As well as the big Flower Shows such as Chelsea and Hampton Court, the RHS runs smaller events in London at their Lindley and Lawrence Halls, just off Vincent Square. The first of these is held in mid February each year. You come in from a bleak landscape to be confronted by a kaleidoscope of colour and enough scent to assail even my limited olfactory senses.
Among the bergenias, hellebores and early flowering shrubs, thousands of bulbs catch the eye, vying for attention – snowdrops by the thousand, dwarf narcissi to remind you that spring is on the way, cyclamen in every shade of pink, winter aconites glowing in the watery sunlight entering through the windows high up in the roof. But the stars of these shows are the dwarf iris – the purples of I. reticulata, the blues of I. histrioides, and the yellow I. danfordiae. For the past few years, more and more of these tiny jewels have arrived in various colour mixes, each more exquisite than the last.
When Canadian Alan McMurtrie retired from a career in electrical engineering, he was able to spend more time on his hobby, breeding dwarf iris from these early bloomers. Now we are starting to see the results of his years of work as some of his progeny are becoming commercially available. ‘Spot On’ (white and almost black tips to sumptuous purple petals), ‘Sea Breeze’ (a confection of white, yellow and blues), ‘Splish Splash’ (spots and stripes of blue on a white background with a yellow stripe for good measure), the almost luminous ‘Sunshine’, and the icily pure ‘White Caucasus’ all come from Alan’s stable.
But the one that always stops you in your tracks is ‘Eyecatcher’.
I resisted its inflated price tag until last year, planting a group of bulbs deeply in a raised bed of gritty compost in October. Right on cue for the RHS Show, they opened their flowers to the wintry elements. Planting at depth forces the bulbs to regroup ready for a repeat performance rather trying to reproduce by splitting into small bulbils, too puny to flower again for several years. And the first got ahead of itself, opening again on 22nd December.
Several other snouts are showing promise, and there should be another eye-catching display in the new year.
The RHS Early Spring Plant Fair will be held on 13th and 14th February in 2018.