Time travel and ancient plants

christopherwhitehouse@rhs.org.uk christopherwhitehouse@rhs.org.uk
Tue, 13 Nov 2007 01:13:37 PST
Although the UK climate certainly has less extremes than North America,
it is not without its differences and the National Collections are very
much tailored to the part of the country in which they grow.  As a
National Collection usually focuses on a single genus or part of a genus
for large genera, all one needs to do is choose a genus appropriate for
the area you live - I doubt there are many small genera that have
species growing in Alaska and Florida.  The important aspect of National
Collections is not so much acquiring and growing the plants, as
recording the ones that you do have so that the information and the
living material is conserved for the future.

A recent conference organised by the RHS and NCCPG highlighted the
potential of Virtual Plant Collections.  This would be where a central
body records which cultivars are grown where in the country and thereby
ensures that all representatives of a genus are at least in the care of
at least one custodian.  Although people will still enjoy collecting all
the representatives of their favourite genus there would not be the same
onus for it to be complete, as long as somewhere in the country the
taxon is being grown.  This overcomes two important obstacles, firstly
the one that Diane highlights of acquiring and trying to grow plants in
your garden that would do much better elsewhere, and secondly, reduces
significantly the risk of disease wiping out a whole collection (a
situation that tragically happened to a National Collection of Canna in
the UK a few years ago).

Of course the problem is that any such initiative like this requires a
central body to organise the data from all the participants in a
consistent manner and disseminate it appropriately.  We are fortunate in
the UK in that the NCCPG was set up back in 1978 to carry out just such
a function.  It is very small with few funds but somehow continues to
carry out a vital role in cultivated plant conservation in the UK.

For those who are interested in reading more about this, you can see the
action plan at:


Dr Christopher Whitehouse
Keeper of the Herbarium
RHS Garden Wisley
Surrey GU23 6QB
Tel: 01483 224234
Fax: 01483 211750

> I don't think the lack of National Collections in North America is  
> the result of unconcern for the public good.  Rather, I think our  
> geography is the reason.  The U.K. is so compact that it is easy to  
> visit gardens and flower shows all over the country. Even travelling  
> by bus, I was able to go to a flower show in Wales, visit a national  
> collection of snowdrops mid-country and go to a London flower show,  
> all within a few days.

> Also, their climate does not have the extreme differences found in  
> North America.  Therefore a national collection in the U.K. provides  
> useful information for gardeners all over the country.  That could  
> never be the case here -  just think of the differences between only  
> two of our areas:  coastal Alaska and coastal Florida.

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