Railway flora

 

 

Taiwan 2014b
Abandoned railroad tracks, overgrown by mosses, ferns, and other plants, Jiancing Historic Trail. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Originally, the Jiancing Line Lumber Transportation Track, eastern Taiwan, was about 5.5 km long. As its name implies, it was constructed to bring out timber from the Taipingshan Mountains, part of which today constitute the Taipingshan National Forest Recreation Area.

Jiancing Historic Trail was established along remains of this old railroad track. Besides the tracks themselves, you may study skids, switches, trolley axles, and deserted workers’ dwellings.

Jiancing means ‘seeing the sun’. The name was possibly given due to the fact that this area is often enveloped in fog, and finally seeing the sun breaking through the fog might be relieving.

 

 

 

Vegetation has conquered this abandoned railway near the small town of San Cataldo, Sicily. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Many plants have adapted to a life along railways, which often constitute a refuge – at least until the worker arrives with chemical herbicides or a mower.

 

 

 

Apiaceae Umbellifers

 

Ferula communis Giant fennel
There are two types of this huge plant, one poisonous to livestock, and one non-toxic. Young stems and inflorescences were eaten in Ancient Rome, and they are still a source of food in Morocco. It is found in the Mediterranean region, in Arabia, and in eastern Africa, southwards to Tanzania.

Pictures, depicting flowering specimens of this impressive plant, are shown on the page In praise of the colour yellow.

 

 

Giant fennel, growing along an abandoned railway, San Cataldo, Sicily. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Asteraceae Daisy family

 

Artemisia vulgaris Common mugwort
This plant is native to the major part of Temperate Europe and Asia, and also to North Africa and Alaska. In other areas of North America, it has become naturalized. Originally, it was restricted to dry grasslands and sandy beaches, but when farming was introduced, it readily spread to fields, and today it is regarded as a noxious weed.

In China, this species is sometimes used as a substitute for A. argyii to make moxa, which is much utilized as a healer in traditional Chinese medicine.

 

 

Common mugwort, Skanderborg Railway Station, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Cirsium vulgare Spear thistle
This extremely spiny plant, also known as bull thistle, is widely distributed in the major part of Europe, North Africa, and western Asia, eastwards to the Yenisei River. It has also been accidentally introduced to many other places, including North America and Australia, where it is often regarded as an invasive weed.

Spear thistle is biennial. During the first year, it produces a leaf rosette, which overwinters and grows into a stem, up to 1.5 m tall, the following summer, displaying an abundance of beautiful red flowerheads. Despite its formidable armour of spines, this plant has been elected as the national flower of Scotland, hence another common name, Scottish thistle. Other lovers of the spear thistle include honey bees, bumble bees, and butterflies, which feed on the nectar, and various finches, including goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis), linnet (Carduelis cannabina), and greenfinch (Chloris chloris), which greatly appreciate the seeds.

 

 

Spear thistle, Ringsted Railway Station, Zealand, Denmark. Horsetail fleabane (Erigeron canadensis) is seen in the background. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Erigeron canadensis Horsetail fleabane
This plant is also known as Canadian fleabane, and some authorities regard it as belonging to the genus Conyza. It is native to North America and parts of Central America, but has been accidentally introduced to large parts of the world. In many places it has become a serious pest, especially in Europe and Australia, but also in its native North America. It prefers to grow in undisturbed areas and is particularly troublesome in newly established plantations, where it is able to resist herbicides, growing to 3 m tall, thus depriving planted species of nutrients and sunlight.

This plant contains an oil with a turpentine-like smell, which, supposedly, should deter fleas, hence its common name. Another popular name is bloodstanch, given by herbalists, who claim that an extract from leaves and flowers arrests haemorrhages from the lungs and alimentary tract.

 

 

Horsetail fleabane, Ringsted Railway Station, Zealand (top), and Skanderborg Railway Station, Jutland, both Denmark. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Lactuca muralis Wall lettuce
This species, by some authorities called Mycelis muralis, is native to most of Europe, north-western Africa, and West Asia, eastwards to the Caucasus, where it may be found up to an altitude of 2,300 m. It has also become naturalized in North America and New Zealand.

The main habitat of this plant is woodlands, but it may also be found in open areas, including forest clearings, city walls, stone fences, and along railroads. The specific name is derived from the Latin murus (‘wall’).

 

 

Wall lettuce, growing between railroad tracks, Horsens, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Lactuca serriola Prickly lettuce
This plant is named for the row of spines along the mid-vein on the underside of the leaves, and the leaf margins also have fine spines. The leaves are very variable, from entire to deeply divided. It is a tall plant, under favourable conditions growing to 2 m tall, with a slightly fetid smell.

