World Flower Show comes to Dublin

Five years in the planning, the exhibit has an impressive list of 668 competitors and will feature many rare, beautiful and exotic blooms from every corner of the globe

The 11th World Flower Show is taking place at the RDS, Dublin. The 'Olympics of flower arranging' sees 600 floral artists from 31 countries compete at the highest level. Video: Bryan O'Brien


Take gazillions of rare, beautiful and exotic blooms (among them spiky strelitzias, rare orchids, peacock-blue delphiniums, tropical heliconias, coffee-scented brunias and the lacy white umbels of Ammi or Queen Anne’s Lace) imported from every far-flung corner of the world and add truckloads of cut foliage in every shape and form.

Also add 668 competitors, 31 honorary exhibitors, 42 judges, 15 demonstrators and at least 20,000 visitors – some coming from as far away as Argentina, Barbados, Canada, Australia, Jamaica, Peru, South Africa, even Uruguay and South Korea. Then give them the historic venue that is the RDS in Dublin. The result is the the triennial World Association of Flower Arrangers (WAFA) World Flower Show, which takes place this week.

Five years in the planning, it is Ireland’s first time to hold the prestigious show, having been chosen from a pool of rival host countries following a successful bid by the Association of Irish Floral Artists, in 2009.

The fact that almost every flower club in the country, from Blackrock to Bandon to Ballinasloe, has played an important part in bringing the show here gives a sense of the countrywide involvement in the event.

On a national level, it brings together Ireland’s most talented flower arrangers, including association chairwoman Bríd Coonan, flower arranger of the year Mary O’Brien and multiple award-winning designer Marie Dodrill.

It has also attracted some of the world’s most revered floral designers/artists. These include Les Brent, from South African, who has won gold at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show; the award-winning Italian flower-arranger Magda Trucchi; and Jane Godshalk, of Longwood Gardens in the US, holder of the American Horticultural Society’s Great American Gardener Award.

Even An Post has deemed it worthy of a commemorative stamp (an X-rayed image of an orchid by artist David Smith, issued last Thursday).

So what is it like to be involved in the flower arranger’s equivalent of the Olympics?

The organiser
Mention the name Carol Bone to anyone in Ireland with an interest in flower arranging and their face lights up.

A former president and chairwoman of the Association of Irish Floral Artists and a gifted flower arranger, the Dublin native is also a popular and highly qualified teacher and demonstrator, a role she carried out with aplomb as Ireland’s first representative at the last World Flower Show in Boston, in 2011.

A keen gardener since childhood, Bone’s interest in flower arranging began 30 years ago and was first encouraged by the late Myra Stokes, a talented Bray-based gardener who gave classes in flower arranging.

“Those were such different times,” says Bone. “Before an exam, she would give us a glass of sherry to steady our nerves.”

As one of the 10-member WAFA Ireland steering committee charged with curating this month’s show, her official role is that of publicity officer, but she has had a hand in every step of the process, whether seeking funding, campaigning to have flower arranging formally acknowledged in Ireland as an art form or bringing the event to the notice of the wider public. Not to mention the logistical challenge of squeezing almost 700 floral arrangements, some of them towering 2.48m high, into the RDS.

“‘Our biggest problem was that we started organising the show in a recession,” Bone says, “so trying to attract sponsorship has been much tougher than we’d hoped, even though it has been calculated that the event is worth €10 million to the Irish economy.”

Bone is expecting big visitor numbers. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a stunning exhibition of living contemporary art that will take people’s breath away.”

And the part that she is most looking forward to? “ What are called the honorary exhibits, along the central aisle of the main hall in the RDS, created by each of the member countries – I just know they’re going to be amazing.”

The competitors
Harumi Langford, from Tokyo, first came to Ireland in 2001 to work in the financial world before taking up flower arranging in 2007. “I felt I needed a hobby. Now it’s taken over my world.”

Tipped as one of Ireland’s emerging young talents, Langford’s pared-back contemporary style has won her many admirers. “Growing up in Tokyo, we had a tiny garden, so it has been amazing to have access to so many of the beautiful foliage plants that grow in this country,” she says. “Even something like ivy, a plant that grows wild here and that many people see as a weed, just isn’t available in Japan.”

