HELLO HYDRANGEA! in Belgravia for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show

Every year, during the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, Neill focuses on a single flower type and creates an exceptional showcase at his Belgravia boutique for all to enjoy.  This year, it is the Hydrangea that takes centre stage.  Neill will host HELLO HYDRANGEA! - a definitive look at the new star of the flower world with an impressive display of rare and new varieties of Hydrangeas, in collaboration with Chelsea Fringe.  In this May blog post he shares his research and sourcing in Holland for the fabulous blooms.  

Hello Hydrangea! Neill Strain Belgravia Chelsea

One of the joys of spring for me is my April visit to Holland to source flowers in preparation for the Chelsea Flower Show and our floral showcase at the Belgravia boutique.  This visit coincides with the bulbfields being in full bloom and the Keukenhof gardens on display which are a must for anyone who loves spring flowers.  

The bulb fields in Holland visited by Neill Strain and his team during a flower sourcing trip.

This year I have decided to showcase Hydrangeas for our annual Chelsea Flower Show and Chelsea Fringe collaboration.  We use Hydrangeas extensively at the boutique as well as for our wedding and event work.  But in the floral industry they are a new flower.  Only 15 years ago Hydrangeas were not sold as a cut flower in the Dutch flower market and yet today they have become one of Holland's most important flowers for production and export.  They are exquisitely beautiful and extraordinarily versatile for a floral designer.

In only 15 years, cut Hydrangea growers in Holland have risen from almost none to 100 with about 175 hectares now dedicated to Hydrangeas.  In comparison, during the past 5 years, the number of Rose growers has dropped from 1,800 to 300 - mainly due to competition from Africa and South America.  This is just one example which proves what a star in the industry Hydrangeas have become.

Hydrangeas growing at Sonneveld's glasshouses in Holland

Hydrangeas grown in Holland are revered as the highest quality in the world.  These gorgeous blooms do not like hot temperatures nor a tropical environment so Africa is not a competitive destination for production as it is for Roses.  Furthermore, the large volume of Hydrangea blooms make them difficult and expensive for transportation.  They thrive in glasshouses with the Dutch climate and are widely available from the end of March until the end of November.  Unlike Orchids and Roses, they do not react easily to artificial light, hence their seasonality, although one Dutch grower, Sonneveld, has succeeded in producing them all year round.  Ecuadorian Hydrangeas are now also available in winter months. 

Sonneveld glasshouses, producing spectacular Hydrangeas for Neill Strain Floral Couture

Fifteen years ago there were only 4 or 5 common Hydrangea varieties, such as the white "Snowball" and "Moulleara" and the pink/blue "Renata."  From these old varieties and natural mutations, breeders have created dozens of new varieties with different colours, shapes and forms, and their work multiplies as the demand for Hydrangeas continues to increase significantly worldwide. 

New varieties of Hydrangea being developed at Kolster in Holland

During my recent trip to Holland, I visited Kolster, the world's leading Hydrangea breeder, where there are currently about 60 new varieties in production.  Founded in 1944, this family owned and operated international company not only breeds the new varieties, they supply the young plants to 80 countries worldwide and to most of the Dutch growers with whom they work closely to guarantee the best results.  Their newest Hydrangeas are brand named "Magical" due to their capacity to drastically change colour while in bloom on the plant.  Peter Kolster, the managing director, will be at our Belgravia boutique during our HELLO HYDRANGEA! event, showcasing new and rare varieties never yet seen in the U.K and sharing stories and secrets about his blooms. 

Neill Strain Floral Couture team listen to Arie Blom at Kolster, breeder of new varieties of Hydrangea

Creating a new variety is a painstaking act of passion, dedication and special techniques.  It starts with selecting 2 varieties for manual cross-breeding and from then begins a long journey of patience, trial, error and expertise lasting 8 to 10 years before a new variety can be commercialised. 

New varieties of Hydrangea at the breeder, Kolster, in development stages

Hydrangeas are hermaphrodite.  They have one female part and six male parts on each fertile flower, of which there are 10 to 50 per flower head. These fertile flowers are hidden under the sterile flowers which lie in the centre of the large sepals or bracts that make up the big heads of the Hydrangea.  The breeder manually pollinates the ovaries of the fertile flowers on one flower head with the pollen from another plant.  5 months later, fruits have developed each containing 100 seeds which will undergo Kolster's severe selection process as each seed will create a different plant, just like human brothers and sisters are born different albeit from the same parents.  Clones are made of the selected seedlings and carefully nurtured; the first year to develop the plant, the second year to encourage the first new flowers to appear.  Each year, Kolster make 100 crosses resulting in approximately 10,000 seedlings but, after the selection process, only 4 or 5 seedlings are pursued based on their flower shape, plant shape and the colour.

Kolster is working on a very rare, black-leaved Hydrangea, shown here in the initial years of development.  They are also working on a black-flowering Hydrangea which promises to be absolutely exquisite.  Black Hydrangeas!  We are hoping to have one of these on display at our HELLO HYDRANGEA! showcase...

Here are just a few of Kolster's new breeds of Hydrangea.

Kolster works closely with the Hydrangea grower Sonneveld, renowned as not only one of the largest and highest quality Dutch growers of Hydrangeas but the only one able to produce blooms 12 months of the year due to their advanced techniques.  We visited their glasshouse to source Hydrangeas for our Chelsea Flower Show event.

Neill Strain (left) with Henk and Steve Sonneveld and Loek Van Eeden.

Sonneveld is also a family company, founded in 1927, owned and run today by three brothers, Henk, Steve and Piet, the great grandsons of the original founder.  Focusing only cut Hydrangeas since 1999 in 45,000m2 of glasshouse, they export their spectacular flowers across Europe, the United States and the Middle East.  Along with Peter Kolster, Henk Sonneveld will be attending our HELLO HYDRANGEA! event in Belgravia and bringing us many of his breathtaking blooms including some very new breeds.

Sonneveld grow about 40 varieties of Hydrangea throughout the year with up to 60 new varieties in "testing" phase. Popular varieties are Pimpernel, Verena, Rodeo and Amathyst to name a few.  Hydrangea plants only flower once a year and each bloom needs 14 weeks from the first bud to being harvested.  

The "magical" aspect of Hydrangeas is how the blooms change colour on the plant and these developments are labelled "fresh stage" and "classic stage."  For instance, Pimpernel Blue starts as a bright green bloom; in week 4 it fades to pale green/white; week 6 it has turned to blue and this completes the "fresh stage."  Week 8 it changes to an emerald green and then develops dark red edges; this period is the "classic stage." 

Examples of Hydrangeas changing colour on the plant.

What look like petals on the Hydrangea blooms are actually sepals.  The real flower is the tiny round part in the centre of these sepals. The "fresh stage" is defined when this tiny flower is in bud; the "classic stage" is when the flower has bloomed and we can see the stamens and pollen. Hydrangeas are much more fragile in the "fresh stage."  They require flower food, cutting the stems and fresh water every 3 days to maximize their vase life.  "Classic stage" Hydrangeas last a very long time and can even be dried if you remove the water. 

Hydrangeas showing the flowers in bud - the "fresh stage."

Hydrangeas showing the flower in bloom - beginning the "Classic stage."

We will be sharing lots more stories, styling tips and inspirational ideas with Hydrangeas during our HELLO HYDRANGEA! showcase.  So may I personally invite you to join us at our Belgravia boutique, 11 West Halkin Street, during the week of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.  Drop in anytime between Monday, May 22nd to Saturday, May 28th, 10 am to 6 pm, and if you wish to meet our breeders and growers, Henk, Peter and Loek Van Eeden, they will be with us on the 22nd and 23rd, 11 am to 4 pm.  And watch out for our Belgravia in Bloom display outside the store, created of course with Hydrangeas!

We very much look forward to seeing you.

Florally yours,

Neill x