Ten herbs you'll find in gardens at Chelsea Flower Show
Herb grower and Chelsea Flower Show veteran Jekka McVicar picks ten herbs you'll see growing in Chelsea Show gardens this year
The RHS Chelsea Flower Show is the top place, arguably in the world, to exhibit plants and herbs from many different countries. It is the place where garden designers, horticulturists, gardeners, and enthusiasts come to see the latest concepts in both design and horticulture.
Expert herb grower Jekka McVicar has a long history with the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. As Jekka’s Herb Farm, Jekka first exhibited at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in 1993 and went on to win 14 Gold medals for her certified organic, peat free, displays in the floral marquee. In 2016, she created a beautiful show garden called 'A Modern Apothecary' sponsored by St John’s Hospice. The garden has now relocated to St John's Hospice in London. Jekka was also the first female Chairman of Judges of the Chelsea Floral Pavilion and has shown a Royal Party around the show on numerous occasions.
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The herbs used in the RHS exhibits are chosen either for their floral display, structural characteristics or magnificent foliage. The main trick with Chelsea Flower Show is timing; to ensure all your herbs and plants are looking their best on judging day. For Jekka, in some cases, it was an illusion as, through different horticultural techniques, flowering times were brought forward or held back. The entire garden was an artistic creation rather than being something that could really exist.
Although Jekka does not have a garden or exhibit at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show, her herbs can be seen in many displays and in particular, Jekka’s are growing for three gardens this year: the Savills Garden designed by Mark Gregory, the RBC Brewin Dolphin Garden designed by Paul Hervey Brookes and the Choose Love Garden designed by Jane Porter.
Ten herbs you can find in this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show gardens
African Blue Basil (Ocimum basilicum var. purpurascens x kilimandscharicum)
Purple flowers and foliage is a must-have in a garden at Chelsea. This basil meets this criteria with its attractive dark purple, hairy, oval pointed leaves that have a camphor scent. This is combined with clusters of small pink/mauve tubular flowers in summer. It is also one of a few types of basil that are perennial. Like all basils, it is culinary and combines well in both vegetable and meat dishes.
Angelica (Angelica archangelica)
Bold structural elements are frequently seen in Chelsea Flower Show and in terms of plants, nothing really beats Angelica. Jekka’s angelicas with their deep purple stems and large, round umbels of white/green, scented flowers are highly sought after by garden designers. As Angelicas are monocarpic, they take two years to get to this stage and in the run up to Chelsea the large plants are moved in and out of tunnels to protect them from wind, rain, snow and getting too hot. Timing is key and from several decades of experience, Jekka has nailed it!
Cardoon (Cynara cardunculus)
Cardoon wins on both structure and flowers, bringing drama to a Chelsea Flower Show garden. It is a hardy evergreen perennial that can grow up to 2.5m with a spread of 1.2m due to its large silver/grey serrated leaves. It has large thistle-like blue/violet flowers in summer, which are very attractive to bees and other pollinators.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
At Chelsea Flower Show Fennel is not in flower but is used for its soft green feathery foliage that adds texture to a display. In particular, garden designers prize Bronze Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare 'Purpureum') as this adds another colour to garden pallet.
Lavender Cotton Primrose Gem (Santolina rosmarinifolia subsp rosmarinifolia ‘Primrose Gem’)
Herbs and plants in general are chosen for their strong bold colours, especially as they have to survive a week at the show. Cotton Lavender Primrose Gem is a hardy evergreen, dwarf shrub with vibrant, bright green foliage. This contrasts with its long-stalked, primrose-yellow, pom-pom flowers that appear in summer.
Nasturtium Empress of India (Tropaeolum majus 'Empress of India')
Chelsea Flower Show gardens need a wow and Nasturtium Empress of India provides this with its flowers. The dark red, helmet shaped, flowers, with a long nectar spur, are shown off on a background of mid green leaves. These particularly look good in terracotta pots and are often seen in cottage gardens. Both the flowers and leaves are edible and make a wonderful addition to salads.
Prostrate Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus (Prostratus Group))
Rosemarys are culinary important herbs but in a garden they provide structural interest. Especially prostrate Rosemarys, which trail and hang down, covering sides of walls, pillars and pots. They are also having small, typically blue, flowers that can exists from early spring with a second flowering in the autumn. For the last few years, Rosemarys have become a highly sought after commodity in the gardening world. This is due to the difficulty in importing them from Europe because of Xylella fastidiosa, which also effects olive trees and lavenders. Xylella is a big problem in Europe as it causes leaf scorch, wilt, dieback and, ultimately, plant death. Therefore, there are import restrictions making them difficult to find.
South African Wild Rosemary (Eriocephalus africanus)
South African Wild Rosemary, nicknamed “Eric” at Jekka’s due to its Latin name, has grey, aromatic, soft, hairy, thin leaves grow in tufts along the branch. This is combined with clusters of white daisy-like flowers with deep maroon centres. Its common name is due to its fancied resemblance to Rosemary and structurally, it is used in a similar way in a garden.
Sweet Tea Vine (Gynostemma pentaphyllum)
Sweet Tea Vine is a medicinally important herb but in the context of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, it is a dramatic climbing vine with small palmate, glossy, serrated green leaves. The vine can be used to grow up trellises or cascade over pots and, similar to Rosemary, cover walls and pillars. At Jekka’s we like Sweet Tea Vine as the leaves have a sweet cucumber flavour, which can be used in puddings and to make teas or herbal infusions.
Variegated Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana 'Variegata')
Variegated Horseradish is used for its dramatic, interesting leaves that are dark green with splashes of white/cream. As a herb it is highly invasive, which highlights its use in a RHS Chelsea Flower Show Garden as an illusion and not one to copy!
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