The Seven Best Garden Centres in London

London has plenty of lovely, unusual and interesting garden centres tucked away amidst the urban sprawl. Here’s our guide to some of the best…

London has plenty of lovely, unusual and interesting garden centres tucked away amidst the urban sprawl. Here’s our guide to some of the best…

What better way to idle away a weekend than mooching around looking at flowers and greenery and, when that gets too exhausting, dropping into a really top notch café? Yes, you can’t beat a good garden centre – and London has loads of them.

We’ve selected seven of our favourites around the capital and listed them here in no particular order. But these aren’t your usual garden centres, mind. They’re all totally unique, quirky and, of course, naturally lovely…


1. Petersham Nurseries, Richmond

Credit to photographer Ming Tang Evans (110)
Image credit: Ming Tang Evans

Let’s face it, the term ‘garden centre’ doesn’t really do justice to Petersham Nurseries, that remarkable, rather bohemian collection of greenhouses and gardens in Richmond.  It was carved out of the grounds of the grand Petersham House in the 1970s and later transformed into a world-class plant nursery by Gael & Francesco Boglione, who also added the café. We say ‘café’, but how many garden centres can boast an eatery that twice won a Michelin star, as Petersham’s did in 2011 and 2012?

Image credit: Ming Tang Evans

Now under the management of the Bogliones’ daughter Lara, Petersham Nurseries is not just one of the best garden centres in London, but one of the loveliest places full stop. There are events all year round, from fungi-collecting walks to wine-tasting, and the garden shop stocks very swish stuff. Meanwhile, the new head chef at the café Damian Clisby (previously of HIX Soho and Cotswold House) has put an emphasis on slow food, and last year won the Best Slow Food Restaurant in the SF London Awards.

Visit the Petersham Nurseries website here.


2. The Chelsea Gardener, SW3

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A gorgeous oasis of calm and green, just off the King’s Road (on Sydney Street to be precise, in what was once The Brompton Hospital), The Chelsea Gardener is a firm favourite of garden-loving locals. It’s the place to go for plants, products and expert advice on making the most of outdoor spaces in an urban setting – and they also offer a complete landscaping service.

But as well as all that, it’s just a lovely, relaxing place to go when you’re in Chelsea and need a fix of flowers. There’s even an Orangery, and who doesn’t love one of those?

chelsea gardener 1
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Visit The Chelsea Gardener website here.



3. Clifton Nurseries, W9

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This Maida Vale institution can trace its roots all the way back to 1851, and under the stewardship of a series of legendary London horticultural entrepreneurs including Johannes Krupp and Sydney Cohen, (plus the backing of Lord Jacob Rothschild) it became established as one of the most important suppliers of garden goods in the capital.

And it still is to this day, as well as offering world-class garden design services. The Design Director is Matthew Wilson of TV fame and Clifton Nurseries has won no fewer than five gold medals at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, so it really is the gardener’s garden centre (and The Quince tree café is lovely too).

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Visit the Clifton Nurseries website here.


4. Camden Garden Centre, NW1

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This lovely garden centre in Camden is inspiring in every sense of the word: it offers superb supplies, inspiration and helpful advice for North London gardeners, and it is also a charitable organisation designed to offer employment, training and educational opportunities to local young people.

Since it was established in its current venue in the early 1990s the Camden Garden Centre has won tons of awards, including UK Garden Centre of the Year; Urban Garden Centre of the Year and Outstanding Contribution to Education and Training in UK Horticulture. It remains a key part of Camden community life, and the Pritchard and Ure Café offers fresh local produce (and free wifi).

Visit the Camden Garden Centre website here.


5. N1 Garden Centre, N1

Image: Heloise Bergman, North One Garden Centre

Founded by urban gardening visionary Beryl Henderson in 1998, on the site of a derelict button factory, N1 is a special garden centre with a mission to help city dwellers bring plants into their life, whatever amount of outdoor or even indoor space they have.

If you’re into any kind of urban gardening, N1’s knowledgeable staff are just the people to go and prod for advice, tips and top quality plants.

Visit the N1 Garden Centre website here.


6. Alleyn Park, SE21

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This is a small but perfectly formed and quite charming ‘boutique’ garden centre in West Dulwich. As well as offering really interesting plants, mostly sourced from small UK growers, Alleyn Park is a really fun place to shop for all sorts of things.

