Letting Go and Coming Back

“If you want to keep a plant, give it away!” Brian Holden rejoiced. We were in the Growing Communities’ Springfield garden, about ten years ago, where for some time sithe, a kind of perennial scallion, had been cultivated in the alium round of the rotation. Brian had cultivated these from a few bulbs gifted to him a further few years previous by Sari, whose partner had cradled them over the ocean from his – and its – native Caribbean island of St.Kitts. We’ve picked up the story at the point where Sari enters the garden for the first time, and is thrilled to find a whole bed of sithe growing, having lost her original stock to some disease or pestilence.

My mind has returned to this moment, and Brian’s profound utterance as, a year on from our planting out the wee rhizomes of the endangered Walthamstow Yellow Cress (see May 6, 2013 entry), it has established well enough for us to propagate, and send it out into the wide world. As we reach the end of the Waltham Forest Cultivate Festival, there are now five guardians of this freak East End watercress, making its survival in this part of the world more certain, just as its original sole habitat on the Walthamstow reservoirs appears less so. Furthermore, I’m proud to report that Slow Food UK have ushered this shy leaf into the hallowed ranks of “Forgotten Foods”, one of only nine vegetable foods to achieve the distinction. Forgotten but not gone, if our release strategy works.

Such selling or gifting of plants and seeds, the letting go in order to keep, is a common practice that might be variously seen as generosity or enlightened self-interest. Or, to use the term popularised by Peter Kropotkin, “mutual aid”. In his 1902 book of the same name, he presented extensive examples of how nature cooperates, within and across species, for shared benefit. Written shortly after Darwin, the concept provides a sane, rational and rich response to the tendency to reduce the notion of “survival of the fittest” to “every man for himself, and devil take the hindmost”.

Today as in Kropotkin’s time, this tendency has a powerful lobby. That’s why the EU is seeking ways to outlaw the distribution of “unregistered” plants like sithe and the yellow cress. That’s why genetic modification technology continues to be pushed, though it is failing in its own supposed objectives of reducing pesticide use and increasing yields; and it is driving small farmers into extinction; setting brother against sister and children against Mother Earth.

The garden in spring speaks of different possibilities, of working together for sensual and material abundance. In the glasshouse afternoon, the broad bean flowers emit a heaven-scent perfume better than any bottle. The bumble bees bumble about them, as bumble bees do, feeding themselves and performing the vital act of pollination. So we can eat, the beans can reproduce to fight another day, and, going underground, bacteria at the roots fix nitrogen for the following crop, whilst worm casts its dark magic. “The earth is made a common treasury for all”, the Diggers proclaimed as they set about establishing their outlaw agricultural communities as the English Revolution reached its climax. They may have been naïve, still they weren’t wrong.

On The Yellow Cress Road

“The best things in any garden happens by accident” – Monty Don

Our loyal box scheme members and market stall supporters will this week receive something very special in their salad bags: leaves of the Walthamstow yellow-cress.

I began trudging the Yellow-Cress Road at the start of this millenium. I had moved to Walthamstow, in the London Borough of Waltham Forest. The council there had marked the centenary of the death of its most celebrated son, William Morris, in 1996, and by the time I arrived they had still, quite understandably, not managed to bring themselves to take down the party decorations. His portrait was pinned to many of the town’s streetlights, like a Robert Mugabe or a Chairman Mao: for a moment I thought I might have stepped into some Arts & Crafts socialist utopia.

It didn’t take long to be disillusioned, yet here I stayed. I had come to pursue the vision of OrganicLea: “to sustainably rehabilitate the food growing heritage of the Lea Valley”, a vision to which, of all the landowners in the Lea Valley, only the aforementioned council had offered any practical assistance.

Around this time I was reading the latest book by Richard Maybe. The botanist and writer, perhaps still most famous for his seminal foraging manual, Food For Free, had published his epic guide to UK plants and their social relevance, Flora Britanica. Much of the book concerned plant lore from exotic rural locations I could only dream of, but one small entry leapt out at me:

“An up-and-coming cousin of water-cress is Walthamstow yellow-cress, Rorripa x armoracioides, a speciality of the damp wasteland round Walthamstow Reservoirs in London”

Magic. Our little unassuming corner of East London had, hidden away, its very own variety of watercress. Surely this deserved further investigation; bringing to light; celebration. Trouble was, the cress really was hidden away. The reservoirs were, or so I thought, the preserve of a few anglers, and even if I could sneak in under the pretence of fishing, I would end up scouring vast bodies of water for a particular, undescribed form of watercress: needles and haystacks came to mind, only with a higher likelihood of getting my feet soaked. The trail went cold for a decade or so.

