Tag Archives: London gardens

Rocket, Pride and Plane

What’s in a name? How some species that have gained a London epithet.

London Pride – Featured

London pride (Saxifraga spathularis x umbrosa) is a garden escape and a sterile hybrid of St. Patrick’s cabbage – a saxifrage – that has been known since the 17th century.

Tradition holds that London pride rapidly colonised bomb sites of the Blitz of the early 1940s, and therefore symbolic of the resilience of Londoners, and of the futility of bombing them into submission.

Noel Coward’s song London Pride of 1941 celebrates the flower and the city, and achieved great popularity during the war years:

There’s a little city flower every spring unfailing, Growing in the crevices by some London railing, Though it has a Latin name, in town and country-side, We in England call it, London Pride.

In the language of flowers, London pride is held to stand for frivolity, and its day is 27th July.

London Rocket

London rocket (Sysimbrium irio) is a yellow-flowered member of the cabbage family from the Mediterranean.

There it naturally grows like a weed over rocky and disturbed areas, including, for example, the slopes of the volcanic Mount Etna. Its seed production is greatly enhanced by long hot summers.

It arose in great profusion among the ruins of the Great Fire of London in 1666, after the Great Fire it came up in “the greatest plenty in 1667 and 1668 within the walls on the rubbish heaps around St Paul’s Cathedral.”

However, London rocket’s place in 20th century London has partly been taken over by rosebay willowherb, also known as fireweed.

A site near Bloomsbury between 1901 and 1912 revealed a few specimens, which appeared to be the last records of it in London. No London rocket was found in a survey of the blitzed ruins of 1940, but it was ‘rediscovered’ in 1945 in and around the Tower of London.

It can still be found on the remains of the London Wall by Tower Gateway station, as well as near London Zoo, flowering in late June.

London Plane

The best known London epithet is the London plane (Platanus x hispanica) found in London’s streets and parks, making it one of the city’s most characteristic trees – the capital is rightly known for them.

Despite its abundance, however, its origins are shrouded in mystery. It probably arose in Spain in the 17th century, either as a hybrid between the oriental plane (P. orientalis) and the occidental (or western) plane (P. occidentalis) from eastern North America or as a variety of the former.

First planted in England at Ely, Cambridgeshire, and Barnes (then Surrey) in 1680 – both of these trees are still healthy. The most famous examples, however, are the Berkeley Planes, one of which (pictured above) was valued in 2008 as Britain’s most expensive tree, assessed according to its size, health, history and how many people live nearby. The value was an astonishing £750,000. Planted by a resident in 1789, the plane tree has a circumference of 6ft, and Berkeley Square contains a further 30 precious trees, all of which are at least 200 years old.

The trees are now a renowned characteristic of central London’s parks and thoroughfares; some authorities suggest it forms almost 50 per cent of all the city’s planted trees.

An attractive tree, with large bright leaves, a colourful scaling bark and pendulous spiny flower clusters, the London plane can grow over 100ft tall and a trunk of 13ft circumference. It produces fertile seeds (which suggests it may not be a hybrid) and is naturalised.

All the London planes in Britain have yet to reach maturity and are likely to become the country’s largest trees sometime during this century.

Barbican’s wildflowers

With the Chelsea Flower Show just ending in the bucolic surrounding area of Wren’s Chelsea Hospital, contrast to this the Barbican’s Brutalist housing complex.

Built in the late 1960s it is now weathering to look more dominant and living up to its aggressive military nomenclature. When first constructed, to contrast with the stark concrete, the flower beds were laid out with lawns, bedding plants, trees and shrubs.

[O]ver time these plantings have become both expensive to maintain, necessitating regular watering, and the trees are now causing structural issues. The whole complex is listed, so re-construction or removing the existing flower beds was a non-starter.

Landscape designer Nigel Dunnett was brought in with a brief to provide a low maintenance scheme which looked good all year, obviated the need for regular watering, was resistant to the high winds experienced at some levels and importantly left the concrete flower beds intact.

He has broken thus down to three distinctive areas:
Steppe areas in sun with shallow planting depths adapted to dry exposed sites.
Shrub-steppe had increased soil depth allowed for shrubs and small trees in low densities to promote wildlife.
Light woodland in areas of shade which had better structural support for trees providing shade for perennial ground cover.

Now as the planting matures self-seeding will subtly change this urban landscape giving all year-round contrast.

A full account of this landscaping can be found on Nigel Dunnett’s site.

Featured image: Nicola at A Ranson Note