A botanical mystery tour

Playwright Deborah Nash takes an unusual journey through the borough’s botanical history

Walthamstow Marshes

Walthamstow Marshes

As we comb Walthamstow Marshes looking for the adder’s-tongue fern, Eamonn Lawlor, a Lee Valley Park ranger, tells me: “It’s a charismatic little plant.”

But it’s shy. “You have to dig your eyes down deep. You have to focus on it.” We ‘dig’ for about an hour among the long lush grasses near the crater pond, but we don’t find this fern that looks unlike any fern you might have seen. It has a distinctive blade-shaped frond out of which rises – priapic-like – a tall spike lined with spores. You may be able to catch its likeness on Google, but the reality is rather different: Its diminutive size, the fact that it is solitary, and grows close to the ground.

I’m bent double with clouds on my back when suddenly I see it. I holler confidently and Eamonn stumbles from his patch to shoot a sharp glance at where my ecstatic finger is pointing. “That’s not it,” he says, and my sense of triumph dissolves with the first spits of rain. “It’s bright green,” he adds, helpfully.

The Adder's Tongue Fern

Illustration of the adder’s tongue fern taken from a book published in 1892 on the ophioglossum
vulgratum (written in Russian). Credit: Linnean Society of London: www.linnean.org

The presence of the rare adder’s-tongue fern growing in the marshes protected them from redevelopment in the 1970s, assigning to them the status of a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). This you can read on Lee Valley’s multitudinous information boards, but I intend to explore a little further.

Two days in two libraries later, I’ve uncovered some interesting facts and folklore about the retiring adder’s-tongue fern. Firstly, it has one of the highest chromosome counts of any species; between 120 and 720 chromosomes. Humans, by comparison, have just 46. With such a wealth of genetic material I would expect it to walk, talk and prop up a bar, but no, this fern’s main characteristic, besides its scarcity, is as an ingredient in adder’s spear ointment, once used to heal the inflamed udders of cows. This fact I forage from the Dictionary of Plant Lore where someone by the name of Versey-FitzGerald observed in 1944 a second application: “Crushed and boiled in olive oil, it is used as a dressing for open wounds. Most gypsies… denied knowledge of it, but I have had it given to me by three old women in widely separated districts.”

Cleveland House

Luzula Forsteri on the doorstep of Cleveland House

At the Linnean Society’s library in central London, there is a book dedicated to the Ophioglossum (the nomenclature of the adder’s-tongue fern derives from Greek, meaning ‘snake tongue’). The slim volume is locked away behind the grille and glass doors of the bookcase. Naturally, it is also on the top shelf that you can only reach if you are at least fivefoot and ten-inches tall and happy to climb the step ladders, fumble with the keys, and locate the correct volume. This I do; the librarian takes the book and places it gently on the white pillow on the desk where I settle down to peruse it. I am looking forward to reading a tome describing this extraordinary plant, but not a word can I understand. It is written entirely in Russian.

The adder’s-tongue fern puts Waltham Forest on the botanist map. But imagine, there’s several more. Luzula Forsteri takes its name from Edward Forster the Younger (1765-1849) whose family lived in Cleveland House, Hoe Street. His two brothers, nephew and father were keen plantsmen and their genealogical tree branches through the generations with the same leafy obsessions, the same banking professions, even the same Christian names. In less than a century, one line holds five Thomases, two Edwards and two Benjamins. Luzula Forsteri is a narrow-leafed rush. It usually grows wild in acidic woodland soil. I have kept an eye out for it on my damp tramps around Epping Forest and Hollow Ponds but you will be unsurprised to hear that it remained safely undiscovered.

Luzula Forsteri

Luzula Forsteri

Never one to give up (even when I really should) I scoured the internet and sourced a nursery in Dublin, the only place in the world where you can buy Luzula Forsteri. I paid £30 to bring it to Walthamstow, which is a lot for a clump of grass. Four days later it arrived in a grey plastic bag inside a taped, padded envelope. I’m fond of the Luzula Forsteri; it’s a pretty plant. It has a dense crown of long slender leaves that are topped by sprays of tiny rust-coloured flowers and buds that look almost bridal in their decorativeness. I’m pleased to see it has weathered its journey, and I pot it and take it to the front doorstep of Cleveland House where I photograph it. Luzula Forsteri had finally come home, 210 years after its naming.

After two more days in two more libraries, I am out in St Mary’s churchyard in Walthamstow Village searching for the Forster family vault, which I manage to locate. This esteemed family of banker-botanists rests in a tomb whose inscription is so worn you can scarcely read the names of Edward, Benjamin and Mary, and whose lid is broken and has fallen in; a presumptuous horse chestnut sapling sprouts out of it, a flourishing vegetal flag. Shelley’s poem Ozymandias came to mind: “Nothing beside remains, round the decay, of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare.”

Forster family vault

Forster family vault at St Marys Church, Walthamstow Village

Yet it’s not quite true in the case of the remarkable Forsters, of whom plenty still remains if you know where to look. Once again, I’m back at the Linnean Society. In the council room on the fifth floor, there’s an oil painting of Edward Forster the Younger, the society’s vice-president in 1828. He sits in line with other stiff Victorian gentlemen, whose personalities are as impenetrable as their dark coats.

One can picture them stepping purposefully out of their frames to draw up a chair at the long conference table, over which their portraits hang, to discuss their latest discoveries. Edward Forster wears a heavy jacket with gilt buttons. His face is soft, round, gentle; a little feminine. It seems fitting that the whimsical Luzula Forsteri should be named after him.


The Mysteries in a Box, Deborah’s theatrical response to the plant life of Waltham Forest, will be performed later this year, as part of the Walthamstow Mysteries series. For more information:

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