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29 May 2000

Nice blooms, shame about the bees

The plants at Chelsea Flower Show may look spectacular, but many are not environmentally friendly

By Jill Hamilton

Admired and copied throughout the world, English gardens are one of the artistic triumphs of the British Isles. And they have no finer stage than this month’s Chelsea Flower Show run by the Royal Horticultural Society. But how many people realise that Chelsea wilfully ignores the issue that preoccupies growing numbers of responsible gardeners, particularly the younger ones: conservation.

As the countryside is rapidly eroded, the survival of birds, butterflies and other wildlife depends increasingly on food and shelter in our gardens. Yet at Chelsea, you will win prizes for appearance, beauty and design, but not for conservation. You may find controversy about whether exhibitors grow their own plants or buy them, but no debate about how they grow them or what is on them or in them – especially insecticides and chemical fertilisers. You will find no distinction between plants grown in season or those forced out of season through cold and hot greenhouses. Nor will you hear any discussion on cultivating native plants. Because they support insects, these are vital to the survival of the birds that people so keenly welcome to their gardens. They play an essential role in breeding and feeding cycles: no buckthorn, then no brimstone butterfly; no sorrel, then no small copper butterfly; no holly, then no holly blue butterfly.

Last summer, as a former exhibitor, I wrote to the RHS suggesting a prize for “the garden or exhibit that best helps the environment by bringing conservation and native plants into everyday gardening practices”. The society declined the proposal on the grounds that “it would be extremely difficult to set criteria to judge, and would necessitate extra specialist judges, as well as possibly encouraging people to dig up wild plants for their gardens”. (I wonder if the society believes that fashion shows should be stopped lest they prompt thousands of shop-lifters to plunder department stores.) When I wrote to Sir Simon Hornby, the president, suggesting that the society should make conservation a priority, he replied that “horticulture means plants in cultivation”. He went on: “It is not our role to be pioneers for conservation.”

Yet gardens have become such a huge part of the British landscape that it is essential that they contribute towards pollination, soil regeneration and natural predation. Gardens can then help redress the balance of our destroyed natural ecosystems.

Far from helping the environment, many garden plants actually cause pollution. Grown in plastic polytunnels in mono- cultures, they rely on pesticides and fertilisers, and also require fuel for heating and long hours of artificial light.

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Although there is an outcry against how genetically modified food threatens wildlife, nobody seems to have noticed the decline of essential food for insects, especially bees and butterflies. Old-fashioned, single-flowered plants provide nectar. Many modern hybrids, however, provide little or none, because the sex organs have been altered, sacrificed to create more petals. Others do produce nectar, but insects, obstructed by double petals or “improvements” in the bloom, cannot reach it. Such flowers may be completely sterile; they have had a facelift at the expense of fertility. For birds, butterflies and other wildlife, they represent the equivalent of a famine.

Jean Jacques Rousseau condemned double flowers as “nature disfigured by man”. “Should you find double flowers, waste no time in examining them,” he wrote. “They are deformed, or, if you prefer, we have embellished them according to our whim: nature is no longer there; she refuses to be reproduced by such deformed monsters; for while the most arresting part, the corolla, is reduplicated, it is at the expense of our more essential organs, which disappear beneath this splendour.”

The Chelsea Flower Show is deaf to this message. Each year, the blooms appear bigger and more spectacular: thousands of dazzling flowers, with sensational colours, but no nectar. Lots of the pansies have petals so large that no bee would be able to get a sure footing, even if there were nectar.

Chelsea could set a lead. If it did more to promote native plants, other flower shows (which are multiplying) would follow. So would garden centres. The seven founder members of the RHS who met in Hatchards in 1804 were dedicated to “the improvement of horticulture”. As the society approaches its bicentenary, it should embrace the spirit of our age, and make the environment its first priority.

Jill, Duchess of Hamilton is co-author of English Plants for Your Garden (Frances Lincoln, £20) and Scottish Plants for Scottish Gardens (Mercat Press, £12.99)

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