/ 29 May 2024

Pride and privilege for South Africa at Chelsea Flower Show

Jacky Goliath
South African fynbos displays have won 37 gold medals since 1976. Pictured is Jacky Goliath, CFSA Board Member and Managing Director of De Fynne Nursery. Photo: Supplied

Displaying South Africa’s fynbos marvels at the world’s premier flower show last week wasn’t just a privilege for Marinda Nel and her team. Instead, they felt that they had an “obligation to share the richness of South Africa’s flora” with the wider world.

After a four-year hiatus from the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in London, South Africa attained floral gold, winning multiple awards and stealing the show. 

The country won not only a gold medal with perfect scores from the judges but in an unprecedented bloom, was awarded Best Exhibit in the Pavilion as well as the Best New Design award.

This year’s exhibit was inspired by the Cape mountains, in particular, the Cape Fold Belt, a series of mountain ranges that run from Cederberg, 200km north of the Cape Peninsula, along the coast for 850km to Gqeberha in the east. 

These majestic mountains, Nel said, were formed billions of years ago when the Falklands Plateau crashed into the African Plate and caused the sedimentary rock layers to fold up in parallel lines across the plains. Large panels weaved through the exhibit’s landscape as “if carved by nature, creating an earthy backdrop for our vibrant flora to take centre stage”. 

Nel, the project manager for the award-winning floral exhibit, said South Africa’s vibrant display showed a World Heritage site for biodiversity and South African pride in the country’s unique flora and landscapes. “From the high-altitude fynbos to the bulbs and geophytes found along the coast, it’s a celebration of one of the world’s most biodiverse regions.”

Beyond its botanical wealth, the Cape Floral Region supports a rich tapestry of animal life, including numerous endemic species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and insects. This ecological variety and complexity has earned the region international recognition as a Unesco World Heritage Site and a global biodiversity hotspot. 

“As we delve deeper into the wonders of the area, we uncover not only its ecological significance but also its cultural and economic importance to the people who call this region home,” she said. “From traditional uses of indigenous plants to the burgeoning ecotourism industry, the Cape fynbos flora continues to captivate and inspire all who venture into its verdant landscapes.” 

The Cape Floral Kingdom is one of the six identified floristic kingdoms in the world. Its land area represents less than 0.5% of the African continent and contains 20% of the continent’s flora. The density, endemism, and diversity of an estimated 9 000 plant species have made this region one of the world’s 35 biodiversity hotspots.

Nel said she is proud of being a South African and “in the position to introduce our unique and spectacular fynbos on a personal level to visitors from all over the world”. 

“Their joy was contagious. And I’m very grateful to all who have made this possible — the team, sponsors, friends, SA flora fans … Everyone at the exhibit wanted to be there and were ready to do whatever was required,” she said.

An unprecedented 22 000 stems were used in the display to create a proudly South African explosion of fynbos. Special effort was made to include rarely seen hybrids such as the fan favourite, Protea “Snow Leopard”, as well as featuring rarely-seen species such as the pendulous Protea sulphurea and the delicate blushing brides (Serruria florida). 

For Nel, working with international floral artist and award-winning designer Leon Kluge, who won the last two gold medals for South Africa at Chelsea, was a privilege. For the display, Kluge showed the Cape in just 64 square metres. “His talent is quite evident, but it is his work ethic and that of his team, Tristan Woudberg and Sven Musica, was inspirational. We all took our cue from them and followed their lead.”

After the South African National Biodiversity Institute, the sponsor of three decades, withdrew its support, a private sector-led team stepped forward to ensure South Africa’s flora was once again represented at the world’s premier flower show. 

Nel said the return of the South African floral exhibit at the Chelsea Flower Show was made possible only by the generous sponsors and dedicated people “who believe that our unique flora should be shown to the world”.

A South African exhibit has been part of the show since 1976, and during 43 years of participation the exhibit has earned 37 gold awards, of which the green industry in South Africa is exceptionally proud.

The exhibit would not have been possible without the support of The Rupert Nature Foundation, Michael Lutzeyer from the Grootbos Foundation, Cape Flora SA and Keith Kirsten from Keith Kirsten Horticulture. The project was endorsed by the Kirstenbosch branch of the Botanical Society.

While Nel can’t speak for the other members of her team, managing the return of South Africa’s floral heritage to Chelsea was hard work. “I spent many many hours writing bespoke applications to potential sponsors and funders. My approaches were met with great encouragement, but no funding. It was tough to remain optimistic and keep going.

“Once the funds were in hand, I needed to familiarise myself with the online administrative requirements of the RHS. Not that it was complicated, it was all just very unfamiliar to me and thus required many hours behind my laptop.”

The RHS staff, she added, were flexible and unwavering in their support. “I cannot express our gratitude to them enough. And once here [in London], there was a great deal of physical labour involved. We were kaput at the end of the day and slept very soundly. The gates opened at 7am and closed at 10pm.”