Despite the hype, I, like many people in the Lea Valley, found nothing to thank the 2012 Olympic Games for: save the one, following, thing. Inevitably, a small portion of all the money being sloshed around was grasped to fund some interesting fringe cultural activities: one was a botanical boat cruise of the Lower Lea, narrated by none other than Mr. Maybe. Just like the sporting spectacle, tickets for this were hard to come by, but at least one deserving local got hold of one: my friend Nicole, a founding mother of OrganicLea.

Agent Nicole was duly dispatched to make enquiries as to the whereabouts of the, now grail-like, wildflower, but the mission was an anti-climax. Maybe had no recollection of the Walthamstow. He stated, in his defence, that it had been a long time since he had researched the book. A fair point: but the fact that the yellow-cress had become extinct even in the mind of edible weeds’ most public champion, made my chances of finding the plant, and perhaps the plant’s chances of protection, that bit slimmer.

Suddenly and unexpectedly, a serendipitous meeting shortly afterwards turned things around, for good. Anaelle, one of OrganicLea’s garden outreach workers, had been training gardeners at the wonderful  “Living Under One Sun” community garden in Tottenham. For their end-of-course summer trip, they came to Hawkwood. Amongst their number was a botanist called Brian Wurzell, who was fascinated by our plantlife: not so much, I have to admit, by our resplendent vegetable cultivars as our rare forms of fungal disease: but that’s another story. Knowing, by reputation, that Brian had carried out ecological studies in the region for a number of years, I thought to ask him if, by chance, he had ever heard tell of the mythical yellow-cress. “Yes”, he replied without hesitation, I discovered it!” Cue bright light and choirs of angels.

Here, in the words of a subsequent e-mail from Brian, are the facts: “I originally found [it] close to the Lockwood Reservoir in 1971, was totally baffled and eventually, in 1974, was directed by the BSBI to send a specimen to Dr. Bengt Jonsell at Uppsala University, Sweden. He replied straightaway to give me its name, Rorippa x armoracioides, and its parental ancestors, R. austriaca and R.sylvestris. It was already known in Scandinavia but this was the first record for GB. The English name which commemorates its original site is again given in Clive Stace’s New Flora” [which is kind of the bible for serious botanists].

Immediately Brian seized on my interest in the plant, as he was concerned that it was seriously threatened in its current location. Thus it was on a bright Guy Fawkes Day 02012 that he took me to Walthamstow reservoirs, “our Lake District” as he calls it, and showed me the original site of discovery and, low and behold, more precious than gold. The flower of Waltham Forest.

He had eventually found the plant in two other London locations, both of which were since built on, and the original Lockwood colony has been reduced, first, by the building of a ring main over half of its extent, and now by the rapid encroachment of Himalayan Giant blackberry into the remainder. Having sought the permission of the Fishery, I dug up a number of rhizomes already struggling in the shade of the bramble, and set off to Hawkwood to pot them up immediately.

Here, they were brought on in trays, left outside through a harsh Scandinavian-style winter, then brought back in again to get it flushing early. The Yellow Cress was, alongside lettuce “Cerbiatta”, our first transplants of the year to go out, planted by myself Aimee and Jem one fine April day, in spring’s youth.

Although in the watercress genus, the yellow-cress neither shares a close appearance, nor the habitats, of the former. It grows in rough grassland, and looks not unlike the oriental salad Mizuna, with its light green colour, serrated leaves and slight hairiness. Though Brian himself had never tasted the plant, we assumed that any relative of watercress must have salading potential.

The yellow-cress has a mild, mustard flavour, that might be unpalatable if you were faced with a huge plateful of it, but adds a fine piquance to a bowl of mixed salad leaves. I’ve always felt that a mixed salad was a preferable ideal of a multi-cultural society than a melting pot: that different additions can complement, and temper, each other, creating something greater than the sum of its parts, rather than reducing them to a common denominator. In its finer moments, Walthamstow, a town of great social diversity with no one dominant group, achieves this.

At the risk of taking such plant-people analogies a little far, which is not something that has ever worried me before mind, I love the yellow-cress because it is a true Walthamstownian. Which is to say, like all East Enders, it is an immigrant to these parts. Brian posits that it most likely arrived here, as a piece of vegetative material, or seed (though most of the cress’ seed is sterile) on the feet of a bird migrating from Northern Scandinavia.  The cress might theoretically have settled anywhere in this green and pleasant land, or beyond, yet it found its niche here, in this rough patch of city earth, after the splendour of the fjords. Like I did, hailing from the rolling fields of Hertfordshire; or our Tuesday volunteer Nava, transplanted from the farmlands of Sri Lanka: we all find something of beauty, something worth living and fighting for, in this Dirty Old Town, though we may not have ended up here wholly by choice.

We hope you enjoy the taste of the Walthamstow yellow-cress, and that you may become as glad of this plant as we are: glad of our communities, our wild and cultivated places, our capacity to rescue one another, and our ability to surprise one another; surprise ourselves.