South African flora’s triumphant return to Chelsea flower show – Keith Kirsten

After a four-year hiatus, South Africa has returned to the prestigious Chelsea Flower Show in London this year. Their exhibition, which showcased the Cape Mountains and South Africa’s biodiversity, featuring proteas and fynbos, won a Gold Medal, ‘Best Exhibit in the Pavilion,’ and ‘Best New Design’ awards. South Africa has participated in the show since 1976, earning 37 gold awards over the years. However, the country’s florists were absent for the past four years due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a decision by the South African National Biodiversity Institute to withdraw from the show. Keith Kirsten, a renowned horticulturist, spoke to BizNews from Chelsea about how head designer Leon Kluge and artist Tristan Woudberg led a group of volunteers to create this year’s spectacular display using 22,000 proteas and fynbos. The project came together with the crucial support of major donors, including the Rupert Nature Foundation and the Grootbos Private Nature Reserve, leading to South Africa’s most significant success ever at the show.

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Extended transcript of the interview

Linda van Tilburg (00:0003)

South Africa has returned to the prestigious Chelsea Flower Show in London this year with an exhibit on Cape Flora. An exhibition of South Africa’s flora has been part of the show since 1976 and has earned 37 gold awards. We have Keith Kirsten, the well-known horticulturist joining us from London to tell us about this year’s exhibition. 

Keith Kirsten (00:29.838)

I was a bit exhausted this week from the preparations. We brought after four years of South Africa not being at Chelsea in London. We had two years due to COVID and then two years because the South African Botanical Institute, SANBI decided not to return to Chelsea and then by that time, I think South African people were talking and saying, but why are we not back at Chelsea and representing South Africa and why shouldn’t we get back here? 

So, I think a couple of us from the Botanical Society in Cape Town, as well as interested parties out of the nursery industry, out of the landscape industry and just general citizens, gardeners and people who love our flora and country, decided that we really should get South Africa back to Chelsea. 

Only then eventually did we get a go-ahead from another donor, the Rupert Nature Foundation, who came to the party and really helped us with the majority of the funding we needed to go back to Chelsea. Then we all got really busy. Leon Kluge, who had previously represented South Africa, designing the South African exhibit, came to the fore and so we called on him obviously to design and to assist building, and then a whole lot of volunteers. Many of them were people who paid their own way and some of them came out of the budget and it was limited. 

I think purely the mere fact that we had a desire and a passion to come back got us back and that’s the success of the show. Although we had no idea we were going to do as well as we did because you just never know. At the Royal Horticultural Society, there’s a lot of competition from a lot of people, various designers, and other countries. It’s the Mecca for gardeners, horticulturists and people all around the world who come to Chelsea, which is the finest flower show on Earth.

LInda van Tilburg (03:52.278)

Tell us about your success. So a gold medal, not only a gold medal, you did more than that.

Keith Kirsten (03:57.317)

Well, first of all, there’s a week of preparation and as Leon Kluge has succinctly informed in his various videos and social media, 22,000 flowers, stems of proteas and fynbos were sent over. Each one of them has to be prepared for the exhibition and the installation of the actual design.

Leon and his small team worked very passionately on the design and all the assistants and the helpers trimmed the stems, took off spoiled leaves and prepared the material for the exhibition. So, it’s been a team effort. We’ve got Marinda Nel, who’s the next chairperson of the Botanical Society of South Africa National, as well as Kirstenbosch. I’m an ex-council member as well and we pulled together a group of really passionate people who were interested in getting us there. We called on civil society, we had funding coming from all types of people that were interested in getting us back. 

And then, you work for a week setting up the whole exhibit. It takes a long time, it’s a mad house there because there’s everyone and machinery and whatever, you have to wear a security vest and you have to wear hard-toe cap shoes.

Then there’s a countdown to when you’ve actually got to have everything prepared and ready, which is normally by Sunday night, you have to be absolutely finished with everything. Monday, the media come in and celebrities scrutinise and the judges are always busy and you’ve got to keep out of their way. They don’t allow anyone near them when they’re judging and their various exhibitions. When we got in this morning, we discovered that we got a gold medal, which was really quite overwhelming. 

One doesn’t really understand how much work goes into putting these things together, the logistics and getting the flowers and getting the brochures, 25,000 of them printed and delivered and then cleared of customs because they’re not going to be for sale. They’re going to be handed out to people. 

We had assistance and the Royal Horticultural Society has been amazing in assisting us. They really wanted South Africa back. People come to the Chelsea Flower Show to see the South African flora. We’ve become synonymous with the Chelsea Flower Show over the years. So, the people really came around in throngs. 

Carol Klein, who’s a great presenter of Chelsea, and she’s a horticulturist and a gardener, just loves the South African stand and the South African people and the South African flowers. She gave us a punt on BBC, I think, just the fact that we were back and that got people talking. That brought many people into the show and then on top of that, you know, when we got gold this morning, the news went out and it was kind of a buzz around the show that we’d got gold. 

It was the first day of Members Day. So, Tuesday and Wednesday are members’ days and then Thursday, Friday, and Saturday are public days. On Saturday, they sell off the flowers as well. Everyone can and does.

