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SA takes gold at world’s foremost flower show

A Lowvelder born and bred, Leon Kluge and artist Tristan Woudberg recently led a South African group to multiple awards and the gold medal at this year's RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

South Africa stole the show at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show when it not only won a gold medal with perfect scores from the RHS judges, but was awarded best exhibit in the Great Pavilion as well as the best new design award.  This is unprecedented for South Africa.

RHS president Keith Weed CBE presented the awards to the Mbombelan born and bred Leon Kluge and his team on the opening day of the London show.

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Described as one of the most outstanding exhibits in the history within the Great Pavilion, this year’s design was inspired by the windswept slopes of the Cape mountains. Head designer Kluge and artist Tristan Woudberg led a group of volunteers to create this year’s multi-award-winning display, which included large clay sculptures that formed the backdrop for an eye-watering display of fynbos cut flowers.

This is Kluge’s third gold medal at the Chelsea Flower Show, after having won the top prize for South Africa in 2018 and 2019.

It is South Africa’s 38th gold medal in its illustrious history at the show, dating back to 1976. It’s the first time in history South Africa has won best new design and best in the Great Pavilion.

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A multitude of species was presented in the display, from the high-altitude fynbos to the strandveld brimming with bulbs that hug the coastlines. The display celebrates the beauty and significance of one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. An unprecedented 22 000 stems were used in the display to create a proudly South African explosion of fynbos.

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This year, special effort was made to include rarely seen hybrids such as the fan favourite snow leopard protea, as well as featuring seldom seen species such as the pendulous Protea sulphurea and the delicate blushing brides (Serruria florida).

Leon Kluge. > Photo: Sourced/Facebook

Using natural clay to form the sculpture, Woudberg explained: “Large panels weave through the display, creating an earthy backdrop for our vibrant flora to take centre stage. The sculptures take on the role of mountain ranges, dividing and isolating the different biomes of the Cape, which have given rise to our unique flora over time. The natural cracking effect provided by the clay is a reminder of the contrasting wet and dry seasons of the fynbos biome, as well as the fragility of these ecosystems. The negative spaces in these sheets of rock act as windows, creating new vistas to explore as one moves around the exhibit.”

After a four-year hiatus and the sponsor of three decades (1989-2019) withdrawing their support, a private sector led team stepped forward to ensure South Africa’s flora was once again represented at the world’s premier flower show. The team, spearheaded by Kluge, an acclaimed plantsman and landscape designer with numerous international floral exposition awards to his name, along with Keith Kirsten, conservationist Michael Lutzeyer and Marinda Nel, came together to realise South Africa’s return.

A transformative contribution from the Rupert Nature Foundation as well as the Grootbos Private Nature Reserve, along with numerous contributions from the private sector, provided the financial support needed to create the display in London. Contributions from Lutzeyer and Grootbos Nature Reserve are centred on conservation and community upliftment, while Kirsten brings his wealth of international experience and expertise to the project, not to mention his involvement in the South African exhibit for many decades at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

The team also spotlights the Grootbos Florilegium, a collection of botanical illustrations depicting rare plants in the Grootbos Nature Reserve. Nel, with a background in business development, plays a pivotal role in managing the return of South Africa’s flora to Chelsea. Cape Flora SA, a non-profit established in 2005, offers its support this year and remains steadfast in its commitment to the sustainable harvesting and growth of the fynbos industry. The display promotes the demand for high-quality fynbos cut flowers in international markets, providing livelihoods for stakeholders and communities within the South African fynbos industry.

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