Native gardens - in Britain? - Hm... Maybe.

While controversy rages in my home island regarding the recent elections, I was reading an article in the gardening section of the Guardian newspaper online - The Friday Debate: Should we all be going native? -- about native gardening in Britain! I left a long comment, and there were only 9 commenters before me so it may not be such a popular debate in the U.K. - or not when there appears to be a hung parliament, a strange occurrence indeed.

I googled a bit but couldn't find much of a native plant movement in the U.K. like we have here, a couple nurseries only and no societies.

When I google "British native plant society" I get links to the California nps! "British native plants" leads to our own Jeffrey Caldwell. Of course I didn't log on to the UK Google site.

There is one marvellous resource, the Postcode Plants Database - by the British museum, somewhat like our own calflora. There I found the lovely image of Papaver rhoeas at the head this post, which to any Brit of my vintage brings back childhood memories of "Poppy Day," which commemorates the dead of World War I (a war that may have other names in other places).

On Blotanical I did come up with some nice posts from the fairly new Garden of Eaden blog, for example this one on native pond plants. But their focus is not on natives, though their website itself does talk about a Best British Wildlife website competition. So maybe things are starting to cook over there.

At a meeting of our local chapter of CNPS last year, a botanist talked about her involvement with the Save Gillies Hill movement. Gillies Hill is a historic spot near Stirling, in Scotland, and it is threatened by quarry development. Interestingly, if they can find indigenous plants there worth legal protection, it would help the cause to protect this historic site of a great battle. I found a local blogger, Fraoch Woodland, writing about it too.

There are many passionate gardeners in the U.K. to be sure, but I didn't find much passion about gardening with natives on the web. I wonder where native plant movements take root most? South Africa and California are two hotspots - both places where non-native people have come in with fresh eyes maybe? Or where the indigenous flora is just so stunning and so evidently garden worthy?


An interesting post...I too hail from that part of the globe and I know what you mean about trying to research native plants for that area. I was a biology teacher in the north of Ireland for some years and at one stage our school was rebuilt and the landscaping of the grounds needed redone after the work. I consulted Conservation Volunteers re native plants.

The movement to plant "native" at home is less strong than here because I believe that it has had such intensive non-native planting and agriculture for such a long time that it is hard to visualize an area totally native - some of the non-natives have been there so long they've been "adopted" as natives. People at home are surprised when I tell them that rhododendron and sycamore are non natives. It's all about education and Conservation Volunteers Northern Ireland does as great job.

And what about those elections? What happens now? How exciting!
Christine said…
How funny- I was thinking of doing a blog post about the many Ca natives that have become popular through enthusiastic British gardeners! (Ceanothus, Bush Anemone, Baby Blue Eyes) The whole idea of a "typical English cottage garden" comprised of plants from California seems so silly, but I think it's not all that uncommon.
I hope they take up the cause of their own plants as well! I'm sure there's some interesting stuff to be found. How adorable would it be to garden to attract hedgehogs!
debsgarden said…
I suspect that you are right in guessing that native plant movements are greater where the indigenous flora is exceptionally beautiful. People will naturally want to preserve something they care about.
Queer by Choice said…
My understanding is that in Britain it's quite difficult to determine which plants even are native, because unlike in the U.S., there isn't a clear point in time before which all fossils proving that a plant was already present can be considered to define that plantas "native." It's a lot harder to build a native plant movement if you have no real starting point for attempting to define "native."
Goodness, with all the island invasions through the centuries, eons of formal landscaping, not to mention donkey's years of grazing, I think it would be a more daunting task to go truly native in Britain. But an interesting idea. I think part of the reason for the movement here, is that so much of the change of California's landscape has been so much more recent...perhaps we think it's not yet too late to 'bring back the natives' here...
Country Mouse said…
Here's the comment I left on the guardian, just an an anchor to this post.

As an expat here in California I'm all in favor of the going native movement. "Lose the lawn" makes so much sense here, where you have to irrigate all summer and water is precious. (And all the nasty fertilizers flow to the oceans and pollute them.)

Besides there is a huge local flora here to enjoy. Why replace it with an ersatz English style garden that might starve the local fauna and provides no breeding ground for insects that co-evolved with local plants? I'm having a great time on our 3 acres in the coastal mountains learning about the local plants that pop up, as I year by year get rid of the invasive non-native grasses and other introduced weeds. I'm lucky enough to live where I can enjoy restoration gardening. To me it's sort of deep gardening, where you mix botanizing in with the other gardening pleasures.

There are two native garden tours in the Bay Area - around San Francisco - that showcase beautiful and sustainable native gardens that promote wildlife. Going Native, and Bringing Back the Natives.

It's a whole different way to garden, whole different way to think about gardening - not just for color, but for ecology. You don't kill the caterpillars with pesticides, you watch in excitement and wait for the butterflies. (Sometimes things get out of balance but generally it works out.)

I also like nativism because it promotes local differences - why should all gardens everywhere look the same?

I've wondered about native gardening in the UK - do we have enough connection with the underlying native flora to restore it, after so many millenia of cultivation? Interestingly many California native plants are embraced more by Brits than by Californians in general - penstemons, silk tassel bush, pink flowering currant and other beauties. But that's the old approach - taking exotics into your garden.

