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The unfamiliar is all around Wisley this year

By Emma Townshend
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:15

What on earth did gardeners do before smartphones? Here we are, on a glorious late-summer Monday morning at RHS Wisley, and we're walking along the flower beds taking photos of the stupendous planting, tapping in the plant labels and looking up the varieties on the mobile internet. There's something to be said for this approach, as opposed to the old-fashioned notebook (which some here are still brandishing as a sort of outré gesture of faith towards outmoded techniques). In the words of a fellow visitor: "I've got the name of what it is and the image of what it looks like in the same place, so I can actually find it."

There's good reason to record the names on this gorgeous morning, too, because the Wisley gardeners have outdone themselves this year in planting a conversation-starter of a border. The plants are drawing people in for a gawp, and then playing matchmaker in holy horticultural matrimonies all around us as we ponder how exactly you might grow any of it at home. These are some seriously obscure and delightfully novel plants. Chelone obliqua? I'm being honest now: I'd never even heard of it before today. Christopher Lloyd, the man who made Great Dixter great, once trenchantly described Chelone as "faintly" resembling penstemons, "in a disagreeable shade between pink and mauve", but at Wisley their unusual flowerbuds and soft, upright, hibiscus-y flowers are very appealing.

Or here's another RHS special: Anisodontea capensis. Sometimes called Cape African-queen, it has a soft upright growth like a lavatera, pretty, slightly indented leaves and rose-pink flowers with deeper pink centres. And how about the strong colours of that supermarket favourite Alstroemeria brasiliensis, but with a far weirder style of flower? Take a walk around the plant centre as you leave for hundreds more unusual things to grow (unless your bank balance is in question, in which case, leave hurriedly).

To add to all this floral magnificence, next weekend Wisley hosts its annual flower show, adding to the numbers of things on sale by thousands. A big tent is put up, among lots of other dinky little stalls, and you can peruse some of the nation's finest nurseries, which will bring their prettiest and best.

The only drawback is the traffic, which can stretch back onto the A3. My tip is either to go late on (it's open till 6pm and generally empties out well before then – last entry is at 5pm) or book the new breakfast preview ticket, for which you get a full English breakfast, pastries, and most importantly, exclusive 8am entry. The perfect gift for a gardener! These can only be bought in advance, and must be done before Wednesday: £20 for members, £29.50 for everyone else.

The Wisley Flower Show is on from Thursday to Sunday. RHS members go free; non-member adults £10.90. Call 0845 612 1253 to book (

Wisley wonders

1. Penstemon 'Mother of Pearl'

All penstemons are great, but this is completely stunning: truly shimmery. £7.50,

2. Succisella 'Frosted Pearls'

Tiny white flowerheads on slender stems, almost like a scabious, but with that frosted effect. £5.50,

3. Alstroemeria ptsittacina

A slightly bonkers take on a bog-standard favourite. Order from Avon for February despatch and planting Keep checking avonbulbs. for availability

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