Hunting for the London Rocket – 31st August

At the weekend I listened to an April episode of WildFlower Half Hour by Isabel Hardman, Assistant Editor of The Spectator. She was talking to London-based forensic botanist Dr Mark Spencer about the capital’s strange collection of non-native plants brought in from all four corners of the Earth.

Living alongside these exotic new-comers is one old-time flower that first blossomed when Shakespeare was penning Romeo and Juliet. This delicate yellow-blossomed flower is called London rocket and is a relation of the peppery ‘wild rocket’ commonly found in salads.

London rocket was first recorded in Britain in the 1580s but got its name in 1666 after the Great Fire of London. It loves growing on disturbed land and capitalised on vast patches of burnt wasteland all over the city. In the following years – during the period when the seeds of colonisation were being sown – this weed grew like nothing else. As Londoners re-built the city, wild spaces became scarce and by Victorian times this hardy plant had been squeezed out of the city. Its only foothold in the whole of the UK was in the northerly town of Berwick-upon-Tweed.


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However, London rocket is now re-appearing in the areas it colonised more than four centuries ago, such as by the Roman walls around the Tower of London as well as in the east end by Regent’s canal. It’s likely these populations held on at low ebb in the intervening years.

In a strange way this plant is also a newcomer. According to Dr Spencer it’s been sprouting up in Islington with flowers that are a slightly different colour to those of the established populations. He believes they are distant relatives that have been living cushy lives in peoples’gardens.

What to look out for – This annual grows to around 0.5 metres tall. It flowers between June and August and the seeds ripen between July and September. It has tiny, yellow blossoms at the tip of the branch.

Where – It grows well on disturbed land such as roadsides, walls and waste places. It’s pretty hardy and can grow in light, medium or heavy soils.  Look around the ancient London Wall by Tower Gateway station and the Barbican to find it. It has also been spotted by London Zoo.

And if you DO find it… It’s seeds are edible (it’s also known as hedge mustard seed) and can either be cooked or eaten raw. Its leaves are also edible but known as ‘famine food’ so probably only in case of emergency…

If you spot the London rocket please take a picture and let me know by tagging #rewildinglondon on Twitter. Also listen to WildFlower Half Hour.

Notes from elsewhere

In this FT article Sarah Gordon talks to Exmoor farmers about why Brexit could be good for them. Exmoor lobby groups believe farmers should be offered financial incentives to produce ‘public goods’ as opposed to being financially rewarded for the volume of produce they have (often produced to the detriment of the environment). This means they would get subsidies for things such as properly preserving historic farm buildings or tranquil views. Farmers who actively manage their farmland and woodland might be remunerated and Exmoor could be a pilot scheme. Very interesting read! 

Rare breed sheep are back grazing in the Royal parks this week. Like last year, this flock of whoolly visitors were grazing the meadows in Green Park. Sheep grazing London’s parks would have been a common sight in the 1920s and 1930s, I like the idea of them coming back every summer. 

Lots of my friends promote veganism. However, according to Isabella Tree’s piece in the Guardian, cutting out meat and growing vast fields of soya and maize instead is not the way to save the environment. She says eating organic, grass-fed meat is. These systems rely on traditional rotational systems and conservation grazing which captures large amounts of carbon, among other things. Worth reading. 

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