Three new National Plant Collections join the Plant Heritage family

Three new National Plant Collections® join the Plant Heritage family this year:

  • Agapanthus – show-stopping blooms that are ideal to grow in containers, and make excellent cut flowers
  • Astrantia – easy to grow perennials that come in a range of scintillating colours
  • Hardy Polypodium – evergreen ferns with a fascinating history

Plant Heritage Conservation Officer Sophie Leguil said:

‘We are delighted to welcome three new and diverse Collections, all participating in our mission to preserve the UK’s cultivated plant diversity. I am particularly proud of our Collection Holders who have taken over existing Collections, thus ensuring that unique plant material is maintained for many more years to come. National Collections are also at the forefront of current issues, such as new pests and diseases. I hope that our new Collection in Ireland will help in the fight against the Agapanthus Gall Midge, a small fly that is becoming a problem in many gardens.’

Agapanthus (Reference Collection*), Northern Ireland

Ian Scroggy of Bali-Hai Nursery in County Antrim has been collecting Agapanthus for over 30 years. He recalls: ‘In the early days I didn’t have much room so I wanted plants that were easy to grow in containers, and that were not common. Agapanthus grows well in our climate, as we are beside the sea and surrounded by mountains in Carnlough Bay.’

Ian (who also has a National Plant Collection of Hosta) started in 1986 with varieties he acquired mail order from the UK and Ireland, followed by new varieties from Dutch plant breeders. He was, he admits, ‘hooked’, and his Collection grew with several new varieties (mostly evergreens) he brought back from New Zealand in 1994/5.

The Agapanthus Collection is container-grown outside all year round, with frost fleece used in winter for the evergreen varieties. According to Ian, exposure to sea winds cuts the need to use chemicals for pests and diseases. He uses organic controls where possible, including garlic in irrigation water to help repel insects, and seaweed and cinnamon to help protect against bacteria and fungus.

Ian’s interest in putting together a National Plant Collection stems from his desire to preserve plants – especially Irish raised varieties – for future generations​. He explains: ‘I find that once a variety is sold out commercially, it’s hard to find again.’ He also believes that keeping a genetic pool of original plants is important for future breeding and in case of pest and disease breakout. He explains: ‘There is a better chance of older varieties proving more resistant than newer varieties, where the gene pool has been weakened.’ Threatened Plants research at Plant Heritage found that 16 of his cultivars of Agapanthus are classed as ‘Threatened in cultivation’. The conservation status of all of the 16 cultivars has been improved by joining Plant Heritage as a National Plant Collection and Ian is the sole supplier of 10 of them through the nursery.

Over the years Ian has discovered many wrongly named varieties of Agapanthus (as well as other plants), and one of the benefits of having a Reference Collection is that he knows each variety and how it should look in flower and shape. His goal, he says, ‘is to have as many varieties of Agapanthus that are true to type and name, and that grow well in the UK climate. I am always searching for more varieties to add to my Collection and I trial them to make sure they are the correct plant.’

Image: Agapanthus ‘Pavlova’ © Ian Scroggy

Astrantia cultivars (Horticultural Collection*), Nottinghamshire

Previously held by Bob Taylor, the National Plant Collection of Astrantia was taken over by Dr Andrew Ward in 2016. Well-known as the owner of Norwell Nurseries (and one of the holders of the Dispersed National Collection of Hardy Chrysanthemum), Andrew has a wealth of horticultural expertise. He has grown Astrantia in herbaceous beds for many years, propagating and raising hybrids, and he intends to create a bed specifically for the genus. ‘Astrantias grow well here,’ Andrew says. ‘We have ideal soil conditions – we garden on improved clay soil – and they form the mainstay of our summer woodland garden.’

After acquiring the Collection, Andrew spent around six months transferring plants to their new site at Norwell Nurseries, a two-acre south-facing slope. Here the plants are grown in five-litre pots on the stock bed (where they are watered automatically), and there are at least three of each established variety. New plants are grown in the ground and in polytunnels to bulk up.

Andrew describes Astrantia as, ‘a most fabulous and amenable plant’, easy to grow, hardy and resistant to pests and diseases. ‘The flowerheads are intricate in close-up but are produced in profusion to give a cloud with bracts, in a range of silvers, jades, pinks, raspberries and darkest reds. They are highly photogenic.’ As some of them have been bred for the cut-flower trade, they last well in water, too.

They provide valuable colour and nectar in early summer, and if they are cut back, often provide a second flush of blooms in late summer and autumn. Andrew adds, ‘In a shady garden, once the spring flush is over, they fit in so well with other English garden plants. We have several which are reliably in flower in November!’

Image: Astrantia ‘Temptation Star’ © Dr Andrew Ward

Hardy Polypodium (Horticultural Collection*), Kent

Julian Reed first started growing ferns as a horticulture student in the late 1970s, and his interest in a particular group of ferns – Polypodium – developed in the late 1980s. Unfortunately, he says, they were hard to find, and few nurseries offered a good range. Things looked up when the previous National Collection Holder Martin Rickard opened his own nursery and, since then, Fibrex. When Martin considering giving up his Collection, he asked if Julian would be interested in taking it on. He was and he did.

Since then, Julian has added to the Collection by rescuing plants from other gardens and producing cultivars from spores. Martin Rickard still very kindly shares his new finds. To accurately record each plant he photographs them and presses the fronds.

The polypodiums are grown in Julian’s Kent garden, in outdoor beds of mixed ferns. The genus thrives in shade, semi-shade and sun and prefers well-drained soil. The plants are drought tolerant, although a lot only come into frond when the rains come. They can often be found colonising tough-to-grow places, such as crevices in old walls. One of their most garden-worthy features is that they are wintergreen, with lush fronds displayed through the coldest and darkest months.

For Julian, their appeal lies ‘above all in their beauty’. He finds their history ‘phenomenal – they are probably the oldest clonal herbaceous plants’, and some in his Collection date from 1668. ‘It would be great to raise awareness of these plants,’ he says. ‘I want to maintain these varieties and make sure they do not disappear.’

Plant Heritage’s Threatened Plants research found that 16 cultivars of Polypodium are classed as ‘Threatened in cultivation’. Julian has 11 of these in his collection, thereby improving the conservation status of these fascinating plants.

Image: Polypodium cambricum ‘Carew Lane’ © Julian Reed

*National Plant Collections are now allocated categories of Horticultural, Reference and Historic.
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