An Urban Flora of Newcastle – Mapping Wild Plants in the City

A short introduction to a personal passion project mapping the diverse and fascinating flora of Newcastle

As many of you will know, I have a bit of fondness for Britain’s urban flora. I’m not sure why precisely, but for me, there’s something fascinating about how our plants adapt to artificial ecosystems and how species from all around the world find themselves living side-by-side in our cities. For a good few years now, I’ve been recording urban plants here in Heaton, Newcastle, and truthfully, it never gets boring.

More recently, I have been spreading out from my usual haunts at Heaton and Walker to see what else is lurking out there in the city. The result? A mind-boggling number of plants and an intriguing mix of the common, everyday, scarce and exotic. From Laurustinus (Viburnum tinus), an exotic shrub not recorded growing wild in the city before, to coastal Buck’s-horn Plantain (Plantago coronopus) growing by a salted roadside, there’s been a lot to see. So much, in fact, that in only a few weeks, I have notched up 437 plant species within a few miles of home. All of which goes without mentioning other delights such as Atlantic Ivy (Hedera hibernica) hiding in plain sight in my local cemetery, and new and unusual escapes: Niger (Guizotia abyssinica), Cape Gooseberry (Physalis peruviana) and Shrub Ragwort (Brachyglottis x jubar).

A Very Urban Flora

Of course, while pottering around looking at plants for the past few weeks, I have made an effort to record all of the species seen in each 1km square visited. These records will be shared with BSBI, of course, but thinking more on the matter, I’ve decided to go one step further and put pen to paper to create something a little more tangible. The obvious answer? An ‘Urban Flora’ for Newcastle.

Now, after some research online, it appears this isn’t something carried out frequently in the UK, nor is it entirely new. Sure, there’s the fab ‘The Urban Flora of Belfast‘ published in the 1990s but this isn’t all that relevant here. Although other studies might exist, creating a flora covering Newcastle seems a worthwhile exercise nevertheless. Britain (and my part of it) is only set to grow more urban in the future and amateur studies such as this provide a useful reference point against which to measure future change. More so, they’re also good fun!

Matt exploring some brownfield land at Heaton. We did manage one new plant….

Getting to work

So, now that I have broken the news and ensured that I can’t back out, what am I going to do?

Going forward, I’ll be visiting each 1km square within the Newcastle city boundary multiple times in multiple seasons, hopefully capturing an accurate picture of the plants growing there throughout the year. This process, I hope, will provide a semi-accurate picture of plant abundance and diversity across what is a fairly typical city. With the exception of street trees (which will form an appendix), I’ll not be recording anything planted, merely any plant spreading of its own accord in the wild.

Of course, there may be a few exceptions to the aforementioned rule. For sanity’s sake, sprawling groups such as Rubus, Taraxacum and Rosa will be omitted, except for conspicuous species. Chinese Bramble (Rubus tricolor) is a good example here. As ever, recorder bias may also play a part in the final result but I hope to counteract this by attempting to learn some of the more difficult groups (gulp, cotoneasters) or at the very least, consulting with some helpful experts.

This being an urban flora, it wouldn’t make much sense to survey and include Newcastle’s more scenic areas – we are blessed with a good few here and many of these resemble more rural environments. As you’ll see from the rough map below, areas of farmland to the North and West will be excluded, as will nature reserves managed to appear ‘natural’. Sorry Havannah, Big Waters and Gosforth. Resembling more of a rural pasture, the Town Moor will also be excluded. That said, greener but typically urban habitats such as parks, roadsides, roundabouts, playing fields, and the like are all fair game. Hopefully, this will help keep things decidedly urban in nature.

A grid system will be used to make a flora of Newcastle possible
For simplicities sake, I’ll be using a system of 1km squares to survey the city

Even for a relatively small area such as Newcastle, carrying out a project like this will (and rightfully should) take up quite a bit of time. I have given myself three years to achieve good coverage, but it may take longer. After that, I hope that I may be able to get the final product published somewhere, though, of course, that depends on a multitude of factors including money, supportive organisations, and the end product not being entirely rubbish!

Well, that’s that. My aim over the next few years is to create something sound, accurate and of both local and hopefully wider interest. Let work on the Urban Flora of Newcastle commence…