It has a specialism in reclaimed and vintage objects from around the UK and across Europe, including statuary, ceramics, furniture and antiques.

Visit the Alleyn Park website here.


7. RHS Wisley Plant Centre, Woking

wisley plant centre
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This, arguably, is the big one. At the opposite end of the scale to boutique garden centres like Alleyn Park or N1 is the Royal Horticultural Society’s Wisley Plant Centre . It stocks more than 12,000 different plants, including 3,000 species and cultivars of herbaceous perennials, 50 cultivars of apples and 50 cultivars of potatoes, plus lots of roses, shrubs, trees and much more.

You can get pretty much anything in the shop, including a staggering array of gardening books.

Visit the Wisley Plant Centre website here.


Did we miss your favourite garden centre in London and surrounds? How about fabulous, unusual garden centres further afield? Let us know!


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Freddie’s Complete Guide to Gladioli

Gladdies! They’re tall, splendid, slightly rude and perfect for waving around your head in a state of uncontrolled joy. Here’s everything you ever wanted to know about gladioli but were afraid to ask…

Gladdies! They’re tall, splendid, slightly rude and perfect for waving around your head in a state of uncontrolled joy. Here’s everything you ever wanted to know about gladioli but were afraid to ask…

Consider the sword-lilies.

Yes that’s their nickname – ‘gladius’ is the Latin word for a sword, a ‘gladiator’ is a swordsman and ‘gladiolus’ is the Ancient Roman for a ‘little sword’., which they sort of look a bit like.

There are over 250 species within the genus Gladiolus, the majority of which are native to South Africa, and wild species can be very small with flowers no more than a few centimetres across. But they’ve been incredibly popular as cut flowers since they were brought to Europe in the 18th Century, and several hundred years of selection and breeding by floriculturists like Victor Lemoine have given us the glorious gladioli we enjoy today.

Vase with Red Gladioli (1886) by Vincent van Gogh
Vase with Red Gladioli (1886) by Vincent van Gogh
They are even quite easy to grow yourself. Plant the bulbs in the spring, give them plenty of water and they should flower through the summer and autumn (there’s a good guide to growing gladioli for keen gardeners here).

And we love glads in vases – they bring height, colour and character to an arrangement, or you can just display them on their own: great tall spikes bursting with loveliness.


The Great Gladioli Debate

But despite all that, the gladiolus is something of a controversial flower. Debate rages amongst flower folk up and down the land. So, as a public service, we thought we’d try to provide definitive answers to the most challenging questions people ask us about the sword-lily. Here’s everything you ever wanted to know about gladioli but were afraid to ask…


Wasn’t there somebody very famous associated with gladioli in some way?

frank neuhauser


Yes indeed! The one and only Frank Neuhauser (above, signing autographs in his old age). As an 11 year-old boy he won the first ever US National Spelling Bee in 1925 and became an American hero. He made it to the finals after over two million children were whittled down to just nine, and in the last round he triumphed by successfully spelling the word gladiolus.

Neuhauser was awarded 500 dollars in gold pieces, met President Calvin Coolidge, and his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky gave a parade in his honor and presented him with bouquets of gladioli. Quite a story.



No not him – somebody who was very big in the 1980s and used to wave them around on stage. Who was that again?

Ah right. Yes, you’re thinking of Morrissey, the famously eccentric lead singer of cult Manchester band The Smiths. He loved nothing more than to twirl a bunch around when performing…


Not him either! I mean Dame Edna Everage of course! Why did Dame Edna wave gladioli at her audiences?

Very well. This is the big one. Just why did Dame Edna Everage – the monstrous suburban Melbourne housewife/global superstar created by Barry Humphries – choose the gladiolus as her signature flower?

There’s no denying that Dame Edna was seriously big on gladdies. She closed her stage shows with a song and dance number called ‘Wave that Glad’ and there’s even a statue of her in Melbourne holding a massive bunch of them.

Well, there are three possible explanations. One is that she treated her audiences as the enemy, so the ‘sword-lily’ was a perfectly appropriate combative plant. Another is that, as well as meaning ‘little sword’, gladiolus was the Ancient Roman slang for the…ahem… male appendage. So a bit of classical smutty humour was right up Dame Edna’s alley.

But the most likely explanation is that since Barry Humphries was satirising Australian suburbia, gladioli must have been considered a bit, well, naff, back then. It happened to a lot of the big, showy flowers that were fashionable in the Edwardian era – they went out of style for a while with people who wanted something more ‘exotic’ or wildflower-like.

However, nobody worries about that any more – gladdies are back, and in big way!


So gladioli are cool again? Great!

Of course they are. And who cares anyway – if great, glorious, towering, lovely things like gladioli are uncool then we never want to be cool!

In fact, we were thinking of forming a Gladioli Appreciation Society, but it turns out that one already exists. It’s 90 years old and still going strong. More power to them –  may their sword-lilies never wilt!

Renoir - Gladioli in a Vase (1875). National Gallery.
Renoir – Gladioli in a Vase (1875). National Gallery


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The Great Floriculturists – the Victorian geniuses behind your flowers

If you’re as flower-mad as we are, you can thank the visionary Victorian-era floriculturists who gave us so many of the stunning varieties we know and love today…

If you’re as flower-mad as we are, you can thank the visionary Victorian-era floriculturists who gave us so many of the stunning varieties we know and love today…

Have you ever wondered about the origins of your flowers? How did they get so ridiculously lovely? Well, ‘modern’ cut flowers – the dramatic, room-filling explosions of colour and scent that we love to display on our homes – might not exist were it not for a handful of brilliant men and women who dedicated their lives to floriculture: the art of cultivating flowers and ornamental plants.

Geniuses of the 19th and early 20th centuries such as Victor Lemoine and Marie Henrieta Chotek played crucial roles in developing everything from roses to orchids to daffodils. Here’s a brief history of floriculture…


Early floriculture

The concept of cultivating ornamental flowers and plants dates back to ancient times, perhaps to 600BC and the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon. But really, what every floriculturist needs is a good greenhouse to keep the climatic conditions just right.

The earliest known forerunner to the greenhouse system was built in AD30 for the Roman emperor Tiberius, who apparently enjoyed a daily fix of Armenian cucumbers. According to the author Pliny the Elder, the cucumbers were put outside during the day, and tucked in at night in specially designed frames or houses glazed with sheets of silicate.


Glasshouses and Tulipomania

By the thirteenth century, gardeners had worked out that glass was the perfect material for greenhouses. The Vatican boasted glasshouses known as ‘giardini botanici’, or ‘botanical gardens’, which were designed to house plants brought back from the tropics.

As time went on, the greenhouse became increasingly sophisticated, with the introduction of ‘ondol’, or temperature control, being recorded in Korea in the 1400s, using a form of underfloor heating powered by a fire or stove.

 Orangery in Holland – engraving by Jan Commelin (1676)

Orangery in Holland – engraving by Jan Commelin (1676)


The 17th century saw the further development of the greenhouse across Europe, including the birth of the orangerie in France, designed specifically with the aim of protecting orange trees.

Holland, meanwhile, was finding itself in the grip of so-called ‘tulipomania’, when the price of tulips reached an all-time high, with some flower-mad members of the middle and upper classes literally paying a fortune for a single tulip bulb. Nowadays Holland is still famous as the home of the tulip, and houses some of the most expansive greenhouses on the planet.



The Victorian Floriculture Boom

victorian flower show

But it was back in England, during the Victorian era, that the practice of floriculture really took off, with experts creating an extensive new range of varieties which still influence the cut flowers we enjoy today.

During this period, the British began to build bigger and increasingly elaborate structures, using glass and iron to create such marvels as the impressive Palm House at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, now a world heritage site and still a global pioneer in botanical research to this day.

Floriculture began as a pastime of the aristocracy – a kind of haughty-culture, if you like –  but over time, with the growth of the science of botany, it became increasingly popular and accessible to ordinary people, and to dedicated professionals.



The Great Floriculturists

The Victorian era introduced some key players to the world of floriculture, who created and propagated many beautiful new cultivars, in a perfect marriage of art and science.


