Unsung National Treasures – 4 – The National Plant Collections

FlowerThe National Plant Collections are what they say on the tin, collections established “to conserve, document, promote and make available Britain and Ireland’s rich biodiversity of garden plants”.   “Why bother?” you ask.  Well plants can disappear surprisingly quickly because gardeners, like the rest of us, follow the whims of fashion.  The range and variety of plants available to the casual gardener has been drastically reduced by the supermarkets and DIY stores, even though they have made their limited stock so widely accessible, because they have destroyed our independent nurseries as much as they have destroyed our independent grocers.  It’s not just historical plants: who’d have thought that a plant that was widely popular only 40 years ago could have disappeared?  However “the shasta daisy ‘Fiona Coghill’ was thought to be lost from cultivation. The Collection Holder, Lady Hagart-Alexander … discovered that Reg Maxwell … still held a plant. He had received it from Philip Woods, who was in charge of propagating ‘Fiona Coghill’ when it was first marketed in 1968. … the plant you can buy today is exactly the same as the popular plant in the late 1960s.”

This is not a matter of vague good intentions and a romantically English blend of aristos and plantsmen.  It is about botany, as much as it’s about anything and each National Collection is “as complete a representation of a genus or section of a genus as possible” and the National Collection Holders undertake to “document, develop and preserve a comprehensive collection of one group of plants in trust for the future”.

So where do you go to see them, these catalogued collections of plants? These are the gardening equivalent of the British National Library or the cellars of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and you’d think that the National Plant Collections would be held at Kew or Wisley, but in fact they are held on allotments and back gardens, in large estates and municipal parks.  Almost half the collections are in private ownership, and others are held by councils, commercial growers and universities.  I don’t know about you, but I find the robust practicality of accepting the help offered by dedicated individuals over creating something flashy and unsuportable from scratch to be surprisingly  moving. It is confirmation that all you need to do to make a difference in this world is roll up your sleeves, pull on your wellies, and – well – make a difference.  This is what gardening geeks do for fun: think of it as our national gardening wiki.

If you fancy taking it on, then there is still much to be done, and the The National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens publishes a list of missing genera.  Be warned, though, that holding a National Plant Collection is no sinecure, and Collection Holders have to document their plants and work with others to ensure that their collection can withstand whatever disasters might occur: “Oak trees need space and it may not be practical to hold a full back up collection, however, Lathyrus spend the winter as seed in the fridge. Collection Holders must propagate their plants so that if an oak tree is hit by lightning, or the fridge fails, the plants are not lost from the collection (and possibly horticulture) forever.”

The National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens is a surprisingly new organisation, being founded as a registered charity in 1978 as an independent offspring of the Royal Horticultural Society.  This contrasts with the many batty British conservation and social campaign groups which were founded between the two world wars or during the outburst of change at the end of the 19th century.  This blend of amateurs and professionals combining their expertise into a national force to be reckoned with is, however, quietly and quintessentially English.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the allotments and cold-frames, the gardens and parks, the aristocrats and nurserymen, the plastic labels and extensive database that form the National Plant Collections.

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