Mandela portrait triumphs at Chelsea

Johannesburg - South Africa was represented by two teams at this week’s Chelsea Flower Show in London. The first team was assembled by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi) – Kirstenbosch, while the second team represented the City of Cape Town Parks and Recreation Department.

Regarded as the international Olympics of gardening, this is the 39th year in a row that South Africa has mounted exhibitions at the Chelsea Flower Show.

The Kirstenbosch South Africa exhibit features a gabion wall, paying homage to the legacy of Nelson Mandela, created using everlasting organic material. Picture: SuppliedThe Kirstenbosch team. They are, from left, Elton le Roux, Fran Siebrits, David Gwynne-Evans, Tracy Bruins-Lich, David Davidson, Riaan Maritz, Ray Hudson, Carmine Galassi, Dean Sutton and team leader Roger Olivier.  Picture: SuppliedThe City of Cape Town's award-winning exhibit at Chelsea this year. The display, themed The Wonders of Cape Town, showcases fynbos endemic to the Cape Floral Kingdom, including proteas, restios and pincushions.  Picture: Supplied

Competing this week at the Chelsea Flower Show was especially emotional for the Kirstenbosch team. A logistical trucking system faltered and airfreighted plants were delayed for three days during build-up. Moreover, a week of unexpected heat hit London, decimating blooms and fatiguing plants.

South Africa’s world class Harmony in Nature – Kirstenbosch exhibit was completed late on Sunday night. The Nelson Mandela portrait in dried protea buds was wildly popular. To the delight of the South Africans, the BBC used the Mandela portrait exhibit as the lead story in their week-long television coverage of the show.

Recorded before judging and broadcast to millions of viewers on Monday night, the BBC television team described the Kirstenbosch exhibit as one of the best in the Grand Pavilion. They went on to praise South Africa for innovation and design excellence in using dried protea rosettes to create the artwork depicting Mandela.

On Tuesday, the judges announced that both South African teams had won Silver-Gilt medals for their respective exhibits. As a silver honour that is edged in gold, the Silver-Gilt falls just short of a gold medal.

The Silver-Gilt awards were presented in a year in which an new judging system was launched at the Chelsea Flower Show.

Calls for a more scientific approach to judging have been bubbling away in the British media for many years. Top landscape designers have also called for the show judges to stop the handing out of Gold Medals “like confetti”.

The Royal Horticultural Society have been working on a new system since 2011 and it was introduced this year. Based on 36 points, the Grand Pavilion exhibits are assessed by seven judges. If exhibits get 28 points or more, they receive a gold medal.

Supporting South Africa’s ecotourism effort is a major focus of the both exhibits at the show. At Monday’s press day, celebrities such as Rowan Atkinson, Piers Morgan and Jerry Hall were followed by Queen Elizabeth, Princess Beatrice and Princess Michael of Kent in visiting the South African exhibit.

The South African exhibits were enormously similar in their ecotourism aim and message. “Our stand in the Great Pavilion is very popular with visitors from across the world, many of whom travel to South Africa as a result of seeing our floral heritage,” says Kirstenbosch team leader, Roger Oliver.

The City of Cape Town exhibit had a magnificent backdrop screen of Table Mountain and included a carpet of indigenous pincushions, proteas, restios and ferns.

The Sanbi – Kirstenbosch exhibit featured vegetation from four natural habitat types:


Kay Montgomery, Saturday Star