The Plants of Wanstead Flats

 

The following is based on an article published in 1981 (FERRIS, P.R. 1981. The Flora of Southern Epping Forest. Part 2: Wanstead Flats and Bush Wood. Lond. Nat . 60: 6-19). It has been updated and changed to some extent for reproduction here to provide an introduction to the plants to be found on Wanstead Flats.

 

For a list of the plants that have been found on Wanstead Flats, click here

For a map showing the recording grid, click here

 


 

Playing Fields

Large areas of Wanstead Flats are maintained as playing fields, mostly for football and comprising about 66 pitches. Because of the particularly unnatural constitution of this grassland, no account has been taken of the grasses used by the City of London Corporation in seeding and re-seeding the worn patches. However, some of the seeds used may find their way into adjacent rough grassland and so increase the number of species to be found there. Plants that occur spontaneously on the playing fields include an abundance of daisy Bellis perennis and dandelionTaraxacum officinale, both of which can make a beautiful show if not mown too soon. Other plants here include birdsfoot trefoil Lotus corniculatus, white clover Trifolium repens, black medick Medicago lupulina and where the soil has become bare, knotgrass Polygonum aviculare. Sand spurrey Spergularia rubra is plentiful on a football pitch to the west of the '1953' plantation and is also found on the Fairground site and by Jubilee Pond.

Rough Grassland

Much of Wanstead Flats that is not used for football pitches is rough grassland. Though basically untended, it used to be grazed by cattle until the BSE crisis which began in the late 1980s stopped that. The last cattle were grazed on the Flats in 1996. During dry weather, the Flats are somewhat prone to fires, either accidental or maliciously deliberate. Some of the most abundant grasses appear to be common bent Agrostis tenuis and red fescue Festuca rubra rubra, with much meadow foxtail Alopecurus pratensis. Wavy hair-grass Deschampsia flexuosa may be found mixed with these and is also in some areas the dominant grass, forming extensive patches. Yorkshire fog Holcus lanatus is locally common across the whole area, as is cocksfoot Dactylis glomerata. Timothy Phleum pratense and smaller cat's-tail P. bertolonii are widely spread and common, but crested dog's-tail Cynosurus cristatus is much less so. Another grass which is widespread but not abundant is mat grass Nardus stricta. Wall barley Hordeum murinum is found in disturbed locations such as that on the edge of the Aldersbrook changing rooms, by the car parking area. It is also found by roadsides. Tufted hair-grass Deschampsia caespitosa is perhaps most common to the south of the '1953' or Coronation plantation.

Creeping willow Salix repens grows in a few widely scattered patches across the Flats. An example of this are the two patches that grow to the south-west of Alexandra Lake. It should be noted that one of these patches is adjacent to the area mown as playing fields, and suffers from that mowing infringing onto the rough grassland. Heath bedstraw Galium saxatile occurs mainly on the Fairground Section of the Flats, where there is also a small amount of lady's bedstraw Galium verum. White campion Silene alba is scattered in patches over much of the Flats, as too are numerous brambles Rubus fruticosus agg. These include the cut-leaved bramble, Rubus laciniatus. Other plants which are quite common in the rough grassland include curled dock Rumex crispus, sheep's sorrel R. acetosella, patches of stinging nettle Urtica dioica, and common vetch Vicia sativa. In the 'Garlic Patch' area, so called because of the amount of crow garlic Allium vineale, one of the less common species is tansy Chrysanthemum vulgare. Just to the south of Alexandra Lake there was a small but well-established patch of heather Calluna vulgaris, but the laying of a drainage ditch destroyed this. To the east of the lake were some plants of harebell Campanula rotundifolia, otherwise recorded only from the vicinity of Long Wood, although these have not been seen in recent years as bramble scrub has invaded. Similarly, some wood sage Teucrium scorodonia near the bus stop opposite St Gabriel's Church in 1992 has also been invaded by bramble, but was still present in 2016. This is probably of natural occurence, although a small amount found in July 2016 on the slope that leads down to the playing-field area known as the Brickfields or the Dell may have been accidentally introduced by way of the machines used to clear the gorse there. It is not known elsewhere on Wanstead Flats, although there was a patch at the edge of Bush Wood by the north end of Belgrave Road wayleave, although this could not be found in 2014 and subsequently.

