This article was first published in the Newsletter of the London Natural History Society, No. 240 February 2016
On a Saturday full of alternative non-botanical activities we had to wait a while for the start of our meeting because our leader, Nick Bertrand, was late due to train delays. In the end there were eight of us. We got to our square and started our exploration in Union St. Thorough as we were, we found our first plant below ground level: Parietaria judaica, usually known as Pellitory-of-the-Wall, but in this case re-baptised Pellitory-of-the-Gutter. We entered a sport area and the list soon included the usual suspects, from Buddleia Buddleja davidii to Guernsey Fleabane Conyza sumatrensis. On the wall there was a desiccated specimen of Water Bent Polypogon viridis and a minute Lavender Lavandula angustifolia. In the middle there was a raised lawn of an increasingly common species, Poa plastica. Apparently it is much more durable than the traditional grasses, doesn’t required watering and doesn’t need to be mown. On the outside wall of the sport area we found much more Parietaria doing what it’s supposed to do, as well as Rat’s-tail Fescue Vulpia myuros and Hart’s-tongue Asplenium scolopendrium. Scolopendrium is Latin for ‘centipede’ and it refers to the pattern of the sori, which is reminiscent of a centipede’s legs.
On leaving the sport area we found ourselves outside the grounds of the Cathedral Primary School, which has a nursery garden. Looking trough the mesh we could see here and there, around the vegetable beds, the bright flowers of the misnamed Scarlet Pimpernel Anagallis arvensis. Misnamed, because in my mind the colour scarlet is a much stronger shade of red. Round-leaved Crane’s-bill Geranium rotundifolium and Henbit Dead-nettle Lamium amplexicaule were also there, as well as a Common Fumitory Fumaria officinalis. A few minutes earlier a couple of leaf rosettes on the pavement had been somewhat reluctantly identified as Bristly Ox-tongue Helminthotheca echioides, though Nick was not totally convinced as he thought the leaves were too narrow, but he had provisionally settled the matter on the grounds of “What else could it be?”. Now the answer to that question appeared in front of our eyes in the nursery garden as we saw a splash of blue, the flowers of Common Bugloss or Alkanet Anchusa officinalis. The name ‘bugloss’ derives from the Greek word for ox tongue and was applied to the plant because of its rough, tongue-shaped leaves. The scientific name is also derived from the Greek. Anchusa means ‘paint’ and is a reference to the use of an extract from the roots of a related species, Anchusa tinctoria. This reddish extract was used to stain wood and to give an imitation of rosewood; at one time it was even used by French society ladies as a form of rouge. So we revised our identification of the previously seen rosettes.
Along a pavement graced by the trailing stems of Field Bindweed Convolvolus arvensis we made our way to Red Cross Way. Looking up (something that sometimes botanists forget to do) we spotted a Stonecrop, probably White Stonecrop Sedum album. It was on a ledge on the Travis Perkins building, too high up to be accessed for a positive identification, and as it was a Saturday and the building been closed, we were unable to get a stepladder to get to it, so we had to leave it as Sedum sp.
Welcomed by a Snapdragon Antirrhinum majus just outside the gate and a colony of Maidenhair Spleenwort Asplenium trichomanes on the other side (our second, and last, wild fern of the day) we entered Red Cross Garden, a little park originally created in 1887 on the site of a burnt down paper factory. It was the first Victorian community garden, and the idea was of a space that would allow contact with nature for city children, as well as a place of rest and relaxation for the locals. These days it is cared by very enthusiastic volunteers. Unfortunately it is very difficult to establish which plants have been planted by them, and which have either made their way into the garden by themselves or seeded themselves. Plants that we can confidently include in the second group were Common Field-speedwell Veronica persica, Thyme-leaved Speedwell Veronica serpyllifolia, Redshank Persicaria maculosa, Common Toadflax Linaria vulgaris and Common Dog-violet Viola riviniana. In a corner of the surrounding paved area we also noted the trifoliate leaves of an escaped Columbine Aquilegia vulgaris. There is a pond in the garden and the edge of it is planted with Argentine Needle-grass Nassella tenuissima. Quite few tufts of this grass, with its thread-like leaves with narrow arching feathery flowering panicles, had escaped the garden and were gracing the surrounding walls.
We continued to Marshalsea Road and entered the inner court of Pattison House. The ground flats of the court had each their little gardens, some manicured, many left to nature’s devices. The elegant Argentinian Vervain Verbena bonariensis was an obvious escapee. One garden was full of the wiry stems of Hoary Mustard Hirschfeldia incana with its closely appressed pods. Potentially providing an increased yield of milk for the local herd of goats we spotted Goat’s Rue Galega officinalis. In the middle of the court there was a lawn with two species of yellow flowers: those of Meadow Buttercup Ranunculus acris and the larger flowers of Perennial Sow-thistle Sonchus arvensis. Seedlings of Mediterranean Spurge Euphorbia characias were quickly identified on seeing the parent nearby. Common Couch Elytrigia repens and Ground Elder Aegopodium podagraria were also found.
We moved to another housing estate, planted with ornamental trees: Black Mulberry Morus nigra, Judas Tree Cercis siliquastrum and Foxglove-tree Paulownia tomentosa with its dry seed pods which were used in the 19th century by the Chinese porcelain exporters as ‘bubble wrap’. Here we found Least Yellow-sorrel Oxalis exilis, a sort of miniaturized version of the ubiquitous Procumbent Yellow-sorrel Oxalis corniculata.
After we had lunch seating on benches surrounding a dry pool in Little Dorrit Park (a location that added only a lonely Tomato Solanum lycopersicum to the list) we made our way to Wellar Street and Bittern Street. Here there were some large containers planted with vegetables. While we were examining the weeds growing between the sweet potatoes, the courgettes and the spinach, we were approached by the person who had planted them, Auntie Doris. She was surprised to be told that the weed she had disposed of, Common Chickweed Stellaria media, was itself an edible plant. Indeed in Japan Chickweed (Hakobe, in Japanese) is one of the seven herbs of spring that are traditionally eaten on 7th January in the Nanakusa no sekku (the Seven herbs Festival). We had quite a long conversation with Auntie Doris because we were momentarily abandoned by our leader Nick who had realised that he had left his mobile on the bench where we had lunch and had to frantically retrace his steps to recover that essential modern life device. On leaving Auntie Doris we had to queue up because she wanted to hug all of us one by one.
With our leader happily re-joined with his mobile, we moved along Great Suffolk street, noticing at a garden’s edge a seedling of Golden Rain tree Koelreuteria paniculata. The parent tree was nearby, with its distinctive three-parted inflated bladder-like fruits. We sped through some more housing estate green areas, stopping only to pay our respects to an old friend of our leader, a straggling seedling of Black Mulberry Morus nigra. Apparently Nick has known this individual seedling for a decade but, because it is regularly hacked by over-enthusiastic gardeners, it is still hardly a metre tall. We entered St. George’s churchyard gardens, where we found the sharply keeled leaves of Three-cornered Leek Allium triquetrum, the supposedly more-strongly stinging Annual Nettle Urtica urens and finally Vervain Verbena officinalis with its tiny flowers. This last plant was highly thought of in older times, as it was believed that it possessed medicinal and even magical powers. In Latin ‘officinalis’ means ‘of the apothecary’s shop’.
Closing the garden on the north side is an old wall, which used to be the outside wall of the notorious Marshalsea prison. Apparently Charles Dickens, whose father had been imprisoned here for debt in 1824, used that experience as the Marshalsea setting for his novel Little Dorrit.
We had great expectations for the wildlife to be found on such a venerable wall but we were disappointed. The wall had not only been thoroughly cleaned, but actually dismantled and reconstructed.
Somewhat disappointed, we proceeded in the direction of London Bridge Station. On the way we walked by another housing estate’s green area. Here we found a white flowered Red Valerian Centranthus ruber and California Brome Bromus carinatus. We also saw, not far from the big, rose-purple flowers of Common Mallow Malva sylvestris, the more delicate whitish flowers of her little sister Dwarf Mallow Malva neglecta.
On the last stop, to look into a closed little area behind some vegetable planters, we noticed the dry capsules of Red Campion Silene dioica and Narrow-leaved Ragwort Senecio inaequidens. Also in the planters were two white mushrooms, which at first I thought were the almond-scented Horse Mushrooms Agaricus arvensis, but on closer inspection turned out to be White Dapperling Leucoagaricus leucothites.
We were next to a row of garages, and on the corner of the roof there was a tree seedling. Nick wanted to have a closer inspection of such a plant, so he decided to climb up. Unfortunately he hadn’t noticed a plaque on the wall that said ‘ANTI CLIMB PAINT’. He spent the rest of the time trying to clean his hands. Such are the perils of the urban botanist!
We thank Nick for risking his health in the interests of botany and for his expertise on an interesting and varied day.