Victor Lemoine

Lemoine 2

One of the most important flower breeders of the age was Victor Lemoine (1823-1911), who was particularly celebrated for his success with lilacs. The greatest of a long family line of horticulturalists, he was responsible for the introduction of over 200 different types of lilac, and thanks to him the term French lilac has come to mean all cultivars of the common lilac that have double flowers.

Common lilac Syringa vulgaris - 'Madame Lemoine'
Common lilac Syringa vulgaris – ‘Madame Lemoine’


The Frenchman was internationally famous, and became the first foreigner to receive the coveted Victorian Medal of Horticulture from the Royal Horticultural Society. He also developed many other varieties of flower, including geraniums and fuschias, as well as cannas, delphinium, deutzia, gladiolus, heuchera, hydrangea and peonies.


Marie, Countess of Roses


Meanwhile, the magnificently-named Henrieta Hermína Rudolfína Ferdinanda Marie Antonie Anna Chotková of Chotkov and Vojnín (also known as Marie Henrieta Chotek – presumably to save time) was endowed with the rather lovely title of the Countess of Roses.

Born in 1863, Marie was an aristocrat who was passionate about growing roses and created a world-famous rosarium, or rose garden, in the grounds of her Dolná Krupá estate in the Danubian Hills (in what is now Slovakia), where she was responsible for creating a huge number of new rose cultivars.

Marie was another internationally-renowned figure during this golden age of floriculture, even achieving a diploma of appreciation from the Pope. However, during World War I the Countess gave up gardening and went to work as a hospital nurse, taking care of wounded soldiers. When she returned to her estate, at the end of the war, her rosarium was completely destroyed and, despite her best efforts, it never quite returned to its former glory

The rose cultivar 'Marie Henriette Gräfin Chotek' created by Peter Lambert
The rose cultivar ‘Marie Henriette Gräfin Chotek’ created by Peter Lambert

Agnes Joaquim the flower of Singapore


The Singaporean floriculturist Ashkhen Hovakimian (1854-1899), also known as Agnes Joaquim, was of Armenian descent and showed a particular penchant for breeding orchids. Agnes famously bred the world’s first cultivated orchid hybrid, known as Vanda Miss Joaquim.

Her creation won the prize for the rarest orchid in 1899, and went on to become the national flower of Singapore.

The 'Vanda Miss Joaquim' orchid
The ‘Vanda Miss Joaquim’ orchid



Sir Harry Veitch

Riviere, Hugh Goldwin; Sir Harry Veitch (1840-1924); Royal Albert Memorial Museum;
Sir Harry Veitch (1840-1924) by Hugh Goldwin Riviere – Photo: Royal Albert Memorial Museum


Originally of Scottish descent, Sir Harry James Veitch (1840–1924) was an English horticulturist who played a key role in the creation of the Chelsea Flower Show.

Indeed, so great was his contribution that he was the first horticulturist to receive a knighthood, in 1912 (as well as winning the Order of the Crown from King of Belgium, the French Legion of Honour, the Isidore Saint-Hilaire Medal, the US George R. White Gold Medal … and last, but certainly not least, the Victoria Medal of Honour from the Royal Horticultural Society.)

The Queen and Princess Mary at the 1920 Chelsea Flower Show
The Queen and Princess Mary at the 1920 Chelsea Flower Show


Modern floriculture

In the 20th century US floriculture really took off, and went big bucks in typically American style. Alice Vonk found fame for creating the ‘whitest marigold’, as part of a 21-year-long quest by the company Burpee Seeds.The challenge was launched in 1954 in a bid to find the purest white flower, and Alice successfully beat off the 8,200-strong competition in 1975, winning $10,000 and in the process creating the ‘costliest flower ever’.

Snowbird Marigold- Alice Vonk and David Burpee - Photo credit
Alice Vonk and David Burpee with the snowbird marigold – Photo credit


Another notable name was William Pannill (1927-2014) who successfully registered over 200 new varieties of daffodil, and also set up the American Daffodil Society’s Pannill Award, which he then went on to win for himself no fewer than three times!


These days, growers all over the world continue to create ever more fascinating and stunning flower varieties.

But they’re all directly influenced by the relatively small number of great floriculturists, the Victorian visionaries who helped create so many of the cut flowers we love to display in our homes today.


