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South Africa’s long and hard road to the Chelsea Flower Show

South Africa’s long and hard road to the Chelsea Flower Show
The team with volunteers who helped build the installation at the Chelsea Flower Show. (Photo: Sven Musica)

South Africa’s triumphant return to the world’s greatest floral feast, the Royal Horticultural Society, Chelsea Flower Show in London this week, followed a hard and long journey.

Despite being absent from what was described as the Olympic equivalent of the flower, plant and landscape design world, for four years due to funding problems, South Africa returned in 2024 with a bang, or rather a bloom, winning a gold medal and awards for the Best Exhibit in the Pavilion and the Best New Design – a first for the country.

South Africa has been winning gold at the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Chelsea Flower Show in London since 1976 – for 43 years. Before this year the last time the country competed was in 2019 when it won gold again. 

However, after the Covid-19 pandemic, the team faced the almost insurmountable problem of having to acquire new sponsors as the South African National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi), the previous donor, was unable to support the South African exhibition at the show. 

Marinda Nel, project manager of South Africa’s exhibit at the show this year and previous chair of the Botanical Society Kirstenbosch Branch, said this year’s exhibit was possible because of a small team from the private sector, civil society, partners and encouragement from members of the RHS and the Chelsea Show management.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Proteas win again at the Chelsea Flower Show

“It was a completely wild process from the beginning. We’ve been asked by so many South Africans who were saddened that we were no longer at Chelsea. People took great pride in the fact that we were winning and people are really passionate about fynbos,” she said.

This year’s exhibit was inspired by the Cape mountains – a series of ranges that run from Cederberg, 200km north of the Cape Peninsula, along the coast for 850km to Gqeberha in the east. Large panels weave through the exhibit’s landscape as if carved by nature, creating an earthy backdrop for vibrant flora to take centre stage.

Sourcing 22,000 rare flowers and plants from remote farms around South Africa to London was not an easy task, for an exhibit showcasing the country’s diversity from the coastal sands to the rich fynbos found in different biomes of hills and mountains and cut-flower hybrids.

After an absence of four years South African flowers once again took centre stage at the 2024 Chelsea Flower Show. (Photo: Sven Musica)

Chelsea Flower Show

The South African exhibit of Cape Flora at the 2024 Chelsea Flower Show. (Photo: Sven Musica)

The hardware and the sculpting were done using wood, clay and hay bales, while the flower display consisted of about 14 different protea species and 22,000 flower stalks in the garden.

In an interview with Daily Maverick, the head designer of the exhibit and floral installer, Leon Kluge, said some of the furthest flowers collected were from KwaZulu-Natal, the King Proteas. Then the team moved down the Garden Route and up to Cederberg. 

This year… five minutes before judging, we had a big dove coming to sit on our walls (the clay mountains)… and made his mark on our wall. It caused a lot of drama.

The process of bringing the flowers to the show was meticulously planned. Proteas were carefully harvested from various remote farms and transported to Cape Town. From there they travelled to Dubai and then to London.

Kluge said: “Each farm has something really unique and it was only harvested from cut-flower farms, so no wild harvesting whatsoever. Proteas are now being grown in Australia, Hawaii and Argentina, but we are the hub of proteas and we have so many more species that we want to present here.

“By the time the flowers arrive at the show, they are already a week old. We immediately then cut all the stems so they can drink because they are really dehydrated and thirsty. They’re all flat and don’t look rich at that moment, so we put them in buckets of water and then they slowly start to drink and puff out.”

The resilience is one of the reasons proteas are such successful cut flowers, capable of lasting more than a month in a vase and retaining their beauty even when dried.

Lead designer Leon Kluge (left) and Tristan Woudberg, who built the clay mountain walls inside the exhibit. (Photo: Sven Musica)

Chelsea Flower Show

King Charles came to view South Africa’s garden at the show on Wednesday. Here the king is pictured with Leon Kluge and Marinda Nel. (Photo: Supplied)

Kluge and his team, including Tristan Woudberg who handled the hard landscaping and clay mountain sculptures, worked tirelessly to bring the exhibit to life, along with volunteers who sorted out their flights and accommodation. 

“It’s a hell of a lot of work with a very short timeframe. It took one week to build and then one week for the flower installation. Then at the end of the two weeks is the judging,

“This year… five minutes before judging, we had a big dove coming to sit on our walls (the clay mountains), one of these London doves, and then made his mark on our wall. It caused a lot of drama… There was nothing we could do. It was nature’s painting on our clay,” he said.

Despite the challenges, the team’s hard work paid off.

The inspiration behind the exhibit 

South Africa is home to the Cape Floral Region, one of the six identified floristic kingdoms in the world. It is also a Unesco heritage site, representing less than 0.5% of Africa but containing 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. Kluge said the sculpted clay mountains represented the dramatic mountain ranges from the fynbos areas of the Cape.

