A project update following a busy old year surveying the urban flora of Newcastle.
As many readers of this blog will know, for the past twelve months I’ve been dedicating almost all of my free time to what I am loosely calling an ‘Urban Flora of Newcastle’. This, I hope, will at some stage become a publication that sets out the abundance and distribution of all wild plants growing within the city limits, along with information on our botanical hotspots, habitats and other key features. Well, after a hectic year, now seemed like a good time for an update.
I already have written about this project several times (here, and here, for example). With so much time in the field, you might think that I’d have cracked it by now but truly, things are only getting more interesting as new species crop up, interesting sites are discovered and certain trends become clearer. We’ll start with the headline facts, however…
At this stage, I have now spent 245 hours in the field and carried out 110 visits to 90 of the 143 monads that make up Newcastle-upon-Tyne. No easy feat while working a full-time job, I tell you. Some of these squares (I will call them that for simplicity) have been visited upward of five times while others, just once. I will need to visit each multiple times in all seasons to do even a remotely good job.
During my time rummaging around in the city’s alleys, car parks, side streets and occasionally, more appealing green spaces, I have now recorded 790 species growing in a wild or naturalised state. Of these, roughly a quarter are neophytes – human introductions. A far smaller portion arre what we would call archaeophytes, the historic introductions, while most are simply native plants etching out a living in the city. An interesting mix to say the least.
With several more recorders now regularly surveying the city, these records are now being supplemented by new additions to the BSBI database and iRecord which should go some way to painting an accurate picture of the flora here. With the best will in the world, a single person cannot find every plant in every square…
Our Commonest Plants
It will come as no surprise to learn that a select bunch of plants have thus far been found in each and every square. These are often habitat generalists or those who have adjusted to life perfectly in the urban environment. So far, they include White Clover (Trifolium repens), Wood Avens (Geum urbanum), Annual Meadow-grass (Poa annua), Nettle (Urtica diocia), Cleavers (Galium aparine), Smooth Sow-thistle (Sonchus oleraceus), Daisy (Bellis perennis), Dandelion (Taraxacum agg.) and Bramble (Rubus fruticosus agg.).
Following close behind these is another suite of species which may well prove omnipresent. Examples include Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus), Broad-leaved Dock (Rumex obtusifolius), Greater Plantain (Plantago major), Red Fescue (Festuca rubra), Knotgrass (Polygonum aviculare).
Only Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) and Wild Cherry (Prunus avium) have surprised me with their abundance as a component of our urban flora. Otherwise, much of this could have been guessed in advance!
Over recent weeks, I’ve been paying closer attention to areas where the feeding of birds is commonplace. Such places often hold a wealth of cultivated and contaminant plants linked to stray seeds. This has proven worthwhile with plenty of records of the common escapees in Sunflower (Helianthus annuus), Oat (Avena sativa), Bread Wheat (Triticum aestivum), Six-row Barely (Hordeum vulgare) and interestingly, Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia), a stowaway from North America.
These places have also yielded surprises too with Canary-grass (Phalaris canariensis) found on a street in Heaton, Cockspur (Echinochloa crus-galli) at two locations, Two-row Barely (Hordeum distichon) and yet more Niger (Guizotia abyssinica). I do wonder what might emerge in such situations during the rest of the survey.
Suprisingly Abundant Plants
Earlier, I mentioned trends becoming clearer. One such trend comes from my own biased underestimation of the abundance of certain plants I had assumed were rare in the city. Marsh Woundwound (Stachys palustris), while far scarcer than Hedge Woundwort (Stachys sylvatica), seems to grow in a far wider range of habitats than previously thought, including entirely dry ones, while Great Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) is a surprisingly abundant pavement plant.
Other examples include the recent colonist Water Bent (Polypogon viridis), which seems to be gaining ground almost daily and Great Lettuce (Lactuca virosa) which while listed on the county Rare Plant Register, grows almost anywhere.
Perhaps I am just ‘getting my eye in’ but equally, Relfexed Saltmarsh-grass (Puccinellia distans) seems far more widespread than anticipated along salted roadsides too. The list goes on.
Aside from the interesting aliens listed above, the past few weeks have brought several firsts for the urban flora. Vervain (Verbena officinalis) in Leazes Park, found by Philip Griffiths, Flax (Linum usitatissimum) on a residential street and Ivy-leaved Cyclamen (Cyclamen hederifolium) oddly growing on a verge beneath an underpass in the city centre. The latter did not look obviously planted and may stem from when the road was created.
On a recent trip to Big Waters, a nature reserve managed by Northumberland Wildlife Trust, Matt and I were lucky to find several areas of Great Duckweed (Spirodela polyrhiza), rare up here, as well as Rigid Hornwort (Ceratophyllum demersum). Havannah Nature Reserve, ever throwing out interesting plants, revealed Marsh Cudweed (Gnaphalium uliginosum) and Gosforth Nature Reserve surprised with Blue Water-plantain (Veronica anagallis-aquatica).
Closer to home in more gritty, urban habitats the surprises have continued also. Chasing an old record from Gordon Young, I was pleased to encounter Sea Fern-grass (Catapodium marinum) growing on a roadside wall in Heaton while Chick Pea (Cicer arietinum) staddling a wall in an inner-city cemetery at Fenham came as somewhat of a surprise.
Another oddity comes from Cabbage Thistle (Cirsium oleraceum) in woodland at Armstrong Park – I wonder how long that has been lurking there? Truly, you never know what will crop up in the city!
While botanising the city, there have been several groups I have ignored until now and a few communities that have been poorly surveyed. That means that once I have finished my initial sweep of all squares this year, there’ll be several blank spots to fill in 2024.
Aquatic plants – so far these have only been lightly surveyed where specimens are located close to banks or at least within reach with the aid of wellies. I’ll soon be investing in a grapnel to hopefully begin a more thorough exploration of these next year. There must be some exciting pondweeds lurking in the city’s pools and lakes…
Polypodies – thus far, all polpodies have been aggregated but with the help of our new microscope, I plan on taking a closer look at these soon. Those in the city’s wooded denes must surely be Common Polypody (Polypodium vulgare) but those on city walls may yet prove different.
Spirea agg – I’m rather rubbish at these but with several naturalised spirea existing in various corners of the city, I’ll be making a concerted effort to learn very soon. Starting with that growing on the railway lines by my house!
Grasses – I’d like to feel that I’ve put a good dent in the city’s grasses in 2023. However, it is difficult to record each and every one while simultaneously recording everything else. Next year, I think many squares will need revisiting with the sole intention of recording grasses (and possibly carex too).
These targets aside, I look forward to another year spent exploring our urban flora. It really is incredible what can be found within build-up, seemingly inhospitable environments and the relics of our natural ones strewn among them. With 39,000 words written so far, I sincerely hope I am able to do something with this beyond just blogging about it in due course!