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Plant Conservation Centre

A member of staff kneeling down, checking on cuttings of the Ankerwycke yew in the plant nursery at the Plant Conservation Centre
Checking on cuttings of the Ankerwycke yew in the plant nursery at the Plant Conservation Centre, Devon | © National Trust Images / James Dobson

We care for hundreds of parks and gardens that are home to a vast range of rare and historically important plants, collected over the last 400 years from around the world. The Plant Conservation Centre was set up to help conserve the rich diversity of plants at places in our care. From endangered to unusual plants, our centre works to nurse these populations back to health.

Where is the Plant Conservation Centre?

The Plant Conservation Centre (PCC) is one of the few National Trust places not open to the public. In fact, its location is a closely guarded secret – and with good reason. The PCC is both a repository and production site for many of our most valuable plants, the horticultural crown jewels that are as much a part of the history of a place as its wallpaper and furniture.

Plants don’t live for ever and require ongoing propagation and replanting to conserve their unique qualities. Many of these special plants are irreplaceable by the usual nursery sources due to their distinctive genetic make-up or unique horticultural heritage.

Protecting the irreplaceable

In order to protect these plants, the PCC follows rigorous biosecurity procedures. Any incoming plants are held and carefully monitored in a separate quarantine facility, and even staff members have to pass through a foot-scrubbing and disinfection point before entering the plant areas.

A close-up of a staff member's hands trimming a leaf from a small potted plant in the hydropod at the Plant Conservation Centre
Leaf trimming at the Plant Conservation Centre | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

Propagating plants under threat

The centre provides a service to the gardens and parks in our care across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Wherever a special plant is identified as being under threat, the centre’s expert propagators are called upon to help, using a range of techniques both traditional and state of the art.

In most cases the aim is to produce offspring identical to the parent plants. Simply collecting and growing from seed can introduce uncertainty and variety, and a loss of the original appearance or genetic inheritance. Other ‘asexual’ methods are therefore needed to produce cloned copies of the parent.

Cultivating the next generation

The most commonly used technique is grafting. Cuttings are taken from the plant to be propagated and attached, or grafted, to the roots of a compatible plant (the rootstock). This is how named apple varieties like Bramley are grown. Many significant historical landscapes such as Wimpole Estate in Cambridgeshire rely on grafted trees to replant avenues of limes and other species.

Successfully propagating some plants often takes persistence and experimentation, especially where old or ailing plants are concerned. A special pipe-warmer was even invented to speed up the process of grafting new plants.

Saving Newton’s apple tree

The PCC has propagated one of the most historically significant plants in the Trust’s gardens – the Newton apple tree at Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire.

This tree and the apples from it are said to have inspired Sir Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity. This famous apple tree still grows at his former home, Woolsthorpe Manor. It’s been propagated at the centre as part of the Orchard Project to protect endangered apple tree varieties. The apple pips (seeds) from the tree have even been flown into space, when they were taken on a mission to the International Space Station by Tim Peake.

A close-up of a staff member repotting a small plant in an air pot using peat-free soil at the Plant Conservation Centre
Potting plants using air pots at the Plant Conservation Centre | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

Peat-free plants

All the plants at the PCC are ‘peat free’ from day one, using coir plugs for rooting cuttings, bio-degradable wood fibre pots for growing on and Air Pots for the final stages. With expert care, even ericaceous plants such as Rhododendron and Camellia are grown in peat-free soil. The soil of choice is Petersfield’s T2 blend, containing a mix of fine grade bark, wood waste and loam.

A conservator cleaning a large painting, called 'The Embarkation of George IV from Whitehall the Opening of Waterloo Bridge, 1817' by John Constable, from Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire

Donate to make a difference

Your support is essential to help us look after nature, beauty and history. Make a donation today, and together we can protect precious places for everyone, forever.

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