In all the time I've lived in London, I've never visited the New Covent Garden flower market at Nine Elms. I love having flowers around the house, but not enough to overcome my fear of being knocked down by a huge Dutch pantechnicon full of houseplants, or sworn at by an irate trader, or somehow forced to buy a job lot of 1,000 roses.
New Covent Garden is quite near where I live, and although I have often dreamed of getting up at 6am and sneaking in to have a look round, I've always chickened out. So when I bumped into Judith Blacklock at the Chelsea Flower Show and she asked me if I'd like to go on a tour, I seized the chance.
Judith Blacklock is an expert on floral design who, as well as being the author of several books on the subject, runs a whole range of flower-arranging and floristry courses from her base in Knightsbridge, and somehow finds time to edit The Flower Arranger magazine. In the role of Virgil to my timorous Dante through our south London Purgatorio, she was the perfect choice.
I use the word purgatory because, while the flower market is not exactly hell on wheels, neither is it exactly my idea of heaven. Sure, it's full of gorgeous flowers, but you can't stand still and daydream. You need to keep your wits about you and it's a good idea to work out exactly what you want in advance. Confronted by an interior designer or proud householder clutching a swatch of fabric and asking for flowers to match, a trader may well feel it's more profitable to move on to the next customer.
As someone whose image of your average flower market comes from the movie My Fair Lady, I was disappointed to find no Stanley Holloways prancing about, singing "I'm Getting Married in the Morning". But the traders seemed to be friendly and courteous, and as happy to serve private customers as trade. No one swore at me at all.
There is an increasing emphasis among florists on buying British flowers, and this is reflected at New Covent Garden. One stand, Pratleys, even proclaims its allegiance to British growers with Union Jack bunting. But there are other things on sale as well as flowers. There are sections devoted to houseplants and foliage, while the sundries traders have shelf after shelf groaning with vases in every size and colour you can imagine. Ribbon, paper, cards, beads, candles, driftwood, chunky bamboo poles: they're all there too.
Judith, who knows everything there is to know about cut flowers and then some, proved an expert guide. Want to know how to buy hydrangeas? If they feel soft under your hand, they're about to go over. Firm blooms are what you want, and the dark colours keep better than the light.
When it comes to roses, Grand Prix is the best classic red rose variety, a large-headed type that looks as if it's made of velvet. For weddings, Vendela, a lovely cream, is a favourite choice among florists.
Carnations are especially sensitive to the negative ions in the atmosphere before a storm, apparently, so it's a good idea to avoid them if there has been thunder and lightning.
Gerberas are particularly susceptible to bacteria (when you get them home, put them in a bucket of water with a teaspoon of bleach) and alliums and stocks make the water smell, so you should change it once a day.
As for old wives' tales, putting aspirin in the water is indeed a good way to preserve the life of cut flowers, says Judith, but avoid lemonade as the sugar in it encourages bacteria. And thus you wander round, your head filling with information, your eyes dazzled by colour and your nose busy inhaling fragrance as you gaze at oriental lilies with their heady perfume in one corner, and in another, exotic cymbidium orchids or peonies in white, pink and deepest red.
Most of us rely on flowers in our homes to celebrate happy occasions such as birthdays and anniversaries, to welcome friends, or even just to tart the place up if we're selling. You can now buy flowers, most of the year round, to suit every kind of home: old-fashioned favourites such as roses and delphiniums for country kitchens and Victorian cottages, and sophisticated foxtail lilies and alliums that look like exploding fireworks for more contemporary, urban dwellings.
Yet we take flowers very much for granted, and resent spending as much on a floral display as we would, say, on a decent bottle of wine. However, if you're looking for bargains at New Covent Garden, don't get your hopes up (unless you're buying in bulk). If anything, you'll start to wonder why the flowers aren't far more expensive, given the amount of care and attention they have had in their short lives.
Tours of the Flower Market with Judith Blacklock are held each month and last for two hours, including tea and scones and a flower-arranging demonstration. For details, or to book, go to www.judithblacklock.com. Tours cost £55 per person. The Flower Market at New Covent Garden is open Monday to Friday from 3am to 11am, and from 4am to 10am on Saturdays. The nearest Tube is Vauxhall. For more information, go to www.cgma.gov.uk.Reuse content