Survey of plants

Tony Russell carrying out plant survey work © National Trust

Tony Russell carrying out plant survey work

In 2009 the UK’s biggest ever plant hunt got underway when we began to survey all the plants at more than 80 of our gardens across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Three years on, the survey is continuing and has already produced a wealth of valuable information which is helping Mike Calnan, Head of Parks and Gardens for the National Trust, and his team, focus on conserving what is undoubtedly one of the largest, most diverse and botanically important plant collections held by any one organisation in Europe.

The surveys are being undertaken by a combination of specifically-trained gardeners and external consultants who have expertise in particulars areas of horticulture. One such expert is Tony Russell, who is considered a leading authority on woody plants. Over a career spanning some 30 years, Tony has worked in gardens all over the UK, including 13 years as Head Forester at the National Arboretum at Westonbirt.

Which National Trust gardens have you surveyed so far?
The first garden I surveyed back in 2009 was Winkworth Arboretum in Surrey. Covering around 100-acres it is still probably one of the largest properties I have surveyed to date.

I then worked on two gardens in North Wales, Penhyn Castle and Plas Newydd. Both fascinating gardens, Plas Newydd in particular contained an extremely unusual collection of southern-hemisphere plants, some that would be considered too tender to grow outside in many parts of the British Isles. This is basically due to its proximity to the sea and the Menai Straits, which helps to keep temperatures up in winter.

I then surveyed three more gardens in the Home Counties, Nymans, Emmetts and Standen and at the moment I am just finishing off at Knightshayes in Devon – another garden with a superb collection of rare and unusual plants.

What do you see as the important things to come out from these surveys?  
Without doubt, the most important thing to come out from this work is that it clearly shows just how botanically and environmentally important our plant collections are. In almost every instance, the landowners who amassed these plant collections in the past were simply growing plants for their beauty and creating gardens to enhance the aesthetic appeal of their property.

However because of the way man has mismanaged the environment over the last century or so, many of these old plants are now rare, endangered and in some cases no longer found in the wild – in other words they have become extinct - other than for the specimens in the gardens. What the survey work does is identify these rarities, plots them digitally using GPS and produces a database from which our staff can begin to conserve and propagate these plants, ensuring their future survival.

The surveys also help to identify horticulturally noteworthy plants, such as the largest (known as champion) or oldest of their kind growing in Britain. Also it can help locate original plants that may have been introduced by some of the famous Victorian plant hunters, such as David Douglas and E. H. Wilson.

From a visitor perspective, the surveys therefore provide our local staff with lots of interesting facts about their plant collections which they can then interpret for visitors. This can be done either through signs, leaflets and guided tours or via an exciting new  development which enables visitors to download an iPhone App, which details important plants within each garden and gives them the opportunity to embark on their own plant hunt. 

What are some of the most exciting plants you have surveyed? 
It is difficult to pinpoint just one or two, there have been so many, but at Winkworth I surveyed the original Sorbus ‘Wilfred Fox’, a beautiful whitebeam hybrid raised by the creator of Winkworth.

At Penrhyn Castle there is a magnificent giant redwood Sequoiadendron giganteum which was actually planted by Queen Victoria in 1859 – I felt I should bow when I was surveying that one. At Plas Newydd we found a very rare form of Crape Myrtle Lagerstroemia chekiangensis which is a Chinese plant that is endangered in the wild and more recently at Knighthayes I found a beautiful specimen – in full flower – of Sinocalycanthus chinensis (a rare Chinese shrub) which no one knew was there.

That is for me one of the most exciting things about the survey work, you just never know what you are going to find next. Our gardens are full of exciting, unusual and beautiful plants and what this survey is showing is that the treasures found in the gardens are just as important to the nation – indeed the world – as the treasures found within the houses and properties they surround.

More about our plant survey discoveries