Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Newport Flower Show: Delivering Extravagance

 Last Friday afternoon I found myself seated on a large bus, gawking at century-old mansions as The Beatles "Magical Mystery Tour" album blared. The bus moved at barely 5mph along a crowded seashore drive, eventually making a cumbersome left turn into a driveway marked "Rosecliff". I had arrived at the much anticipated Newport Flower Show.

With keen senses, I uttered something about blue gardens to my husband and made my way past the large European beeches dotting the front lawn. Some of the beeches, of which there are approximately 450 on Newport Mansions grounds, were decorated with lush hanging baskets and candles. The show gardens on the front lawn were still buzzing with designers adding finishing touches and issuing warnings about the fresh blue paint.

A handful of designers created blue show gardens as an homage to Newport's famous Blue Garden of the past, which much like these, was built at the mansion entrance as a showpiece for an extravagant party. Blue-hued fences, pottery and stone, along with true-blue flowers like hydrangea, delphinium, salvia, gernanium, monkshood, campanula, and lupins  guided the eye all the way down to the mansion.

The first garden was flanked by a staged cafe and featured a lotus-shaped mosaic made of loose stone at the bottom of a pool. Following this was a dense garden full of interesting plants like the hosta on the left. Each element in this garden was part of a mirrored symmetry- even the pair of torch-wielding iron ladies. Another garden presented blue flower portraits among vertical wall plantings.

Each of these blue gardens was accompanied by a thematic table setting. Table settings were sprinkled throughout the show and seemed to get stranger and stranger as I wandered further inside, from succulent arrangements to celosia sushi to crockery resembling vegetable-people. . .

But I'm getting ahead of myself!

Entries for container plantings were nestled beside the front door of the building. I saw a few that fit my definition of casual elegance perfectly.

Some entries put a twist on "container gardening" itself- miniature gardens in a container! I especially liked the tiny potted tropicals in the greenhouse and the miniature bottle of red wine next to the lounge chair.

We flagrantly skipped entering at the front door, as I was a wee bit distracted by the arbour of antique roses around the side. What a fragrance! This eventually led us to the back terraces, where there were more inventive container plantings.

Past the jazz band and the vendors,  large container plantings stood against the salt spray of the ocean.

 I spied a few of the other lavish Newport Mansions from there, with gardens that stretched finger-like right into the high-water mark of the shore. This one in the distance reminded me to come back for another visit, as there are plenty of other mansions to see besides Rosecliff.

 And just because you can't take me out without me finding some excuse to muddy up my nice shoes, I succumbed to buying these rubber ones on my way back through the vendors.

A few tents on the back lawn housed horticultural specimens for competitions. There were topiary herbs and boxwoods. This Euphorbia esculenta submitted in the "Grand Dames" category is a whopping thirty years old.

I had never laid eyes on a tree tomato (Cyphomandra crassicaulis) before this lovely specimen.

Exotic orchids loomed across half of one tent. I don't think I'll attempt to reproduce any of the Latin names here.

Vases of single cut flower specimens all screamed for attention (and votes) under the canopy of the mansion's back porch. Aside from dahlia, rose, yarrow and delphinium blooms, there were also branches from shrubs and trees and foliage plants on display.

Inside the great room of the mansion, there was a wall of old photographs which were all recreated in floral arrangements. A murky old photo of ten or twelve women in a line, all wearing long white tennis dresses and gripping a racket, caught my eye. The accompanying arrangement took on the task of simulating a racket made of leaves.

A large floral peacock nearby offered competition for this display. It's almost protocol for the setting, I should think. Unfortunately for showgoers wishing to capture this, all photography is prohibited inside the Newport Mansions. Whether it's because camera flashes bouncing off the many white marble surfaces may cause temporary blindness, because every cavernous fireplace houses remnants of family secrets, or because ghosts float along the heavily ornamented, sky high ceilings I do not know. 

One of my favourite categories was the floral umbrellas! Against a backdrop of blue sky and clouds, designers used large leaves, colourful mosaics of dried flowers, and elegantly placed fresh blooms to sculpt parasols.

A flower-clad mannequin representing the hostess stood at the top of the central staircase. She looked upon a room full of dense, traditional arrangements of flowers and edibles of all kinds.

To gain some insight on how these astounding displays were constructed, I attended Kevin Ylvisaker's lecture. While he put together numerous large arrangements for the audience, he bubbled over with insider tips and stories from the floral trade. Questions were encouraged, and every member of the audience that spoke up went home with a fist-full of orchids or a beautiful hand-made lei of fresh flowers (there are white ones dangling in the picture below).

He began with abstract, vertical arrangements and moved into more traditional ones. Trends are moving away from triangular and spherical shapes for bouquets to more vertical, deconstructed ones.

Among the materials he recommended were loumi wire (for mechanics), oasis foam (which has seen some new developments lately), quick-dip solution (to condition the flowers), bindwire (instead of tape), floral adhesive, cable ties, coloured goat's wool (submerged in water), water pearls (for tinting the water in tye-dye patterns), and finishing spray. (I should mention that through all of this, my husband remained confounded but somewhat riveted. That speaks volumes for Kevin's ability to captivate us all!)

 One by one, he debunked all the old floral myths I know- neither pennies nor pills in the water will help, condition garden flowers in warm water once cut, rubbing alcohol is just as easy as flame to seal a milky stem, and it's not necessary to cut stems underwater! All of these things have been tested to the nth degree at the Oasis lab. This arrangement was fully assembled before being squeezed as one piece into its sizable vase.

I was glad to have attended the lecture, and not only because I came out with two stems of striking blue orchids. Kevin pointed out that these are the types of colours they are using in floristry to draw younger generations into buying flowers. Not usually one for flashy dyed blooms, I found myself strangely gravitating toward these when I picked them out.

Before it was time to leave the show, I faced three crucial tests on the way back to the bus:

1) Your head has been swiveling for hours- can you still walk an even, straight line like this one?

2) You've observed many different plant cultivars- are you seeing in double vision yet?

And with a little coaching from my husband, I completed the last one. . .

3) You must be exhausted. Can you obey the sign that says "DO NOT ENTER" and avoid collapsing in the show garden's comfy, upholstered furniture?

Just narrowly passed this one. But I think I'll still try to simulate it at home as I recount the show. After all, I'll need some practice- next year's theme is Salsa.


  1. Thanks for taking us along to the show. The photos are glorious. And I _love_ the shoes :D

  2. Cute shoes! Loved this theme - I loved all the blue touches. And the euphorbia, orchid, and container plantings were fabulous!

  3. I love the mini-gardens in containers. Were those just young plants or was the concept similar to bonsais? Thanks for sharing the show with us.

  4. Happy to share the spectacles (and the shoes)! The mini-gardens were made with clippings of branches and groundcovers that naturally only grow a few millimeters in height. Marvelous work, I thought.


If there's one thing better than visiting gardens, it's talking about them. . .thanks for joining the conversation!