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Plants take precedence on Jonathan Snow’s Trailfinders South African Wine Estate Garden

The Chelsea Flower Show means different things to different people; for some it’s all about the horticultural displays from all over the world in the Great Pavillon, for others it’s the show gardens or even the smaller more accessible Artisan ones, but one thing unites everyone: new and unusual plants, and plants never before seen at the Show, and the Trailfinders South African Wine Estate Garden has plenty.

Jonathan’s plant list is quite extensive with around 300 species and  cultivars, but perhaps the most interesting plants are the fynbos plants that are endemic to South Africa. Fynbos is the name given to the hard leaved (sclerophyllous) shrub and heathlands found in the coastal plains and mountains of the south western and southern Cape. The name is derived from the Dutch word fijnbosch meaning fine leafed bush and refers to the scrubby, treeless landscape that early Dutch settlers complained about when trying to find suitable timber for construction. Fynbos is the major component of the Cape Floristic Region, by far the smallest of the world’s six plant kingdoms.

Fynbos has very high species diversity with more than 7,000 species crammed into just 46,000 square kilometres.  More than two-thirds of Fynbos species are found nowhere else on earth. In an area of recurring fire and wind, and thriving on free draining, acidic and nutrient poor soils, fynbos can be grouped into four major growth forms: tall protea shrubs with large leaves (proteoids); heath like shrubs (ericoids) including ericas as well as all the other needle leafed species such as buchus, blombos and serrurias; wiry reed like plants (restioids) and bulbous herbs (geophytes). The show garden will boast a selection of fynbos from all of the four growth groups listed above including mimetes cucullatus, rhodocoma capensis, erica mamosa and gladiolus debilis.

Plants have been sourced from Cornwall, Tuscany and Southern Spain, and 10,000 seeds purchased from Kirstenbosch have germinated and are currently growing into plants of Show Garden standard. Although many fynbos plants are endemic to South Africa, some of our most well known and loved plants in the UK are in fact fynbos plants: kniphofias, pelargoniums, gladioli and agapanthus will be planted in both the mountainous ‘landscape’ part of the garden and in the cultivated homestead garden. In the homestead garden fynbos plants will be mixed with other South African plants such as dieramas and dietes, as well as more traditional English cottage garden favourites such as Astrantia Buckland, Geranium pratense ‘Mrs Kendall Clark’, Salvia ‘Dear Anja’ and Rosa St Ethelburga.

Fynbos and Fire

Fynbos is a fire-adapted vegetation that requires regular burning for its persistence. In the absence of fire, fynbos is gradually replaced by thicket species. It thrives on infertile soils and fire is the mechanism that recycles precious nutrients from old growth into the soil.  Fire in fynbos is a crucial trigger that resets the fynbos ‘successional clock’. It provides the stimulus for dormant seeds to germinate and the opportunity for many annuals, short-lived perennials and bulbs to grow, flower and seed during times of abundant nutrients and sunlight. They complete their short life cycles, returning to the soil as the larger shrubs overwhelm them, and remain dormant until the next fire. The optimal fire cycle for fynbos is between 10-14 years. Shorter fire cycles can wipe out slow maturing species, while species start dying when intervals become too long. It’s rare to find fynbos stands of more than 20 years of age.

There will be a separate area of the garden representing a recently burned area of Fynbos which is recovering after winter rains. The charred remains of larger proteoid shrubs will contrast with the fresh new growth of morea pyrophila bulbs, resprouting mimetes cucullatus and pelargonium betulinum, reseeding leucaspermum cordifolium and fire annuals such as gazania pectinata.

Visitors to the Kirstenbosch stand in the Grand Pavilion will be no strangers to the national flower of South Africa, the King Protea (Protea cynaroides) but they are rarely seen on a show garden.  Restios will feature, with examples such as Elegia tectorum and thamnocortus insignis as will erica canaliculata, leucadendron laureolum and leucaspermum cordifolium. The homestead garden’s unusual hedging of Eugenia myrtifolia and lower Myrsine africana, for the parterre garden is a move away from more traditional box and yew hedging often seen at the show.

Fynbos is a highly threatened vegetation type with more than 2,000 species listed in the latest IUCN Red list for South Africa. Major threats include urbanisation, invasion by non native species, agriculture, siviculture, climate change and too frequent fires. With so many fynbos species surviving precariously in small populations, fynbos needs all the help it can get and Jonathan is very excited to be bringing this unique vegetation to Chelsea and showing it off in all its glory for the first time.

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