Just for fun, take a quick look at 10 urban plants currently on the increase across Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
Our urban habitats are dynamic ones and when it comes to wildlife, things are always changing. This is perhaps most obvious in our wild and naturalised plants as new species arrive, others decline and our alteration of the landscape provides new opportunities for colonisation. While recording for ‘The Plants of Newcastle‘, it is becoming increasingly clear to me that certain plants are doing far better than others, and for a variety of reasons. Many of these are non-natives (neophytes) perfectly suited to the urban environment, while others are a tad more surprising. Just for fun, I thought we would take a look at ten of the most obvious examples here.
Guernsey Fleabane (Erigeron sumatrensis)
A tall, annual herb of well-drained, disturbed soils in gardens, along roadsides and in paved areas, this conspicuous plant is doing really well at present. A native of South America, it was first recorded in the UK from Guernsey in 1961 and has since spread across much of Southern England. Currently marching North, it is now fairly widespread in areas of the midlands and along the West coast but until recently, was rather rare this far North. This now appears to be changing and, since the first Newcastle record in 2009, appears to be expanding rapidly.
So far, I have observed Guernsey Fleabane from several city centre squares, as well as multiple suburban areas. In places such as Heaton and Walker, it even appears to be overtaking Canadian Fleabane (Erigeron canadensis) as the most numerous small-flowered species present.
Like Canadian Fleabane, Guernsey Fleabane has very small seeds which as easily dispered on the wind. If trends in the South are anything to go by, I suspect it will go on to become one of our most familiar urban plants.
Narrow-leaved Ragwort (Senecio inaequidens)
First recorded in Newcastle in 2012 by Quentin Groom, Narrow-leaved Ragwort shares a similar story to Guernsey Fleabane. First recorded on our shores in 1836, for a long time, this attractive plant remained a scarce casual occurring as a contaminant of wool shoddy. Since 1999, however, it has rapidly expanded along transport links (much like the story of Oxford Ragwort) and is now a familiar sight across much of Southern England and the Midlands.
Like the former species, this plant becoming increasingly prominent in the North at present and in Newcastle, is now appearing in a range of urbanised habitats, from recently disturbed roadsides to neglected front gardens. Interestingly, Narrow-leaved Ragwort appears most abundant in squares adjacent to the River Tyne; though for how long this will last I am unsure.
Pirri-pirri-bur (Acaena novae-zelandiae)
Now this is an interesting one. A native of Australia and New Zealand Pirri-pirri-bur has been known from the Northumberland coast for many years. Here, it’s tenacious seed heads cause havoc for people and wildlife alike and are much maligned by land managers. While it is known to inhabit inland sites locally, most notably forestry tracks in the uplands, it is seldom thought of as an urban plant. Indeed, with only two recent records from Newcastle, we seem to have escaped it thus far.
Fast forward to the present day and this appears to be changing. I have now recorded Pirri-pirri from several habitats vastly different to the dunes in which I am accustomed to seeing it. Among these, relic heathland, wooded tracks, a church lawn in Gosforth and even on gravel driveways in High Heaton. While it is far from abundant, yet, I suspect this one may continue to increase in the future.
I do wonder if these initial colonies have their roots in populations on the coast, perhaps brought in by a passing dog or unsuspecting hiker? Either way, Pirri-pirri may go on to become one of our most unwelcome urban plants.
Italian Alder (Alnus cordata)
An attractive tree from Corsica and Southern Italy, Italian Alder was first introduced to the UK in 1820. To this day, this species remains a popular plant in landscaping and municipal planting schemes, a factor very much evident in Newcastle with rows of planted trees present on high streets and roadsides in various corners of the city.
Italian Alder is known to set prolific quantities of seed. This, coupled with a tolerance of dry, low-nutrient soils, means it is able to colonise a range of disturbed habitats in the city. Presently, it is particularly numerous along rail links and across areas of brownfield land in the city but increasingly, is also appearing as a weed in residential areas. In Heaton alone, I have noted this tenacious tree growing in pavements, gutters and even garden lawns, and the same appears to be true in Walker, Shieldfield and other districts.
Hjelmqvist’s Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster hjelmqvistii)
As one of my favourite groups of plants, I had to include a cotoneaster on this list somewhere. Now, several species of alien cotoneaster are already rather widespread in Newcastle but until recently, Hjelmqvist’s Cotoneaser was not one of them. With just a single 2012 record from Ouseburn, it appears that it was historically quite scarce. This is certainly not the case now and this year alone, I have recorded this attractive species from eleven separate city monads, in a whole host of habitats. Like most cotoneasters, this one does well in stonework, walls and structures but also occurs in urban hedges, rail sidings, woodland and derelict land.
