Urban Flora Lockdown Diary, May 2nd 2020

Whilst we humans are locked down, the urban flora is unfettered, and seems to be looking better than usual. It’s been cold in Edinburgh, but quite sunny and therefore daytime ground temperatures have risen. On Saturday 2nd May we took a walk in the Braid Hills. Although we’ve lived in Morningside for over 40 years, we’ve never wandered to the south of the Hermitage in the area that was formerly a (golf) driving range. Views are breath-taking. Parts of the landscape are quite surreal, like this dried up pond, made using a rubber mat and planted with Typha latifolia, which is struggling to survive at the moment.

It’s still a bit early in the year for recording, and I had my camera instead of my notebook. This was more of a reconnaissance – finding a few spots I might visit in the coming weeks.

It was a glorious morning. We heard skylarks and saw a Buzzard. People were out in substantial numbers: joggers, dogwalkers and families. Social distancing was being followed; people were calling ‘hello’, ‘lovely morning’ and ‘thank you’. The authorities call it ‘lockdown’ but ‘daily exercise out-doors’ is encouraged, and the roads and pavements are quite busy today.

There was a feeling that spring has truly sprung. Leaves were unfurling around us, and the wild raspberries were almost in flower.  Beneath the raspberry thicket, abundant seedlings of Impatiens glandulifera, Himalayan balsam,were to be seen; it is one of the most invasive species here, but handsome nevertheless. Because most of the grass hasn’t grown up yet, some of the herbaceous species were particularly well-displayed. Unusually, it wasn’t even windy, so this was a good chance to photograph the common species. I’d never thought of Plantago lanceolata as a photogenic subject but in the morning light it can look quite impressive, its flowering scapes resembling squirming snake-heads.

The grasses were beginning to grow, but the only one flowering so far was Alopecurus pratensis. The abandoned field was dotted with tussocks of Dactylis glomerata but there was also a very stiff grass which I think was Tall Fescue Schedonorus arundinacea. Last year we found it in the Braidburn Valley Park, not far away.

I thought I saw cowslips in the far distance, so I rushed forward with my camera.  But the yellow dots were only Ficaria verna, the Lesser Celandine, which has been around for many weeks now and is still flowering. Here and there patches of Germander Speedwell, Veronica chamaedrys, were evident, the emerging foliage red-tinged at this time of year. The lower flowers of each inflorescence were opening, bright blue and fresh-looking. The sky was nearly the same shade of blue – with less vehicle traffic and no aircraft we’ve had clear blue skies for a month now.

Sunshine makes all the difference  to spring flowers. I expect the opening of flowers on spring mornings is a response to internal temperature rather than the sun’s rays per se. In many cases the flower acts as a solar collector, and tracks the sun, as has been shown in many alpine species. On this morning the air temperature was a balmy 13.5 oC, and walkers were sometimes in shirt-sleeves; not any actual ‘taps aff’, we don’t do it in Morningside.

I spent quite a bit of time prostrate on the grass trying to photograph the smaller species.  In the picture is Cerastium fontanum, the Common Mouse-Ear. I wondered whether this specimen was C. glomeratum but it wasn’t sticky.

After the Braid Hills I walked around the streets of Midmar. Geranium lucidum, the Shining Crane’s-bill has become locally common, and I’ve never seen it as floriferous as now.

I also saw Claytonia perfoliata, Spring Beauty, growing around the base of a street-tree. That seems to be its preferred habitat in south Edinburgh, growing in the small patch of soil which hasn’t been tarmac-covered, and no doubt well-irrigated by the trickle of water from the tree-trunk. Then I visited the wet wooded area to the west of Blackford Pond to check out the current state of that invasive neophyte, the Few-flowered Garlic, Allium paradoxum. It’s doing well, and actually looks quite attractive as white ground flora in the dappled shade. There are blue-bells too, which hopefully will take over in a week or so when the garlic dies down.

It seems to be the best spring ever for dandelions. There are some magnificence displays. Around here, it seems to like double-yellow lines. I like to see it when it shoves up between slabs. I know plants can develop huge turgor pressures, but the site of dandelions peeping out of paved areas never ceases to amaze me. If Taraxacum were not a so common as to be a ‘weed’ people would be buying it at garden centres. Of course, the foliage makes a good addition to salad. In the future, it may be bred for rubber production – the latex from its peduncles makes a good substitute for the rubber from Hevea brasiliensis (now grown widely in China).

This one is in a disused churchyard. It’s a very small churchyard but well worth a quick botanical visit. There is a ‘keep out’ sign which was put up after they saw me poking around last year.

Botanical recording in these COVID-19 times cannot involve travel and the friendly company of fellow botanists. However, lone recording is still feasible and I think it can be very rewarding to make multiple visits to local sites. Perhaps we can all write little diaries and swap experiences. Some people may be skilled enough to make movies, in fact, ‘virtual’ field excursions.

John Grace

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