Conserving Plants with a Story to Tell

Close up view of orange dahlia

Caring for the National Trust’s garden plants takes understanding, science and a very long view.

We care for over 200 of the nation’s most valuable and beautiful gardens. What is less well known is that, just like the paintings, furniture and other in-door artefacts, the plants within the gardens tell their own stories of changing fashion, passion and horticultural obsession. But plants are among the most vulnerable of our possessions requiring just as much attention and expertise. Even long-lived trees don’t live forever and conserving them into the future requires a combination of care for today’s plants and propagation of their replacements.
When it comes to native plant diversity, and in particular trees, the British Isles are pretty poorly served compared to other parts of the world. We have just one native species of maple, compared with Japan and North America which have over 30 species between them. 
So how did our gardens become such rich botanical treasure troves with plants from all over the world? The combination of Britain’s equable climate, its maritime history and a national passion for gardening all provided the ingredients to start a 300 year-long story of plant discovery and collection that carries on to this day. Of course it also took money to provide the incentive for brave plant hunters and entrepreneurial nurserymen to take the risks and make it happen. Naturally, that money came from the men (and they were nearly all men) with grand properties and fine gardens to be filled.     
Collectively, our gardens contain one of the world’s most diverse and important collections of outdoor cultivated plants. At first sight these plants may be seen simply as ornamental components within the structure of the gardens, but many are living links with the property’s origins and creators. 
The gardens at Dyffryn are a good example. Here, industrialist turned horticultural enthusiast Reginald Cory planted one of the most amazing plant collections of the early 20th-century. It included many of the first plants to be introduced from China and other areas of the world that were becoming accessible to collectors at that time. Some of these original plants are still alive today.  As well as collecting wild plants, Cory was interested in selective breeding of new varieties for his garden. He was especially passionate about dahlias and actively took part in a craze for creating ever more extravagant cultivated forms. This tradition continues today and Dyffryn’s more formal gardens are still full of the offspring of Cory’s dahlia selections.
Knowledge and understanding is essential to plant conservation and we maintain a database of almost a quarter of a million plants. Surveys are regularly carried out to maintain this plant catalogue and help gardeners monitor and maintain their collections. It can be used to identify particularly valuable or significant plants and, where necessary, guide programmes for their propagation and conservation. Much of this propagation work takes place at our state-of-the-art Plant Conservation Centre. Here, in controlled and bio-secure conditions, the next generation of trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants are produced. Some may not make a big mark for a few decades yet but they will be ready and waiting to take over from their parents and may become the champion trees of the future.