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‘Say it with tussie-mussies’ – The Victorian Language of Flowers

Did you know the Victorians spoke an incredibly complicated (and confusing) Language of Flowers? Welcome to the curious world of floriography…

A red rose means ‘I love you’ and lilies mean sympathy – those are just about the only ‘flower meanings’ most of us remember these days. But the Victorians spoke an incredibly complicated (and confusing) Language of Flowers – welcome to the curious world of floriography…

The most important thing about flowers, of course, is that they make your home naturally lovely and beautiful – and frankly we can’t see why they really need to have much ‘meaning’ beyond that.

Even so, since long before red roses meant ‘I love you’ and a petrol station bouquet meant ‘sorry for forgetting your birthday’, people have invested flowers with symbolic meaning.

The ancient Greeks had a floral mythology, medieval healers saw magical qualities in flowers, and Henry VII’s Tudor rose emblem cleverly symbolised a united England by combining the white and red roses of the warring York and Lancaster houses.

But it was in Victorian times that floral symbolism really took off, leading to the birth of a language in its own right: the language of flowers – or floriography

flower language
Image credit.


Victorian emoticons

‘O my Luve’s like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June’

Rorbert Burns

The spellings may have changed slightly, but a red, red rose remains the Valentine’s Day symbol of romantic love. But go back 150 years or so and the individual varieties and colours of flowers carried all sorts of very distinctive meanings.

A yellow rose signified friendship, while a pink rose meant gratitude … and a budding young lover would be careful to avoid gifting a yellow carnation, which signified rejection.

In the 19th century, expressing deep or passionate feelings was generally frowned upon and proper etiquette was everything. They didn’t like gushing. So to our ardent but emotionally-repressed Victorian, the flower became an essential tool in the lovemaking kit – a sort of floral emoticon – allowing the would-be lover to pass on feelings of devotion without being discovered.

A whole ‘secret language’ of flowers developed.



Say it with tussie-mussies

The ultimate Victorian love bomb was the tussie-mussie (also known as the nose-gay): small, fragrant bouquets often consisting of a central flower, such as a rose, surrounded by an assortment of secondary flowers and herbs, clustered tightly together and decorated with ribbons and other embellishments.

Each flower was laden with significance, as was the size and the arrangement of the flowers, the way the ribbon was tied, and how the bouquet was actually presented and received (upright or upside down, held close to the heart, or presented using the left or right hand).

Indeed, every stage of this exhausting flower-giving process was imbued with meaning, and decoding these floral flirtations became a favourite pastime (or at least, it did for people who had nothing better to do).

victorian bouquet

But these flower missives weren’t just the preserve of eager lovers – they were used to communicate a variety of other emotions. For example, the use of garlic could insinuate that an evil force was at large, while the orange lily signified hatred.

By combining certain flowers within a bouquet, the sender could even transmit an ironic message to the recipient. Imagine excitedly receiving your tussie-mussie, only to find you were on the wrong end of some full-on Victorian floral sacrcasm!


Tulips mean war!


As the Victorian fad for floriography developed it became ridiculously complex, leading to the creation of a series of helpful flower dictionaries – including John Ingram’s Flora Symbolica, which sets out the significance of 100 different flowers.

The floral lexicographers took their meanings from classical mythology, religious and ancient traditions – plus some that were simply made up by the authors themselves.

As you can imagine, all this meant there was something of a minefield of meaning, especially as the competing dictionaries were by no means all in agreement with each other. One can only hope that any two individuals were working from the same dictionary, or one dreads to think of the scope for misunderstandings…


Some common Victorian flower meanings

Red rose                     romantic love

Narcissus                   unrequited love

Pansy                          you occupy my thoughts

Periwinkle                   fond memories

Ranunculus                 you are rich in attractions

Violet                           faithfulness

Lily                               purity

Thrift                            sympathy

Daisy                           innocence

Tulips                          I declare war against you!

If you’re interested in Victorian floriography, the author Victoria Diffenbaugh wrote a bestselling novel a few years ago called The Language of Flowers and even compiled her own ‘dictionary of dictionaries’, which you can see on the Random House website here.

A few examples: geranium = ‘steadfast piety’; meadow saffron = ‘my best days are past’; and orange blossom = ‘your purity equals your loveliness’.


Love flowers? So do we! Make your home naturally lovely all year round by signing up for a delivery box for just £24 a pop here.

Victorian postcard image, top, via OldTymeNotions.


Freddie’s Complete Guide to Sunflowers

They’re spectacular, summery, and yellower than yellow. They’ve inspired artists, musicians and even chefs. Here’s everything you need to know about sunflowers…

Sunflowers. They’re spectacular, summery, and yellower than yellow. They’ve inspired artists, musicians and even chefs. Here’s everything you need to know about sunflowers…

Sunflower, a Good Mornin’! You sure do make it like a sunny day!’ sang Glen Campbell in his 1977 hit song Sunflower.

And how right he was.

The sunflower is one of the great smiley, summery joys that nature has granted us. All hail the helianthus!


A brief history of sunflowers

Helianthus is the name of the plant’s genus. It translates perfectly literally from the Greek (helios means ‘sun’ and Anthos means ‘flower’) and is so called either because the glorious yellow heads resemble the sun (true), or because of the widespread belief that the blooming heads turn to follow the sun as it tracks across the sky (false, sadly – they face east).

There are in fact over 70 species of helianthus in the family Asteraceae, all native to America. The common sunflower (helianthus annus) was first brought to Europe in the 16th century, and the seeds and oil have been popular cooking ingredients ever since.

More importantly, of course, sunflowers are beautiful and for hundreds of years have generally made our greyish, rainy island a sunnier place.

Sir Anthony van Dyck, Self Portrait with Sunflower (1633)



Growing your own sunflowers

Sunflowers are mainly sown from mid-April to the end of May and mostly flower in August. They’re pretty easy to grow – so much so that they’re often a good plant for children to have a go at: the RHS has a simple step-by-step guide here.

The real fun of growing your own sunflowers is of course making them ridiculously tall. The American Giant variety can get up to 4 metres, although the Guinness World Record belongs to one Hans-Peter Schiffer of Germany, who managed to get his to over 9m (30ft). Here he is admiring it from a crane.

world record tallest
The world’s tallest sunflower – Image credit.

Van Gogh’s sunflowers

Sunflowers (1888) – National Gallery, London


Even those with no interest in art know about Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflower paintings, largely because in 1987 Japanese businessman Yasuo Goto paid a gobsmacking $40m for one of them, four times the previous world record for an artwork.

What fewer people know is that van Gogh actually painted two series of sunflower pictures. As well as the more famous ‘Arles’ set – seven depictions of sunflowers in vases painted in 1888 – a year earlier he painted four ‘Paris’ sunflowers, showing the flowers lying on a table.

Sunflowers (1887) – Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Freddie’s Sunflower Facts!

1. Jerusalem artichokes are sunflowers

The sunflower species Helianthus tuberosus is also called the sunroot or earth apple, but is best known as the Jerusalem artichoke. It’s particularly delicious when pan-fried with leeks and black pudding, as demonstrated by the wonderful Nigel Slater (who just happens to be a Freddie’s Flowers customer.)


2. They’re big in Kansas

The Kansas sea of sunflowers. Image credit


Kansas is known as the ‘Sunflower State’, and one particular farmer near the town of Lawrence called Ted Grinter grows a million of them every year. For a few weeks every year they bloom into a spectacular yellow sea, which thousands of visitors flock to see.


3. They were the Beach Boys’ biggest flop

The LP Sunflower received rave reviews when the Beach Boys released it in 1970 and is ranked as one of the best albums of all time. Alas, it flopped dismally, reaching only number 151 on the US record charts.


4. Sophia Loren went to Russia for one

sunflower poster
Image credit
Also in 1970 was the Italian movie Sunflower (I Girasoli), starring Sophia Loren, which was the first western film to be shot in the USSR. Henry Mancini’s score won an Oscar.



In 2014 these smiling sunflowers appeared in Toyko, after workers decided to cheer visitors up/unnerve them by artfully removing some of the pistils on their surface.


Love flowers? So do we! Make your home naturally lovely all year round by signing up for a delivery box for just £24 a pop here.