It is native to Europe, North Africa, and temperate areas of Asia, and has also become naturalized elsewhere, growing along beaches, roads, and railroads, and as a field weed.

 

 

Prickly lettuce, growing at Ringsted Railway Station, Zealand, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Senecio vernalis Eastern groundsel
This species blooms early in the year. Originally, it was a native of south-eastern Europe and western Asia, but was introduced to other parts of Europe in the 1700s, presumably with imported crops. Today, it is extremely common, especially on poor soils, and is regarded as a severe pest in grass, clover, and alfalfa fields.

 

 

Eastern groundsel, Copenhagen Railway Station, Denmark. A number of other plants are also seen, including corn salad (Valerianella locusta), dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), colt’s foot (Tussilago farfara), soft brome (Bromus hordeaceus), and snowdrop anemone (Anemone sylvestris), the latter an escape from a garden, as it does not grow in the wild in Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Senecio viscosus Sticky groundsel
As its name implies, this plant, also called sticky ragwort or stinking groundsel, is very sticky. The following quotation gives a vivid impression of its stickiness: Sticky groundsel has characteristic glandular hairs, which secrete a substance that is as sticky as fly paper, and by the end of summer it is quite a mess with all the dust, sand, small insects, hairs, feathers, downy seeds, its own cypselas [seeds], candy wrappers, and who knows what else that have stuck to it.” (Source: luontoportti.com/suomi/en/kukkakasvit/sticky-groundsel)

Originally, sticky groundsel was a native of southern and central Europe and western Asia. Since the 1800s, it has spread considerably, mainly along railroads, and has become naturalized in northern Europe, Canada, United States, and elsewhere.

 

 

Jylland 2017-18
Sticky groundsel, growing at railroad tracks, Skanderborg Station, Denmark. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Sonchus asper Prickly sow-thistle
A stout plant, which may grow to 1.2 m tall, but is often much lower, often with a reddish stem. The leaves are extremely variable, obovate, spatulate, or elliptic, to 13 cm long and 5 cm wide, entire or irregularly divided, base eared and strongly recurved, clasping the stem, margin heavily spiny. Flowerheads are relatively few, to 2.5 cm across, in an open terminal cluster, ray florets numerous, bright yellow, disc florets absent.

This species presumably originates from the Mediterranean region, but has become naturalized in most parts of the world. In Nepal, a paste of the plant is applied to wounds and boils. It is also collected for fodder, and tender parts are cooked as a vegetable.

The generic name is a Latinized form of sonkhos, the ancient Greek word for sow-thistles, whereas the specific name is Latin, meaning ‘rough’ or ‘coarse’, alluding to the prickly leaves. The common name refers to the fact that pigs like to eat these plants, and to the leaves, which resemble young thistle leaves.

 

 

Prickly sow-thistle, Silkeborg Railway Station, Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Sonchus oleraceus Common sow-thistle
This species is probably native to Europe and western Asia, but has spread to most other areas of the world. It is regarded as an invasive plant in many countries, including Australia, where it is a serious problem in crops. It is easily identified by its slightly prickly, deeply divided leaves.

The specific name is derived from the Latin oleris (‘edible’). Young leaves can be eaten as salad or cooked like spinach.

Other pictures, depicting this species, may be seen on the page Plants: Urban plant life.

 

 

Jylland 2013-15
Common sow-thistle, growing along a railroad track in the city of Aarhus, Denmark. The red plants in the background are a red variety of Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum var. rubricaule), and the green plant is tufted vetch (Vicia cracca). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Taraxacum officinale Dandelion
This plant is ubiquitous everywhere in Europe, also along railroad tracks, and it has been spread to many other areas of the world. It is described in detail on the page Plants: Plants in folklore and poetry.

 

 

Dandelion, Alvesta Railway Station, southern Sweden. Also seen are young plants of common sow-thistle (Sonchus oleraceus) (left of the dandelion) and prickly lettuce (Lactuca serriola) (upper left corner). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Boraginaceae Borage family

 

Myosotis arvensis Field forget-me-not
This plant is native to Europe and Asia, but has become naturalized elsewhere, including New Zealand and North America, where it sometimes becomes invasive. It is a most annoying weed in fields, as its seeds may retain their ability to sprout for about 30 years.

