Blood-red peonies, apricot ranunculus, glasshouse lily-of-the-valley and clusters of huge white lilac blooms on ramrod-straight, three-foot stems. With windowsill geraniums already in full fling and tomato plants about to fruit, this can only be one place: New Covent Garden Flower Market, where the plant quality is top-notch and the choice — can those really be black orchids? — is unparalleled.
It has to be, because every great florist, from Rebel Rebel and Scarlet & Violet to Paula Pryke and Pulbrook & Gould, as well as event organisers, film stylists, interior designers and anyone who fancies filling their home with flowers, pitches up at daybreak to buy the best of the best. Unlike garden centres, where plants can languish for days, the turnover is fast — usually just a few hours and well before closing at 10am — so every leaf and petal is fresh and perky.
Take a tour: New Covent Garden Flower Market
What the flower market supplies is instant dressing for every situation from city window boxes to royal weddings, at wholesale prices (VAT is added to the given price), although shoppers for single stems beware: tulips, whether streaked Rembrandt or feathered Rococo, tend to come wrapped in paper cones of 50 and plants are generally purchased by the trayload and trolleyload. Most stock is ordered from Dutch growers in daily — or rather, nightly — deliveries to make the 6am start, but much is grown in the UK, too, such as the New Guinea busy lizzies that Pratleys, where you can find filigree-leaved maple trees for £20 and six varieties of aromatic thymes, sources in Kent.
Dennis Edwards has just clocked up 50 years in the market and supplies everyone from The Dorchester to the Hare Krishna Temple, where, he explains, they do love a garland. He sources long-stemmed sweet peas from Essex and, later in the year, dinnerplate dahlias from West Sussex. His David Austin English roses, however, are grown under licence in Kenya, and sorry, but your garden-grown ones will never have the long, straight stems that these possess. Even his carnations — pistachio and shocking pink — are gorgeous, but the bestsellers on his stand are exquisite vanda orchids from Thailand in a 50-strong colour palette.
Impossible to choose? The answer is a pick-and-mix selection box, £30, containing layered, single stems of every colour and variety of tropical orchid imaginable.
At C Best, where you could source an entirely fake garden with plastic box hedging and weatherproof lollipop bay trees, the shelves are stacked like a back lot in a film studio: plaster coral branches, giant gilded candelabras, four-foot cylindrical glass vases as well as starfish, seahorses and enormous fake conch shells. In short, an event organiser’s dream.
Foliage Row, just outside the building, is the place for long, woody stems laden with leaf, bud, blossom and berry from Britain’s best-loved shrubs and trees, such as pussy willow, flowering magnolia, cherry blossom and guelder rose. Even the privet, studded with sprays of tiny white flowers, looks glossily seductive.
Porters Foliage, a fourth-generation business that supplies emerald-green bun moss to the Japanese gardens at Chelsea Flower Show, offers a more global selection divided into four climatic zones, including outsize agave leaves, pink pineapples on sticks and slabs of cork bark for extra-arty flower displays.
PRIDE OF CHELSEA
New Covent Garden Flower Market’s 30-plus traders will be showcased in one exhibit, called Behind Every Great Florist, at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show. The display was created by Ming Veevers Carter, whose floral design company Veevers Carter was charged with the task, and solved it by creating two three-metre high, six-metre wide, back-to-back walls: one, featuring 90 flower buckets holding white-and-green foliage and flowers, representing the raw inspiration supplied by the market, and the other side, the resulting tapestry of colour, representing the florists’ creativity.
The exhibit will highlight, too, the flower market’s interim move down the road next January as part of the whole New Covent Garden Market redevelopment programme, before eventually moving to its new home at the front of the new market in September 2022. It’s a way off yet, but the welcome word is that there will also be, in the same location at Nine Elms, a street market for the public where we can buy the UK’s finest flowers, in vase-friendly quantities and at more sociable hours.