All Things Bright And Beautiful
Country Life UK|April 07, 2021
Before the Industrial Revolution, London was awash with wildflowers. Jack Watkins traces their history and finds that, if given a chance, these opportunistic plants may still return
Jack Watkins

WILLIAM CURTIS’S Flora Londinensis, published in installments between 1777 and 1798, was the first comprehensive book on the flora of the capital and its environs and one of the first to focus on plants in an urban area. Meticulous hand-colored copperplate illustrations supported a text that described fritillary growing ‘in meadows between Mortlake and Kew’, chicory in Battersea Fields and a rare species of stonecrop on a chapel wall in Kentish Town.

Two centuries earlier, William Turner, ‘the father of British botany’, had noted carpets of bluebells, as well as great burnet and chamomile at Syon. And in his Herball of 1597, John Gerard wrote of clary growing wild around Gray’s Inn, Holborn, and pennyroyal on a common near Mile End.

London’s historic flora is unsurprising. Up until 1745, the fully built-up area only ran from around Westminster’s Horse Ferry crossing to Lambeth and Park Lane in the west and to Shoreditch and Mile End in the east. North of Oxford Street was mainly still fields and there wasn’t much more than a mile or so of development south of the Thames.

Even beyond that time, the city retained rural aspects. Kensington’s market gardens lingered into the 1800s and Notting Hill’s largest farms survived until the 1880s. Wood anemone and lesser celandine grew in Marylebone’s fields in the first decades of the 19th century. Traveller’s joy, or old-man’s beard, still draped the hedgerows of today’s fume-filled Edgware Road and the fragrance of lilyof-the-valley wafted across Hampstead Heath.

The rapid development of London from then, not to mention its suburban overspill in the early 20th century, meant that, by 1939, the soil in many parts of the city had not seen daylight for decades, with inevitable consequences. Yet a 1947–55 London Natural History Society study of the densely built-up Cripplegate area, just north of St Paul’s—which had been flattened by wartime incendiaries— showed what opportunists plants are. By the end of the study period, sprouting up among the deserted ruins were 342 species of flowering plants and ferns, from dandelion and chickweed to spear thistle and perennial wall rocket. Rosebay willowherb took off here and in other bombed areas so prolifically that it became a symbol of Blitz-blighted districts, popularly known as bombweed.

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