Since 1975 I have been gathering records of the flora of the cemetery during occasional visits there. Although the survey was not done on a planned basis, the report is intended to complement those surveys that were published some years ago in the London Naturalist as "The Flora of Southern Epping Forest". As with those reports, apart from providing a record of the flora of the City of London Cemetery, it is also intended to present a readable synopsis of the flora to both experts and beginners alike. For this reason the English and scientific names are given in the text and in the species list.
As may be expected in such an environment, many of the plants have been deliberately introduced, both by the Cemetery Authorities as part of the park-and-garden-like atmosphere, and by members of the public to commemorate their loved-ones. This has led to more-than-usual difficulties in deciding what to include here, and I have been quite flexible with this. I have included ornamental trees, because the cemetery is an excellent place to get to see these, but not so many shrubs - although some may be included. To give a flavour of the shrubs that were planted in the early days of the cemetery, as well as ubiquitous laurel and rhododendron the list includes lilac, holly, Laurustinus, Aucuba, Forsythia, Olearia, Skimmia, larch, privet, Azalea, Laburnum, Crataegomespilus and hawthorn, as well as rarer trees and shrubs such as Ailanthus, Arbutus, Magnolia, and Pterocarya Caucasica (fraxinifolia). A publication of 1856 “Specification of Trees and Shrubs to be supplied to the City of London Cemetery now being formed at Little Ilford” includes tenders for some astounding numbers of plants, for example for 6000 cherry laurel Prunus laurocerasus!
Some of these Introduced trees and shrub species may have become naturalised - the Ailanthus (tree of heaven) is an example. On the other hand, I know of only one specimen of Arbutus (strawberry tree). This particular tree blew down in 2007, but the stump was tidied and allowed to regrow. In 2013 it presents a small but attractive aspect, with the species usual trick of providing both flowers and its distinctive fruit at the same time. Usually with the flowers I have only included those that have spread away from their plantings on the graves into adjacent lawns, and appear to be established. But there are a few which are only found on gravestones but seem to be self-sustaining and because of their interest value I have included; poppy anemone and thrift are examples of these. I have tried to indicate somewhere in my listings if a plant is a deliberate introduction and what its status is.
In the following text, I have divided the cemetery ground into categories which are easily recognisable and which I feel give rise to a different type of flora.
The Plants of the City of London Cemetery
The City of London Cemetery in the Little Ilford area of Newham in east London comprises 200 acres of land immediately adjacent to Wanstead Flats, very near to Wanstead Park and close to the corridor of the River Roding. With such a large amount of land in such a location it is not surprising that there is a wealth of plants to be found there, both naturally occuring and deliberately introduced. There are a variety of habitats, ranging from almost "wild" to very formal, but the overall impression is of a garden: A City of London Corporation promotional booklet of 1929 was called The Cemetery in a Garden. Here I have attempted to briefly describe some of the major distinctive habitats.
The lawns constitute the greater part of the cemetery area, and even though the frequent cutting may appear to spoil the potential for wild-plants, still a good number may be found, including many that are not present on adjacent Wanstead Flats. In the spring one of the first plants to flower in quantity is early crocus Crocus tommasinianus. A variety of garden crocii, including Bieberstein's Crocus Crocus speciosus, make their appearance usually a little later than these. Field wood-rush Luzula campestris is plentiful over wide areas, and this in places is together with early violet Viola reichenbachiana, common violet V. riviniana and sweet violet V. odorata. The violets are often also found on gravestones. Spring beauty Montia perfoliata is found in places, sometimes on graves but often around the bases of trees nearer to the roads. Similarly, bluebells Hyacinthoides spp. occur mainly by roadsides and grave-sides, probably indicating deliberate introductions. Some lovely groups of primroses Primula occurs in the lawns, particularly near to the church, but these also include some pink-flowered forms indicating hybridisation with garden forms. This indicates the difficulty of deciding on naturally occurring or deliberately introduced plants here. Early summer is notable for the amount of ox-eye daisy Chrysanthemum leucanthemum, which is abundant almost everywhere in the grass between gravestones. Also found are a variety of speedwells including Germander speedwell Veronica chamaedrys and common field-speedwell V. persica. In some locations, in July, field madder Sherardia arvensis may be found - a species which is not known from elsewhere in the study area.
In 2005, when this report on the flora of the cemetery was written, I suggested that "Perhaps a regime of maintenance might be developed in the future that takes botanical needs more into account. In the older and more remote parts of the cemetery there must be areas where grass could be cut perhaps two times a year - in June after the spring flowering and again in autumn. This would allow flowers to seed and to recover. Though certainly some people visiting might wonder at the "untidiness" of such areas, as many would enjoy the spectacle of wildflowers flourishing." By 2015, to some extent this was being carried out and it was more common to see - at least for a time - areas of the site where the grass had not been mown or strimmed.
Though much of the land is lawn, with grave and tombstones therein, there are about seven miles of roadway within the grounds. Many of these are lined by mature trees, an example being those avenues of horse-chestnut Aesculus hippocastanum that radiate from the main gate. Elsewhere, avenues are lined with such species as London plane Platanus x hispanica, and common lime Tilia x europaea. An interesting aspect of some road-sides is the variety of holly specimens that have been planted, including variegated-leaf types and the distinctive Ilex aquifolium 'Ferox' or hedgehog holly.
Only relatively small areas of the cemetery could be called "wild". The most important of these are a small area of woodland near to the eastern boundary fence known as The Birches, and adjacent to this an area known as 'The Shoot' which until 2015 was used for the recycling of green waste. This area is described below. The woodland area had been encroached upon by this tipping, and a stream which used to run in a deep gully through the wood had been culverted and then covered. Presumably the stream is of run-off water from the slightly higher ground of Wanstead Flats to the south-west (see Alexandra Lake). The outflow can still be seen just within the cemetery fence - a constantly flowing stream which now constitutes the first visible source of the Alders Brook. Before the culverting took place - I have been told - kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) used the stream. Near to the eastern boundary fence, within the wood, a pond was created as a wildlife refuge and water from the strem flows out through a culvert directly into this. The most significant tree of the woodland is grey poplar Populus canescens, with numerous mature trees as well as young ones. There are some large horse chestnuts Aesculus hippocastanum seeding readily, as does sycamore Acer pseudoplatanus. Silver birch Betula pendula, of which some mature specimens are to be found along the edge of the wood by the boundary fence, is another species which readily seeds itself. There is some scattered holly Ilex aquifolium, elder Sambucus nigra, and many yews Taxus baccata. The ground cover is in much of the area dominated by ivy Hedera helix. Nettle Urtica dioica exists on the edges of the wood, as does daffodil Narcissus spp. and Spanish bluebell Endymion hispanicus, both likely to have been introduced by way of throw-outs. Nearer to the tip area is a large expanse of ground elder Aegopodium podagraria. There are some pedunculate oaks Quercus robur, goat willow Salix caprea, and wild cherry Prunus avium along the northern edge of the wood, and Turkey oak Quercus cerris at the southern edge. The wood is a quiet area of the cemetery, and rarely visited. Much use is made of it by a variety of birds, even woodcock (Scolopax rusticola) have been seen. In 2006 this area was designated as a nature reserve, known as The Birches.
The cemetery's Conservation Management Plan (page 10), highlights the area known as The Birches as significant in terms of its history, ecology and archaeology.
The area has been left virtually untouched for around a century, and is a valuable site for encouraging wild flora and fauna to thrive. It was intended that Nature Trail factsheets would be devised with the assistance of the Wren Conservation & Wildlife Group. Factsheets would be free of charge upon request. It was hoped that this could provide a first-class wildlife habitat which benefits the local ecology and ensures the development of education and recreation for visitors now and long into the future.
Volunteers from the 21 Royal Engineers ACF started work on clearing a path on Saturday 9th October 2004. The Nature Reserve opened for visits by the public in 2006. At the Cemetery Open Day on Sunday 13th August, a walk was led around the Nature Reserve by myself (Paul Ferris). About 15 people attended, and although weather conditions weren't conducive to much wildlife activity, the visit seemed favourably received. Future tours may be planned.
For more details about the Birches Nature Reserve click here
For photographs of some of the wildlife to be found in the cemetery click here
A vast number of trees have been introduced to the cemetery to enhance its park-like atmosphere. Few are of great age; most probably planted since the cemetery was founded. Of those that pre-date this a grand English oak that is sited at the end of Belfry Road, almost at the northernmost point of the cemetery, may well be the oldest and perhaps derives from the time of Aldersbrook Manor. This tree was struck twice by lightning strikes in the early hours of 23rd July 2013, but seems to have survived well. All of the trees (except those in the Birches) have been identified and tagged on behalf of the cemetery, and the list comprises over 3000 specimens. Of these 40 or so species have been included in a booklet entitled "The Cemetery Tree Trail", which may be still available from the cemetery office, although is now out of print. To pick a few out of those included: coast redwood Sequoia sempervirens, of which there are a few specimens scattered about the cemetery, a monkey puzzle Araucaria araucana, maidenhair tree Ginkgo biloba, and a strawberry tree Arbutus unedo. Unfortunately the latter blew down in a strong wind, but the stump has been allowed to re-grow (photo). In March 2017 a specimen of Wollemi pine Wollemia nobilis (see here) was planted, the first known to have been so in this area.
