Native Trees and Shrubs For Your Garden

Jill, Duchess of Hamilton
Christopher Humphries



Tribute to the Reverend

This, the first full-length book on gardening with British native trees and shrubs, coincides with the fortieth anniversary of the Rev. William Keble Martin’s Concise Flora of the British Isles in Colour.

A bestseller in 1965, it was a landmark in nature conservation, and celebrated Keble Martin’s lifetime of research and draughtsmanship. Thirty of his charming drawings, in their original form as line sketches, are published for the first time in the present book (in the 1965 book nearly 1,400 species were specially grouped and coloured for printing).

William Keble Martin was born in 1877 and educated at Marlborough, where he showed such skill at butterfly-collecting and botany that he went on to read botany at Oxford. Here he learned how to draw specimens under a microscope and study the flora of the British Isles. But instead of a career in science he was ordained, and for eighteen years he worked first as a curate and then as a vicar in the industrial parishes of northern England and, after the outbreak of World War One, as a chaplain to the forces in France. When peace came in 1918, like the poet-vicar Andrew Marvell three centuries earlier, he moved to his beloved Devon. Here he was vicar in various parishes, including Torrington, Haccombe and Dartington. An active member of botanical circles, he was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society in 1928, and eleven years later edited a comprehensive Flora of Devon for the Devon Association. That year he was invited to sit on the first Nature Reserves Committee. He retired in 1949 at the age of 72, but still worked in the church, taking locums all over the country; in 1965, at the age of 89, he married for the second time. In June 1966 he received an honorary degree of Doctor of Science from Exeter University and in the following November he was asked by the Post Office to submit designs for an issue of wild flower stamps; four of these were accepted and issued in April 1967. Just before he died at the age of 92 in November 1969, he published his autobiography, Over the Hills. After his death, his widow Florence presented his original drawings to the Linnean Society, together with his microscope, mounted lens and a small box of watercolours and brushes.


It is a fact almost universally acknowledged that people all over the world undervalue and take for granted their native floras. Why this should be is perhaps not so mysterious: the native is familiar, unremarkable and without the stories of derring-do that so often accompany the introduction of exotics. In the early eighteenth century, the apothecary William Curtis found this to his cost – his beautifully illustrated flora of London and its environs, Flora Londinensis, was a commercial flop whereas its successor, Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, was snapped up by a public eager to see new exotics illustrated in colour, each accompanied by a botanical description, a publication which is still issued today.

Yet when people are asked what they are homesick for when away from Britain, it is often native plants and ecosystems that they mention. ‘The bluebell woods of Ruislip’ and ‘the beech hangers of Sarratt’ would be my contribution here – and I only need to reflect that the former have largely disappeared under housing estates and the latter felled by storms to realise that these are plants under threat by population pressure and climate change. The phenomenon of people decrying their ‘own’ floras is common in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, which all have particularly rich, endemic floras of their own. The flora of the UK is much less rich by comparison: botanists call it a ‘depauperate post-glacial flora’ – one diminished in richness of species by extinctions caused by the Ice Ages. But there is a change afoot in the appreciation of native floras, whether rich or poor ones. This change has been engendered by the Convention on Biological Diversity, spawned by the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro of 1992. Floras are now seen as a matter of national pride, to be conserved and utilised for the national good in their own right, or in their genes and products obtained from them, or in knowledge about their use.

This change has caused rapid revision of the remits of botanic gardens around the world. The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, for example, long concerned with tropical botany and particularly tropical economic botany, now has a Millennium Seed Bank to conserve Britain’s biodiversity as well as that of the dry tropics; it recently ran a DEFRA-funded festival of the UK’s wild plants entitled ‘Go Wild’. This ‘return of the native ’ has been scientifically informed by an understanding of DNA sequencing in defining native genotypes and an increasing understanding of the ecological basis of complex food systems in which native plants may be important keystones. This book is aimed at the gardener. Gardeners are often appreciated in terms of their contribution to ‘carbon sinks’ and to the richness of wildlife in urban and suburban gardens (compared to monocropped agricultural fields). What is less appreciated is the potential of gardeners, in growing native plants, to contribute to the retention of characteristic landscapes and local distinctiveness, which may be visual, part of local cottage industry or local myth and folklore. All of this is covered here, along with some interesting examples of the cultural importance of the plants in poetry. Britain’s native plants are the frame into which later exotic introductions have been fitted and, due to their long association with our developing culture, they often have some of the most interesting stories attached to them. Just as other cultures are defending the value of their floras, we should not forget the value of our own.

Sue Minter
Director of Horticulture
The Eden Project