A forest of figs: Exactly how did a major urban fig forest come to be growing along the banks of the River Don in Sheffield?
Article for the Canals and Rivers Trust by David Bramwell
[Of course, don’t expect to see anything like the above on British rivers – that is a tropical fig not the Mediterranean ones which we have! – Ian]
A River Don fig ….. Ian
I’m close to the M1 on the outskirts of Sheffield, standing in the huge car park for Meadowhall – a sprawling metropolis of shops, known to some locals as “Meadowhell”. It’s an unlikely rendezvous with Hallam University’s Professor of Environmental Geography, Ian Rotherham, but then we’re here to find an unlikely plant, growing in abundance along the banks of the River Don.
“Until the 1960s, the Don was biologically dead: just a few mutant sticklebacks and that was it,” Ian says wryly, as we wander towards its banks. “Now the weirs have fish passes and young salmon are returning. We have otters, kingfishers and ten species of fish.”
A car tyre floats past us, a timely reminder that there is still work to do, but then we are on the outskirts of a city that played a key role in Britain’s industrialisation and still manufactures steel today. In fact, it is an indirect result of Sheffield’s steel industry that has brought me to this part of the Don, to see for myself a forest of alien flora that are flourishing on the banks of the river. Ian and I walk a few more metres, accompanied by the sound of traffic and the rush of a small weir.
“There you go!” Ian says, “Mediterranean figs.” Right in front of us is a broad leafy fig tree, overhanging the flowing waters of the Don. “They were grown here commercially in mediaeval times,” he tells me, “big houses would have figs to provide prized fruit. But they were grown under glass and carefully nurtured. What’s unusual about the Don is the sheer number and the extent of them.”
I asked when they were first discovered. “The pioneering ecologist Oliver Gilbert is attributed with discovering the figs on the Don but it was originally Richard Doncaster, a local industrialist and master cutler,” Ian explains.
“As well as owning a steel works, Richard was also an old-fashioned, almost Victorian-like amateur naturalist and archeologist. He and his staff were the first to notice figs growing on the Don outside their factory in the 1970s. But it was Gilbert, in the early 1980s, who asked the crucial question: why are there so many here? To find out, he mapped every patch of vegetation along the urban river and found that the answer lies in the soil. If fig seeds are grown at room temperature they will germinate. He realised that the water here was artificially heated by the steel factories. There were no regulations back then, of course. One factory would take water out to cool the hot metal then put it back into the water course, only for the process to be repeated downstream by another factory. At this point, the Don was running about twenty to twenty-three degrees through summer and winter. A fig seed would think it was in the Mediterranean.”
“And the seeds came from discarded fruit?” I ask.
“Were Sheffield steel workers chewing on fresh figs? I suspect not,” Ian replies. “But fig biscuits were a local delicacy here for a long time, so they would have been eaten by the workers. Figs germinate the same way as tomatoes, the seeds pass through the digestive tract. Back then we had clean and foul water mixing in the Don. The combined sewage system spewed contaminated water into the river. As a consequence we now have fig trees all along the Don and some on the rivers Porter and Sheaf too.”
Ian continues to point out the abundance of figs on the banks of the Don as we continue our walk. Many of the trees have thick trunks, denoting a fine old age. “These look to be fifty, sixty or seventy years old, perhaps even older,” he says. “Maybe we could date them back to when the fig biscuit was invented!”
Nearing a bridge he stops to point out a purple flower.
“Buddleia didn’t use to germinate here either,” he says, “it would only be found in southern cities. In Sheffield it didn’t set seed other than in gardens. Now it spreads everywhere. I see this as testimony to the climate warming up.”
He spots a bright pink flower growing under the trunk of a sycamore. “That’s Himalayan Balsam, it arrived in the 1830s. It also goes under the name of Poor Man’s Orchid, Bobby’s Helmets and Stinky Pops.”
Ian takes a flower head and squeezes. There is a faint pop and the smell of rotting coriander. “You see how it catapults its seeds out,” he says, adding, “and stinks and pops? Environmentalists hate it but the seeds are popular as ground bait for fishermen and spread by beekeepers because bees love the flowers. The truth is, along the Don we’ve now got sycamore, balsam, willow, birch, Norwegian maple and Japanese knotweed – it’s an incredible mix of native and non-native species. It’s what we call recombinant ecology, where native and non-native plants are brought together through urbanisation and globalisation, forging new ecologies. Not everyone is comfortable with this, many of the species can be highly competitive, but they’re coming together as a form of eco-fusion – to generate new ecosystems. It’s been happening for centuries, whether we like it or not.”
“And you managed to get the fig forest protected?”
“Yes, in the 1990s I was part of a group who campaigned for its protected status. It’s the first time that’s been achieved for a non-native species. Back in the dark days of the Industrial Revolution, you wouldn’t have been able to see sky here for six days of the week. Trees wouldn’t grow because they got little sunlight, only smoke and soot. It was a grubby and rather grim environment. Into this vacuum non-native species moved in. The fig is here as an iconic marker and living reminder of the Industrial Revolution.”
I leave Ian at the water’s side, surrounded by fig leaves. Since the dark days of industry, the Don has gone through some dramatic changes but the fig forest is one of the more surprising results of pollution and mistreatment. Who knows what effect the presence of one of Britain’s biggest shopping centres will have on the Don in the decades to come?
Let’s hope there are still people like Ian Rotherham around to help us understand.
Posted on 26/11/2015: