Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Flower Power - A Man With Real Flower Power!

As a bit of a change today we concentrate on a real person, not a mythological character, who has exercised his own Flower Power on the botanical world.

Last month was the 100th year of the Chelsea Flower Show. For those who haven’t heard of it before, the Chelsea Flower Show is the UK’s most popular and important flower show of the year. Gardening programmes have always been popular on British television and whenever the Chelsea Flower Show is on millions of people tune in to see all the amazing and imaginative designs by horticulturalists from around the world. Winning one of the coveted gold medals or Best Garden in several categories is like winning a Wimbledon final.

The Chelsea Flower Show is organised by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) who judge the entrants’ garden designs and award prizes. This year the RHS invited a gay horticulturalist from Nottingham to be one of the judges. His name is Ian Cooke.

There has been a lot of controversy and criticism by some top designers at the show this year over the quality of judging. It’s all down to personal choice I expect. But I’d be very surprised if the Best Garden in Show, the Australian-designed sub-tropical garden, didn’t come top of Ian’s list.

Between 1994 and 2008 Ian Cooke was Grounds Manager at the University of Nottingham. At first you’d think this meant he was just a glorified gardener, but not so. The university has several large campus’s and extensive grounds and parkland. Ian had a team of 42 people to help keep all of these in trim.

One of the first things Ian did when he arrived in Nottingham was to bring his love of tropical and exotic plants into the flower beds. His influence can still be seen toady in the flower beds of Nottingham Castle, with intense reds and oranges, and tall exotic flowers in the centre of the beds. These have included floral statues of Robin Hood, Maid Marian and a knight on horseback.
Nottingham Castle gardens during Nottingham in Bloom.
You can just see the floral knight of horseback in the centre.
Photo © Nottinghamshire Life and Countryside

It wasn’t long before Ian’s designs were winning regional and national awards for his work at the university. Being responsible for four large areas of Nottingham’s green spaces Ian was roped in to join the design group of Nottingham in Bloom. Nottingham has always done well in the annual Britain in Bloom contest, organised by the RHS, and has won the “large city” category a record 18 times. In 2008, the RHS decided to hold its first Champion of Champions competition. Ian was chairman of the Nottingham in Bloom design group that year and, guess what? Nottingham won!

On his retirement from the University of Nottingham in 2008 Ian received one of the highest horticultural honours, the Associate of Honour of the RHS. There are only 100 living Associates of Honour at any one time, and Ian’s award came as a fitting tribute to his 14 year’s work in Nottingham, and his expertise on tropical plants.

Since retiring Ian has spent his time between Nottingham and California. It was Ian’s fascination with exotic plants that took him on a lecture and study tour of California in 2000, and he fell in love – with the state, and with his partner Philip, a Californian. Ian has written several books on exotic plants and still gives talks and lectures. And you can keep up to date on what Ian is doing by logging on to his website and see lots of photographs of his work.

It’s actually write a while since I’ve seen him around in Nottingham (I don’t know him personally, but I’ve seen him around the castle gardens when I worked there, and he’s one of those people you see on the scene from time to time), but his influence is, as I said earlier, still to be seen in Nottingham. Ian once called the particular style of horticulture that he helped to develop as “Nottingham Contemporary”. As well as the vibrant displays at the university and the castle this style also has room for the traditional floral bed, country gardens and hanging baskets.

If you visit Nottingham during the summer months please pop into the university grounds or the castle and have a look at Ian’s legacy, the Nottingham Contemporary floral style. The Nottingham in Bloom 2013 has begun this week in earnest with the streets beginning to fill with flowers and floral displays.

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