Sir Hans Sloane provided the grounds for the Chelsea Physic Garden. Sloane’s natural history collections and library formed one of the first exhibitions of the British Museum in 1759. Christin Geall photo

Cultivated: London is for flower lovers

Christin Geall is an Oak Bay gardener and creative non-fiction writing instructor at UVic

I don’t get out much: I travel. As a maximizer who grew up in a big city, I love ditching driving and picking up my pace. London is perfect for me as a gardener and flower lover – offering urban gardens, stately trees, art, exotic blooms, bouquets and more. I’ve just returned home from a March trip, my fourth trip to London in as many years so I’ll list a few of my favourite shops, galleries and gardens within central London itself(defining that as tube, not train, accessed). BTW: The app Citymapper is the bomb for navigating. So here we go…

The National Gallery home to Monet’s paintings from his garden at Giverny, Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and an exquisite selection of Dutch floral still lifes, displayed in a small room on the second floor. Eighteenth century masters such Jan Davids. de Heem and my favourite Rachel Ruysch are amongst the collection. On this recent trip I had the great joy of seeing Ruysch’s Flowers in a Vase with a Tulip, which she painted in her 50s after a long career as a painter. Ruysch’s father was a botanist involved with the Hortus Botanicus in Amsterdam during the Dutch Golden Age and her life story is a fascinating one.

The flagship store of the Liberty brand is a wonderful Tudor revival building featuring fabrics, clothes and gifts. Liberty is known for its fine floral fabrics and while I’m not a sewer, I’ve long admired the designs. Having reached the age where I’m now worried my Liberty shirts will age me, I now pop in for handkerchiefs which make nice gifts and in the larger sizes work as a bandana/necktie. Liberty always has delicious display of cut flowers off Great Marlborough Street, just outside its floristry shop run by Nikki Tibbles, Wild at Heart.

For early morning jetlag, nothing beats The New Covent Garden Flower Market. This is a warehouse space open to the public and a fascinating place to gain insight into the global flower trade and the paradoxes of choice. Looking for an urn the size of a man? Or simply a great bacon butty? This is the place.

The Wallace Collection, a not-to-be missed ‘mansion’ museum in Marylebone, also has 18th century still lifes including a beautiful one by Jan van Huysum. A 19th century piece titled Flowers and Fruit by Simon St. Jean is interesting to view in this context; you can see the lightening of style in the French School. And speaking of light: The Wallace Collection’s furniture, window dressings, and architectural detailing are particularly grand in the ‘rococo’ rooms. This is currently my favourite museum in central London: how we view art, and in what context, is increasingly important to me.

Which brings me to the top floor of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Here artifacts are arranged by period, but also by the techniques used in production. The furniture display is fascinating and solved a recent niggling question I’d had about the floral designs on antique furniture and frames. (These are the kind of questions The Wallace Museum provokes). How might one carve wood with such precision? The trick I learned is in the building up of gesso, which is then sculpted into shapes. This may appear naive on my part, but so be it: that one fact elevated an already happy day.

From the Wallace Museum it’s only a short walk over to the Marylebone High Street to inspect the chic linen – er, gardening – aprons at Toast and pop in to the Designer’s Guild to see the floral fabrics and wallpapers. The Conran Shop is also in this neighbourhood and the esteemed Daunt Books has an excellent gardening section.

Chelsea Physic Garden, founded in 1673, is the second oldest botanical garden in England. On the north side of the Thames, the temperatures are apparently two degrees warmer than in the city itself. One thing that makes this garden great—beyond its significant history—is its location, themes (medicinal, dye plants, etc.), and small size. With over 5000 species, Latin saturation will occur in about two hours and the cafe is excellent. Green peas with mint, tea, and sticky ginger cake? Check.

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, is the most significant botanical garden in the world. Budget at least four hours for Kew (if not the whole day) as it includes glasshouses, long walks, countless display gardens, cafes, art, and historic buildings. I interned here in my twenties, obviously a life-changing experience. The tube stop for Kew is in a sweet little village, but don’t miss the nearby flower shop and school Zita Elze. In 2016, I took a short class in The History of Floral Design here. Zita is known for fresh floral embroidery which should give you a hint as to the wonderful displays in the shop. (The food at/in Kew isn’t great, so if you have time head further out to Petersham Nurseries in Richmond which has a charming glasshouse cafe, a fine restaurant, and gift shop including horticultural antiques).

How does one digest it all? Admittedly it’s near impossible to slow down in London, so you may as well Uber it up and try a bit of Mayfair madness at Sketch, which has a botanical bar and a restaurant straight out of a Wes Anderson movie. The whole room is done in ‘Millennial Pink’ and the washrooms are the most photographed in London. I saw the floral installations here during Chelsea Flower Week in 2015 and was determined to eat here this trip. Definitely worth a once.

What did I miss? Gin, botanical bars, and probably all of East London, right? And, and, and…you can see why I keep going back. I’m planning to be in the UK again in the fall and if you’d be interested in me leading a three-day flower extravaganza, let me know. See my online journal for images and inspiration: www.cutlivatedbychristin.com

Christin Geall is an avid Oak Bay gardener and creative non-fiction writing instructor at the University of Victoria.