A week before Chelsea, I was at Arundel Castle in West Sussex photographing their Allium Extraganza. I was hoping to see masses of alliums, but as there were only small clusters of them, I ended up focusing my attention on individual specimens.
There are many reasons why alliums hold such allure. For me, they — along with tulips and agapanthus — are my favourite flowers to shoot. All come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and shades and all look at their best en masse.
But if I had to pick just one to shoot, it would be alliums. What keeps drawing me to them is…well everything: their shape — especially the spherical ’pom pom’ varieties — their composition — one flower head made up of many individual florets — and even their stems.
Alliums are the most architectural of flowers, created as if mother nature had employed a draughtsman to design them, rather than an artist.
There are apparently over 700 different varieties of a genus that includes such kitchen staples as onion, garlic, scallions, shallots and chives. The ones I’m most drawn to are the ornamentals: the ones grown to look, rather than taste, good.
And boy did they look stunning at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show.
Whilst my main focus on press day is covering a few of the show gardens, I always make time to visit the Great Pavilion, where some 80 of the very best growers put on the world’s most impressive floral display.
In past years, I always made a bee-line to Interflora, whose contemporary installation showcased cutting edge floristry. Sadly, Interflora no longer take part, so last year I was thankful Marks & Spencer had a similarly innovative floral display.
This time M&S were also absent and, at a cursory glance, much of the other floristry exhibits fell into the we’ve-seen-it-all-before category.
That however couldn’t be said about WS Warmenhoven’s allium display.
As long as I can remember, alliums have been displayed – like so many cut flowers at Chelsea – lined up against a wall. This means the displays tend to look the same from one year to the next and you can only shoot them from the front.
This year, WS Warmenhoven took a different approach, with an installation you could walk around. And unlike other floral displays which often follow a conventional style, theirs was both minimal and inspired.
Rows of different varieties, each three deep, were placed in height. order. The result was a stepped-block of alliums in all shades of purples and mauves through to near white.
From a photography perspective it presented endless composition opportunities depending on where you stood and what you focused on. Even the stems, usually so non-descript, looked good with so many placed close together.
It was no surprise then that the Dutch allium grower, whose roots go back to 1885, won a gold medal. It was their 16th Chelsea gold.
I loved all the alliums on the display, but four varieties stood out in particular.
The appropriately named Giganteum, aka the giant ornamental onion, was not just the tallest and biggest, but the most rounded. Its deep purpleornament also make it one of the most vibrant.
And then there was Powder Puff, also purple, but a more violet shade and with smaller, softer spheres.
White Giant is another globe variety filled with hundreds of mallow-white flowers.
And then, in complete contrast, there’s the spectacular Schubertii, which look like exploding fireworks. This unique variety — which the RHS awarded its prestigious Award of Garden Merit— are also known tumbleweed onions or Persian onions.
All the alliums were grown in the Warmenhoven family’s nursery in Hillegom, The Netherlands.
Generally, alliums bloom for just six weeks each year. Depending on their variety, they start flowering in mid-May and can continue to do so through to the end of July. In order for them to be at their optimum for the shows, the stems are cut when they naturally come into flower and are then cold stored until needed.
Unlike most other flowers, alliums also look fantastic after they have gone over. Whilst the colour leaches from the seed heads, they take on a second-wind as a beautiful dried flower.
Some of those seed heads were also on display this year at Chelsea as there was another allium producer exhibiting in the Great Pavilion.
In fact this was the very first time that the Allium National Collection had been displayed at Chelsea.
Like so many flowers, the closer you get to alliums, the more their beatote is revealed. That said, I still think they look even better when they’re in bloom and grouped tightly together.
Behind the image: All these images were taken either with the iPhone 8 Plus or the Olympus OM-D E-M1 using the 75mm 1.8 lens and the camera’s built-in digital zoom. All were handheld and shot inside the Great Pavilion without any secondary lighting. I’m extremely pleased with the compositions and would say these are among my favourite floral images I’ve created in the ten years I’ve been photographing at Chelsea. All too often, what you see from events like this are photos that are not just blandly conventional in their appearance, but ones that you’d be hard-pressed to tell apart. That’s never been my approach; I’m always aiming for something out of the ordinary! Shot in London on 20 May 2019.