The British Isles evoke many images of plant life, from the heather of northern moors to the lush woods of fairy tales. British novels add images of rural doctors fussing over their vegetable marrows and ladies in lawn dresses and gum boots weeding herbaceous borders. Many of the plants of the British Isles are familiar to American gardeners, which were originally brought here by curious colonists and homesick immigrants. Familiar, too, are English gardening styles, from Vauxhall to Gertrude Jekyll to Frederick Law Olmstead. From the mighty oak to the effervescent bluebell, British plants helped Britons and Americans feel at home in each other's gardens.
Geography and Climate
Like the Pacific Northwest, Britain's abundant seacoast, proximity to a larger land mass, and hilly terrain keep temperatures moderate both in terms of heat and cold. While plants hardy to zone 8 or even 9 may be spared killing frosts, they may fail to thrive because of a low number of heat days (over 86 F as defined by the American Horticultural Association). A broad range of plants, from cold-hardy evergreens to ephemeral wildflowers, do well in long seasons of cool-to-moderate weather with moderate to heavy rainfall.
Travel and Trade
Through centuries of trade, British native-plant stock has been enriched by plants from all over the world. While today we may think of roses and peonies as distinctly English--the War of the Roses, after all, dates from Tudor times--British gardeners need to be given credit for the hybridizing and cultivating of British-hardy versions of these once-exotic plants. Imports from the New World taught the British to smoke and set in motion the Irish Potato Famine. The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew and Edinburgh reflect British awareness of historic outside influences; looking up a plant will yield history, current growth information, and links to the future, via the Millennium Seed Bank.
Native and Nearly So
From the Crystal Palace to Mr. McGregor's vegetable "cold frames," Britain has gained a reputation for growing an extraordinary number of exotics and sun-loving plants under glass. Among the over 30 gardens that can be visited at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew are six "glasshouses," collections of plants including palms, water lilies, and alpine plants, which are sheltered from inhospitable British weather. The Royal Botanic Gardens offer a wealth of plant-identification materials and take pride in the global diversity of their collections.
A number of organizations address issues of conserving British native plants. A number of these are royally-sponsored and supported (reflecting the days when all forests and the animals living in them belonged to the king). The Royal Forestry Society is devoted to education and volunteer action to preserve native British trees, forests and managed woodlands. The Royal Horticultural Society promotes gardening, especially flower-gardening, and holds workshops and flower shows throughout the year. The Botanical Society of the British Isles has, in conjunction with the British Wildflower Society, worked to publish authoritative lists of British plants and is at present engaged on a project to map the British Isles botanically by 2020. The Botanical Society offers identification of particularly difficult plants to members.
Resources for identification of British plants and British resources for identifying plants throughout the world abound. Home to the Linnaean Society and the resting place for collections from Charles Darwin and David Livingston, British institutions encourage and support the most specialized interests in gardening. The Royal National Rose Society, the Scottish Carnation Society, The Hardy Orchid Society, the Tree Register, Fuschia Society and Garden History Society all testify to both the depth and breadth of British interest and involvement with the growing world.