Various shrubs and bushes are distributed about the Flats; bramble has been mentioned, and gorse Ulex europaeus is quite common. One of the thickest scrub areas is near where the spring used to be (see below). Here gorse, hawthorn and bramble grow together, as well as some broom Sarothamnus scoparius. The slopes that lead down to the playing fields area knoawn as the Dell or Brickfields are noted for the insect-life there - particularly mining bees. As such attempts have been made to clear some of the gorse, but this quickly returns. In 2016, amongst newly-emerging gorse, five patches of heather were found, the only plants of that species known on the east side of Centre Road. Also present nearby were a few plants of wood sage and also one or two flowers of tormentil Potentilla erecta. This had never been found on Wanstead Flats before, the nearest known plants being within the graveyard of the Quaker Meeting House in Bush Wood. Along the lower edge of this slope a considerable amount of hare's-foot clover was also found. Previously, this species was only known from a small patch near Jubilee Pond. Is this too a result of machine-movements on the Forest? A large patch of blackthorn Prunus spinosa could be found near Aldersbrook Road, just north of the spring area, but this whole area has been cleared of scrub to a great extent in recent years, primarily to try to limit some nefarious activities which may take place here. Heath rush Juncus squarrosus is found in small quantities widely scattered about the grassland.  A few patches of petty whin Genista anglica were present, and one patch at least was known in 2002, but none have been found in recent years. The loss of this species seems to coincide with the cessation of cattle grazing on the Flats in 1996 following the BSE outbreak.

Across Centre Road, to the west, some patches of heather Calluna vulgaris are also well established and some work was done in 2006/7 involving a shallow scraping of part of the area in an attempt to re-establish some of the finer grasses and enhance the heather. Broom is abundant here and can cover an extensive area, thus in 1981 I actually called this 'the Broomfields'. Another clearance of the area adjacent to the heather patches took place in 2014, partly to try to limit invasive birch growth that was taking place. This resulted in a small patch of yellow ratlle Rhinanthus minor being found. Here too are some buddleia Buddleja davidii and dog rose Rosa canina, and Hairy sedge Carex hirta has been found in the rather dry grassland near Lake House Road.

Ponds and Wet Areas

Angell's Pond, more commonly spelt Angel Pond nowadays but also known as the Bandstand Pond or Capel Road Pond, is the smallest of the permanent open waters on Wanstead Flats and has been colonised by comparatively few species of plants. Of these floating sweet-grass Glyceria fluitans and soft rush Juncus effusus are prominent. Also present on the mainly bare banks is common spike-rush Eleocharis palustris. In 2000 a considerable amount of New Zealand pigmyweed Crassula helmsii was noted as well as some of the other increasingly invasive aquarium plant, parrot's-feather Myriophyllum aquaticum. A more pleasing find at the same time was a very small amount of buttonweed Cotula coronopifolia. In August 2007, the first purple loosestrife Lythrum salicaria plant to be found on Wanstead Flats was discovered in the pond. The following year a patch was noted by Alexandra Lake. Angel Pond is increasingly suffering from a severe lack of water; in 2008, a seedling rowan Sorbus aucuparia was found growing considerably far into the pond from what should be the dry bank.

Jubilee Pond was before 2002 stone edged and steep sided with no shallows, being some feet deep close to the edge, and known as the Model Yacht Pond. All around the pond the earth was well trodden and compacted and so supported little plant-life. For some years the pond had not retained water. When it did, Canadian pondweed Elodea canadensis as well as an abundance of curled pondweed Potamogeton crispus was present. In 2002 the lake was renovated and renamed Jubilee Pond. Some plants were introduced deliberately, others occurred spontaneously and a record of the changes were being made. For more information about this click here. However, subsequent to the renovation it was found that the new pond suffered from severe water loss, and so further work was done in 2013 and 2014 to try to rectify this. The result is that many of the plants - introduced and otherwise - that had begun to establish there were lost, and a new succession is taking place. (2016)

