Chris Howkins, Heathlands, and the Natural History of Britain

by Larissa Glasser, Library Assistant
August 11, 2017

Gorse, Broom, and Heathlands

Chris Howkins, Heathlands, and the Natural History of Britain

Gorse, Broom, and HeathlandsIn addition to our archives, photographs, rare floras, and journals, the Arnold Arboretum Horticultural Library holds a variety of natural history monographs, including plant lore.

Plant lore is a cultural and mythological study, which examines the historical human relationship with its natural habitat, which is a central tenet of the human-plant connection. The utility of plants and horticulture developed along with society as did the advancement of medicine (we still hear of ‘folk-remedies’). Deeply rooted in the history of human civilization, plants became crucial for survival as climate changed, and hunter-gatherer culture gave way to village settlements and early agriculture.

Stuart Phillips explains in his book, An Encyclopedia of Plants in Myth, Legend, Magic, and Lore, “Plants have been key to the survival since the dawn of creation. We have been reliant on the plant kingdom for our food, shelter, clothing, clothing, medicines, and even the very air we breathe. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that plants have been enmeshed within this tangle of tales and beliefs.”

I came across the work of Chris Howkins quite by accident. In his books, the British ethnobotanist shares his rich knowledge of plants, their history, and their impact on the development of civilization in the British Isles. As humanity adapted from a hunter-gatherer culture to a settled one that subsisted off the land, horticulture and harvesting were our ticket to survival and innovation. Howkins’ writing is very accessible for the casual outdoors enthusiast and plant scientist alike. In each book, he tends to concentrate his study of a single species of tree or shrub, but these works also function as travel guides for anyone looking to strengthen their connection to the natural British landscape.

In his book Heathers and Heathlands, Howkins details the long history of how land ownership in medieval England developed from feudalism to private land ownership. In both cases, poor workers tended to lead a desperate existence, and adapted to heathlands as a resource for all aspects of daily living. Calluna vulgaris (common heather or ling), a genus of the flowering plant family Ericaceae is the main topic of Howkin’s study. Most heathers of The Arnold Arboretum are located in The Leventritt Shrub and Vine Garden. [Arboretum Explorer map].


Gorse (Ulex europaeus). Illustration by Janet Blight.

Ling turves in heathland consist of matted plant materials which can include gorse (Ulex), birch (Betula), and tussocks of grass. Howkins explains the process of evenly cutting up turves during the harvest, and putting them to diverse uses such as grazing for livestock, building and insulation material, controlled burning, and of course food. These details of the human-plant connection before the Industrial Revolution highlight the role of how this relationship ties into plant- and folklore of the region.

Howkins goes into even more detail in his book Gorse, Broom, and Heathlands. Gorse (Ulex) are yellow-flowering shrubs with spiny stems. Such was their importance in medieval life; they were the subject of ballads and poems. During bloom times, gorse was also a symbol of love and courtship.

Gorse cutting

Gorse-cutting: there was a variety of bill-hook designs in use. Some cutters could afford leather gaiters. Illustration by Chris Howkins.

“Take ye the blossom of the broom,
The blossom it smells sweet,
And strew it at your true-love’s head
And likewise at his feet.”
–Anonymous, 16th Century

People of the heathlands also used gorse and broom (Cytisus) for roofing, farming, cooking, and medicine. They also used gorse in fertility rituals, a practice which Christianity gradually eradicated.

Even in seemingly barren landscapes such as heath, humans have learned to adapt and thrive by using the natural resources of the native landscape. Specialized studies, such as those by Chris Howkins, can help us understand the rhythms of pre-Industrial rural society, which are mostly lost to us in the 21st century.

Other Chris Howkins titles, listed below, are available in the Arnold Arboretum Horticultural Library.

Child, F.J., ed. The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 1882-1889. New York: Dover Publications, 1965. [HOLLIS]
Howkins, Chris. Gorse, broom and heathlands. Addlestone, Surrey : C. Howkins, 2007. [HOLLIS]
Howkins, Chris. Heathers and heathlands. Addlestone, Surrey : C. Howkins, 2004. [HOLLIS]
Phillips, Stuart. An encyclopaedia of plants in myth, legend, magic and lore. London : Robert Hale, 2012. [HOLLIS]

Also by Chris Howkins:
Holly : a tree for all seasons. Addlestone : C. Howkins, 2001. [HOLLIS]
Oak : the lightning tree. Surrey : Howkins Christopher, 2006. [HOLLIS]
Poisonous plants in Britain : a celebration. Addlestone : C. Howkins, 2006. [HOLLIS]
Rowan : tree of protection. Addlestone : Chris Howkins, 1996. [HOLLIS]
Sweet chestnut : history, landscape, people. Addlestone : Chris Howkins, 2003. [HOLLIS]
Trees, herbs and charcoal-burners. Weybridge : Chris Howkins, 1994. [HOLLIS]

Larissa Glasser, Library Assistant

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *