Blooming Marvellous

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The streets of York will come alive in this week with flowers, jugglers and stilt walkers as the oldest horticultural society in the world celebrates its 250th anniversary

On 20th April 1768 the Ancient Society of York Florists held their first flower show in York, beginning a celebration of horticulture that would continue over the next 250 years. That year, more than 200 people signed the founding rules of the Ancient Society of York Florists, including the Quaker philanthropist William Tuke, Charles Yarburgh of Heslington Hall, and John and George Telford who ran the celebrated nursery on Tanners Row. The society has enjoyed Royal patronage over the years and still uses the Royal Coat of Arms from Queen Anne’s reign on its documents as she was a patron of the society. It is the only society retaining the word 'florists' in its title, which refers back to the time when only florists' flowers were accepted as exhibits, a florist being a person who grew flowers for their beauty, and not a seller of cut flowers as it is today.

Each year the Ancient Society of York Florists hold four shows representing each season. These shows have moved across the city over the centuries, the interest in the society expanded from the local gentry to include the working classes, playing an important role in the life and culture of people living in York. In the 18th century only six florists’ flowers where accepted to be judged, but participation in the society flourished towards the end of the 19th century and their shows were often documented in the Garden Chronicle – the society was by now one of the most prestigious in the north of England. 

After the First World War the emphasis of the show changed, but this was as the popularity of dahlias and chrysanthemums made the society more accessible to the working classes who could grow these ‘show-stopping’ flowers in allotments. The majority of the chrysanthemum growers worked their allotments in the Bootham Stray area of York – in greenhouses with a potting shed attached and the usual coke boiler which was replenished with coal from the passing North Eastern Railway trains. Chrysanthemums were planted in early spring when the soil has thawed out and bloomed towards the end of the year, in perfect time for the Winter shows. 

The Ancient Society of York Florists now host their annual shows in various venues across Yorkshire, but this summer they have something special planned as they mark their 250th year as a society, and their reign as the longest running horticultural society in the world. To celebrate this milestone a brand new festival Bloom! will take place across York’s city centre between 5th–8th July 2018. Make It York are orchestrating Bloom! in association with the Ancient Society of York Florists to honour the longevity of the society but also to hopefully engage more people into the hobby of horticulture. 

The festival will celebrate the society by bringing a vibrancy to the city as it comes alive with colour, culture and creativity with shows, activities and plenty for visitors of all ages to enjoy and see. Taking place on Saturday and Sunday in Parliament Street, exhibitors are welcomed and will be judged on their horticultural entries. Expect to see an array of seasonally grown vegetables, geraniums, pelargoniums and artistically arranged cut flowers.

John Galvin, Secretary of the Ancient Society of York Florists, has been trying to encourage a celebration of the society for years. Bloom! is an all encompassing name for the whole of the festival which will display the rich heritage of horticulture in Yorkshire, something that John hopes will encourage more participation from younger society members, that will help it continue for another 250 years. 

‘I am hoping that it will achieve two things. It will let the greater world know who we are and what we are about and will help encourage new members and new exhibitors,’ says John.

With a fun, quirky and imaginative approach the festival will be an exciting opportunity for all to learn more about the world of horticulture. Whether you enjoy wandering around Parisian-style art markets complete with floral arrangements, browsing botanical themed arts and crafts, attending workshops, finding inner zen at one of the yoga classes in the Museum Gardens, watching jugglers and stilt walkers, or painting at a watercolour workshop at Gray’s Court Hotel there is a way for you to connect with horticulture. There will be afternoon tea with a floral twist, Vegetarian Street Food to sample and flowers to buy from the Shambles Flower market to take a little bit of colour home with you. Younger attendees can enjoy story-telling sessions, garden-themed film screenings and children’s gardening workshops. 

Bloom! Festival’s Curator Lotte Finch (who was hanging an air plant in her art gallery as we spoke) hopes that the festival will alter the way people look at horticulture and will take the Ancient Society of York Florists back to its roots where it was once a popular pastime for all ages. 

‘We are hoping that Bloom! will make people think about the fact that gardening and horticulture and everything related to it isn't just for the elderly or retired who love being on allotments – there's so much more to it,’ she says. 

Businesses will participate in an elaborate window dressing competition that will span across the whole of York, taking on the challenge of creating the best window display that ties in with the theme of horticulture. The Royal seal of approval will be granted by Royal florist Simon Lycett, who will choose the winning window. 

Lotte hopes that Bloom! will bring a new lease of life to the city and some much needed good old-fashioned fun, with Coney Street dressed with bright flowers and an urban garden complete with real turf and meadow flowers being planted in St Helen’s Square. There’s a real bohemian feel that we look forward to see as Bloom! takes over the city. 

To find out more, visit www.bloomyork.com

Published in: July 2018

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