Why your choice of plants matters in a warming climate

Horticulturist Bryony Langley watering the collection of plants from the world’s temperate zones inside the Temperate House, at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Horticulturist Bryony Langley watering the collection of plants from the world’s temperate zones inside the Temperate House, at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

I have always seen gardens as an expression of the optimism we have for the future. But the realities of living on a warming planet are forcing us to rethink our horticultural conventions and practices, particularly those related to the liberal use of water. And if we understand the dangers global warming poses to our ability to access this vital, finite resource, then it is clear to me that we all need to make more informed decisions about what we grow moving forward.

Our fragile planet is already 1.1C warmer than it was prior to the industrial revolution and we are likely to exceed 1.5C within the next decade. The UN’s latest IPCC report indicates that our window of opportunity to act is getting narrower by the minute unless harmful emissions of greenhouse gases are curbed and scientists predict more frequent heatwaves, droughts, wildfires, and other extreme weather events will damage entire ecosystems and possibly lead to irreversible species loss. This, in turn, will have a knock-on effect on food security, water availability and vector-borne diseases – a troubling issue we have already experienced during the Covid pandemic. But there is hope and I am confident that we can enact positive change.

As we move into the future, we will all need to consider these challenges when curating our green spaces and gardens. If, as the current climate models suggest, 50 years from now London is going to feel a lot more like Barcelona does today, then it is crucial that we all adapt our thinking and cultivate plants that will happily thrive under these new conditions. If you choose to grow a tree or shrub native to a region that has plentiful rain and cooler temperatures all year-round, then you are setting up an equation whereby you will have to make up the difference with extensive irrigation – a process that can be wasteful, hard to sustain and certainly hard to justify.

I think we have great potential here at Kew – the most biodiverse place on the planet – for people to learn about these challenges. Our Living Collections represent over 27,000 taxa from every corner of the globe and provide a strategic blueprint for research at the intersection of horticulture, science and conservation. It also provides an opportunity for the public to observe and see up close plants better adapted to warmer climates that they may then choose to plant in their own gardens. Kew also has the platform to offer informed advice about fundamental issues relating to plant selection and landscape creation and management for the future. 

This is why I advocate for more thoughtful planning and decision-making, and for applying the great wealth of expert knowledge of the diversity of plants to come up with sensible choices for our gardens and landscapes. And I am quite optimistic about the future because I know how many talented  and knowledgeable people work as horticultural professionals, and that these people can use their experience and creativity to then think outside the box to tackle the climate issues head on."

Richard Barley is director of gardens at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

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