Freddie’s Complete Guide to Peonies

With their fancy frills and gorgeous colours, peonies are really just show-offs. Here’s everything you need to know about them…

Peonies are really just shameless show-offs, with their fancy frills and gorgeous colours. Here’s everything you need to know about these seasonal sensations…

Try creeping up to a flower person and suddenly whispering ‘Peony!’ at them. You’ll see their ears prick up, their eyes go all misty and there’s a decent chance they’ll say in a dreamy voice: ‘That’s my favourite flower, how did you know?’

Because peonies are, let’s face it, sensations: great explosions of frilly petals, bursting out in the most outrageous manner from tiny tight buds.

They’re show-offs, really. Perhaps that’s why one of the most popular contemporary varieties is named after that legendary diva, the French actress Sarah Bernhardt, who looked like this:

Sarah Bernhardt
The flowerful Sarah Bernhardt in around 1878


Whenever we’ve included Sarah Bernhardts in our Freddie’s Flowers boxes we’ve had rave reviews from our customers. Well, just look at them…

In terms of arranging peonies, you don’t have to do much really as they’re perfectly fine on their own. Pop them in a vase and they just keep opening and opening, filling your room with scent and colour.


A brief history of peonies

Peonies as popular garden and cut flowers actually date back much further than La Bernhardt. The genus Paeonia (the only genus in the family Paeoniaceae) is native to Asia, Europe and North America, with around thirty or forty varieties worldwide.

They’re named after Paean, a physician in Greek mythology who was turned into a flower by the god Zeus. But historically, they’re most associated with the Far East.

Portrait of a peony by Chinese artist Yun Shouping, 17th century


In China they’ve been cultivated since at least the sixth century, initially for medicine and then increasingly as ornamental flowers. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the Japanese began cultivating them in earnest, creating cross-breeds between herbaceous and tree peonies called ‘Itoh’ (or ‘intersectional’) peonies.

And European peony-mania really began in 19th century France when the great floriculturalist Victor Lemoine began creating the glorious ancestors of the varieties we see today.


Growing your own peonies

In general, you plant peonies in the autumn and they flower between mid-spring and early summer. They have a reputation for being quite tricky to grow: you need to plant them in full sun and they often require staking as the stems may not be strong enough to keep the large flowers upright by themselves. They’re also vulnerable to a ghastly fungal infection called peony wilt.

But if you fancy having a go, the RHS has a good guide to growing peonies here.

freddie with peony farmer mr scobie
Freddie talking all things peony with specialist grower Mr Scobie


Freddie’s Peony Facts!

1. Confucius used to eat them

In Ancient China peonies were used for flavoring food, and Confucius liked them so much that he once said: “I eat nothing without its sauce. I enjoy it very much, because of its flavour.”


2. You’ve got to hide from woodpeckers when picking them

…otherwise, according to an ancient superstition, if one sees you it might peck out your eyes.


3. Renoir loved them

The great Impressionist painter Auguste Renoir painted lots of peony pictures. This is just one of them:

renoir peonies
 August Renoir – Peonies (1880)


4. They’re bashful, or possibly angry

In various varieties of floriography (‘the language of flowers’) peonies represent ‘bashfulness’ or ‘shame’ because their petals apparently conceal mischievous nymphs. On the other hand, in Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s terrific flower dictionary they mean ‘anger’.


5. They’re very popular in Japanese tattoos

The 18th Century painter Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s illustrations of Sumarai warrior myths feature a lot of peonies, which in Japanese culture have a masculine, devil-may-care symbolism. His designs are still very trendy for tattoos.

peony samurai
Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s peony-covered Samurais

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Freddie’s Complete Guide to Snapdragons

They’re bold, they fill your home with lovely colour and the Romans used them to ward off witchcraft. Here’s everything you need to know about snapdragons, including how they got that weird name…

Snapdragons. They’re bold, they fill your home with lovely colour and the Romans used them to ward off witchcraft. Here’s everything you need to know about snapdragons, including how they got that weird name…


As flowers go, the snapdragon is a bit of an animal. The genus name (Antirrhinum) is Latin for ‘like a snout’, but we all call it a snapdragon because once upon a time somebody reckoned that if you squeezed the flower’s head it looked like a dragon opening its jaws and then snapping them shut.