“Those mountain ranges create a few things. First are little pockets of endemic species that only occur in those habitats in between the mountains. That’s where the windows come in, so you have a little look into those little pockets where very rare proteas and fynbos usually occur that most people have never seen.

“The cracks in the clay represent our extremities in our seasonal change. We have a really wet, cold but very colourful and green winter in the Cape, in the fynbos. Then at the same time in summer, it’s really dry and the earth cracks open, and it’s the time when the proteas are resting a bit. That’s all necessary for them to be healthy,” he said. 

Kluge said it was very important to keep the flowers at a very low temperature throughout the trip to the show. 

At some point in February this year we still thought we wouldn’t make it because we were not nearly as far as we wanted to be in regards to the funding. It all pulled through at the last minute.

An agent travels with all 22,000 flower stems from Cape Town International Airport to Dubai International Airport, and then to London for the show where the flowers are delivered back to the team. The agent is responsible for getting the flowers cleared at customs, making sure there are no infestations, and keeping them cool and fresh throughout the journey.

Large panels weave through the exhibit’s landscape as if carved by nature, creating an earthy backdrop for the vibrant flora to take centre stage. (Photo: Sven Musica)

Chelsea Flower Show

South Africa’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 the town of Gqeberha in the east. (Photo: Sven Musica)

Kluge said the biggest challenge is when the flowers arrive at the airport in the UK, where they need all the paperwork ready and they are all treated for all kinds of insects or diseases – which is crucial because if authorities find something, then the whole consignment might be destroyed. 

The team said the award-winning exhibit would not have been possible without the support of the Rupert Nature Foundation (which saved the day at the 11th hour by coming on board earlier this year), Michael Lutzeyer from the Grootbos Foundation, Cape Flora SA, Keith Kirsten from Keith Kirsten Horticulture, and Marinda Nel. 

Funding difficulties

When Sanbi said they were no longer going to be involved, it was quite a blow.

Kluge said: “There was an outcry from a lot of people who were quite upset about it because we are the highlight at the RHS Flower Show, we are one of the biggest stands in the grand marquee and a lot of people come just to see the fynbos of South Africa, because a lot of people never get to travel to South Africa to see it in the wild.

“It took a few years for us to convince people that we can do it on our own here at the Chelsea Flower Show, and the Rupert Foundation provided a lot of the money along with Grootbos Nature Reserve.

“The nature reserve is one of the first reserves in the world that does safaris only for flowers. You get in a safari vehicle and they take you through just to look at flowers, the big five in the Proteas and other things. This is quite a new industry in the Western Cape and it’s something that we need to treasure because once it’s gone, it can never be replaced and replanted. We have to try to save what we have.”

The king actually knows a little bit about plants… He remembers seeing all the fynbos when he visited Cape Town and the proteas.

He added that raising awareness here about fynbos and its fragility back in the Cape was a key component of their exhibit because it’s the world’s richest kingdom of flowers but the world’s smallest and most vulnerable. 

Foremost, Kluge said, this creates opportunities for companies, people and farmers to get involved in protecting what they have on their land and could create a new industry like Grootbos did – changing from farming into a fynbos landscape nature reserve protecting the country’s national heritage.

“We didn’t think we would be [back] here, but we were trying our best and at some point in February this year we still thought we wouldn’t make it because we were not nearly as far as we wanted to be in regards to the funding. It all pulled through at the last minute.”

Kirsten – who has been involved at the Chelsea Flower Show for more than 25 years and co-sponsor when South Africa’s participation was organised through Sanbi at Kirstenbosch – said they received an endorsement from the Kirstenbosch branch of the Botanical Society of South Africa.

“It was civil society, conservation groups and the private sector that came to our aid and got us back here after four years, two years of Covid-19 and two years we weren’t here… It was the will of South Africans and nature environmentalists to get South Africa back because it’s such an important stage for horticulture, conservation biodiversity, climate change and [to] represent South Africa from a tourism point of view,” Kirsten said. 

A royal visit

Kluge said: “The Chelsea Flower Show is the Olympic equivalent of the flower, plant and landscape design world. So a gold here is the highest award you can get in the world. We got our gold, and then they surprised us again with the ‘Best on Show award which is the highest award South Africa’s ever received in their tenure at the Chelsea Flower Show. Then they also gave us the Best New Design award, which they give out if they feel that a design is really pushing boundaries and giving them something new on the world stage, which we are very proud of.”

King Charles and Queen Camilla visited the South African exhibition on Tuesday. “The king actually knows a little bit about plants… He remembers seeing all the fynbos when he visited Cape Town and the proteas. It was quite a fun conversation and I was talking about some new species that we have on the stand that’s never been here, that’s extremely rare, and he was very interested in knowing a little bit more about it,” Kluge said.

These new and rare species of protea were extremely rare in the wild and were pollinated by mice. 

“A lot of people don’t know how but a lot of proteas are very dependent on mice pollination. They are called Shy Proteas and they’re almost extinct in the wild. There are some farms that are trying to revive them, and we got some flowers from them.