 

 

Field forget-me-not, growing at Nyborg Railway Station, Funen, Denmark. Prickly-headed poppy (Papaver argemone) and prickly lettuce (Lactuca serriola) are also present. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Brassicaceae Cabbage family

 

Alliaria petiolata Garlic mustard
This plant, a native to Eurasia and North Africa, has been spreading considerably in later years, presumably due to the increased nitrogen deposition.

Around 1860, it was introduced to United States as a spice herb, and since then it has spread to most states, and to Canada as well. Its natural enemies of the Old World, such as fungi and insects, are not present in North America, which leads to a much higher seed production. Garlic mustard has invaded numerous forests, where it is able to dominate the understorey, hereby expelling native plants. It is listed as a noxious species in at least nine states in the U.S.

 

 

Leaves of garlic mustard, growing at Nyborg Railway Station, Funen, Denmark. To the right cleavers (Galium aparine). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Arabidopsis arenosa Sand rock-cress
This species is a native of central Europe, from France eastwards to Latvia and Ukraine, and from south-eastern Denmark south to northern Italy and Macedonia, but has been introduced accidentally elsewhere.

 

 

In Sweden, sand rock-cress is very common, mainly spreading along railways. This picture is from Alvesta Railway Station, in the southern part of the country. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Barbarea vulgaris Common wintercress
Today, this yellow-flowered plant, also known as yellow rocketcress, winter rocket, or wound rocket, is very common in northern Europe, especially in disturbed places, including abandoned plots, and along roads and railways. This was not always the case, as it was introduced during the 1700s from its native areas in southern Europe, North Africa, and the Near East. It has also been introduced to many other places, including Iceland, North America, and Australia.

The generic name is adapted from a medieval name of the plant, Herba Sanctae Barbarae (’Saint Barbara’s wort’). Holy Barbara was regarded as the patron saint of artillery men and miners, and as wintercress was considered a good healer of wounds, it was named after her.

According to legend, Barbara was the daughter of a rich pagan, living in the 3rd Century. Her father kept her locked up in a tower in order to protect her from the influence of the outside world. However, she secretly became a Christian and rejected to marry the man her father presented to her.

Before going on a journey, her father ordered a private bath-house to be constructed for her near her dwelling, but during his absence, Barbara had three windows put in it, as a symbol of the Holy Trinity, instead of the two originally intended. When her father returned, she informed him that she had become a Christian. He dragged her before the prefect of the province, but, despite being cruelly tortured, she held true to her Christian faith.

At night, her prison was bathed in light, and every morning her wounds were healed. Torches that were held near her to burn her were extinguished. Finally, she was beheaded, and her father himself carried out the death sentence. As punishment, he was struck by lightning and his body consumed by flame.

Barbara was buried by a Christian, and her tomb became the site of miracles. In his book Reisebeschreibung nach Arabien und andern umliegenden Ländern (Gloyer und Oldshausen, Hamburg, 1837, in English Travels Through Arabia and Other Countries in the East, Performed by M. Niebuhr, Gale Ecco, 2018), German astronomer and mathematician Carsten Niebuhr relates that he was shown her grave in the church of the village Karmelis, near Mosul, northern Iraq, in 1766. Some nearby ruins were said to have been her father’s palace.

 

 

Common wintercress, Alvesta Railway Station, southern Sweden. A small dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is seen to the right. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Campanulaceae Bellflower family

 

Campanula rapunculoides Creeping bellflower
A native of southern Europe and West Asia, this plant has become naturalized in North America, where it is considered an invasive weed, dispelling other plants.

It resembles several other bellflower species, but can be identified by its long, one-sided inflorescence. It grows in rather open, partly shaded areas, including forest edges, roadsides, hedgerows, and along railways, and it often occurs in gardens as a weed. The tuberous root is edible, with a taste similar to parsnip. In the past, its young leaves were eaten as salad in the Nordic countries.

Other bellflower species are presented on the pages Plants: Flora of the Alps and the Pyrenees, and In praise of the colour blue.

 

 

Creeping bellflower, growing at a fence around Alvesta Railway Station, southern Sweden. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Caprifoliaceae Honeysuckle family

 

Valerianella locusta Corn salad, lamb’s lettuce
This small annual is native to Europe, western Asia, and northern Africa, where it grows in waste areas and along railways. It is also widely cultivated as a vegetable, and is a common weed in farmland. In North America it has escaped cultivation and become naturalized in many places.

