London is home to rare Black Poplars

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Native Black Poplar on the banks of the River Lea at Hackney Marshes

There are only about 7000 native Black Poplars (Poplus nigra betulifolia) left in Britain, most of them south of The Wash (the bay where Norfolk meets Lincolnshire on the east coast of England). And only 600 of these are female. These females produce a cottony fluff when the seeds are ejected to be carried by the wind. As this can be a nuisance, local authorities and forestries have planted male trees. The result is that the native population has declined, rarely reproducing through seed and mostly by suckering and sending up new trunks if a tree falls over. Added to this, the draining of wetlands for development has meant that any fertile seed is unlikely to fall on the silty damp soil it needs to grow into a tree. The last blow to the native wild Black Poplar is that it easily hybridises with non-native species, like the Lombardy Poplar or the Cottonwood of North America.

On Thursday evening this week I led a small group to find the Black Poplars along a stretch of the River Lea beside Hackney Marshes – a large, flat grass space that is laid out for football pitches, used for training. There are as many as 20 mature Black Poplars here, some along Homerton Road as street trees, the others on the river bank in a beautiful, natural setting. Walking by the river, with swans and cygnets, anglers and limpid fresh water, it is hard to remember that you are less than ten minutes’ walk from the hipster bars of Hackney Wick and what used to be (before the 2012 Olympics) an industrial area of North London. The only “downer” on our walk was when we approached a line of Traveller caravans in order to get to the footpath by the river and co-leader Andrew was bitten on the leg by a nasty little dog.

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Walking back across Hackney Marshes football practice pitches in the evening light

London mulberry project

In May this year the Conservation Foundation launched a new project called Morus Londinium that I helped to put together. From now until the end of next year I will be writing regular blogs for their website.  The idea is to document and preserve London’s mulberry tree heritage and to research the stories behind some of the older ones, which are sometimes survivors of a past that has disappeared under urban development.

My latest post is on the mulberries of Cadogan Place Gardens, on the edge of Chelsea.

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They’re back again

Four swifts screeching and scything through the blue sky over the back gardens of West Hampstead. They’ve come back exactly to the day (see post last year (https://petecoles.me/2013/06/04/theyre-back/). And it was on a 15 May that Ted Hughes published his poem “Swifts”. Curious precision. And at least there are still four of them, as numbers had been decreasing each year.

Shepherd’s Purse

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Shepherd’s Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) is flowering now in the cracks between paving stones and alongside garden walls in my suburbia. It’s the little seed pods though, not the flowers, that have endeared them to me since childhood in more rural Buckinghamshire. A little plant with dozens of hearts on stalks. But the plant gets its Latin and common English name from the resemblance of these seed pods to the purses that hung from the belts of peasants in the Middle Ages. The French name is Bourse-à-pasteur, which also means a shepherd’s purse. And when the pod is ripe, it splits open and little seeds spill out, like coins. The Dutch painter, Pieter Breugel, included one in his The Peasant Dance, painted around 1567.

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In his inspiring book, Weeds, Richard Mabey points out that the seeds are covered with a kind of gum, which, when moist, helps them to stick to the feet of birds, increasing their chances of dispersal. Also, according to Mabey, the resemblance of the seed pods to bladders meant that they were once thought to be an effective cure for urinary disorders – following the theory of plant ‘signatures’ put forward by the 17th-century Oxford botanist, William Coles.

In Flitting, written in 1832, the poet John Clare declares his love for the “poor persecuted weeds”  which, he points out, will still remain “where old marble cities stood.”  He composed the poem shortly after he, his wife and seven children moved to the village of Northborough (“this strange spot”). Although not far from his birthplace in the village of Helpston (“that old hut now left), he felt increasingly alienated, with bouts of severe depression. In the poem, simple weeds around his new home remind him of his beloved Helpston.

A farm worker himself, he wrote of shepherd’s purse:

E’en here my simple feelings nurse
A love for every simple weed
And e’en this little shepherd’s purse
Grieves me to cut it up – Indeed
I feel at times a love and joy
For every weed and every thing
A feeling kindred from a boy
A feeling brought with every spring.

And why – this ‘shepherd’s purse’ that grows
In this strange spot in days gone bye
Grew in the little garden rows
Of that old hut now left – and I
Feel what I never felt before
This weed an ancient neighbour here
And though I own the spot no more
Its every trifle makes it dear.