Well, if they are not locally invasive, some exotics are OK, why not - they are ornamental. But not as the backbone of your garden.

Non-invasive is key. I weep at all the pampas grass, scotch and french broom, myrtle, south african oxalis and etc that have escaped into the wild here and crowd out the local flora.
Country Mouse said…
Hedgehogs would be nice indeed. I didn't know till recently that you can buy them as pets - not sure where. I remember hedgerows in Cornwall from a long visit there when I was 9 years old - amazed the heck out of a little city girl like me. There are a lot of natives but as QBC and CVF say, it can be hard to determine which are truly natives and which are old time favorites naturalized. There are ways I guess - the Gillie's Hill botanist was doing some kind of testing to determine the indigenosity (!) of the flora there. In the South of England you see so many wild flowers - it is really beautiful to go hiking through the farmlands and villages and the moors and woodlands between. Dartmoor national park is especially lovely if you luck out on the weather.
The problem is that Great Britain was scoured in the last ice age, so there are precious few plants that are "native." Most plants considered native were brought from the continent. If you argue that we should reintroduce "native plants" to G.B. that the fossil record shows are there, then your same argument supports reintroducing elephants, lions, and camels to N. America. Before the ice age wiped them out, these animals roamed over the continent, and camels were indigenous.

I believe planting native is important when it supports species that are endangered, encourages sustainability in the landscape, or the plants are exceptionally beautiful. There is no reason to not plant something in a climate that does very well and does not threaten to push out native populations, present cross-breeding problems with native plants, or that can introduce disease.
Country Mouse said…
Susan that is very interesting! It is hard to define what is native. I mean I'm a native British person but no doubt some of my ancestors arrived in an invader's horde! Angle or Saxon or Norman -even the Celts came from elsewhere. It's a lot more clear in California, as other commenters noted, since it was stable for so long in terms of human population, till us lot came from east and west with our seeds upon us. I agree with your conditions for gardening with exotics to be sure! Where I live, the native plants are beautiful, and we had the impertinence to settle in the wilderness among them, so the least we can do is preserve what we can of it.
Elephant's Eye said… You might enjoy this blog. He plants for bees and wildlife habitat. That is his business, so he takes it seriously.
Town Mouse said…
Interesting post! Two thoughts: Britain is really a special case because there's no real forests left (and this logging for building ships dates back to the Romans).

And, but, however, there are a lot of beautiful European plants. I myself had a bouquet of daisies and cornflowers for my wedding. Yes, they were hybridized or they would not have lasted the day, but it was what I wanted (unusual, was the main comment).
Brad said…
I think you nailed it with your comment on the Guardian. We still have wilderness areas here that are more or less full of native flora. And for those of us who grew up here, we have seen many open spaces get developed and changed over time, and I think feel some loss over that. Also since you mentioned South Africa, I wonder if it has anything to do with a Mediterranean climate with an imported aesthetic from Northern Europe. Northern Europe can be beautiful, but a Mediterranean climate is just so much more pleasant and ours has so any plants to offer.
Country Mouse said…
Elephant's Eye - I did check out the habitat blog and liked it very much. (I also like all the Anglicisms in his writing and approach, but that's by the by.) He connects enthusiasts with the academics and I love that. Brad, I say - when in Europe, garden like a European. and so on. It's just taken us European (and etc) immigrants a long time to make the switch and garden like Californians. Vive la difference! I don't think Mediterranean climates are better than European ones - rain in summer makes for more tender foliage and larger flowers I think. (Just my uninformed opinion but based on observations.)
I can't address the situation in South Africa, but I certainly think that we've got a different situation in relation to some abstract, romantic notion of "unspoiled nature" here in California. Sure, we have our invasives, but as some other commenters have pointed out we still have a lot of the original landscape here. When the British Isles were extensively settled, I could see how fickle nature could have been viewed as the enemy needing to be tamed. (St. Patrick driving all the snakes out of Ireland--This was a good thing?, I'd ask with my current filters in place.) But with the fairly recent colonization of California by Europeans, I could see how the same Europeans might have a different, less frightened take on wild nature. Of course that didn't stop them from extirpating all our grizzly bears... All that's too unsubtle a reading on my part--I think there's easily a dozen books in this topic. Thanks for the interesting post!
Anonymous said…
You're right that the 'native gardening' movement in Europe is not so prominent as in the states.

I wonder if that has something to do with the fact that Europe is less 'vulnerable' when it comes to invasive foreign plant species.

In Europe, the soil has been prone to disturbance for a few millenniums yet, and the larger part of our natives is used to at least some disturbance.

In America and Australia on the other hand, only in the last few century's the soil has been disturbed to a larger extend. So, when plants from Europe and Asia arrive there, they are often better suited to grow on the newly disturbed soil then the natives.

So, in Europe, people are well used to see there 'natives', and consider many of them as just weeds... And who wants a garden full of weeds?

I have the impression that here in Belgium, a country with only little nature left, the native gardening movement is already growing.
'Onderdeappelboom' published a blogpost about the native flowers in her garden, 'Eigenwijze tuin' is a 'wild gardener', just like I am. In the last few years, several blogs on native-plants gardening came into existence here in Flanders(Dutch speaking part of Belgium), whereas I haven't found that kind of blogs already in Germany, France, the Netherlands...