Alexandra Lake, also known as the Sandhills Pond, is the largest of the waters and when this report was originally written in 1981 had relatively few plants around the edge except for numerous clumps of soft rush, a small amount of trifid bur-marigold Bidens tripartita, some grasses, and white clover Trifolium repens. In recent years many more plants have become established at the pond's margins, including silver birch and willows Salix sp. This may coincide with the loss of the cattle that once used the lake as a source of drinking water, but the aspect of the lake is changing rapidly. In some parts the lake is even becoming difficult to see from the bank! New Zealand pigmyweed Crassula helmsii has become established on the gently sloping banks, particularly on the south margin of the lake. In 2004 a patch of galingale Cyperus longus was found at the south edge of the lake, although this could not be found in 2014. The protection afforded by the two islands of the lake had even prior to 1981 enabled a greater variety of plants to exist here. Yellow flag Iris pseudacorus and great water-grass Glyceria maxima are present by the waterside on the higher of the two islands, and great willow Salix caprea on both of them. On the low island silver birch Betula pendula is numerous. In August 2008, a patch of purple loosestrife Lythrum salicaria was found by the lake.

A smaller and lesser-known pond is the Cat and Dog Pond on Bush Wood Flats, quite near to Lake House Road. A youngster that I encountered there some years ago explained to me that it was called this because it is only there "when it has been raining cats and dogs". It probably never has much depth of water in it, but is probably always damp, and frogs find it attractive, as do dragonflies. There is a considerable amount of soft rush and yellow flag is common. There are some clumps of common reed, too, and this is increasing.

In the north-west corner of the Aldersbrook Section where the ground level rises slightly used to be a spring. This gave rise to a small wet area on the edge of the area known as the Brickfields or sometimes the Dell, which are used as playing fields. Because of the continuing outflow from the spring, it was usually the wettest of the 'marshes' to be found on the Flats. Great water-grass and soft rush were the dominant plants, and amongst these jointed rush Juncus articulatus and toad rush J. bufonius could be found. Celery-leaved crowfoot Ranunculus sceleratus was present and the plants that occur here had a more rounded fruit-head than is usual in this species. Possibly because of changing climatic conditions, but probably due to pipe-laying work along Centre Road, the spring now no longer exists and the marshy area is now dry. Another large area of 'marsh' was to be found across Centre Road on the Fairground Section, consisting predominantly of soft rush, but with some hard rush Juncus inflexus. However, this too is drying up leading to a loss of an important habitat which harboured an interesting collection of rushes, sedges, mosses and liverworts.

Trees

Including the smaller species such as elder Sambucus nigra, holly Ilex aquifolium and hawthorn Crataegus spp., 35 species of trees have been found on Wanstead Flats. These can be growing singly in copses and woods, in lines along roadsides, or in avenues. The total number of trees is quite large for an area which could so easily be seen as 'just grassland'. One of the most widespread species is hawthorn Crataegus monogyna, which occurs as isolated specimens, with other species in woods or copses, or even forming something of a small wood itself, as in the area to the east of Alexandra Lake. A solitary tree growing near the south-east corner of this lake is a Midland hawthorn C. oxyacanthoides, in this case a variety with red flowers. Another of these grows by Capel Road and a few more on Manor Park Flats. Also in this area, near Forest View Road, are a number of specimens of flowering cherry Prunus serrulata and apple Malus sp. These are perhaps relics of gardens attached to wartime prefabricated houses that stood on this part of the Flats until about 1960. A specimen of mock orange Philadelphus coronarius here almost rates as a tree, and may also be such a relic. Elder and holly may be found growing wild almost anywhere on the Flats, they often appear as seedlings amongst other vegetation. Another small tree is laburnum Laburnum anagyroides; one specimen is known near Lake House Road and another by Aldersbrook Road. There are also some aspens Populus tremula, by the edge of the hawthorn wood near NW of the Brickfields. Two other species of poplar are present. There is a Lombardy poplar Populus nigra 'italica' close to a house near the western end of Evelyn's Avenue (see below), and thgere was another on a mound that is the site of the underground toilets which were near the junction of Dames Road and Lake House Road. This tree - prominent from distant parts of the Flats - had been felled by 2016. An impressive grove of hybrid black poplar Populus x canadensis finish the avenue of trees - Evelyn's Avenue - that crosses from Bush Wood to the western extremity of the Flats. Hybrid black poplars are also found spaced along Centre Road, particularly at the northern end.

