Origins of our garden plants


Do you know where the plants in your garden come from? No, I don’t mean Delamores, or Skylark, or B&Q.....but where in the world? And, to be even more precise, from what natural habitat.

Last week I looked at flowering plants that we consider to be ‘native’ to the UK – around 3,000 species of them, ranging from quite primitive ferns through to plants only introduced in the last 100 years or so, but now happily living in our countryside.

Now we can look at our garden and cultivated plants – the non-native and exotic introductions currently growing in gardens across the UK. A complete inventory has never been attempted of these – however, according to the National Trust (Calnan, 2009), it is considered that there are over 300,000 species of cultivated plants grown in UK gardens. Note that this figure is of species of plant – and many of these species have countless hundreds of cultivars (cultivated varieties) of the basic species, as well as hybrids between species.

Take roses. There are only around 150 species of rose (Rosa sp.), originating in many areas of the Northern Hemisphere. However it is estimated there are now well over 13,000 different varieties, cultivars and hybrids distributed worldwide. Fuchsias, which originate mostly from Central and South America, consist of around 100 species – from which over 12,000 hybrids have been developed and named. We have no native fuchsia, yet many thrive here as fully hardy shrubs. Others are invaluable ‘tender perennials’, a mainstay of our summer hanging baskets.

The plants in our gardens represent over 1,000 years of gardening history, plant introductions, selection and breeding. The earlier introductions, prior to the 16th century, were mostly from continental Europe. Many fruit trees and bushes, as well as herbal and medicinal plants, arrived in these years. The Romans brought us a fantastic array of plants – and they were cultivating black mulberry, quince, peach and pomegranate, as well as figs, grapes, rosemary and lavender.

In subsequent years, plants arrived from Asia, Africa and the Americas and, by the 18th century, Australasia. Some of our best-known plants only arrived on these shores during the early part of the 20th century, when some of our most celebrated plant hunters brought back a rich array of treasures from China and Japan. Even today, we are seeing a continuing influx of new material from all over the world, adding to the rich biodiversity of our gardens and parks.

As well as knowing what country or continent our plants come from, it is invaluable to know what their natural habitat is in their country of origin. The internet is a wonderful tool for finding out this information and, as gardeners, we should strive to place our chosen plants in a place that replicates their natural habitat as best we can.