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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 31 July 2014 by Tim Ingram

Thames Barges & Hog's Fennel

Thames Barges & Hog's Fennel

'And, inevitably, I find, writing about British flowers means writing about British botanists. Left entirely to themselves, our rarities are mute: they have science and nothing else. It is humankind that places values on them and brings them into our history.'

(Peter Marren - 'Britain's Rare Flowers')

 

Faversham is a small town with a long history. Many places can say the same but not so many have a copy (dating from 1300) of the Magna Carta, which has its 800th anniversary in 2015. (Six copies of the 1300 reissue of the Magna Carta are known at Oxford, the Bodleain Library, Durham Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, the City of London and Faversham). Part of the reason for Faversham's historical roots, which date back to Roman times and earlier, is its nautical tradition which results from the long and tidal navigable creek running into the town. The middle of July saw a Nautical Festival celebrating this heritage and as a small and relatively insignificant part of this we took plants (mostly alpines and species from dry climates) down into the town. Few people have quite the interest in plants as they do in the romance of sailing and the drama of Thames Barges and boat building, which still goes on to a limited extent in Faversham, and gives the very evocative images shown below.

 

Thames Barges & Hog's Fennel

None the less the Creek also has that very distinctive and interesting flora associated with the coast and land regularly inundated with salt water, and its own very rare member of the British flora, the umbellifer Peucedanum officinale (or Hog's Fennel). Alongside us at the Festival was a small display put on by the Life Sciences Department of the Natural History Museum and the Kent Wildlife Trust illustrating some of these plants. And if you walk past the moored boats and the up market new housing lining the Creek, and on through the rather wonderful and shanty-like boat yards further out of the town, you eventually follow the Creek as it meanders northwards and here grows Hog's Fennel still in profusion, as recorded by Nicholas Culpepper in the seventeenth century (and earlier by Gerard nearby at Whitstable).

It is a striking plant with some of the presence of the Mediterranean Giant Fennels and like these, in the past, has been used as a source of a gum resin with medicinal and digestive value like so many umbels then and now. It is also the sole larval food plant of the moths Gortyna borelii (Fisher's Estuarine Moth) and Agonopteryx putridella, which are thus equally restricted in their British distribution. Detailed studies of the distribution of both plant and Gortyna have been made with a view to their conservation status in Britain (Ringwood, Hill & Gibson, 2002).

Peucedanum officinale grows on the higher banks adjacent to the salt marshes, but has a much wider distribution in Europe itself, both in coastal and inland regions, and needs quite high summer temperatures for good seed set in autumn. In Britain it grows along the north Kent coast between Faversham Creek and Reculver - but often only in very small numbers - and the Walton Backwaters in north-east Essex, where there are the largest populations. It is one of those plants which is difficult to photograph well - both flowers and foliage tend to merge into the background - but once seen impossible to confuse with any other umbel, a family of British plants which can be quite confusing even for the expert. Like so many there is a symmetry about this plant which results from the umbrella-like inflorescense and the finely cut foliage, but on the whole it is not of interest to gardeners, except for those like myself who view plants as much for their botanical as ornamental worth.

The restricted range and rarity of Peucedanum officinale resembles that of the Lizard Orchid, Himantoglossom, a plant more adapted to a Mediterranean climate and mostly restricted to the south and east of Britain, notably on golf courses such as Sandwich on the east Kent coast. Although there have been suggestions that this may become more widespread with a warming climate there was a boom in this plant in the 1920's, possibly resulting from increased rainfall in autumn and winter and less severe frosts leading to better flowering and seed production. (The mild and wet winter we have had over 2013/2014 and warmer and drier summer now may therefore be conducive in stimulating spread of this orchid, and perhaps also Hog's Fennel and other plants at the limits of their range too). A more sophisticated and detailed view of the potential effects of climate change specifically on alpine plants has been referred to by Helen Johnstone in the Discussion pages of the website - see Plants in the Wild/Climate. And recently in the Pteridologist (Vol. 6, Part 1, 2014), the magazine of the British Pteridological Society, there is an article by Christopher Page (of the University of Exeter) and Irma Gureyeva (of Tomsk State University in Siberia) on the hardiness of ferns, which refers to their use as terrestrial biomoniters of climate change, a consequence of their ecological sensitivity to climate coupled with innate great dispersal abilities via spores. (Although plants can be very adaptable to garden conditions, in the natural environment relatively small climatic changes can have pronounced consequences).

There is a particularly good stand of Hog's Fennel on a high bank next to the wet salt marshes, and looking across these to the Creek shows a patchwork of grasses and other plants, rather nondescript at first glance but actually with its own subtle beauty of flowering grasses, sea lavender growing amongst sea purslane and relatively few other salt-tolerant species.

At Tankerton, further to the east, Hog's Fennel grows an sandy calcareous soil along with Wild Carrot, Alexanders, Spiny Rest-Harrow (in pink and white forms), the ubiquitous Bird's Foot Trefoil and a few Agrimony (with its distinctive barbed fruits).

One of the dilemmas that any town or community faces is that of development and the Nautical Festival at Faversham illustrates this well. On the one hand it celebrates the history and heritage of the town which was based on the strong market tradition of trading goods, especially the products of agriculture in Kent with London, by way of the sea and Thames estuary. On the other it shows how the once thriving industry associated with the Creek has changed to become more like the 'Mayfair' and 'Pall Mall' of Faversham, with 'Old Kent Road' just across the water. Underlying this the undoubted romance and individuality of the boat yards and chandleries still maintain the real function of the Creek. As recently as the 1960's there were plans to demolish many of the very old buildings in Abbey Street nearby, an indication of how economic pressures can easiy over-ride deeper seated historical strengths of a town. Now there are similar proposals by developers to build on agricultural land all around Faversham, which keep these dilemmas simmering.

How does an interest in plants and the local flora relate to this? Weel as must be obvious from my previous diary entries, gardens, enterprise of any sort, always faces competing constraints, and coming to understand the underlying ecology of an environment - such as the long term record of Peucedanum officinale, its relationships with insects like the moth Gortyna, and the plants it grows with - is a balance to out of control growth. Few people were especially interested in the plants we took down to Faversham (we probably don't grow them well enough, although we do in our garden itself), and the Nautical Festival was just so exciting, but it was interesting to be neighbours with the Natural History Museum and Kent Wildlife Trust in the 'Old Kent Road' across the Creek from the Nautical Festival proper. And the Thames Sailing Barges really are magnificent boats!

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