Earlier this year, the flower market at New Covent Garden Market moved into its latest home, half a mile down from its old site on Nine Elms Lane. The change marked the start of a new era for this historic warehouse, the UK’s biggest specialist flower and plant hall. Culture Trip ventured into London’s largest ‘secret garden’ to catch a glimpse of why, after 350 years of trading, it’s still in full bloom.
Bidding goodbye to the last remnants of autumn, the flower market’s stark white interior contrasts vividly with flurries of red and sunset orange. Succulents – a hit with plaid-and beard-sporting hipster millennials this year – sit side by side in endless rows, a few metres away from bundles of ranunculus, dahlias and anemones. Roses and lillies, timeless favourites, are also the centre of attention here.
Originally dating back to 1670, the warehouse was first established in Covent Garden’s market square with permission from the monarch at the time, Charles II, and looked very different from its contemporary incarnation. Almost 200 years later, it had blossomed into a vibrant, 30-acre space, booming with businesses. It soon became apparent that its prosperity had also led to chaos; as a result of increased trading in the tiny space, congestion within the city was reaching an all-time high, and in the 1960s plans to find it a new home began. It wasn’t until 1974 that the market first moved to Nine Elms Lane, taking up residence three miles from its original trading site.
While the market was born in the heart of London, it may come as a surprise to hear that British flowers only account for 12%–20% of sales here; most of the plant-life found within the warehouse is acquired through an auction process held mainly in the Netherlands. Many flowers originate from there, though other integral sources include Kenya, Colombia, Italy and Israel. However, the launch of the British Flowers Week campaign four years ago encouraged more people to care about provenance, leading to home-cultivated greenery becoming more popular.
Days at the market begin before sunrise; trading takes place between 4am and 10am to ensure the flowers are as fresh as possible when sold by vendors. To bolster the preservation process, the temperature inside the warehouse is kept at a mere 14°C (57℉), suiting the needs of plants, flowers, sundries and foliage.
The plant-life receives excellent care, under the ever-watchful eyes of seasoned wholesalers. Many of the market’s traders are third – or even fourth – generation; the tricks of the trade, along with a keen eye for what works and an encyclopaedic knowledge of floristry, are in their blood. It’s these resilient family ties within New Covent Garden Market that have most likely been the driving force behind its success over the centuries.
Today, the market supplies three-quarters of London’s florists, from high-street retailers to prestigious clientele such as celebrity and royal florists Simon Lycett, Shane Connolly and McQueens. Its flora can be seen gracing the entryways, parapets and windowsills of coveted locations such as Harrods, The Dorchester and The Savoy. City landmarks on its roster include St Paul’s Cathedral and the Natural History Museum, and the warehouse officially caters for large-scale events such as the BAFTAs.
While London teems with florists and vendors, each with their own distinctive flair when it comes to all things floral, a trip to this warehouse just as the trading period nears its end, whether to lose yourself among the jungle-like array of tropical foliage or just enjoy the heady scent of your favourite flowers, offers a truly special experience.