 

 

Green mist

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That time of Spring has come, when the bare Winter bones of twigs and branches in the woods are clothed in a thin green mist, as buds open into the most fragile and greenest-of-green new leaves. In a month the whole woodland will have changed and it will no longer be possible to see far.

Magnolia

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It’s odd that the blossoming of a tree that is native to the Himalayan mountains should herald Spring in suburban London, but that is what the magnolia does. And this one on the slope on the south side of Kenwood House is particularly splendid. It is now in full flower, on 16 March. In 2009 it was at the same state of blossom on 24 March and last year, 2012, it did not bloom  until after 2 April, according to the newsletter of the Friends of Kenwood.

The tree was probably planted in 1925, or shortly after, when the house was bought by Edward Cecil Guinness, First Earl of Iveagh. Arthur Oxford was appointed first head gardener that year. When  Guinness died in 1927, he bequeathed the house to the nation.

In March 2009, shortly after the birth of my second son, I went up to the south terrace of Kenwood almost every day to photograph the tree in full bloom. For several days I went home without a picture because the flowers weren’t completely out yet.

In 1945 the famous bird photographer, Eric Hosking, had taken a photograph of the magnolia at almost exactly the same time of year, for R.S.R. Fitter’s endlessly interesting book, London: A Natural History, published in 1947. What’s interesting in Hosking’s photograph is the oak tree to the left of the magnolia, with a bench around it, on which sit   visitors to the grounds. The tree is no longer there.

Hosking, who famously had an eye pecked out by an owl as he climbed into a hide to retrieve his camera, was the anonymous photographer of the swan that was used for the drawing n the Swan Vestas matchbox.

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Hibiscus

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HIbiscus syriacus

Hibiscus syriacus doesn’t originally come from Syria, but eastern Asia, probably China and Korea.  It’s been in bloom in our garden and others around here in northwest London  for the past few days. So popular with gardeners it might better be called Hibiscus suburbus. But I love it when our bush flowers as it goes from green leaves and pregnant buds to a mass of white and pink-tinged flowers almost overnight. And at last the bush is taking on a more natural form after the downstairs neighbour,  in love with his power tools and a  rectilinear decking aesthetic,  took a chain saw to it two years ago and made it into a box of twigs on a stalk. LIke a square lollipop. Since they left, I’ve been able to prune it and shape it by hand using secateurs and an eye for shape rather than any real knowledge of what I am doing.

Hornbeam

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Old Hornbeam coppice, Highgate Wood – this is one tree, the ‘trunks’ growing from a now buried stump

Hornbeam, Carpinus betulus, also known as iron wood, or yoke elm because the wood is so hard it can’t be worked easily. It was mainly used for ox yokes, cogs and cartwheels. The grown-out coppice stools like this one in Highgate wood would also have been used for firewood or charcoal, as it burns slowly and brightly ‘like a candle’.  It was used for the tall, dense hedges of the original maze in Hampton Court, although these have since been replaced.

The poet John Clare was fond of hornbeam, which is one of the principal trees in Epping Forest, where he spent four years in the High Beach asylum, from 1837-1841, suffering from severe depression. He was allowed considerable freedom to walk in the forest and, indeed, in July 1841  walked out of the asylum and followed the Great York Road  until he reached his home in Northborough, 80 miles away, four days later. That year, while at High Beach, he wrote  Child Harold, mentioning the hornbeam:

How beautiful this hill of fern swells on.
So beautiful the chapel peeps between
The hornbeams with its simple bell – alone
I wander here, hid in a palace green.

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Seeing the hornbeams, I was reminded of a three-trunked hornbeam in the Bois de Vincennes, just east of Paris, in whose shade for seven years, every Saturday morning, I learned tai chi with my friend and teacher Li Gui Sheng and fellow student and friend Claude.

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Every Saturday that is, until, in a few hours after midnight on 26 December 1999, a hurricane blew down the forest. Miraculously ‘our’ tree was spared, though it took us several hours to find it amid the tangled mess of fallen trunks. About a year later we cleared a space beneath the tree again, now sporting a mass of side shoots from its trunk in an all-out fight for survival. But it wasn’t the same. The squirrels had gone, replaced by pheasants, now the forest was more like heathland or scrub. And the dog walker who had shouted after “Whisky” and “Frisky”, as we fought invisible opponents in slow motion, had found another route.

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