Did you know that although they look almost identical brackens and ferns are very different plants? In my ignorance, I didn’t, until I showed up for last week’s gardening session at Highgate cemeteries.
Bracken on the other hand is invasive, spreading far and wide via underground rhizomes or creeping roots, with each leafy stem shooting straight up from its underground root. The leaves do die off during the winter although they look pretty manky and untidy but that does not stop it spreading. A bracken invasion is not a great idea because not only will it out compete more desirable plants, but because bracken is toxic to both humans and livestock.
You can try to get rid of it with weedkillers but a much more environmentally friendly way to control it is hand tugging each year’s stems or fronds away from the rhizomes – or, in larger areas, cutting them back. While this will never actually get rid of the bracken, if carried out over several years it will considerably weaken it.
While there are a lot of ferns in the Highate cemeteries, there is also a great deal of bracken, especially in the West cemetery. Here is one of the patches that we set to work on last week, well gloved (the bracken stems can cut your hands like paper) and muscles flexed as the bigger stems can take quite a bit of pulling.
Further down the path that we were working on, fellow volunteer Peter had got totally hooked on ‘mattocking’ and had done a brilliant job on this grave which, when we arrived, had been heavily overrun with ivy.
The graves along the main paths in the west cemetery where we were working are kept in as good nick is allowed by the cemeteries’ manpower and their policy of giving nature a big say in how the cemetery looks. However, once you get ‘off piste’ (which you are heavily discouraged from doing as it can be quite dangerous) the years have begun to tell. I am not sure how many collapsed graves are actually clustered in this pile.
However, I am sure that George Elliott woud be glad to know that he is still both upright and very legible. Although, had his good lady been being buried today, I am not sure that she woud have been too happy about being referred to as a ‘relict’!