The area known to the cemetery staff as 'The Shoot' was a disturbed piece of land to the north and west of the wood, bordered by Poplar Road on its NW boundary. It was disguised and sheltered from the rest of the cemetery by the wood itself, by a tree-lined embankment on its SE edge, and by a similar embankment behind a line of trees, including Lombardy poplar Populus nigra 'Italica', along Poplar Road. A continuous regime of tipping various types of rubbish meant that the enclosed area was gradually being in-filled, and the wood encroached upon. The tip itself did contain numerous plant relics, some of which persisted for a short time - as with the vegetable marrow Cucurbita maxima that was found in 1979. Some of these found their way to the waste ground around the tip and to the edges of the vehicle tracks in the area. Thus many specimens of garden daffodils Narcissus spp. grew nearby and even occasionally a garden tulip. Many small animals used the tip area, foxes (Vulpes vulpes) were common and hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus) have been seen, as well as rats. In the summer the noise of house crickets (Acheta domesticus) used to be persistent on warm and even less than warm days, but became less and then not at all over the years. On the northern-western edge of the tip area the embankment which to separated it from the rest of the cemetery may have been the remnants of a previous tip. A dense and impenetrable tangle of bramble Rubus fruticosus agg. occupied the slope nearest the tip, and at the top some fine plants of gorse Ulex europaeus occured, spread along a track which gives an access from the cemetery into part of the tip area. The track itself provided a habitat for a variety of plants, including shepherd's purse Capsella bursa-pastoris, common winter cress Barbarea vulgaris, corn spurrey Spergula arvensis, evening primrose Oenothera spp., and some fine displays of ox-eye daisy Chrysanthemum maximum. In summer, although there is a green-waste tip a few metres away, this part of the tip area was warm and peaceful and a lovely place for plants and insects. However, during the latter part of the 2000's, much of this was cut into and levelled, and gradually the gorse disappeared. On the lower ground, much of it rutted by vehicle tracks either recently or in the past, species such as common horsetail Equisetum arvense, sand-spurrey Spergularia rubra, coltsfoot Tussilago farfara, scentless mayweed Tripleurospermum maritimum, and bristly ox-tongue Picris echioides could be found.
In early 2014, the line of poplar trees that gave their name to Poplar Road, on the northern side of the Shoot, were felled. This was to extend the area available for use as burial space, as this is becoming scarce even though the cemetery is so large. This work gave me opportunity to access some of the "wilderness" area, near to the Birches Nature Reserve but until then virtually inaccessible. It was a landscape of wooded gullies and fallen trees which could have been in the heart of some ancient forest, rather than within the formal surroundings of the City of London Cemetery. Perhaps most notable was a bank of snowdrops Galanthus nivalis, which may have been unseen by humans for decades!
During 2015 this area was extensively landscaped so as to provide more burial space - a resource which even this large cemetery is now running short of. The result in mid-2016 was an area which was now fully visible from much of the surrounding public parts of the cemetery, consisting of a large low mound, dipping gradually towards the north-east, with steeper banks along Poplar Road and more so to the south nearer Limes Avenue. The Lombardy poplar trees that were removed to facilitate the work were replaced - a necessity as the adjacent road is called Poplar Road. In mid 2016, the area was still settling, with casual plants including garden pansy Viola x wittrockiana and garden lobelia Lobelia erinus, growing over the sand/gravel soil. Most dramatic in early July was the amount of scented mayweed Matricaria recutita, which covered the area. A cursory look at the area at the beginning of November 2017 provided the first specimens of common cudweed Filago vulgaris noted in the Wanstead Wildlife area. Five plants were found, scattered over the reclaimed land. At the end of September 2022, the first burials were undertaken on the new area, known now as Haywood Lawn, William Haywood having been responsible for the design of the cemetery.
