27 July 2021

Britain's hero plants

This summer, get to know some stunning plants that thrive close to home.

By Yosola Olorunshola

The pink-purple flowers of Bell heather

Britain’s diverse habitats are home to a multitude of plants that help sustain a healthy ecosystem and brighten up our landscapes.  

From coastal grasses that can withstand the toughest conditions to plants with ancient healing properties, here’s a round-up of some of Britain’s 'hero plants' to look out for this summer.  

Devil’s-bit scabious (Succisa pratens

It might seem odd for a plant with ‘Devil’ in its name to be described as a plant hero. However, the Devil’s-bit scabious is more friend than foe.  

The last part of its name comes from the Latin word 'scabere', meaning 'to scratch'. Historically, it was used as a traditional treatment for skin conditions such as scabies and the bubonic plague.   

Purple Devil's-bit scabious growing between blades of grass
Devil's-bit scabious © Wikimedia Commons / Geograph
Close-up of a Devil's-bit scabious
Devil's-bit scabious © Anne Burgess / Geograph

It was nicknamed ‘Devil’s-bit’ due to the appearance of its truncated roots which, according to legend, were bitten off by the Devil.  

Now, it remains a vital source of food for bees and other insects. A member of the honeysuckle family, the Devil’s-bit scabious' flower heads attract a range of pollinators in need of protection.  

For example, it is the foodplant of the declining marsh fritillary butterfly, now classified as a priority species under the UK Post-2010 Biodiversity Framework. 

Look out for its pincushion-shaped, lilac-blue flower heads in meadows and marshes across the country between June and October.

Houseleek (Sempervivum)

While you might associate succulents with deserts, savannahs or alpine mountains, this low-maintenance plant can also thrive easily on your rooftop.  

The name ‘Sempervivum’ literally means ‘always living.’ It is an extremely tough plant that can survive in the UK all year round.  

Succulent, Rock Garden
Sempervivum succulent, Rock Garden, Ellen McHale © RBG Kew

Also known as the common houseleek, these succulents are native to the mountains of Southern and Central Europe where temperatures drop down as low as –15°C, so they are more than able to cope with a British winter.  

With gorgeous, pink-tinted rosettes, they can add subtle texture and colour to your garden. Houseleeks can adapt to most soils but grow best in full sunlight and a well-draining base, whether that's a rockery, a vertical wall, or even on driftwood.  

According to Welsh folklore, growing one on the roof of a house ensures the health and prosperity of those who live there. Why not give it a try?  

Wild carrot (Daucus carota)  

Wild carrot, also known as Queen Anne’s Lace, is mainly found in costal hedgerows, waste ground, fields and meadows.  

Its cluster of dainty white flowers means it is easily confused with cow parsley or the highly poisonous hemlock, but Wild carrot can often be identified by a small red bloom at its centre.   

The pale white umbel of wild carrot with a small red bloom at the centre
Wild Carrot © Peter O'Connor / Wikimedia Commons
Wild carrots
Wild carrot © Lucy Taylor / RBG Kew

A relative of the cultivated carrots sold in supermarkets, Wild carrot is far less palatable than the familiar vegetable we eat. With tough, very fibrous roots, you would not want to find it on your dinner plate, but it can be used in broths to flavour dishes.  

But Wild carrot might end up saving its more popular relative. Across the UK, carrot crops are struggling from the pressures of climate change, as sudden rises in temperature increasingly disrupt their growth.  

Wild carrots are much hardier than cultivated carrots, as they have been forced to adapt to a constantly changing climate. 

Scientists and horticulturists at Kew are working to understand whether genetic traits from wild carrots can be bred into cultivated carrots, to help make food crops more resilient to extreme weather.

Bell heather (Erica cinerea)   

Britain’s most recognisable heather, bell heather, carpets woods, moorlands, heaths and coasts in a sea of purple-pink flowers throughout the summer.  

As a wildflower, it attracts bees and insects with its rich nectar. Pollinators such as Red-tailed and Buff-tailed bumblebees, honeybees, Ruby Tiger moths and rare silver-studded butterflies feed off bell heather.  

The pink-purple flowers of Bell heather
Bell heather © Matt Lavin / Flickr

The honey the bees produce from its nectar is distinctive for its dark amber colour and fragrant aroma.  

Its bell-shaped flowers make a picturesque garden plant too – perfect for adding a touch of wildness to your home. They prefer well-drained acidic soil in full sun.  

Marram grass (Ammophila arenaria 

A familiar site along the coast, Marram grass is perfectly adapted to withstand the tough conditions of a coastal sand dune.  

Marram grass can be recognised by its dense, spiky, grey-green leaves that appear in tufts dotted along the coast. It produces feathery yellow flowers in July and August. 

Tufts of marram grass swaying in the wind on a sand dune
Marram grass © BJ Schoenmakers / Wikimedia Commons

Its thick, matted roots help stabilise the dunes by holding the sand in place. This prevents the sand from shifting too much and allows the dunes to grow in size, creating space for other species to grow while stopping erosion.  

On the island of Guernsey, Marram grass was deliberately planted to stop sand blowing into people’s homes – proof of its stabilising role in windy, coastal regions.  

Silver birch (Betula pendula 

Common in woodland areas, the silver birch is a striking deciduous tree that can reach up to 30m in height.  

Its white silvery bark sheds so that its outer layer is constantly replaced with new growth.  

Silver birch tree bark
Silver birch tree bark © Ellen McHale / RBG Kew
A thicket of silver birch trees in a forest
Silver birch © John Price / Unsplash

Known as a pioneer tree, silver birch can easily populate new habitats after a disturbance – for example, after the destruction of a wood or a heathland fire.  

Silver birch trees provide a habitat and food for more than 300 insect species and many types of fungi. Woodpeckers also often nest in their trunks, making silver birch a real plant hero for its role in sustaining forest life.  

These six plants are only a handful of the diverse array of plants that colour our landscapes and sustain the ecosystems we rely on.   

This summer, take a trip to explore a new area, or visit Kew Gardens to get to know the country’s biodiverse habitats, all in one place.  

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