Experts urge caution over switch to exotics

Concerns raised that exotic plants may not handle English conditions.

Mediterranean species planted by councils sometimes at a cost of thousands of pounds could suffer next winter, according to experts. Park managers are rushing to plant exotic species in response to global warming and hosepipe bans — but the British weather could bite back. Greenwich Council has been planting donated olive trees in its main streets this month while Southwark Council, also in London, has splashed out £30,000 on palms and yuccas to create a “gateway to Peckham”. RHS director of science and learning Simon Thornton-Wood said more research is required before councils rush head-first into exotic planting: “Understanding how plants are going to perform is quite a difficult question. That’s why so much work is required to investigate what the good exotic plants are. “Given the planting we’re talking about is for the long-term, there’s been a lot of flippant references to planting bananas or whatever that may get the reference across to the public but does not inform planting for the future. “We must plant wisely. In a sense we’re learning from experience. People have to be alert to this otherwise money will definitely be wasted.” Corporation of London city garden project development officer Bradley Viljoen said recent olive plantings in Greenwich High Street surprised him. “I don’t think they’ll work. You need special soil mixes and for them to be south facing. In city environments they struggle — they never reach tree-sized. “We have probably the biggest budget of any council and even we struggle to keep things alive.” Bromley Council head of parks Patrick Phillips, who has introduced alternative planting to bedding in recent years, added: “It should be evolution rather than revolution. Evolve with it. Learn the lessons. It’s not a sudden change of direction. It’s not about chucking everything away and going for exotics which are not traditional in these countries. Take a long-term view. But these are exciting times being able to use a broader palette.” Nottingham head of parks Eddie Curry said he was using maritime herbaceous and grasses rather than traditional bedding — but “not cannas or yuccas yet”. Newcastle City Council has also experimented with exotics with mixed success. Southwark Council has planted 23 chusan palms and 33 yuccas on Queen’s Road at a cost of £30,000 and is planning more exotic planting. The Peckham Community Council allocated the cash for the project — completed this month — through Cleaner, Safer, Greener funding. Landscape architect for the council Julia Edwards said she chose the trees from Chichester-based Architectural Plants to give a previously nondescript area greater impact. She added that ongoing care for the plants was crucial because the palms “can look battered” if hit by wind. Greenwich has planted 10 olives as street trees this year, donated by charity Trees For Life. Council representative Andrew Stern said: “We'll monitor the trees’ progress and if they do well, we’ll consider planting them in other street locations. An advantage of this species is its tolerance of regular clipping, making it suitable for narrow streets and roads.”

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