The Nursery and disturbed areas
From time to time pieces of ground within the cemetery is disturbed for one reason or another. This is particularly true of areas around the perimeters. Also, near to the north boundary fence is an area called The Nursery. This is a fenced portion of land not open to the public which is used for a variety of purposes. This includes the storage and movement of soil used within the cemetery, and as such is in a constant state of change. There are earth tips as well as rutted and muddy areas, and also rank grass. Hard rush Juncus inflexus has been found here, and other species of opportunist plants found in these disturbed areas from time to time include toad rush Juncus bufonius, corn spurrey Spergula arvensis, scentless mayweed Tripleurospermum inodorum, scented mayweed Matricaria recutita, spear thistle Cirsium vulgare and celery-leaved crowfoot Ranunculus sceleratus. Grasses include rough meadow grass Poa trivialis, soft brome Bromus mollis, tall oat grass Arrhenatherum elatius and Yorkshire fog Holcus lanatus. Trees found that have established themselves include yew, sweet chestnut, Turkey oak and Swedish whitebeam Sorbus intermedia. The boundaries of the cemetery, particularly that to the east, provide a habitat for hundreds of garden daffodils Narcissus spp.. Some of these may find their way through the boundary railings and then constitute plants of other localities - as for example the Alders Brook or the Aldersbrook Exchange Lands (the old sewage works site).
A wide variety of plants may be found either growing on or associated with the gravestones. Many are plants that have been deliberately introduced, and some of these have either evidently persisted in this particular location for a considerable time or else have spread from the graves themselves into the surrounding grassland. An example of this is thrift Armeria maritima, usually found planted on the graves, but occasionally in the ground immediately adjacent. Houseleek Sempervivum spp. can also sometimes be found adjacent to the graves on which they were originally planted, as well as other related species including biting stonecrop Sedum acre, English stonecrop Sedum anglicum, reflexed stonecrop Sedum rupestre and Caucasian stonecrop Sedum spurium. As would be expected, an early plant to flower in the year is winter aconite Eranthis hyemalis, but it is not common and more usually on gravestones. However a small amount does grow adjacent to these. Associated with gravestones too is wild strawberry Fragaria vesca, often to be found growing beside a slab
Plants that appear spontaneously on gravestones include spring beauty, speedwells Veronica spp., petty spurge Euphorbia peplus, sun spurge Euphorbia helioscopia, stitchworts and chickweeds and a variety of lichens and mosses. On the sides of some - usually damper and older - gravestones, the liverworts Lunularia cruciata and Marchantia polymorpha are present. Harebell Campanula rotundifolia is found in an unusual situation growing on the roof of a large vault grave in Anchor Road, and polypody Polypodium vulgare grows from slabs in Church Avenue. Other ferns growing usually from the sides of gravestones are buckler Dryopteris dilatata, hart's-tongue Ophioglossum vulgatum, bracken Pteridium aquilinum, maidenhair spleenwort Asplenium trichomanes and male fern Dryopteris filix-mas. A single adder's tongue Ophioglossum vulgatum was known behind a grave from 1975 to 1996, but has not been found subsequently.
It may be noted that gravestones immediately adjacent to each other will frequently have a very different collection of plant species.
There are three ponds: by the New Crematorium, by the Old Crematorium and in The Birches Wood. The first two are maintained in a formal manner, and most of the plants that are associated with them have probably been deliberately introduced. The pond by the new crematorium has great spearwort Ranunculus lingua, common water plantain Alisma plantago-aquatica, flowering rush Butomus umbellatus, hard rush Juncus inflexus, soft rush Juncus effusus and jointed rush Juncus articulatus. Also in the pond is horn-wort Ceratophyllum demersum, duckweed Lemna minor, a small amount of greater duckweed Spirodela polyrhiza, and in 1994 just a few fronds of water fern Azolla filiculoides.
The Old Crematorium pond has hard rush, horn-wort and duckweeds, as well as some resident red-eared terrapins (Chrysemys scripta) which are present and sometimes abundant in many of the local ponds and lakes. During the late summer of 2007 the pond was renovated and some additional plants were introduced; some of these - it may be supposed - were moved from the New Crematorium pond. Noted after the renewal, on the rockery banks was royal fern Osmunda regalis. During this work a specimen of spotted orchid Dactylorchis maculata that had been known here for some years was disturbed, but remarkably, two plants were noted in the same spot in July 2009 and plants were still present in 2022.
