular plants, because of the risk that they might be infected with a new plant disease called xylella.

The RHS has told exhibitors that to be included in any exhibit, the nine species would have to be “propagated from seed in the UK or have been growing in the UK for a minimum 12 months preceding their use in an RHS show”. The Society is keen to send a strong message out that the disease, dubbed the ‘foot and mouth’ of plants, is dangerous and everything should be done to stop it coming into the UK.

What is Xylella?

Xylella is a plant disease that is advancing north from the Mediterranean that infects more than 300 types of plants, with the olive and wine industries most under threat. It has yet to reach the UK, but if it does, infected nurseries may be forced to close down. The disease is spread by a leafhopper and causes plant leaves to dry up. The garden industry is on tenterhooks. The disease could even be imported by someone bringing a plant back from holiday.

Lavender, hebe, prunus and rosemary are common plants that the disease has hit in the Mediterranean and of course these are popular garden plants here in the UK. But unless the plants have been grown in the UK (or have been ‘quarantined’) they will not be allowed into the RHS Shows for 2018.

Other plants on the RHS list such as olives, oleander, coffee, polygala and Spanish broom are not usually grown in the UK, meaning that any plants that have been in the UK since spring 2017 (ie for the 12 month quarantine period) will be at a premium price for the 2018 show season.

UK-grown plants

Any olives used in Chelsea show gardens in 2018 will need to have a 12 month quarantine period.

This means that UK-grown plants could be more commonly seen at Chelsea in 2018, supplied from UK growers, rather than the more exotic specimens the that public has become used to. One example is the Horticultural Trades Association’s garden, designed by Warnes McGarr for the 2018 show, which may use native plants sourced from UK growers.

Chelsea exhibitor Hillier says ‘plant security’ is going to become an increasing issue for the garden industry, but the Hampshire grower and garden centre group is not growing more plants unless it knows it has definite customers for them.

Kent-based nursery Provender Nurseries managing director Richard McKenna says identifying plants that are really UK-grown is difficult: “Very few plants are propagated in the UK and a lot of nurseries are looking at propagating more plants again, to be in control of supply and have that ultimate control. But it will take years to materialise, build facilities and find the expertise.”

Wharton’s Roses managing director Robert Wharton said garden centres might want more UK plants, but the economy means nursery expansion is difficult: “I think with the risk of importing problems like xylella and the possible extra regulations and paperwork which may be required after Brexit, more buyers will be looking for home grown plants. We are aiming to keep our production at just over 1.4 million roses a year, whilst there is so much uncertainty in the general economic climate.”

Chelsea regular Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants’ co-owner Rob Hardy says he doesn’t believe many people have picked up on xylella yet. He says that as a specialist UK grower he will not be affected by xylella, but the mass market, which relies on imports of thousands of identical plants from Dutch nurseries, might be. He says customers and garden shows are increasingly keen on ‘perfect’ plants, which he does not offer. He grows 1,200 different varieties outdoors and not under glass and heat, (which helps produce identical specimens sought after for show gardens and garden centres). Hardy said specialist plant fairs are taking off in a big way as an alternative to the bigger shows.

Fibrex Nurseries will not be at Chelsea in 2018 after 50 years attendance. The pelargonium nursery said the event costs a lot to attend and it will only return if it finds that not being at the 2018 show hits its mail order trade. Co-owner Richard Godard-Key said; “Looking ahead to next year and our show calendar is a little bit different to the norm. With the changes that have been made to the RHS London Shows, these have, rather sadly, become a venue that is no longer suited to us and so we have decided that, for the time being at least, we shall concentrate on our local arenas. Hampton Court Palace Flower Show will be our only show in the south as we are also taking a well-earned respite from Chelsea after more than 50 years of showing there.”

At Chelsea, top designers Sarah Price and Jo Thompson are set to return, but a RAF 100th anniversary garden looks to have fallen through.

Matt Appleby

About Matt Appleby

Matt is a former teacher turned journalist. He took up writing while in New Zealand and trained as a journalist there. He has since written five books (three on cricket and two on gardening) with The Children's Garden due out in spring 2016 published by Frances Lincoln. He writes for Horticulture Week and other publications. Married with two boys, aged 3 and 6 he lives in London.
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