How Plant Heritage Conserves Plants and How You Can Help

Published on November 19th 2020
A pink flower on a plant
The UK is home to a nation of gardeners: those who lovingly tend to their own little patch of Eden come rain or shine, those who love the sight (and smell) of cut flowers in a vase, those who enjoy watching others gardening on TV, and everyone in between.
For over 40 years now Plant Heritage, - a plant conservation charity - has been working tirelessly to conserve and safeguard the UK’s rich horticultural history, ensuring that cultivated garden plants are nurtured so that future generations can enjoy them as much as we currently do.
How does Plant Heritage do this? Enter the National Collection Holders, Plant Guardians, members and numerous other volunteers.
A close up of a passiflora
National Plant Collection of Passiflora in Somerset Passiflora cerasina. Credit J Vanderplank.

National Plant Collections

From miniature orchids to mighty oaks, there are over 650 National Plant Collections found in all corners of the British Isles and Ireland, from Guernsey to Cornwall to Aberdeenshire. Over 95,000 garden plants make up these collections, covering genera from Alcea (Hollyhocks) to Zingiber (Ginger).
Each collection is a living library, showcasing the amazing diversity of cultivated plants. They ensure that living examples of plants that have gone out of fashion or are no longer commercially available are grown and propagated, conserved for future generations.
These precious plants are cared for by almost 400 Collection Holders, who dedicate their time (and gardens, greenhouses or houses!) to look after their chosen genera. As well as individuals, National Plant Collections are also held by specialist plant nurseries, large botanic gardens such as The National Arboretum at Westonbirt and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, National Trust properties, RHS gardens, local authorities, plus universities and colleges too, including Cambridge University Botanical Garden. Some are even held in allotments and at zoological gardens.
Plant Heritage’s National Plant Collection Holders are a vital resource in the conservation of garden plants, as without them, their knowledge and enthusiasm, many genera and cultivars would have already been lost from our gardens.
Mespilus germanica fruit
Mespilus germanica fruit. Credit Jane Steward.

Plant Guardians

Plant Heritage’s Plant Guardians also do a sterling job at helping to protect the UK’s more unusual and rare garden plants. There are approximately 1,600 rare plants looked after by volunteer Plant Guardians. Like the National Plant Collections, Plant Guardians can be found all across the British Isles and Ireland and look after their plants in whatever space they have, whether they have a back garden, greenhouse, allotment or even just a windowsill.
Sorbus esserteauana 'Flava', held in the National Plant Collection at Windsor Great Park. Credit Plant Heritage.
Sorbus esserteauana 'Flava', held in the National Plant Collection at Windsor Great Park. Credit Plant Heritage.

The annual Plant Exchange

Once a year, members of Plant Heritage exchange rare and unusual garden plants at Plant Heritage’s free Plant Exchange.
This event, which in normal circumstances takes place in spring, ensures that by sharing and distributing plants across the UK, plants in danger of being lost can be secured by growing them in multiple locations. Members are encouraged to propagate these plants and pass them on. By sharing, growing and then recording these plants in the Plant Guardian scheme, their future can be secured.
Miniature orchids
Phalaenopsis parishii and Phalaenopsis lobbii, part of Beth Otways’ miniature orchid National Plant Collection. Credit Beth Otway.
So whether you’ve worked in the horticultural industry for years or have recently taken up gardening or become a house-plant parent during lockdown, there are several ways we can all help save our nation’s garden plants.
To find out more about Plant Heritage, its National Plant Collections or for information about how to become a Collection Holder, Plant Guardian or to support Plant Heritage as a member, visit You can also email the team at: who would be delighted to hear from you.
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