Newcastle’s Urban Flora – A Project Update

An account of a busy season recording for what I’m loosely calling an ‘Urban Flora of Newcastle‘.

As many of you will know, over the past year, I’ve been working on a project to map the urban flora of Newcastle-upon-Tyne – a personal endeavor that I hope at some stage to publish.

With 82 out of 105 monads (1km grid squares) across the city now visited, often several times, some 200+ hours of time, and 32,000 words written, now seemed like the perfect time to give a wee update. Spoiler: with some 760 plant species, hybrids or subspecies now recorded this is quickly shaping up to me a mammoth task!

Common plants

Visiting so many sites across Newcastle, it is quickly becoming apparent which are our most successful urban species – the true city specialists! So far, some 15 species have been recorded in each and every square and none of these have come as a suprise. Cleavers (Galium aparine), Smooth Sow-thistle (Sonchus oleraceus), Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris) and Daisy (Bellis perennis) are some familiar examples present in just about every pavement crack, rough patch or lawn if time is taken to look.

Other examples include Creeping Buttercup (Ranunculus repens), Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) and of course, Annual Meadow-grass (Poa annua). The omipresent city plants!

Totting up the ‘top 25’ most recorded plants hasn’t revealed many suprises, in truth. Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) and Wild Cherry (Prunus avium) are a little more abundant than anticipated and Meadow Buttercup (Ranunculus acris) has surpassed expectations, but that’s about it. But we knew this already…

Rarities and Surprises

On the reverse, while many plants are terribly common in the city, others are not. I’ve found my far share of rarities and neophyte oddities while recording so far but what is more suprising is that they just keep coming.

Just yesterday, while grubbing around Scotswood I encountered several species new to me – Perfoliate Alexanders (Smyrnium perfoliatum), Straw Foxglove (Digitalis lutea), Upright Spurge (Euphorbia stricta) and Wild Madder (Rubia peregrina). Each somewhat out of place but interesting nontheless.

Other interesting records of late include the white form of Dark Mullein (Verbascum nigrum) on a messy city verge, a new population of Hairy Bindweed (Calystegia pulchra) engulfing a city cemetery and even House Holly-fern (Cyrtomium falcatum) growing in a gutter in Gosforth. Our urban flora if nothing if not diverse. I do wonder what else might pop up during the remainder of the survey?

It isn’t just hortals and neophytes surprising however, and some of our scarcer native species are actually proving rather abundant. Cut-leaved Dead-nettle (Lamium hybridum) is a good example, popping up just about anywhere, while Hare’s-foot Clover (Trifolium arvense) seems more widespread than anticipated in neglected carparks and building sites.

Hoary Mustard (Hirschfeldia incana), rare? Nope. Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera)? More abundant than you might think. What about Great Lettuce (Lactuca virosa), a Rare Plant Register species? Everywhere! The mind boggles.

Overlooked Plants

Embarking on a project such as this, there were always going to be groups which were under-recorded, either due to ‘recorder blindness’ or simply the effort needed to check many plants that superfisially look the same. Willowherbs (Epilobium sp) and yellow composites are good examples of the former – how often do simply walk past these? Cotoneasters an great example of the latter. Recently, I’ve been trying to counteract this by focusing on these groups in greater detail.

The willowherbs have proven particularly eye-opening. Close to home in Heaton, a single stretch of pavement held six species including some less common ones in Pale Willowherb (Epilobium roseum) and Square-stalked Willowherb (Epilobium tetragonum). I’ve also been somewhat suprised to see just how abundant American Willowherb (Epilobium ciliatum) is but honestly, I’ve probably been ignoring it until now.

Notable sites

Another thing I’ve been keeping a close eye on as part of the project in the overall botanical diversity of specific squares – hopefully to create some sort of heat map when the time comes. Doing this is helping paint a clearer picture of Newcastle’s botanical hotspots, in my head atleast.

In many cases, the results of this have been unsurprising and those squares featuring a mix of relic natural or at least semi-natural habitats have come out on top. Jesmond Dene (193 species), the lower Ousburn (213 species) and Walker Riverside (171 species) are clearly rather diverse. Green spaces aside however, there have also been suprises here too. Not least the 183 species recorded in an unassuming patch of Heaton where terraced gardens provide a haven for weeds of all sorts and the square surrounding St. James’ Park stadium (193 species) where neglected building sites are rather floristically diverse. Tracking this, I definitely feel I am getting to grips with the different urban ‘microhabitats’ that matter for our plants.

Following Other’s Footsteps

Botanical recording in the city has been patchy over the years and Newcastle has only been selectively surveyed. Nathaniel John Winch was the first to begin truly mapping the flora here and many interesting records made within the city limits feature in his Flora of Northumberland Durham, 1831. In 1868, A New Flora of Northumberland and Durham, authored by John Gilbert Baker and George Tate, paid much greater heed to the neophyte flora that so often define our urban spaces, though mention of the Newcastle area is lacking.

George Swan went much further while preparing his the Flora of Northumberland (1993). Since then, however, most records have come from a few familiar names: from John Durkin, who incidentally has contributed immensely to the current project, Quentin Groom, Gordon Young etc. It is the records made by the latter recorders that I’ve been digging into recently – checking to see if the interesting plants noted 10-20 years back are still present. In several cases, they are!

I was excited to note Groom’s Common Blue Sow-thistle (Cicerbita macrophylla) at Jesmond Vale and Young’s Fragrant Agrimony (Agrimonia procera) at Scotswood. The list goes on and following in the footsteps of these recorders is helping develop a firmer pictures of our urban flora. It is also to see what has persisted and what has vanished.

More to do

Starting out, I think I had naively assumed that copiling a flora for a lone city – a relatively small geographial area – would be an easy task. I was wrong! There is just so much still to explore and plenty of rabbit holes still to venture down – duckweeds, sedges, hunting hybrid oaks. Add to this variation in flowering times, the human tendency to miss things first time around, and the need to learn new groups and I can see I’ll be busy for quite some time. Still, I’ve made a good start…

Fitting this in around a full-time job means I’ll likely run into 2025 before I can produce anything near complete. Still, better to do it right. Hopefully, when the time comes, I’ll be able to attract enough support to publish something in hard copy but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it! Something similar to this would be nice – we’ll see if an ‘Urban Flora of Newcastle’ makes it to fruition!

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