 

 

Corn salad, growing at Nyborg Railway Station, Funen, Denmark. In the upper picture, prickly-headed poppy (Papaver argemone) and hairy vetch (Vicia hirsuta) are also present. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Caryophyllaceae Carnation family

 

Spergularia rubra Red sand-spurrey
This small plant is native to Europe and Northern Asia, but has been accidentally spread to many other parts of the world. It is a common weed in fallow fields and along roads, and has also adapted to a life in cities.

 

 

Red sand-spurrey, Skanderborg Railway Station, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Fabaceae Pea family

 

Lathyrus clymenum
This colourful plant is restricted to the Mediterranean area, found eastwards to Turkey and Jordan.

 

 

Lathyrus clymenum, growing along an abandoned railway, San Cataldo, Sicily. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Melilotus albus White melilot
Also known as white sweet clover, this plant is a native of southern and eastern Europe, eastwards to Central Asia. In former days, it was cultivated in other parts of Europe, and in North America, as a fertilizing plant, as its root nodules – like with other members of the pea family – contain bacteria, which are able to fixate nitrogen from the air. When these bacteria die (and they are very short-lived), the plant can utilize the nitrogen. When the plant dies, the nitrogen is released into the soil, for other plants to utilize. It also makes excellent hay.

Today, white melilot is not cultivated on a larger scale. Nevertheless, it has become widely naturalized in most temperate and subtropical areas of the world, especially in abandoned lots and along newly established roads.

The generic name is derived from the Latin mel (‘honey’) and lotus (a plant of the pea family), which, like the common name sweet clover, refers to the sweet smell of the plant, and to the fact that it is an excellent honey plant.

 

 

White melilot, growing up a fence near Aarhus Railway Station, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Sverige 2016-18
In this picture, it grows near tracks at Alvesta Railway Station, southern Sweden, with sycamore maple (Acer pseudoplatanus) and common viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare) in the foreground. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Vicia tenuifolia Fine-leaved vetch
A widely distributed species, found in the major part of Europe and northern Asia, eastwards to central Siberia, southwards to Morocco, Jordan, Pakistan, and northern China. It resembles the well-known tufted vetch (V. cracca), but often has a white keel (lower petal).

 

 

Fine-leaved vetch, growing along an abandoned railway, San Cataldo, Sicily. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Geraniaceae Cranesbill family

 

Geranium purpureum Purple cranesbill
A widespread plant, native to western and southern Europe, northern Africa, and the Middle East, eastwards to Iran. It resembles the well-known Herb Robert (below), but has dark purple stems, and the lobes on the leaves are more rounded.

 

 

Purple cranesbill, growing along an abandoned railway, San Cataldo, Sicily. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Geranium robertianum Herb Robert
This plant is native to most of Europe, North Africa, western Asia, and parts of North America. It is very common in forests, and also along railroad tracks and on stony beaches. It comes in two distinct forms, one with green leaves and reddish stems, and one with bright red stems and leaves (var. rubricaule). For some reason or other, the red form is the one most often noticed along railroads – at least in Scandinavia.

In former days, this species was known as Saint Robert’s herb, like the specific name referring to French abbot and herbalist Robert de Molesme (c. 1028-1111), one of the founders of the Cistercian Order. He used it to cure people, suffering from various diseases, including diarrhea, liver and gall bladder problems, toothache, and wounds. American native tribes also utilized it medicinally.

In his booklet Chrut und Uchrut (in English called Weeds – a useful booklet on medicinal herbs), from 1911, Swiss priest and herbalist Johann Künzle (1857-1945) states the following: “The application of Herb Robin is also very effective against abscesses and inflammations of cattle. Glory be to God.”

 

 

This picture shows the normal form of Herb Robert with green leaves, growing at Copenhagen Railway Station, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Red variety of Herb Robert, growing abundantly between railroad tracks in the city of Aarhus, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Oleaceae Olive family

 

Olea europaea Olive tree
The olive tree is described in depth on the page Plants: Plants in folklore and poetry.

 

 

This olive tree has sprouted along an abandoned railway, San Cataldo, Sicily. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Onagraceae Evening-primrose family

 

Chamaenerion angustifolium Rosebay willow-herb
Epilobium hirsutum Great willow-herb
Both these species readily invade disturbed areas. Rosebay willow-herb is mainly a colonizer of forests clearings and abandoned fields, whereas great willow-herb prefers more humid areas, including water-logged fields and along streams.

An excellent example of the ability of rosebay willow-herb to completely take over newly abandoned fields can be studied on the page Nature Reserve Vorsø: Expanding wilderness.

