The original need that led to the founding of Plant Heritage ‘to conserve the unique gene pool of cultivated plants’ not only remains but has been strengthened through the Aichi Biodiversity Target 13 (2011).
This target for the first time recognises, in an international treaty, the value of domesticated plants and animals, acknowledging species with socio-economic and cultural value. The developing challenges posed by climate change, and the growing role of horticulture in the health and well-being agenda in the context of an increasingly urbanised society also emphasises the essential value of cultivated plant diversity to all our futures.
This is a very exciting time for Plant Heritage as it recognises that the work we are doing is of international importance.
A Nation of Growers
As a natural habitat, Britain is unique. Our climate is cool but temperate, with both alpine and marine regions. We have a number of micro-climates, and stretches of coastline washed by the Gulf Stream. With a little care we can, and do, grow virtually anything.
The lost garden of Britain
British growers have a long history of collecting plant material from the wild and hybridising. In decades past, small independent growers would compile catalogues containing literally hundreds of garden plants.
Sadly, many of these are now lost for ever. And since many growers never recorded their work, we have also lost vital knowledge; a tantalising slice of social, cultural and horticultural history has simply died with them.
Why does this matter?
The loss of our garden plants is a loss on many levels:
Garden plants are inextricably bound up with our cultural and social history; the plants collected by a valiant plant hunter, or bred by a staid country parson are as important to our history as our stately homes and art. Unlike grand houses and statues they are immensely vulnerable to all kinds of threat, and need constant work to conserve.
The cottage garden, the allotment, the clipped formality of the stately home have been founded on 'old-fashioned' varieties such as old pinks, florists' violas, tulips, Malmaison carnations, auriculas, lilacs and phlox. These plants and their cultivation are often very specialist and tied in with the places in which they used to be grown.
There will always be a need for living plant reference libraries where all the plants in a particular genus or group can be seen together, compared and researched. As funding for botanic gardens and parks is under threat, the need to conserve these collections becomes more urgent. It is unlikely that a member of staff in an institution will be allowed sufficient time to become as expert in a single plant as a Collection Holder can.