Observations on a Changing London Landscape by Dennis McGlade
I recently became interested in documenting my observations of unusual plant growth which I view as anecdotal evidence of climate change. This past May, I wrote a post about a Tradescantia pallida (called by the common name Purple Queen/Purple Heart) that I noticed had survived a Philadelphia winter. I discovered even more evidence of a warming Northern Hemisphere during a recent trip to London.
In 2007, I was in London for The Kew Guild’s annual spring meeting of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. During my visit, I was walking along the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal and, to my surprise, I stumbled upon a seedling Washingtonia robusta (called by the common name Mexican Fan Palm) growing out of a weedy planting. This past spring, I was in London again for the same event and decided to see how the palm had survived. After five years, the palm had a trunk that was more than one meter in height. This was surprising because I would not have expected it to survive at all, let alone flourish. The Mexican Fan Palm is native to those arroyos and canyons in Baja and Sonora Mexico. It typically thrives in a warm desert or Mediterranean climate, with long, hot and sunny summers, experiencing little to no frost.
From my experience as a landscape architect working in Southern California, I’ve become very familiar with the Mexican Fan Palm and the climates in which it prospers. It is one of Los Angeles’ signature, skyline trees—captured for posterity on many post cards and David Hockney paintings. To come across one growing outdoors in London seems strange. Los Angeles has a very sunny, low humidity, warm Mediterranean climate, with mostly frost-free winters — a climate not exactly equated with London, which has much cooler summer temperatures and much colder winters, with very short days and weak sunlight.
The palm has come to symbolize places of sybaritic pleasure if not paradise. It is amusing to think of palm trees becoming “normal” in a city that not so long ago, was famous for dank and cold, foggy streetscapes. A lot of snow fell in a Dickensian Christmas making poor Tiny Tim’s pitiable infirmities even worse to bear. At the end of the nineteenth century, the painter Paul Gauguin did not retreat to London but rather to Tahiti. But that was then; this is now.
As I continue to travel to London over the upcoming years, I’ll be interested to see what other unexpected surprises I will find sprouting up and how the changing climate in London will continue to transform the city’s iconic landscape.