Roses, hollyhocks and an immaculate green lawn have always exemplified a typical British garden in summer. But now, as gardeners look forward to a mini-heatwave this month, demand for heat-loving and drought-resistant plants has never been higher in the UK.
From grapevines and tropical banana plants to exotic palm trees, hibiscus, lavender and hardy succulents, gardeners are snapping up non-native flora that can survive – and even thrive – in Britain’s warming climate.
Data compiled by the Horticultural Trades Association (HTA) for the Observer suggests searches for drought-tolerant plants in the UK increased by 490% between 2014 and 2021.
The Mediterranean plant lavender, which can easily tolerate a long, dry summer, has replaced roses as the bestselling plant group in the UK, said Boyd Douglas-Davies, president of the HTA and director of British Garden Centres, a group of 58 retailers. “Lavender, consistently now, is the no 1 seller.”
Flowering hibiscus and santolina from Portugal and southern Spain are also much more common nowadays, he said, reflecting a shift towards a more Mediterranean style of gardening.
Some are even daring to attempt a Caribbean vibe. “We’re seeing more and more tropical plants like banana plants being sold to go into British gardens,” said Douglas-Davies.
Ten years ago, he had not seen even a single banana plant being sold in the UK. “But now, every summer, garden centres around the country will be selling them.”
His garden centres are also selling lots of hardy outdoor palm trees like cordylines, he said. “A few years ago, we would have probably said to customers that it needs to be in a sheltered position, or you need to wrap it in the winter to protect it. That’s far less of a conversation these days.”
Large palms, which cost £200 to £400, are selling particularly well, which Douglas-Davies thinks shows how British gardeners have embraced heat-loving plants more broadly in their gardens.
“If you’re buying a palm that big – six or seven feet tall – that’s creating a style and statement in your garden, which has the look of a climate south of the UK.”
The prices gardeners are willing to pay displays their confidence that these plants will thrive outdoors in the UK as weather patterns change. “Palms are tough. They will take the dry heat of the summer and the cold of the winter – you don’t really have to do anything with them once they’re established.”
Gravel gardens are also gaining popularity – and for good reason, said Guy Barter, chief horticulturist at the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS). “If you’ve got a dry, sunny spot, turf is always hard work. You might have to water it or it will go brown in the summer.”
A gravel garden is much lower maintenance by comparison, he said, and popular plants like rosemary, cistus, succulents and lavender will thrive there even during a hosepipe ban: “Plants that grow well under gravel are ones that don’t need watering once they are established.”
The UK’s warming climate means the average growing season in the UK lasts 29 days longer than it did between 1961 and 1990, according to the Met Office. The RHS is seeing evidence of gardeners growing vegetables and fruit that used to be close to impossible in the past.
For example, grapevines have been planted more widely in the UK as the climate has warmed, the growing season has lengthened and autumn in particular has become more temperate. “Grapes are fantastically hardy in Britain, whatever the summer is like,” Barter said. “But originally they would have been vulnerable to bad weather at either end of the growing season.”
Similarly, he has noticed kitchen gardeners successfully growing crops like sweetcorn and winter squash – which take a long time to mature – further and further north in the UK. “Where at one time we were restricted to carrots and beetroot, we’ve now got these crops that are more or less subtropical.”
In Surrey, he is “boldly” attempting to grow sweet potatoes outdoors this year. “Twenty years ago, you wouldn’t dream of putting a sweet potato outdoors, it wouldn’t have had a chance. But now, in the hot summer in the south, you can get fair results.”