London Natural History Society The place for wildlife in London

London Natural History Society - The place for wildlife in London

This article was first published in the Newsletter of the London Natural History Society, No. 240 February 2016

On a cold and windy Saturday, having left my feline companions at home (as the programme had specified “CATS not needed”) I arrived at Gipsy Hill station to find only two other people, Mike and George. There was no sign of the leader, so, after waiting for some time, we were fortunate that George was there and able to take over.

We were already in the designated square, so we started our recording. Loitering around the station, our first record was (surprise surprise) Annual Meadow-grass Poa annua, the commonest grass in the world, thought to have originated as a hybrid, with Early Meadow-grass Poa infirma as a parent. Shepherd’s Purse Capsella bursa-pastoris, Common Chickweed Stellaria media and Procumbent Pearlwort Sagina procumbens followed immediately, setting the tone for what was going to be a recording of not very unusual species. In the damped shaded area between two building there was a Male Fern Dryopteris filix-mas, so called because it was thought in the past to be the male version of the Female Fern as it was more robust and vigorous.

Going down Gipsy Hill we saw Common Groundsel Senecio vulgaris, the despair of the urban gardener with its ability to spread rapidly (its name comes from the Anglo-Saxon, and means ‘ground glutton’). Not too far away we spotted a more exotic related species, Narrow-leaved Ragwort Senecio inaequidens, originally from South Africa.

In the grass verge we recognised the leaves of Knotted Hedge-parsley Torilis nodosa, each leaf with several pairs of deeply-divided leaflets. This species is native to Europe and the Mediterranean basin and seems to be spreading rapidly in city verges with the help of mowing machinery.

In a container edging a courtyard our attention was attracted by the shiny deep red berries of Woody Nightshade or Bittersweet Solanum dulcamara, easily recognized by the leaves which have a large oval blade with a couple of short-stalked lobes below it. All parts of this plant contain the toxic alkaloid solanine, so they taste bitter at first and then sweet, hence the name.

Despite the time of the year some plants had still few flowers: Bramble Rubus fruticosus, Green Alkanet Pentaglottis sempervirens, Red Dead-nettle Lamium purpureum and Black Horehound Ballota nigra. These last two plants look somewhat alike, but the horehound is easily recognized by its pungent smell, which has earned it the uncomplimentary second name of ‘Stinking Roger’. The smell is a defence mechanism, protecting it from been eaten by cattle. Actually the genus name itself ‘Ballota’ comes from the Latin ballo which means ‘to reject’.

An unexpected sight were the fleshy dark heart-shaped leaves of the spring messenger: Lesser Celandine Ficaria verna. This plant exists in two forms, one diploid and the other tetraploid, the first reproducing by seeds, the second by bulbils. Lesser Celandine was, together with the daffodil, a favourite flower of the poet Wordsworth, so much so that it was decided to have it carved on his gravestone. Unfortunately the carver got it wrong, and carved the unrelated greater celandine instead!

We turned into Dulwich Wood Avenue, which surrounds two sides of a small park, Oakfield Gardens, the hedges of which were planted with various trees and shrubs. Climbing through them was a bedstraw, which from the relatively tall erect stems and ascending branches George confidently identified as Hedge Bedstraw Galium album, identification soon confirmed by the little white flowers. On the opposite side of the road we were somewhat distracted by various kind of mushrooms growing under a lime tree, in particular by a profusion of Elfin Saddle Helvella crispa, as well as boletes, roll rims, and other fungi. Indeed on the day we were often distracted by mushrooms, as we saw blewits, spindles, domecaps, Lyophyllum decastes (maybe) in the dog zone at the foot of a street tree, Otidea bufonia (probably) in a lawn and in another lawn even the orchids of the mushroom world, the colourful waxcaps.

We started ascending the hill, beckoned by the imposing structure of the TV transmitter of Crystal Palace. Here we found a seedling of Himalayan Horse-chestnut Aesculus indica as well as some bushes of one of the strangest British plants: Butcher’s Broom Ruscus aculeatus. This plant has no true leaves; instead it has leaf-like structures properly called cladodes which are really flattened stems which have evolved to function as leaves in creating energy for the plant. Since they are not shed in autumn, Butcher’s Broom appears to be evergreen.

