Chelsea 2017: Delight in the Dark

We were thrilled to return to RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2017 with 'Delight in the Dark'.

Iridescent plants Jessica Bays

Situated in the Discovery Zone of the show ground, Delight in the Dark explored the wonderful adaptations that enable plants to thrive in the shade.

The garden demonstrated that by understanding the ecology of shade plants and harnessing their hidden talents and beautiful characteristics, even the most challenging space can be exciting.


Designed by Janina Lileikyte and Lucy Summers, and built by Justin Bailey, the garden represented an urban basement space. Showing that with careful plant choice it is possible to make shady, overlooked spaces such as these thrive.

Delight in the Dark

Throughout the show we engaged a steady stream of visitors with the ecology of shade plants, including the comedian Bill Bailey, who spent some time exploring the exhibit and the beautiful plants it featured.

Bill Bailey enjoying the display

Working closely with the Whitney Research Group at Bristol University, we were thrilled to exhibit iridescent plants. Visitors were invited to interact with these – planted in our living wall – using lights which increase the perception of iridescence.

Bill Bailey, Sue Hartley and Ken Thompson exploring the iridescent plants

Staffed by active scientists many of whom worked within the botanical sciences, visitors were able to get up close to the plants and discover the various mechanisms that enable them to thrive in shady areas.

These mechanisms included:

  • Plant structure: Plants need plenty of light to grow fast, so all genuinely shade-tolerant plants grow slowly. They’re usually tough too, to avoid being eaten. Aspidistra sp. is a good example of this.
  • The timing of plant growth: Not all plants found in the shade are shade tolerant. Plants such as Bluebells and Lily of the Valley flower in spring, taking advantage of the light before trees develop leaves and block out the light. Others such as Digitalis spp. take advantage of short windows of light, like those created when a tree falls during a storm.
  • Structural variegation: Plants often have areas on the leaf which are lighter than others. In some cases this is caused by a variation in pigment. In plants such as Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’ these lighter patches indicate gaps within the leaf that help the internal reflection of light
  • The relationship between ferns and hornworts: Ferns are incredibly successful in the shade. One reason is the presence of a light-sensing pigment called neochrome. This has been traced back to the hornworts, a group of unassuming moss-like plants. It is thought this was transferred to ferns via a process called horizontal gene transfer.
  • Plant iridescence: Some deep shade plants have developed iridescence. This can improve the plants ability to capture light, increasing photosynthesis efficiency in dim light by as much as 5-10%. Microsorum thailandicum and Selaginella willdenowii are a great example of this.
    Iridescent plant Selaginella willdenowii Jessica Bays



Please click here to read the associated press release.

Please click here to download the  Delight in the Dark_plant list.