Then we were at about 10, 11 o ‘clock, somebody said something’s going to happen at our stand and no one really knew and there was a bit of a buzz going around and the next minute, and I’m so grateful, there were so many loyal South Africans that were at our exhibit coming to visit Leon Kluge and the and the team who wished us well. 

The next minute, the President arrived with a whole camera crew and support and the judges and things and brought us the ‘Best on Show award’ with two beautiful cut glasses with proteas on them and two great big certificates. We got “Best on Show ‘ and we got ‘Best Design on Show’ as well for Leon Kluge’s design 

LInda van Tilburg (07:59.414)


Keith Kirsten (08:12.099)

So we were overwhelmed. To get best on show at Chelsea flower shows is like winning the Grand Prix, I mean, it’s something. So, we knew we worked hard and we knew we had fantastic flowers and they were perfection personified, all the fynbos. We represented Grootbos South Africa endorsed by the Botanical Society as well.

I think nature, biodiversity and conservation in the way it should be done. and our brochure said it all as well. I think that the people were just crazy about us and they’ve been thronging in today and the news will go out tonight in South Africa and the rest of the whole of the United Kingdom will know about it.

We’ve had Instagram blogs and all those kinds of things going out and we’ve got an amazing loyal South African gardening community who are madly behind it all. So, 10 out of 10 for the team.

LInda van Tilburg (09:25.046)

There is this hype around the South African exhibition at Chelsea every year, how were you received by people walking past?

Keith Kirsten (09:41.473)

Well, first of all, it’s the most colourful exhibition in the entire Grand Marquee. There obviously are beautiful roses, but they are smaller flowers and masses of them. There are wonderful clematis from Raymond Emerson in Guernsey, Guernsey clematis and there are other gladioli, but they are smaller stands. 

This is a great big, almost 100 square metres of flora from South Africa and they are so colourful and so brilliant from the pure white King protea to all the different pinks, to all the bronzes, and many others, and all the purple heathers and things. I think ours stood out, and it also was an elevated stand. It had emulated rock walls with holes in them, emulating the sort of rock outcrops you get between the fynbos and the proteas up on the koppies around Gans Bay and Cape Town, Table Mountain and other mountains around, near Lourensford and places like that. So, it was fabulous. 

 Another great thing about this exhibition at the moment is that we are not the only South Africans represented there. Babylonstoren is represented there from Cape Town and so is the Newt. That is another Babylonstoren project and it’s amazing and there is a lot of South African wine around. 

We had Delaire wine on our stand, which we gave to and handed out to visitors on Monday, on press day. So, we had the lovely Delaire Croft wines from up on Helshoek outside Stellenbosch., it was just a great South African gathering actually at a big flower show. And it’s just been terrific. 

I think the media is going to continue all week because the BBC broadcasts from, they’ve got studios there and they broadcast from Chelsea and they’ll be broadcasting all week. The Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show is considered the opening of the social season and of the whole of summer. So, following on it will be Ascot and then there will be the Henley regattas and there’ll be lots of wonderful things. So anyway, it was great to have some of the donors there today, which was wonderful.  

LInda van Tilburg (12:12.118)

So, is the future of Chelsea now secure, do you think?

Keith Kirsten (12:17.181)

Well, we tongue in cheek kind of committed to the RHS because they were really keen for us to come and that we’d do it for three years without knowing whether we were going to have the funding. But, I’m praying that certainly, Grootbos is still in and I know we have to apply again for future funding from some of the other trusts. But, I think having one Golden Best on Show, which is going to be a hell of an act to follow but I do believe that we’ll be able to come back and then maybe a different design and representing more biomes of South Africa, not only the Cape, but we’ll always bring Cape Flora as well. I think that’s for the committee to decide when they meet in the new year on the design what kind of course we’ll take where funding coming from and who the team will be as well.

LInda van Tilburg (13:09.654)

I think one thing where South Africa is way ahead is there’s a big emphasis, I see at Chelsea this year, to plant indigenous flowers. In other words, plants that don’t take so much water come from elsewhere and there the Cape is way, way ahead because they are all indigenous flowers.

Keith Kirsten (13:19.996)

Correct. Correct.

Well, our brochure told that story as well about biodiversity, conservation, and water saving, and I think it is a theme worldwide at the moment. The whole world is very conscious about global warming, climate change and all those things. So I think, the whole point is that you do need to have an educational spiel and angle to your exhibits at Chelsea these days. I mean, they look for that.

The other big thing you must understand is that South Africa with our flora represents tourism in South Africa. People come to see the game reserves and they come to see wildlife and our birds, and they come to see the wildflowers, they come to see Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, and they come to the Cape because it’s got wonderful vineyards.

Chelsea is a shop window to advertise South Africa from a tourism point of view. And then as far as biodiversity and conservation is concerned, we are leaders in that. We’re doing everything we can in South Africa throughout the country in many, many ways to preserve our biodiversity, whether it be the marine biodiversity, whether it be the fauna and whether it be the flora. We’re doing it all. It was a great, great thing to do that again. I think that what makes everyone feel so good is that we’re doing something for the environment. 

You can get wonderful rapport from gardening and from working with the soil and planting and working with nature. I think that’s what Chelsea is all about. I mean, there’s just an amazing amount and wonderful things are happening at Chelsea all the time. The Babylon people are here because they are representing South Africa and representing the Newt who have been helping the Royal Horticultural Society to do what they do best, and that is wonderful as well.

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