‘Wild’ about plants and fungi

What do we mean when we use the word ‘wild’?


Wild (adjective 

used to refer to plants or animals that live or grow independently of people, in natural conditions and with natural characteristics.

[Source: Cambridge Dictionary Online]


In the context of plants and fungi, the word ‘wild’ refers to those which naturally grow in ecosystems without needing human management or intervention. 

It may seem simple, but there are some ambiguities that come with this definition. For a start, it is increasingly difficult to unpick what a ‘natural’ environment is because human activity has impacted all ecosystems, whether visibly or not.

There are also practical consequences of something being defined as wild. Plants and animals considered wild are sometimes given more conservation importance than those that aren’t. So, should an organism or an environment be described as wild? 

To unfold some of these questions, let us dive a little deeper into the world of wildness. 

The Wilderness Debate

The word wild dates back to before 450 A.D. (Old Teutonic language), meaning ‘not domesticated’ or ‘not cultivated’. While it might have a long history, the way we use it today has mostly been influenced by Western principles of recent centuries. 

Consider the related concept of ‘wilderness’, first occurring in Old English, meaning ‘land not farmed or settled’ or ‘land in its natural state’. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, the Romantic movement cemented the definition of wilderness as the idea of a pristine, unspoiled nature. 

But to what extent does this pristine, untouched nature exist? In the UK, there is certainly very little land left that has been unaffected by humans. When people visit areas such as the Lake District, for example, they sometimes think they are going to experience the wilderness, a ‘pure’ landscape absent of people in contrast to industrial and built-up areas.

landscape of hills and lake Cairngorms National Park, Scotland


In reality, though, our wild landscapes are the outcome of many generations of human use – they are agro-ecosystems, shaped by agriculture and intervention, making it difficult to determine which spaces are truly ‘wild’.  

Similarly, it can be increasingly difficult to tell which plants are wild. How do you know a plant that has grown independently of people is not one that escaped cultivation? What about a plant that has then been transplanted from the wild into a garden? 

Ultimately, it is important that ambiguities are recognised, and the word ‘wild’ is defined in context.

Why do we talk about wild species at Grow Wild?

blue flowers and bees


At Grow Wild, we talk about wild plants and fungi because we wish to champion native species in order to improve biodiversity and our connection to nature. 

Native species are wild in the sense that they arrived and established in in the UK without human intervention, although they have since had to find new homes in our predominantly managed landscapes.

We are seeing a huge decline in native species in the UK. Native plants and fungi are critical to sustaining the biodiverse ecosystems we all depend on, being well adapted to local growing conditions and offering habitats and food for native wildlife that other plants can’t always provide.

With a changing climate, and the increase of unpredictable flooding, wildfires, and high pollution levels, supporting native plants and wildlife can foster ecosystems that are more resilient to change.

Since 1970 more than half of our flowering plants, mosses and their relatives have been lost from areas where they used to thrive.

54% of flowering plants across Great Britain have decreased in where they are found.

[Source: State of Nature Report 2023]

What is rewilding?

deer amongst brambles


The concept of rewilding (also called 'wilding') refers to practices that aim to restore biodiverse ecosystems in areas previously under human management by reinstating natural processes. It is about enabling people and nature to work harmoniously to reclaim areas to create biodiverse wild spaces. 

Rewilding is not as simple as leaving land alone to let nature take over. For it to be successful, we must acknowledge the human involvement in ecosystems from the past, present and into the future. In places such as the UK where land has been managed by humans for centuries, certain types of management and reintroduction of species are necessary to create successful rewilding areas which can self-sustain and flourish. 

Misunderstanding of the rewilding approach to conservation can have detrimental effects on biodiversity and communities, so it is important that proper research is undertaken before attempting to rewild a space. 

For more information about rewilding visit Rewilding Britain and the IUCN website.

Wild, domesticated, and cultivated plants

One way to understand what is considered a wild plant is to look at what a wild plant is not. A wild plant or plant species is not what is called ‘cultivated’ or ‘domesticated’.

Cultivated refers to organisms that are grown by humans, such as crops. 

A Cultivar is an organism that has different characteristics to wild plants due to modification or selection through cultivation.

Domesticated plants have been altered by human intervention for human use. Some of the first plants to be domesticated by humans include wheat, barley, lentils, rice, potatoes, and some types of pea.

Agriculture is the broad term for the cultivation of domesticated plants. 

When we talk about cultivated, domesticated and wild plants, we have to think of these definitions as a spectrum instead of fixed definitions. In other words, many plants will be neither completely wild nor completely domesticated. Many plants are found in various stages of domestication because of human selection. Others, especially trees, are widely planted, but remain in a relatively unaltered wild state, such as crab apple trees. 

Can humans be domesticated?

Domestication usually refers to bringing another species under human control.  But domestication can work two ways - many people believe that plants domesticated us, too! Either way, humans and plants have co-evolved together over thousands of years. 

Wild relatives

Many domesticated plants have wild relatives that are native to the UK. All wild relatives are important to protect and conserve, because they may contain valuable traits – tolerance of drought or disease, for example - that can help ensure crop resilience and food security in the future.

close up plant with leaves, a white flower, and a strawberry Wild strawberry (Fragaria vesca) is related to the crop garden strawberry (Fragaria × ananassa). Image © Board of Trustees, RBG Kew



blue fruits on a plant Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) is related to the widely cultivated Plum tree (Prunus domestica). Image © RBG Kew

What Fungi teach us about wildness 



There are very few fungi that have been domesticated by humans. Even the cultivated mushrooms that we buy in supermarkets, such as Button mushrooms (Agaricus bisporus), Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus), or Shiitake mushrooms (Lentinula edodes), are the same species as their wild counterparts. (2)

Fungi might not have been fully domesticated, but they have been greatly impacted by human activity. Serpula lacrymans, or dry rot fungus, for example, travelled from the Himalayas aboard British naval ships, and is now found in built environments across the world. (2)


1. Rolston, H. (2001). NATURAL AND UNNATURAL; WILD AND CULTURAL. Western North American Naturalist, 61(3), 267–276. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41717173

2. Anna Tsing; Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species: For Donna Haraway. Environmental Humanities 1 May 2012; 1 (1): 141–154. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/22011919-3610012

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