It's Bloomin' London

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Few cities deserve a giant pick-me-up bouquet after a dreary winter more than London. Fortunately, that comes in the form of the annual Chelsea Flower Show, the granddaddy of such events. The famed exhibition and competition draws 157,000 visitors and sets trends in the horticultural world. Secure a decent deal on flights by planning a jaunt to London now.

WHEN/WHERE: May 24-28, at the Royal Hospital in London's Chelsea section.

WHY GO: The Chelsea Flower Show includes 600 individuals and groups displaying gardens, plants, flower arrangements, vegetables and science exhibit--and is the gardening trendsetter of the year. Need proof? The world was introduced to the bonsai tree and topiary gardens at Chelsea in 1913. Rock gardens made their first appearance in the 1940s. Organizers award coveted prizes in 21 categories.

TICKETS: Tickets for the half- or full-day sessions must be purchased in advance; the show's official ticket agent, Keith Prowse Ticketing, has a U.S. branch. Evening-only admission is $39.50, afternoon is $50 and full day is $77. Info: 800-669-8687, .

WHAT'S NEW: Chelsea will introduce a few new plants and flowers to the United Kingdom, including a perennial named after a journalist killed in Iraq, a rose in honor of a famous British gardener and the Wollemi Pine, a tree discovered in the mountains of Australia 10 years ago . . . A plant specialist from Sri Lanka is scheduled to display the largest variety of pitcher plants -- brightly colored carnivores with tubelike leaves -- ever seen in an exhibit . . . Check out the display by Hillier Nurseries, which has won gold medals for 60 consecutive years, and an exhibit of Asian "exotic edibles."

TIPS: The crowds can be as jampacked as weeds in an untended garden. Here are some things you should know:

• It may be worth joining the Royal Horticultural Society, to be able to attend the show on Members Days, which are considerably less crowded, and to get a member's discount on admission. Members Days are May 24 (which historically has had the least visitors) and May 25. Membership is $77.03.

• There's no readmission once you leave the grounds.

• You may bring in outside food , and there's an open dining area where you can eat. Save room for afternoon tea -- an astounding 110,000 cups are traditionally served during the week.

• Come prepared for rain, as some of the exhibits are outdoors.

GETTING THERE: The best deals at press time were available through airlines' Web sites. Among the nonstop options from Washington Dulles to London Heathrow: United (800-864-8331, ) from $515, British Airways (800-247-9297, ) from $493 and Virgin Atlantic Airways (800-862-8621, ) from $490.

PACKAGES: A couple of pricey packages include tours of the show and Royal Horticultural Society membership. Expo Garden Tours (800-448-2685, ; $2,296 per person double) runs a six-night trip that includes visit to gardens in the Cotswolds and Kent, lodging, transfers from Heathrow, admissions and some meals. MaupinTour (800-255-4266, ; from $3,479 per person double) has a nine-day trip with tours of castle gardens, a visit to Stonehenge, theater tickets, lodging and most meals. Airfare for both tours is extra.

A less-costly option from Virgin Vacations (888-937-8474, ) includes round-trip air, one-day pass to the show, six nights' accommodations and breakfast, seven-day Tube pass and one pub lunch. Cost from D.C. starts at $1,189 per person double.

CLOSER TO HOME: The Washington Home & Garden Show (703-823-7960, ; $10) runs from Thursday through March 20 at the Washington Convention Center, with landscaped displays, garden decor and gardening tools.

INFO: Royal Horticultural Society, 011-44-20-7649-1885, ; Visit Britain , 800-462-2748, .

-- Elissa Leibowitz Poma

During the Chelsea Flower Show, London is bursting with color -- from gardens to hats.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company