We British as a nation have always liked to think of ourselves as excelling at freethinking, and breaking new ground. We hold a kind of rose-tinted affection for characters like ‘Alfred Russel Wallace… a public figure in England during the second half of the 19th century, known for his courageous views on scientific, social, and spiritualist subjects… His formulation of the theory of evolution by natural selection… predated Charles Darwin’s published contributions‘.
Detail from Alfred Russell Wallace’s Malay Arcihpelago field study, 1854-1862 (Dutch East Indies)
Wallace, like Darwin and many others during the Victorian age, revelled in pioneering, swashbuckling tales of audacity and derring-do. In a similar mould, David Douglas, (of Douglas Fir fame) boldly went plant hunting:
‘Look, there’s the humble flowering currant, Ribes sanguineum, whose rosy-red racemes mark the beginning of spring. This was introduced by David Douglas, as were lupins, California poppies and many of the conifers that are now staples of our arboretums and suburban gardens… Douglas paid for his discoveries with his life: he was killed in Hawaii at the age of 35 in a pit dug to trap wild bullocks.’ (Plant Hunters, Victoria Summerley, The Independent 2012)
Perhaps this independent, fighting spirit goes some way to explaining the British intractability and dislike of being ‘told what to do’, and our often obstinate refusal to have our national character ‘compromised’ in any way. On our travels through and past the Victorian age, we have taken the liberty of passing where, when and how we like, but remain sceptical of the rights of others to enjoy the same privileges in return.
Perhaps we believe that our role in developing significant scientific theories, ‘taking charge’ in the name of civilised society, and (when not meeting dramatic and bitter ends on our intrepid adventures) generally patronising the world at large and providing a kind of template for what an aspirational, civically-minded modern citizen should look like, are good enough reasons to continue.
In the C18, Like the British, the Dutch, the French and the Spanish were also busily building empires with the human wealth of regiments and commandeering small countries in honour of their sovereign rulers. Eminent plant hunters Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (accompanied by talented early botanical artists like Claude Aubriet) were expanding the plant palettes of their respective countries and creating incredible botanical art for the record.
So it seems that this outward looking, exploratory tendency has brought a world of diversity to our doorstep. Interestingly, this doesn’t seem to have been enough to sate our voracious appetites for novelty. George Shull (an American, no less) discovered something known as ‘hybrid vigour’ – the process of selecting desirable qualities through the mixing of material with distinct/diverse genetic differences to create a strong, uniform hybrid:
‘For over a century animal and plant biologists have known that mixing two diverse strains of a plant or animal can result in more vigorous and healthy offspring. This “hybrid vigour” was first shown by American Plant Scientist George Shull at the Station for Experimental Evolution, Cold Spring Harbor, in 1908 when he crossed two different corn strains resulting in a more vigorous hybrid…’
‘Hybrid offspring are called the first filial or “F1” generation, hence the term gardeners are familiar with when buying seed; ‘F1 hybrid’. To produce F1 hybrids, the farmer crosses two pure-bred parent strains. Often, these parent stocks are relatively small populations and hence are genetically rather uniform. For this reason, the hybrid offspring tend… to be more vigorous than their parents…’ The Difference: A Modern Genetic Perspective, channel 4, 2000
That said, it is difficult to quantify good and bad qualities, which in reality, are as far from binary as it is possible to get – is uniformity really a good quality, and is unattractiveness really a bad one if we are only going to eat something? Talking of bad qualities – we Europeans (for our sins) also spawned the Drumpft, who is allegedly descended from Scottish and German stock. Happily exported, and thoroughly naturalised abroad.
Genetic diversity (and indeed diversity in general) is also partly why we need open pollination and heirloom varieties too.
‘…we slowly came to realise that most modern varieties have been bred for the needs of large-scale chemical farming, where all aspects of the environment are controlled with fertilisers, herbicides, insecticides and fungicides.
After all, supermarkets demand shiny fruit, that are tough to survive shipping and display, and so these are what are being bred. But these commercial varieties give poor results when grown on a home scale without all their chemicals. And whatever has happened to qualities such as flavour and tenderness?’ Real Seeds
Even British natives, (now frequently hybridised beyond recognition) like Dianthus gratianopolitanus, were accidentally introduced along with early Norman stonework imported from northern France for the construction of castles and fortresses after the invasion of England by Norman Vikings in 1066.
So some of our most famous ‘natives’ were, in fact, secret stowaways, introduced by accident. No one ever seems to agree on the precise origins of a plant and the same often applies to people. Indeed in many cases, it does not appear possible to make a definitive case.
Convallaria majalis is often considered to be native to the UK, however: ‘It is often difficult to separate native and alien plants and the map must be regarded as an approximation’ (Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora)
Species seem to creep across continents and as climates change, they adapt. So what is a ‘true’ native – how can it be defined? Does it have inherent genetic weakness from millennia of breeding with only the true and ‘proper’ form, or does it enable noble and ‘pure’ lineage? Is a hybrid culture or material stronger because of its hybrid status? I have found investigation of this topic generates considerably more questions than it answers.
Jolly Old QE2, looking lovely. She’s a tiny bit German, you know.
Where exactly does the cutoff point lie, and is it ever possible to identify it? I am ‘White British’. But I am descended from Scotland, Ireland, Norfolk, (maybe some Dutch) Newcastle (maybe some Viking or Northern European), and Lancashire. And those are just the parts of my lineage I know about – should I decide to research my ancestry further, I’m sure I’d find a few surprises.
It’s complicated. Like me and my fellow inhabitants of the British Isles, many plant species are now completely naturalised and are not only valuable in terms of interest but now fully adapted to the climactic meteorological fripperies and caprices of the UK, of which there are multitudes (just in case you hadn’t noticed.)
Time, ‘What Science Says About Race and Genetics’, Nicholas Wade, 2014
Channel 4 ‘The Difference’, 2000
The Independent ‘The Plant Hunters’ Victoria Summerley, 2012
Real Seeds Online
Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora
The Origin of Plants, by Maggie Campbell-Culver
The Douglas Archives