They were worlds apart in 1970 when Britt Ekland, with Rose of the Year, was the face of the Chelsea Flower Show. Months later, the 55-day trial of defendants who became known as the Mangrove Nine would make legal history as black activists embraced and overthrew the power of the British state.
More than five decades later, her story has pride of place at this year’s flower show, where thousands of visitors will get their first glimpse of a garden inspired by what the nine activists endured and achieved.
Hands Off Mangrove – one of several show gardens that represent the pinnacle of horticultural excellence – is the work of Grow2Knowa non-profit organization formed after the Grenfell Tower fire in west London to highlight the healing power of gardening.
At the center of the garden is a 4-metre-tall deforested mangrove sculpture with nine bare roots – one each honoring one of the defendants in the trial, which also serves as a stark reminder of humankind’s impact on the world’s most important ecosystems, including mangroves.
“It’s meant to be a sanctuary, a place where people can feel safe and secure, but that also encourages connection between generations,” said Tayshan Hayden-Smith, founder of Grow2Know.
Nestled among lush plant species, a gravel path runs through the garden, depicting the challenges and threats of racism, poverty and violence in Notting Hill in the 1960s and 70s, but also today.
Its edible plants – including beetroot, peppers and tomatoes – were chosen to encourage horticulture within the community and also to thrive in the garden’s second life in North Kensington, not far from the flower show site and where it will be relocated.
Hayden-Smith expects the garden will spark “talk” about the Mangrove Nine, a group of activists who died in a 1970 protest against police who attacked The Mangrove, a Caribbean hideaway restaurant in Notting Hill sanctuary, allegedly instigated a riot that was patrolled by a group of officers, much like a colonial army.
A jury acquitted all of the main charges after a trial that produced the first judicial recognition of evidence of racism in the Metropolitan Police.
Hayden-Smith and others at Grow2Know, which has also become a platform for calls to “decolonize” horticulture, have been heartened by what he calls the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) “opening up” to the communities living in the Nearby live showgrounds in South West London.
“There was definitely a reaction from RHS to the society and to the fact that the show is being held, which is just down the road from North Kensington – one of the most diverse places there is,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s just a cultural or racial thing. It’s also a class thing. It’s often the most vulnerable people who could use the resources and support that something like the Chelsea Flower Show brings the most.
“I think opening the doors of the show is a great opportunity for them to support and relate to communities because it’s essentially the World Horticultural Championship.”
While he admitted feeling “contradicted” by factors like ticket prices, which remained unattainable for many, he said the garden was ultimately “a positive disruption”.
Hands Off Mangrove is one of several gardens with ties to social reform. Another is The Body Shop Regeneration Garden by botanist Jennifer Hirsch, which takes a conceptual approach to telling the story of environmental and societal regeneration inspired by activists.
The controversial theme of rewilding is the inspiration for another garden by landscape architects Lulu Urquhart and Adam Hunt, depicting a naturally restored landscape in south-west England.
This year’s show will run until Saturday, after which 25 gardens will live on in their entirety while a remainder will distribute their plants and flowers to benefactors.