Royal Horticultural Society at Wisley, UK

Over ten thousand varieties of plants for sale in the plant center, said the sign. Now, I’d normally be in there scooping everything in sight, but this wasn’t any old garden centre and there wouldn’t have been much point buying plants. This was England and, sadly, smuggling rare plant material home to Canada is serious business and I wasn’t prepared to risk it. Telling a customs officer that the green stuff in your sandwich really is lettuce is one way to import a cutting, but be prepared to eat it or face a really big fine. It did cross my mind, especially when faced with some of the rarest plants in captivity.

I was at Wisley, the principle garden of the Royal Horticultural Society, same folks who put on the Chelsea Flower Show. Our group had spent a day at the Chelsea show and been as overwhelmed and amazed as ever, but now we were enjoying a more relaxing pace viewing the plants and gardens at Wisley, a world-class garden and a botanist’s dream.

This is where many of the plants that end up in your garden originate. For over a hundred years, this former estate covering twenty-four hectares has cultivated and carried out countless trials of new fruits, vegetables and flowers. Different cultivation techniques are tested, and composting is studied at the PhD level — okay, they take it very seriously. Besides being an ornamental garden, Wisley is a centre for education and research.

I didn’t actually enter the plant centre — no point. We were surrounded by flower beds and woodlands containing even more varieties and unusual specimens. Azaleas, camellias and rhododendrons lining the walks were still in bloom, as were Deutzia and mock orange. There’d been a shower earlier, but now the sun was out, the air was filled with fragrance, and song birds were warbling away.

Everywhere, perennials were perfectly arrayed in bed after bed, each plant tagged with its botanical name. This made life much easier for me, the one on the tour who’s erroneously assumed to know the name of every plant in existence. Normally, when unsure, and unwilling to disappoint, I have to mumble something that vaguely sounds like Latin, but here I was pleasantly relieved of the pressure.

Toona sinensis
I did learn the name of yet another tree I’d love to grow, but alas, it isn’t quite hardy enough for my back yard. Toona sinensis 'Flamingo' is a shrubby tree from China (Sinensis) with pink leaves — hence Flamingo — and it attracted a lot of wows. With care, it might just survive down Niagara way (this is when a reader emails me to say there are lots there already).

In addition to the long established areas at Wisley, a group of new display gardens had been created by eminent designers just this spring. Unlike the more competitive and exquisite Chelsea show gardens, which are in place for only five days, these were designed to ensure interest throughout the complete garden season, different, but equally challenging.

There was so much to see, but one more highlight had to be explored. The brand new cathedral-like glass house, four storeys high, containing three climatic zones — tropical, moist temperate, and dry temperate, each one precisely controlled to ensure perfect conditions for a jungle of rare and endangered species. It was houseplant heaven with palm fronds brushing the roof, water falls cascading, and brilliantly coloured flowers.  Too soon our visit was over. A quick visit to check out the relentlessly ‘twee’ stuff in the garden store, a last stop for refreshments, and we were off to see castles, my sandwich carefully packed away.

First published Waterloo Region Record June 2009


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