The Helleborine Saga - a return to Wanstead...

...or perhaps it never went away? It certainly escaped, for I re-discovered a solitary specimen in the lane that continues down to Heronry Pond from Warren Road, Wanstead.

The first time I saw a helleborine in this location - Broad-leaved Helleborine Epipactis helleborine - was in August 1998, but I hadn't seen it after 2008. It was the only specimen that I know of in the Wanstead area, and I suspected that after the track was re-surfaced in May 2010 the work would destroy any remote possibility of it returning.

The Broad-leaved Helleborine in July 2006The Broad-leaved Helleborine in July 2006Broad-leaved Helleborine in Wanstead Park - July 2011Broad-leaved Helleborine in Wanstead Park - July 2011As I passed through the gate at the west end of the Plain on 20th July - to look at the grass strip just beyond, near to the golf-course (more about that later) - my mind jumped back to the lost helleborine and I decided to take another look at its previous location. The first thing I spotted in the approximate location was a patch of Enchanters Nightshade Circaea lutetiana. I'd not seen this here before, the nearest being in Reservoir Wood, so I was pleased about that - albeit it is not an uncommon plant. A few yards away I spotted a helleborine, but it didn't look like the broad-leaved one. It was only a foot or so away from the re-surfaced track, so in that respect was lucky to have survived, and it was less than a foot in height, with six or so flowers. But it was there, and a somewhat surprising survival considering the disturbance that it must have been subjected to. However, the fact that it didn't appear to be the Broad-leaved Helleborine that I'd recorded before worried me. This one - in flower - looked to me like a White Helleborine Cephalanthera damasonium. Had I been mistaken in my previous identification, or was this another species? I had to do a search of my old photographs to try to be certain. Search completed, I was both relieved to find that I hadn't made a mistake with my previous ID, but also amazed that in - apparently - almost the same location was another species of helleborine! This seemed a little too coincidental, so I accepted botanist Ken Adams' invitation to have a look, which we did. The flowers were more evident this time (28th July), and Ken pronounced it to be a Broad-leaved Helleborine, albeit looking distinctly unlike the one I'd photographed in 2006. Ken was kind, and said that they were a difficult group, and that variations such as this seem to be dependent on weather conditions. He supposed that it was probably the same plant that had been there in years past.

So - it seems it did survive the path re-surfacing, and still remains the only helleborine known in Wanstead Park.

I returned to my intended destination, just down the track and to the right, and found that the terrible stone-chip surface that had caused the majority of users to use the grass-strip instead, had been covered. The covering was a loose light-coloured sandy material; much more comfortable to walk on - or cycle on, I suppose. However, it was so soft that footprints, cycle tracks and scuffing was very evident, and I found later that the rolling machine that had smoothed it after laying was still working near Park Road. Perhaps it is a material that will harden somewhat after some time - otherwise it's going to be a bit like walking on a beach!

Grassland north of Heronry PondThe grass strip to the north of the Heronry Pond...what it should be : knapweeds, stitchworts and trefoils...Unnecessary mowing - unnecessary running...what it has become: a desire-line path, easier than the adjacent track

Prior to the original track resurfacing, the grass strip that runs alongside on the golf-course side was mowed. This was one of the nicest bits of grassland in the Park, being more like a meadow. Flowers that blossomed in the low grass included knapweeds, bird's-foot trefoil, yarrow and lesser stitchwort. These and the associated grasses provide a lovely habitat for insects: lots of bees, hoverflies and butterflies. Also, and especially, the area provides a breeding habitat for 6-spot burnet moths. One of the problems that arose once the grass was mowed was that - as was intended as a temporary measure - the ground became used as a foot and cycle path. After such a poor surface was used in the construction of the new path it proved much easier to use the grass than to suffer the sharp chippings. Now, even after the recent re-surfacing with the soft material, it is still being used by people as an alternative to the track. It has become a "desire-line" path. The plants and insects are still there, but the area has been considerably reduced in size by the mowing,  This really is a disaster, and it really shouldn't be mown any more, with a slight hope that it may recover to the meadow it was rather than just a muddy footpath.

6-spot Burnet moth Zygaena filipendulae...and the possibilities

Paul Ferris, 28th July