The third pond is much more natural in appearance, although was created deliberately within what is now The Birches in an attempt to enhance the wildlife habitat within the cemetery. The pond is sourced from a concrete-clad culvert which carries drainage of surface water from parts of the cemetery and, potentially, from Wanstead Flats via the overflow outlet from Alexandra Lake. The pond's outlet is via another culvert which carries water below the cemetery's boundary fence towards the Roding. The outlet of this culvert constitutes the first visible flow of the Alders Brook. The pond is considerably surrounded by vegetation and overshadowed by trees, and is almost unseen until very close to; it is also difficult to access. With the creation of The Birches Nature Reserve in 2006, it is now possible to view the pond to some degree from within The Birches. In 2007, the pond was more or less filled with celery-leaved buttercup Ranunculus sceleratus. The concrete culvert itself acts as a habitat for a variety of mosses (as yet unidentified), but there are some nice specimens of hart's-tongue fern.
In attempting to write a flora of the cemetery, decisions had to be made as to which species were to be included and which to be left out. In such formal and managed surroundings, many species are obviously deliberately introduced. It was not thought worthwhile including planted shrubs and it would be virtually impossible to cater for bedding plants! However plants that evidently have been deliberately introduced, but have the appearance of having become to some extent naturalised, are included. Many of these occur only either on or close to gravestones, but some are much more widespread. Similarly, trees and shrubs which have been planted and which do not appear to be reproducing either by seeds or by suckers, are indicated by a # (hash) sign. In the end, it has been my own decision whether to include a species or not. Notwithstanding this dilemma, the Cemetery is a wonderful place to visit, to do some botanising or simply to enjoy it as a park or garden. Even with those species to be found that have been deliberately introduced and may not even persist very long, the cemetery provides an ideal and safe environment to see some plants that we might otherwise have to go a long way to experience.
Doubtless there are other species of plants in the City of London Cemetery to be found, identified and included, and little work has been done on the status of the species recorded in this paper. In the list that is available, not enough information is available to describe the frequency of individual species. In many instances, only the grid-square in which a species has been found is given, whereas in others some indication to the actual location is shown. That a species is not shown from other squares does not of course mean that it is not present.
The sequence of plants in Table 1 follows the order and nomenclature of Stace (1997). The letters and numbers after some of the entries in these tables refer to the squares shown in the map, each square being 0.25 x 0.25 km.
Acknowledgements for the earlier version of this paper (2000) were due primarily to Mr. J.P. Luby, past Superintendent and Registrar of the City of London Cemetery, as well as the cemetery staff. Particular thanks are expressed to the late Richard Baker of Manor Park for helping to gather records.
For the revised version (2007), acknowledgements are due to Mr. Ian Hussein, Director of the Cemetery, to Xa Naylor, past Service Development Officer, to Gary Burks, the present Superintendent & Registrar, and other members of the cemetery staff who have been so helpful in gaining access and providing information.
CLAPHAM, A.R., TUTIN, T.G. and WARBURG, E.F. 1962. Flora of the British Isles. Ed. 2 Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
CLIVE STACE. 1997. New Flora of the British Isles. 2nd Edition. Cambridge University Press
MITCHELL, A., and WILKINSON, J. 1982. The Trees of Britain and Northern Europe. Ed. 2 Collins, London.
GIBSON, G.S. 1868. The Flora of Essex.
CITY OF LONDON CEMETERY AND CREMATORIUM CONSERVATION MANAGEMENT PLAN, 1 DECEMBER 2004
THE CITY OF LONDON CEMETERY AND CREMATORIUM NEWSLETTER, Issue 10, 2005/6
LAMBERT, D. 2006. The Cemetery in a Garden: 150 Years of the City of London Cemetery. City of London Corporation
The City of London Cemetery and Crematorium - update on some of the issues referred to in the above article.
The Corporation of London's Public Relations Office had produced a publication - The City of London Cemetery and Crematorium Tree Trails. This was available at the Main Gate and features almost 70 varieties of tree to be seen on two tree walks. The publication in 2013 is thought to be out of print.
A survey of the trees in the cemetery was undertaken by the cemetery authorities, the species recorded and the specimen trees tagged with a number. 3622 trees were identified and mapped, notes being made of their state of health and any remedial work that needed to be undertaken, and about 92 species are known to be present.
A policy of allowing some areas to remain in a state to allow for seasonal wildlife to be enhanced has been instigated - these are called Seasonal Wildlife Zones.
(Originally written in 2005 - updated on an occasional basis thereafter)