Plant fitness, sustainable planting & the conceptualisation of understanding plants

Professor James Hitchmough delivered the 2023 RHS John MacLeod Annual Lecture which took place in November at RHS Wisley and is now available to view online.

Wild flowers in a garden
credit:Petra Hoyer Millar

Guest speaker Professor James Hitchmough spoke at the annual lecture on ‘Plant Fitness, Sustainable Planting and the Conceptualisation of Understanding Horticultural Plants’. Hitchmough explored how our evolving climate demands a deeper focus on plant fitness. He unveiled a framework linking fitness, niche, and geographic range as well as offering a pathway to a reimagined horticultural landscape that stands resilient in the face of biodiversity loss and climate change.

A truly interesting lecture with a serious note in that with the onset of climate change our heuristic knowledge of plants is sadly falling short and out of date. According to Hitchmough “We stand at a crossroads in terms of what we know and could know about cultivated plants”.

Hitchmough is Professor Emeritus in Horticultural Ecology at the University of Sheffield. He retired from the University in 2022, but continues to co-supervise his final tranche of five PhD students as they complete their studies. Two of these students are working on understanding and quantifying plant fitness for the changing climate.

As has been a focus throughout his career, Hitchmough continues to develop new types of designed plantings in landscape architectural practice, often in collaboration with Tom Stuart-Smith and currently also with Piet Oudolf.

The John MacLeod Annual Lecture was created to highlight important and inspiring topics on horticultural science. A broad audience of RHS members, scientists, policymakers and the media is invited every year to hear luminaries of the scientific field give talks on major research projects or new areas of thought. Professor John MacLeod was a plant scientist and Professor of Horticulture at the RHS. He was also chairperson of the RHS Scientific Committee and was a powerful advocate for horticultural science. He was acutely aware of its pressing relevance in sustaining the natural environment and world food supplies.

Watch the Professor James Hitchmough’s lecture and previous John MacLeod lectures here.