On Tuesday morning, the Chelsea Flower Show will open to the public-and for one blissful week, gardening-mad Great Britain will turn its attention to all things horticultural. More than 150,000 visitors will attend, and awards will be handed out in dozens of categories.
The name is somewhat misleading. The show features elaborate exhibits and gardens created by the world’s top landscape architects and designers. In other words, a lot more than flowers. There will be gardening debates, gardening-world celebrity sightings, and maybe even a gardening scandal (nobody has really recovered from Paul Cooper’s 1994 “Cool and Sexy Garden,” which had an underground fan that blew air up the skirts, Marilyn Monroe–like, of unsuspecting women.)
But, most important, there will be a visit by the Queen.
Elizabeth II has attended all but a handful of the Flower Show's openings since she was coronated in 1953. Before that, she went regularly with her father, George VI. Sun or rain, good times or bad, she has taken slow walks through the exhibits, shaken hands with designers, asked knowledgeable questions of plant experts, and presided over a private reception.
The Royal Horticultural Society, of which the Queen is patron, hosts the show. But the Queen’s appearance is about much more than fulfilling an obligation on her calendar. Like a great number of her subjects, she is passionate about plants and the outdoors, and she takes obvious delight in the event.
Her presence feels comfortingly inevitable. She showed up last year even though the show opened only two days after her grandson Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding. She went in 2009 when the world was in the middle of a financial crisis and the show had fewer exhibitions than usual.
The Queen’s progress through the show is tracked by photographers, and her every stop and comment reported in the press. One blogger documents which brooches she wears and speculates on any hidden flora-related significance to her choice. It has been noted that the Queen regularly wore hats to the event until 1967, but has appeared without one ever since.
The monarch is sometimes accompanied by a politician or head of state, but is almost always with members of her family. Some see her choice of companion as a barometer of royal relations. She and her sister Princess Margaret were often pictured together at the show; in 2002, Prince Charles gave his mom a personal tour of the “Healing Garden” he designed. In recent years, the Queen has walked parts of Chelsea with Charles and Camilla.
This year, the Duchess of Cambridge has designed a garden for the show and the palace released preview photographs over the weekend of Kate tending plants and sitting on a rope swing. It promises to be a major attraction and the Duchess a new star of the show.
For many, though, the highlight will be when the Queen stops by and gives it a look.
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