While she has competed at national level, this will be her first time on on international stage. “To say I’m panicking slightly would be an understatement,” she says. “I’m very slow in comparison to most other flower arrangers, which is a bit of a worry, so I’m just hoping I’ll have enough time to finish my piece.”

Each of the World Flower Show’s 668 competitors will have five hours at the RDS in which to create their finished arrangement, with the exhibits divided into 33 competitive classes, including several at junior level.

“I can’t give you a description of my arrangement, the flowers that I’m using or even the class that it will be in, as all of the entries must remain anonymous until they’ve been formally judged,” says Helen Battigan, an award-winning flower arranger based in Bunclody and another Irish competitor at the show.

Battigan’s interest in the subject began in the 1960s when she worked at the Gresham Hotel, in Dublin, which in those days had an inhouse flower arranger, Leola O’Reilly.

“Every chance I got, I’d pop into her flowerhouse just to have a look.”

For Battigan, the opportunity to compete in the WAFA show is “a once-in-a-lifetime honour. I am a qualified, experienced demonstrator, but that’s totally different from getting up there on an international stage and doing it at a competitive level.”

Competitions aside, both she and Langford are looking forward to seeing the other exhibits and attending some of the demonstrations.

“You learn so much from the international demonstrators in terms of technique, style and the use of flowers and foliage that would be unfamiliar to Irish flower arrangers. It’s going to be utterly inspiring.”

The supplier
If you’re one of the capital city’s hayfever sufferers, it might be wise to stock up on tissues and eyedrops this week, as the city gets set to become one of the world’s pollen hotspots, with tens of thousands of flowers being used to create almost 700 different arrangements for the show.

As the Dublin-based agent for the Dutch flower company Barendsen, Paul Duggan has been entrusted with supplying the show’s flower arrangers with most of their blooms, whether that’s banksias from Australia or orchids from Asia.

“Every designer has a very specific list of the particular flowers and foliage that they plan to use in their exhibit,” Duggan says, “and it is my job to track those down.”

Duggan, who has worked in the cut-flower industry for 20 years, has a near-encyclopaedic knowledge of the business and supplies many of the country’s best-known florists and designers (Clare Ryan of the Informal Florist, whose flower-arrangements featured in Vogue magazine last year, is one of his clients). But still, it hasn’t always been plain sailing.

“We’ve has some very specific requests. One competitor, for example, wanted strelitzias [the tropical ‘bird of paradise’ flower] in two particular shades rarely available on the European cut-flower market. Another wanted foliage of a tree that grows in the American tropics, which we just couldn’t get our hands on. But those are the exceptions.”

All of the flowers he is supplying are sourced via the headquarters of Barendson in Aalsmeer, in the Netherlands. There they will be boxed, labelled and carefully packed into refrigerated trucks before being delivered to each of the WAFA competitors and exhibitors on Tuesday, the day before the arrangements are mounted.

All of them will then need to be “conditioned” (left soaking in water) so that they stay fresh. “Put it like this,” says Duggan: “There’s going to be an awful lot of Dublin hotel bathtubs filled with flowers that night.”

The judge
The formidable task of judging every one of the show’s 668 competitors’ arrangements falls to 42 judges, 13 of them Irish, including gardener, flower arranger and former chairwoman of the association Una Fleming, of Timoleague in West Cork.

The former school teacher, who taught at the local Convent of Mercy, qualified as a judge of floral art in 2001.

“The most difficult exam I’ve ever sat in my life,” she says. “I had to do a written test, put forward an exhibit, orally judge two exhibits and then do a written judgment – all in just one day!”

She describes her own style of flower arranging as “one that began in the traditional manner but has evolved to become much freer. I still follow the principles and elements of design, but I’m not constrained by the rules.”

So no stiff triangles of red carnations, then? “No, none of that,” she says, laughing.

For the WAFA show, she will be sharing her duties with two other judges (three judges together judge each class), which, she says, will make the process all the more interesting.

“For me, the World Flower Show is all about the international standard of the competition and the exhibitors and demonstrators who come from all over the world. I can’t wait.”

The World Association of Flower Arrangers World Flower Show takes place at the RDS, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4, from June 18th-22nd. For details of the complete programme, see

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