Evelyn's Avenue - although somewhat depleted particularly as it crosses Wanstead Flats - is a double avenue of common lime Tilia x europaea. Tree avenues such as these were a popular feature during the 17th century. John Evelyn recommended limes as 'most proper and beautiful for walks' and that they should be planted 'at a distance of eighteen to twenty foot'. What may remain of the original 'Evelyn's Avenue' are some impressive sweet chestnut trees within Bush Wood. (photo) The limes are clearly of a later date.

Other trees that have been used for lining roadsides are English oak Quercus robur, London plane Platanus x hybrida and horse chestnut Aesculus hippocastanum. A specimen of sessile oak Quercus petraea is known from Capel Road, near the "Golden Fleece" pub, though this was only noticed in 2007! There is a red-flowered horse chestnut A. x carnea by Aldersbrook Road.

The groups of trees that were planted on Wanstead Flats as an amenity feature often contain a variety of species, although in many oak species and beech Fagus sylvatica may outnumber the rest. The wood by the north side of Alexandra Lake, for example, contains about sixteen species of which beech is the most abundant. There are, however, almost as many English oak and just one red oak Q. borealis. A single alder Alnus glutinosa which was present in 1980 is now gone, though a Corsican pine Pinus nigra laricio is - apart from yews - the only conifer on the Flats. The yews, when mentioned in 1981, were stated as being "small and few"; in 2007, although there are no large trees, the numbers have risen substantially. Many of the more recent trees may be found adjacent to mature trees such as London planes growing by roadsides (photo). On the Fairground Section there is a copse that contains about equal numbers of the two species of oak just mentioned, plus a few hornbeam Carpinus betulus. In the 'East Copse' on the Aldersbrook Section, beech is the most abundant species, but with almost as many oaks comprising almost equal numbers of red oak and English oak. There were also two whitebeams Sorbus aria, although these are now dead (photo). There are a number of silver birch Betula pendula, although in 1979 only one of these was still alive. In the 'North Copse', there are three locust trees Robinia pseudoacacia; one of these has suckered badly, and these are now spreading south and east onto the rough grassland (photo). In the 'South Copse' is a specimen of sweet chestnut Castanea sativa. In 1979 the majority of birches all over the Flats were dead or dying. These trees were probably at the end of their natural life-span here, and the drought of 1976 may have helped to hasten their end. Only on the islands of Alexandra Lake were there many still living. However after the cessation of cattle grazing on Wanstead Flats in 1996, birches were able to re-establish themselves and by 2000 there was virtually a new wood of them on the Fairground Section, and in subsequent years they have been spreading to such an extent that this section - an SSSI - is threatened. The elms Ulmus spp. too, are mostly gone as large trees, although many persist as suckers from a dead tree or its stump, particularly at the west end of Capel Road. Exceptions to the missing large elm trees are two or possibly three East Anglian elms Ulmus minor ssp. minor by Belgrave Road Wayleave. Mistletoe Viscum album has been found on a few trees, both hybrid black poplar and hawthorn, on the section of the Flats nearer to Bush Wood, and in 2016 two mistletoe plants were seen in trees on the Aldersbrook section, not far from the junctions of Aldersbrook Road, Centre Road and Blake Hall Road.

The Coronation Plantation is a small area on the Aldersbrook Section of the Flats which was planted with trees in 1953 to commemorate the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Many of the trees are oaks which are all very small, though interestingly they decrease in siz from south to north. The northern part of the original plantation - which until 1979 had a wire fence surrounding it which gave some protection from grazing and trampling - is thus primarily grass.  A small patch of heath bedstraw Galium saxatile occurs here, a species which is known elsewhere on Wanstead Flats, but particularly on the Fairground Section. Other plants to be found in the plantation area include white campion Silene alba and numerous brambles Rubus fruticosus agg. These include the cut-leaved bramble, Rubus laciniatus.

