How long can a garden last?


In Moore’s view, while beauty and structure are important in any garden, the most important factor in their survival is the availability of people to look after them. “It’s all about people – not just to do the work, but people to care, and to be engaged. Gardens are driven by individuals who feel the need to express themselves through the medium of a garden,” he says, laughing.

Venerable flowers and ancient trees

And while the jury’s out on whether resurrected gardens count as authentically old, having ancient plants certainly helps.

One example is the Amazon rainforest. The latest evidence suggests that when Christopher Columbus set foot on the Americas in 1492, the Amazon wasn’t quite as pristine or as natural as it was once believed. Instead it was shaped by a thriving indigenous community, whose cities were rapidly wiped out by European colonisers and their diseases. These abandoned settlements were then promptly swallowed up by the forest.

But tantalisingly, though it’s been half a millennium since this transformation, there are still hints of what once was. Back in 2017, by comparing surveys of plant diversity with maps of archaeological sites at ancient settlements, scientists discovered that there are still higher densities of domesticated trees – such as Brazil nut trees – near where people lived all those centuries ago.

This suggests that gardens can still have a legacy, long after they cease to be recognisable. And though they may benefit from our attentions, garden plants are often perfectly happy when they’re left alone. 

In 2020, the head gardener at Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire became intrigued by the mysterious purpose of a long-derelict corner of the estate – a sandstone building with grand Palladian features and large windows, built in the 19th Century. At the time, the building was too dangerous to enter, because its glass roof was hanging off in lethal shards.  

After consulting experts and the public, Scott Jamieson made an astonishing discovery: it had originally been used to house camellias, and it still contained 19 healthy plants. The oldest had lived there since 1792. Among them, he found several which are extremely rare – collectively, the discovery was compared to stumbling across a library of first-edition books.

In fact, though we tend to think of trees as the most long-lived plants, they’re not even close to holding the record. That honour is currently thought to be held by King’s Holly, a shrub with shiny, spiky foliage and deep pink flowers that’s native to a small patch of land in Tanzania. It reproduces asexually, and one critically endangered colony is an estimated 43,000 years old.