Julia Stephenson: The Green Goddess

I'm the Sloane ranger in the great flower hunt
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The Independent Online

I am sitting at my desk in my urban eyrie with its glorious panoramic views of the Peter Jones haberdashery department, surrounded by bunches of exquisite wild flowers.

These are not bought from some fancy florist, flown at huge environmental cost from Kenya, but the result of foraging around the hedgerows of Sloane Square.

I am taking part in the Common Plants Survey, organised by the wild-flower protection charity, Plantlife, which is monitoring the health of Britain's flowers. Volunteers are sent an Ordnance Survey grid reference of their area, plus a pamphlet picturing 65 common wild flowers, and are encouraged to find as many of them as possible within a short distance of their homes.

The wild flowers that grow are a good indication of the health of the local soil. Rich, fertile earth will grow a good variety, while a preponderance of one or two kinds will indicate a particular aspect: for example, sorrel and plantain only thrive in acidic soil, whereas lots of nettles mean a high level of nitrogen.

I'm afraid that map-reading is not a strong point, so I dragooned Summer, my glamorous Naomi Campbell-lookalike neighbour from downstairs, to help.

It's a joy having good neighbours. Years ago, when I lived in a flat in Notting Hill, everyone was very snooty and studiously avoided one another. I was never bohemian enough for Notting Hill, so quickly heeded the siren call of the mothership and returned to Sloane Square.

Everyone in my current house is very friendly and tolerant. They need to be, given my penchant for The Bee Gees and my insistence on draconian recycling measures - to say nothing of my prospective windmill application.

As an unreconstructed town mouse, I thought my chances of spotting any of these flowers extremely remote (especially as I have terrible eyesight but cannot face the thought of glasses). How wrong I was.

Kensington and Chelsea is the most built-up London borough, so it's rather short of hedgerows. But we do have pockets of rusticity; for example, the grounds of the Royal Hospital, bequeathed by our greenest king, Charles II, in 1682.

So Summer and I set off in the morning, joined by my pal Connie, who works as an air stewardess and stays with me when she stops over in London. After a gruesome 20-hour flight from Honolulu she was hoping to crash out on my couch, but no luck.

Just three minutes' walk from the busy King's Road is the park, a secret bucolic paradise, complete with a Lady Chatterley-style gardener who suddenly appeared from behind the bulrushes. He proved indispensable to our research.

He quickly found 20 of the 65 common plants in the survey. These included harebells, bellflowers, chivers, yarrow, travellers-joy, celandine and several types of nettle. Many of these plants are considered weeds, but on close examination are intricately beautiful and subtly coloured.

We're so spoilt for choice with the vast variety of flowers, heavily sprayed with toxic preservatives and flown in from the other side of the world, that it's easy to forget the simple, more muted, but infinitely more appealing beauty of our native flora and fauna.

Each of our counties loses a wild-flower type every year due to modern agriculture, John Prescott, house- and road-building, paving over our front gardens and spraying our lawns with weed killer.

But each one of us can begin to reverse this trend by sowing wild flowers in our gardens, buying British organic vegetables and supporting Plantlife in its wild-flower campaign.