Dear Readers, there is a most interesting article in the London History Society Newsletter this month by Rodney Burton. He is looking at the common weeds in Hackney (just a few boroughs east of where I live) and is comparing the plants with the Flora of the London Area (1976) and Dougie Kent’s Historical Flora of Middlesex (1975). I have long suspected that the wild flora of the London area has changed dramatically during my lifetime, and this seems to be borne out by the historical record.
Greater celandine still doesn’t seem to be present in large numbers in Hackney, but wasn’t recorded at all in 1976. It was previously recorded in my part of London, and I suspect that it has become a little commoner if my back garden is anything to go by. However, a real surprise is Herb Robert, which was one of my very first Wednesday Weeds, and seems to me to be everywhere around here. In 1975, Herb Robert was said by Kent to be ‘common except in heavily built-up areas where, owing to the absence of suitable habitats, it is very rare or extinct’. Well, it must certainly have adapted better to city life since then, because it seems to pop out of the tiniest crevices in pavement or at the base of walls. It is undoubtedly our most resilient and urban-tolerant geranium species.
And finally, there is the rise and rise of Yellow Corydalis, one of my favourite ‘weeds’. Again, in 1975 every single individual record of this plant was mentioned. By 1998, Kent noted that the plant was ‘increasing’. Today, it pops up wherever there is a gap in a wall that doesn’t already have some ivy-leaved toadflax in it. Burton notes, as I have previously, that the plant’s seeds have an ‘oil body’ which makes them very attractive to ants, who will take them into their nests, where they will germinate and somehow find a root to the light. Does the ant link explain the spread of the plant, I wonder? Whatever the reason, it is such a delicate and airy plant that it seems to brighten up wherever it grows. It seems to me that if it was rarer, you could happily sell it in the garden centre.
So, we have ample evidence that within our lifetimes, our whole flora can change. I could add in a few more ‘weeds’ that I don’t remember from my youth, at least in such profusion: buddleia for one, but also the various bellflowers, Mexican fleabane and Canadian fleabane. Welsh poppy seems to be increasing in numbers during the past few years, and I am seeing a lot of hardier garden escapes, such as antirrhinums and opium poppies advancing up the streets of East Finchley. Climate change will no doubt bring its own winners and losers, and London is a hotbed for all kinds of exotic plants that escape from groceries, bought-in plants and industrial waste. As the cliché has it, ‘change is the only constant’. How useful citizen science is in these situations, and how much we owe to the people who monitored our flora and fauna in the first place!
Now, over to you. How has your flora changed during your lifetime? What’s new, and what’s lost? Do you have any theories about why some plants have thrived and some have been lost? I would love to know what’s happened in your neck of the woods. Weeds are by nature opportunistic, adaptable and resilient, so knowing what’s happening may give us some inkling about what’s going on.
And, because this post is for once a general celebration of ‘weeds’, those intrepid colonisers of our broken-down places, those joyful celebrants of life in the most unwelcoming and desiccated spots, here is an excerpt from ‘Inversnaid’, a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins.
‘What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.’
Amen to that, I say.