Like many cotoneasters, this species is popular cultivation and owing to the copious fruits it produces in autumn, is a draw to passing birds. It is for this reason that it has been able to spread so widely in Newcastle and is why it is usually observed as isolated plants. As I write this, a fine example of Hjelmqvist’s Cotoneaser is also growing under my garden bird feeders. Not planted, it surely must have arrived with a visiting thrush or pigeon.
Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia)
The first birdseed alien on this list and one which represents perfectly a group of plants on the increase as a result of bird feeding.
A native of North America, Ragweed has been recorded as a casual in the UK since 1829 and is known to occur predominately as a contaminant of arable produce including animal feed, grain and oil seed. Nationwide, it occurs in a whole manner of habitats where its spread is limited only by harsh frosts.
With just a single record in Newcastle prior to the current survey at Walker Riverside in 2006, it seems this species has always been somewhat scarce locally. Is this changing? Well, in 2023 alone I have recorded it from four separate locations, three of which were urban parks where it finds a home in lakeside stonework close to where locals feed waterfowl. I have also observed it growing within pavements in Heaton, albeit close to bird feeders.
Interestingly, I first observed Ragweed in Leazes Park, one of the three sites mentioned above, in 2021. It has occurred there every year since but whether this is the result of continued introductions or evidence of a self-sustaining population, I am uncertain. Either way, it seems to be on the rise.
Greater Quaking-grass (Briza maxima)
The first alien grass on our list now with Greater Quaking-grass, a striking species native to the Mediterranean.. This annual grass is a fairly common sight in gardens and, seeding prolifically, is now common in Southern parts of the UK where it inhabits a variety of dry, bare habitats from pavements to arable margins. The naturalised range of this species does not extend into Northern England and, in my limited experience, populations here tend to be isolated and located close to gardens.
Prior to 2020, there were just three records of Greater Quaking-grass in Newcastle, notably coming from Jesmond and Heaton. In the latter of these, this grass is now a common component of our urban flora occurring on wall-tops, within gardens and across areas of pavement. Furthermore, it is now showing signs of spread with records from roadsides in High Heaton, Walker and St. Peter’s Basin. Given the trend elsewhere in the UK, I suspect we’ll be seeing much more of it in the future.
Water Bent (Polypogon viridis)
If the story of Briza maxima is a successful one, that of Water Bent is one of rampant success. Known as one of the ‘fastest spreading’ plants in the UK, this native of Southern Europe first arrived on our shores, or at least Guernsey’s, in 1860. For quite some time, it failed to move beyond the Channel Islands but in recent years, has undertaken a rapid advance North through Britain. It first reached Newcastle in 1981 but was not recorded again until 2022. In the time since (a mere two years), it has gone on to colonise several parts of the city and is now a familiar site along roads, wall bases and paved areas in Heaton, Jesmond, Manors and even in the heart of the city centre.
With isolated records now from Scotland, this plant is still very much on the move; though it still has some consolidating to do in Newcastle. Still, if the last two years are anything to go by, numbers can only go up.
Small Scabious (Scabiosa columbaria)
Now, given that neophytes have dominated this list so far, you would be forgiven for thinking that alien species were the only ones doing well in our urban species. This is definitely not the case and several native species are also on the increase, including those introduced for their aesthetic value. Foremost among these in Newcastle seems to be Small Scabious, a species associated with hills, slopes and banks on calcareous soils elsewhere in the country. In South Northumberland, it is a rather rare plant, so much so that it warrants a place on the county’s Rare Plant Register; though in Newcastle at least, this is changing.
Small Scabious appears to be a regular component of seed mixes used by councils on derelict ground and poor soils. It has been introduced to several sites locally including Walker, Scotswood and Gosforth in this exact fashion. All of this means that its natural distribution, if indeed it was present locally, has been greatly masked. In total, I have now recorded this species from around a dozen squares where it seems to persist and spread quite readily on former industrial soils.
Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera)
A nice one to finish on and an example of a native species exhibiting a welcome spread into Newcastle’s urban habitats. Formerly a very rare plant, Bee Orchid is becoming increasingly abundant in a whole host of habitats across the city, from urban lawns and roadside verges to brownfield. It has now spread to such an extent that it is the orchid most likely to be encountered in built-up habitats.
Formerly a species of Southern counties, Bee Orchid was first recorded within the city in 2002. Since then, records have grown in frequency, reaching a peak in 2023 wherein it was encountered city-wide, including on a city centre lawn. This spread is thought to be a result of favourable climatic conditions and if this year is anything to go by, Bee Orchids will be brightening up our city’s greenspaces for many years to come.