Monday, 28 May 2012

Will native wild flowers make horticulture extinct?

Professor James Hitchmough, the UK's only Professor of Horticulture and designer of the Olympic meadows expressed his concern last week that the current trend for using only native plant species could make horticulture extinct and he urges Britain's planners to include foreign species in their planting schemes.  So is Professor Hitchmough correct?  and what would it mean if horticulture did become extinct?

a high yielding field of wheat, if it weren't for plant breeders,
our food supply would be very different to what we're used to.
 Hmmmm, I was thinking about that in the bath last night...all my best thinking happens either in the bath or whilst walking the dogs.  If we were able to transport a Neolithic woman through time and set her down in the British countryside, would she know what to make of it? probably not.  Horticulturists and plant breeders have made so many positive changes to our plant stocks that this poor lady would barely recognise any of our food crops. If we were still reliant upon the species that our earliest farmers used, we'd be hungry.  Never mind horticulturists dying out, obesity would definitely be extinct! It's unlikely that we would live the lives that we live now if it weren't for horticulturists developing better  cereal crops, higher yielding and more varied fruits and vegetables and things like oilseed rape. But put our neolithic lady in one of the few remaining wild flower meadows and she'll find herself a meal and fill her medicine chest...skills that are almost completely alien to modern country folk.

Could it be that we have allowed our passion for highly bred plants and foreign imports to endanger the native species that evolved hand in hand with the pollinating insects that we still need to help produce our food?  No, I take that back, maybe it's not highly bred plants that have warped our perceptions, maybe it's just that we value highly profitable plants over our simple native species.

I can see where Professor Hitchmough is coming from.  It's my job to encourage folks to use more native species in landscape and garden design and so maybe I'm a little biased but I personally believe that if we tip the scales away from all non-natives, all the way to almost-all-native planting, there will come a time when the balance will redress itself and we'll find that native plants will be valued equally with non-native species and that our outdoor spaces will be all the better for it.

So will horticulturists become extinct?  Never.  Not while our climate is changing, we're facing more and more challenging growing conditions, and our tastes in fruit, veg and colourful flowers are forever changing.  According to astronomers 21.12.2012 will see a worldwide change in attitude...lets hope it leads to a simpler way of life where society places more value on plants and the people that care for them.
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