As we kept adding the usual findings from the hedges of the road, the plant that we found most notable was Lesser Sea Spurrey Spergularia marina. Native to coastal sea marshes, together with Buck’s-horn Plantain Plantago coronopus, it has escaped its natural habitat helped by the spreading of salty grit on the roads in winter.

We reached the top of the hill, where we found the dusty looking Common Mugwort Artemisia vulgaris (used in the past instead of hops to impart a bitter taste to beer), Large Bindweed Calystegia sylvatica (separated from Hedge Bindweed Calystegia sepium by the pouchy bracts completely concealing the sepals) and Lesser Burdock Arctium minus whose dry seed heads got entangled in my woolly jumper. We had a brainstorm trying to identify a plant that had been very extensively eaten; finally George’s nose was able to decide that it was Perennial Wall rocket Diplotaxis tenuifolia. We also saw (and collected) some nice and very edible mushrooms, Field Blewits Lepista saeva.

We decided to have lunch in one of the highest points in London, looking down to the terraced area and the city beyond from the esplanade where the Crystal Palace stood for 80-odd years. This had originally been the cast-iron and glass building that housed the very successful Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851. Moved and reconstructed in 1854 on top of what had been known until then as Sydenham Hill (a move that came to cost almost 10 times the amount spent in the original construction), it was destroyed by fire on the night of 30th November 1936.

The wind had abated somewhat when we decided to make our way down along Fountain Drive. Here we found some escapees that had spilled out from the gardens lining the road. We saw Balkan Spurge Euphorbia oblongata, a hairy perennial with long oval leaves, and Wild Strawberry Fragaria vesca (the cultivated strawberry Fragaria × ananassa is an hybrid between a North American species F. virginiana and the West Coast Pine Strawberry F. chiloensis, originally raised in France in the 18th century). By the way, the strawberry doesn’t get its name, as is generally thought, from the gardener’s practice of putting straw beneath the berries to keep them clean and free of slugs. Rather it comes from an old meaning of ‘straw’, which was to strew over the ground , which is just what the strawberry does with its creepers.

A violet had still some fruits that allowed George to identify it as Common Dog-violet Viola riviniana. When in flower it resembles pale Early Dog-violet Viola reichenbachiana which, however, has lilac petals and a darker spur. We also saw some plants of Common Forget-me-not Myosotis arvensis. The English name refers to a tragic romantic German legend of a knight that, trying to pick a bunch of flowers while strolling along a river bank with his lady, fell into the river and drowned, but the Greek name of the genus is more prosaic and means ‘mouse’s ear’, after the shape of the leaf. Nearby there was a Stinking Hellebore Helleborus foetidus. Interestingly, and unusually, this plant relays on snails to disperse its seeds. Each seed has a white ridge along one side, which produces on oil attractive to snails. The snail eats the oily matter but discards the seed, which then sticks to its slime and is carried to a new growing site. This plant was once used to kill worms in children by making it into violent purgatives, but the practice was abandoned for it would often kill not only the worms but the patient as well.

Further down the road, emerging from a carpet of ivy, there were the spikes of Ivy Broomrape Orobanche hederae. Being parasitic, this plant has no need either of chlorophyll or leaves, which are reduced to triangular brown scales. Before being made into a recreational park, this area, Sydenham Hill, had been a wooded area. A relic of this ancient habitat was still preserved, fenced off on the right side of the road. To confirm the status of the area there were tufts of Wood Sedge Carex sylvatica. With its inflorescence comprising a few female spikes topped by a single apical male one, it resembles a small Carex pendula. We also saw the open panicles of Wood Melick Melica uniflora, although we didn’t linger to look for the ants feeding on the caryopsis (that’s what they do). And we saw also the Wood Meadow-grass Poa nemoralis. More slender and delicate than other meadow grasses, in Germany it is sometime called weigweisergras, which means ‘signpost grass’, because of the characteristic lamina, similar to an outstretched arm.

As it happened, the signpost grass was pointing toward the station, and, as the light was fading and the wind still cold, we followed its directions, and said our goodbyes. A very warm thanks to George for stepping in and saving the day.

Mario Maculan