During her beating the bounds project, one of the things Dove Grey Reader (blogger extraordinaire) talks about, is trying to be more observant of the flora and fauna through the seasons as she walks the mile circuit she has marked out for herself around her house. I love watching the roll of the seasons, and the cycling changes in the lives of the flowers and insects around me, and I’m always looking for ways to help me be better at noticing these things. It’s part of the reason I’ve been working my way through Margaret Erksine Wilson’s watercolours over the months of this year. So when I spotted a wildflower walk being put on by Devon Wildlife Trust and led by the botanist, Jeremy Ison, I put my name down sharpish.
This wasn’t just any wildflower walk, it was in particular a walk around the old city walls of Exeter, looking at the wildflowers that inhabit the cracks and crevices. Although Exeter city walls don’t have the renown or majesty of somewhere like York or Chester, they are actually the most complete of any city in the UK so there’s lots to see, and there are lots of plants that have adapted to the particular conditions of walls. I can now tell my Maidenhair spleenwort from my Black spleenwort. Contrary to what you would expect, the maidenhair variety has a thin black line down the central vein and the black version doesn’t. Who names these things?! I can also identify two other spleenworts that love walls, Wall rue and Hart’s tongue. Harts tongue, as with many of the other wall plants, will grow to much bigger sizes in other habitats, but tends to stay small on walls where nutrient levels are low and plants are more exposed.
I can also pick out a pretty daisy called Mexican fleabane, the snapdragon-like Purple and Common Toadflax, and the garden favourite, Red Valerian. I love the name of Pellitory-of-the-wall and learnt that it’s a favourite food source for the Red Admiral butterfly. Another fantastic name is that of the fern Polypody. It’s such a friendly sort of name, and now I know it, I keep seeing it everywhere, and gladly greet it like any other neighbour in the street.
One of the things I found most fascinating about the walk is learning how the history of the city is reflected in the plant life on the walls. A particular sort of grass present in the walls near the quay (of course, I’ve forgotten its name!) would have been brought over from Europe in grain sacks which supplied the water mills. Oxford ragwort is a really funny one. Prior to the industrial revolution it was only found in Oxford. It was introduced there in 1690 via the Oxford Botanic Garden, from where it quickly escaped, and was soon growing in most walls around the city. The industrial revolution brought the railways and Oxford Ragwort found that it was just a bit partial to the railway clinker beds. It then spread throughout the country via the railway.
The pretty ivy-leaved toadflax will only grow on walls over 100 years old, hence is found on some segments of the city walls but not others. It’s all over our boundary wall in our garden. Big Dreamer is forever pulling it out as he’s only just finished re-pointing the whole thing. While it may one day prove the wall’s downfall the toadflax is also a testament to just how long the wall has been there. Not quite as long as the city walls I’ll give you that, but still looking pretty fine.
We are off on our hols next week so no post from me. I’ll see you when I get back!