“Then there was the Blushing Bride, which is a world-famous flower for weddings, but the plant in the wild is almost extinct – it’s found in Franschhoek and there’s only a handful left. So, this is also trying to raise a bit of awareness in saving and trying to keep them alive in their natural habitat.” DM

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  • Gavin Knox says:

    Always wonderful exhibit put on by expert, dedicated and enthusiastic people for this prestigious show, South Africa have now for more than 20 years consistently been awarded gold.
    Keep up this amazing work, and long may they reign in Chelsea.

  • Geoff Coles says:

    I thought it was De Lille and another travel freebee….. well done SA.

  • David McCormick says:

    We need more good news stories like this in South Africa. Well done! A big thank you to the funders. (SA Tourism, surely this will get a better return for your money than sponsoring a UK football team?)

  • Incredibly beautiful and so cleverly presented – your awards are well deserved. Proud of you and all of your team and support, including those who had to work hard to get you there. Even the pigeon made a contribution, if only you could have kept him sitting there.

  • Agf Agf says:

    Congratulations on a well deserved win. It’s good to see us back at the show again.

  • Jason Bedingham says:

    Well done people! It’s bsolutely marvellous that you were able to get back there and maintain a consistent high standard.

  • Cheryl Siewierski says:

    Congratulations! Spectacular results and beautiful display. Let’s hope that next year the sponsorship comes a little easier – and hopefully from SA Tourism who benefits enormously from SA’s participation in this kind of event.

  • Lynda Tyrer says:

    Fantastic job by the whole team involved as well as all the donors in this massive task their hard work certainly paid off . The whole stand looked lovely and I bet was appreciated by all who visited it. We have such unique plants in this country that need to be saved.

  • Denise Smit says:

    Of course the ANC government is zero in all of this. This is in spite of the ANC. Not even a congratulation from our Government. What a shame

  • Rae Earl says:

    I have heard no commentary or accolades from our government on this outstanding promotion of South Africa on the world stage. No doubt the ANC is too busy hobnobbing with Putin and Hamas and alienating SA from friends and trading partners in the West.

  • Annie Conway says:

    Absolutely fabulous! THANK YOU to all the sponsors who stepped in when the government felt unwilling to. Thank you all for your perseverance and hard work. We really appreciate it.

  • Thys B says:

    To the Team and very much also to the Sponsors. What an extraordinary achievement, and what a spectacular exhibit! This brought a tear to my eye. F0r many years in the previous century (!) it was possible for me to be a sponsor for the SA exhibit. When SAA was a very different creature. I thought this would not happen again. And now you have topped all the awards ever won! Bloody Brilliant. Thank you so very very much. I have a pretty good sense of the logistis involved and we never dealt with 22 000 stems. Love you all!

  • T'Plana Hath says:

    Excellent achievement and a truly stunning display!
    It’s also excellent how Mr Kluge absolutely murdered ‘the Kings English’ – while talking to the actual King! Priceless. I’ll bet it was like nails on a chalkboard for those big ol’ ears of his. Take that, Wingnut!

    Far be it for me to bring ‘small potatoes’ to a big flower show but for the record, or shall we say concord, the phrase “new species that we have on the stand that’s never been here, that’s extremely rare” should read “that’ve” and “that’re”, respectively. “That’s” on a plural is almost diagnostically South African and, IMHO, it is the most endearing grammatical error that us (sic) South Africans commit.

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    Thank you to the Rupert Foundation and the Grootbos Nature Reserve – the unsung heroes.

  • William Kelly says:

    Stunning efdort, stunning results. What a great good news story.

  • Robert K says:

    A proud and iconic South African tradition has been resurrected, thanks to the dedication of the organisers. It is, however, disgraceful that this has not been possible for four years owing to a lack of funds. Where was the private sector during those four years? It is no use asking the government, which is grossly insensitive to important issues such as this and would rather squander our money on idiotic and quixotic ventures such as flagpoles, soccer stadiums that fall into disrepair and disuse after completion, and backing foreign football teams. This was a fine effort that was crowned with gold and awards, as has become the norm during our forty-odd years of participation.

  • John Ridler says:

    Well done to Team SA and the sponsors
    Not only do you do you shine a light on the beauty and talent of SA but you are also invaluable in influencing tourism to our country which earns billions and creates much needed jobs.

  • Kris Marais says:

    SANBI had no funds to support the project. The organization appears to spend substantial sums of money on tomelike annual reports whilst retaining and remunerating 61 directors and experts many of whom have doctorates. The SANBI Board is comprised of 9 directors including a DFTE representative and DSI representative. The 4 sub committee Audit directors are all Drs supported by 4 Expert Members. The Human Resources and Remuneration Committee is peopled by three directors of which 2 are Drs.Research, Development & Innovation includes two Drs.in its compliment of 5 directors. The EXCO has 14 directors and MANCO has 24 members. Perhaps the need to appropriately remunerate the 61 leaves little ‘fat’ to support projects like an SA entry at the Chelsea Flower Show?

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