That slightly beast-like quality may be why snapdragons have featured in so many myths and legends: the Ancient Romans and Greeks thought they warded off witchcraft (the Greek physician Descorides recommended wearing them around the neck for magical protection) and in medieval Europe they were planted around castles as an extra line of supernatural defence, just in case the walls didn’t work.

But snapdragons are not really beastly at all, of course: they’re beautiful.

‘Snapdragons’ (1921) by Australian artist Elioth Gruner. Image credit


Displaying snapdragons in your home

Snapdragon flowers are cultivated in lots of different colours, from a showy white to a brilliant yellow to a slightly risqué crimson – and they also range in height classes from ‘midget’ (6-8 inches) right up to ‘tall’ (a whopping 30-48 inches).

When we use them in our Freddie’s Flowers weekly flower deliveries,  we like to combine them with something scented and some vivid complementary colours. In this delivery from April we used some phlox (to fill your home with glorious smells), along with greeny-gold solidago and a purple trachelium for a bit of soft, fluffy texture.

Our snapdragon arrangement from April 2016


In Britain snapdragons have been popular since Victorian times (long before you could buy flowers online – though I’m pretty sure you could have flowers delivered to your door, by horse, of course). In fact, if a young lady received a bunch from a chap it meant a proposal wouldn’t be far behind – which is possibly why in Victoria’s Dictionary of Flowers, a snapdragon means ‘presumption’). So if you’ve got a lovely vintage vase or an Arts & Crafts-y ceramic pot to put them, they’ll look splendid.

vintage seed packet

On the other hand, there was a particular craze for breeding snapdragons in 1950s America, so if you’re going for a bit of a retro Americana look in your home, a bouquet of snapdragons will be a suitably authentic choice.

Important tip – snapdragon flowers open from the bottom to the top, so as the lower flowers at the bottom die, snip them off and this will encourage the upper flowers to grow.


Growing your own snapdragons

If you’re thinking of growing snapdragons in Britain, you can sow snapdragon seeds between January and March for a spring/summer flowering. They’re not too hard to grow if you have the space. They’re fine in any kind of garden soil and you can grow them on indoors until they reach 8 to 10 cm in height. The height of a fully grown snapdragon is pretty impressive. Snapdragons grow up to 50 inches high so you may want to grow them outdoors, lest your home starts drifting into some kind of strange flowery Game of Thrones parody.

You can plant them out once all risk of frost had passed, into large pots or straight into the ground 30cm apart. (For more detailed growing instructions, the RHS has a nice succinct step-by-step summary here.)

But if you don’t have the space (or the time) for gardening, you can always let us surprise you with a lovely bunch in one of our delivery boxes. That way you’re certain to get your snapdragons at just the right time to make your home naturally lovely… and quite free of all forms of witchcraft.


Four unlikely appearances of snapdragons in culture…


1) Van Gogh’s oddly realistic bouquet

Van Gogh Bouquet of Flowers c1886
Crimson snapdragons feature in this still life (‘Bouquet of Flowers, c1886) by none other than Vincent van Gogh. They’re jolly nice, of course, but just two years later he unleashed his expressionistic, hyperreal sunflowers  and changed the history of art.


2) A dodgy movie starring Pamela Anderson

film snap
Baywatch bombshell made this Basic Instinct-style erotic thriller in 1993, but if you haven’t seen Snapdragon (1993), don’t worry, neither has anyone else. On review site Rotten Tomatoes it has a rating of 0%, based on zero reviews.


3) A trippy psychedelic song from obscure 1960s band

The almost entirely forgotten British psychedelic band Kaleidoscope included a song called Snapdragon on their trippy 1969 album Faintly Blowing. The funny thing is, it’s actually quite good…


4) A bizarrely dangerous parlour game

From about the 16th to 19th centuries, snapdragon was a parlour game – deemed suitable for children, note – which involved getting a big bowl of brandy, setting it alight and then attempting to fish out flaming raisins, which you were required to extinguish in your mouth.


…and one very lovely painting

Finally, if you love snapdragons so much you want something permanent in your home, we found this gorgeous painting by Emma Carasimo over at Artfinder (those fine purveyors of affordable original artworks). You can buy it here.

af snapdragons
‘Snapdragons’ by Emma Carasino. Image credit


Love flowers? So do we! Make your home naturally lovely all year round by signing up for a delivery box for just £24 a pop here.