For more information on the trees of Wanstead Flats, click here.

Roadside Verges and Houses

Nearly all of Wanstead Flats is surrounded by either roads or by the back gardens of houses. The roadside verges often consist of a ditch, sometimes with a bank. All too often the ditches need to be cleared of dumped rubbish, creating a disturbed situation in which many plants are to be found. Creeping thistle Cirsium arvense and lesser burdock Arctium minus are common in this situation. Red dead-nettle Lamium purpureum and black horehound Ballota nigra are quite common along the banks, the latter particularly in stretches along Capel Road. Some less common plants also manage to survive in the ditches. There was for some years one tiny patch of ivy-leaved toadflax Cymbalaria muralis hanging on to the side of a ditch by Capel Road. Rather more prominent by the end of this road near Angel Pond was some wormwood Artemisia absinthum. Mugwort A. vulgaris is much commoner by the roadsides. Man's disturbance of the verges has resulted in more species of plants on Wanstead Flats than would otherwise occur. The rubbish deposited here includes outcast garden plants and seeds. The double-flowered forms of feverfew Chrysanthemum parthenium and soapwort Saponaria officinalis that are well established may be examples of species introduced in this way. There are a few species of shrubs that have become established, possibly by being cast out from houses, but the possibility of deliberate planting should not be excluded. By Capel Road, in the section nearer to the Golden Fleece pub which has more of a hedge than much of the rest of the Flats, there are specimens of Oregon grape Mahonia aquifolium, laurustinus Viburnum tinus and tree mallow Lavatera arborea. Many daffodils are planted along here, and probably also the sweet violets Viola odorata that are spreading across the bank near the Golden Fleece. There was for a time a mass of soapwort by Aldersbrook Road at the Manor Park end of the Flats.

A patch of alexanders Smyrnium olusatrum was noted in Lake House Road not far from the junction of Dames Road in 1998. By 2005 this species had spread along the road-side almost to Centre Road. By 2006 there were patches along Centre Road on the Fairground side of the Flats, and in 2007 the first patch was noted on the Aldersbrook section at the side of Centre Road opposite Lakehouse Road. The species was also noted in scrub at the north end of the Belgrave Road Wayleave on the Bush Wood section of the Flats. In 2015 some alexanders was noticed at the wast end of Capel Road, and in 2016 a large patch was present in the wooded area just west of Aldersbrook changing rooms. Near the old wall that surrounds Aldersbrook petrol station and Heatherwood Close (a remnant of Aldersbrook Farm), there are a number of species which have probably been either cast out or deliberately planted. These include some snowdrops Galanthus sp., yellow archangel amiastrum galeobdolon ssp. argentatum and large cuckoo-pint Arum italicum . The wall itself has harboured some ferns - maidenhair spleenwort Asplenium trichomanes and hart's-tongue Phylliyus scolopendrium. It is the wall itself that gives these the opportunity to survive - only one other hart's-tongue is known from Wanstead Flats and that was noticed in 2016 on the side of the ditch parallel to Centre Road, near Long Wood. Also by Centre Road in the vicinity of Long Wood, a patch of longleaf Falcaria vulgaris in 2008 was stretching along something like a 2 metre length of the roadside bank; unfortunately, half of the width of this was mowed away in August of the following year. However, in 2016 it is still present. The edge of the Flats by the back gardens of the houses in Belgrave Road is particularly rich in unusual plants, including balm Melissa officinalis, snowdrop Galanthus nivalis, three-cornered leek Allium triquetrum and spotted dead-nettle Lamium maculatum.

Although more species surely still remain to be discovered on Wanstead Flats, and the distribution, particularly of the grasses, needs further investigation, an overall impression gained during the survey undertaken in the early 1980's was that of the 250 species recorded, many of these were few in number. It was found that something like 60 species are to be found on Wanstead Flats that are not present in Wanstead Park, and 105 species in the Park that do not occur on the Flats.

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