Nurseries have launched more than 60 new plant cultivars in the Great Pavilion this year.
What’s in a name?
Some cultivars are discovered as chance sports, others were distilled from hundreds of thousands of hand-pollinated seedlings.
The ritual of celebrities accepting a rose or a sweet pea named after them is part of the glamour of Chelsea. But you don’t have to be famous to have a plant named after you.
Josephine Hill was shopping in Twickenham when she spotted a tiny Clematis seedling on a market stall. She bought it and put it on a tub on the patio to see what it would turn out to be.
After a series of mishaps - including her puppies using the tub as a sandpit and a hanging basket crashing down on top of it - the clematis finally flowered three years later. Josephine had never seen anything like it - large, double pom-pom flowers in lilac.
“People used to comment on it,“ says Josephine. “I tried to look it up in a book, but I couldn’t find out what it was.“
Finally she found Raymond Evison, a clematis breeder from Guernsey and multiple gold medal winner at Chelsea, who spotted a brand new variety, and one which had market potential - if it could survive the trials it put up with in Josephine‘s garden, it had to be a tough plant. He trialled it, bulked it up, and launched it at Chelsea in 1998. It was named Clematis ‘Josephine‘.
“It’s quite overwhelming,” says Josephine. “Prince Charles and people in the public eye have flowers named after them - not me!”
“It was easy to name the clematis because of the way it was found,” says Raymond Evison. “And of course there are many many thousands of Josephines around the world, so you do take that into account when you’re naming it.”
More usually, a name is chosen by the breeder, perhaps for a family member - all three of Raymond’s daughters have clematis named after them - or for the appearance of the flower. The new Evison release this year, Clematis ‘Kingfisher‘, for example: one look at the intense blue of the flowers tells you how it got its name.
Once a plant name is decided, it’s sent to the International Clematis Registrar to check it is unique. This is where names can encounter a series of patenting pitfalls.
For one new variety, introduced in 2002, Raymond says, “I had the bright idea that we could perhaps call it ‘Lion King‘, because it had a centre like the mane of a lion - but Walt Disney said no!” That one ended up with the far safer name of ‘Crystal Fountain‘.
If you want to lend your name to horticultural immortality, these days you can pay to have a rose named after you. But for other plants, like clematis and sweetpeas, it’s pure luck. It helps to be related to a plant breeder, of course; but failing that, perhaps the best thing to try is simply to go shopping at a lot of London market stalls.