 

 

Sjælland 2012-16
In these pictures, rosebay willow-herb (top) and great willow-herb have both sprouted between railroad tracks in the town of Køge, Zealand, Denmark. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Oenothera glazioviana Large-flowered evening-primrose
This impressive plant, previously known as O. erythrosepala, may grow to 2 m tall. It is a native of Brazil, but is widely cultivated as an ornamental plant, often becoming naturalized.

 

 

Large-flowered evening-primrose, Ringsted Railway Station, Zealand, Denmark. Common viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare) and horsetail fleabane (Erigeron canadensis) are growing in front of the wagon. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Papaveraceae Poppy family

 

Papaver argemone Prickly-headed poppy
This delicate plant may be told from other red poppies by having stiff hairs on stem and fruit, and it often has black blotches at the base of the petals. It is native to temperate areas of Europe, eastwards to Ukraine and the Caucasus, and in North Africa.

 

 

Prickly-headed poppy, growing at Nyborg Railway Station, Funen, Denmark. To the left withering stems of thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Plantaginaceae Plantain family

 

Linaria repens Pale toadflax
Also known as creeping toadflax or striped toadflax, this species is native to south-western Europe, but is widely naturalized elsewhere in Europe, and in North America, presumably brought with soil, which acted as ballast on board cargo ships.

The generic name means ‘resembling linum’ (flax). The leaves of some species of toadflax superficially resemble those of flax. The specific name means ‘creeping’, which is somewhat misleading, as the plant is often erect. The common name striped refers to the purple stripes on the whitish flowers.

 

 

Sverige 2016-18
The preferred habitat of pale toadflax is dry soils, and it is quite common along railroad tracks, here at Alvesta, southern Sweden. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Poaceae Grass family

 

Arrhenatherum elatius False oat-grass
This large grass, growing to 1.5 m tall, is very common in Eurasia, found eastwards to Kazakhstan and Iran, and also in North Africa. It is often cultivated as a fodder plant and has become naturalized in many other areas, sometimes becoming an invasive.

 

 

Stems of false oat-grass, moving in the wind, Nyborg Railway Station, Funen, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Withered stems of false oat-grass along an abandaned railroad track, Nyborg. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Rubiaceae Bedstraw family

 

Galium aparine Cleavers
The specific name of this scrambling plant is derived from the Greek apairo (‘to seize’) – a most descriptive name for this species. Not only the seeds are armed with hooks, but also stems and leaves, which aid the plant in climbing or scrambling over other plants.

In his delightful book All about Weeds, American botanist Edwin Spencer (1881-1964) has the following comment about this plant: “When one walks into some loose, trailing weeds, and they all seem glad to be torn from their roots in order to ride away clinging to his trousers, he has made contact with one of the many bedstraws (…) but if the stems cling to the clothing, the chances are that the find is one of two of them, Galium aparine or Galium asprillum. These are the two with the rough stems – the two that have this unique way of scattering their seeds. For of course those straws cling to the sheep’s wool and the dog’s hair just as they do to clothing, and sometimes they and their seeds are carried a long way by animals.”

Cleavers is also known by many other names, which allude to is hooked seeds and its scrambling habit, including catchweed, sticky bob, robin-run-the-hedge, and sticky willy.

This species is native to the major part of Europe, North Africa, and Temperate Asia, eastwards to Japan. It may also be indigenous in North America, and has become naturalized in Mexico, Central America, South America, Australia, New Zealand, and parts of Africa.

 

 

Cleavers, growing at Nyborg Railway Station, Funen, Denmark. Withering stems of thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) are also present. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Sapindaceae Soapberry family

 

Acer pseudoplatanus Sycamore maple
This species, which is a native of Central Europe, was introduced to Britain around 1500. It has also become naturalized in other parts of Europe, and in Australia, New Zealand, and North America. In many places, it has become invasive, easily spreading by its winged seeds, which are produced in the tens of thousands on a single large tree.

An example of the effective spreading of sycamore maple is seen in nature reserve Vorsø, Horsens Fjord, Denmark, where former fields were abandoned in two steps, in 1928 and in 1978. In both cases, thousands of maple seeds, stemming from a few trees in plantations at the edge of the fields, were spread by the wind. The succession of these maple forests is described in detail on the page Nature Reserve Vorsø: Expanding wilderness.

 

 

Sycamore maple, growing at Nyborg Railway Station, Funen, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

Solanaceae Nightshade family

 

Solanum dulcamara Bittersweet nightshade
This climber is very common in most of Europe, and in a belt across the central parts of Asia, eastwards to Japan. It is also commonly naturalized in North America, where it is considered an invasive weed. Its red berries look very inviting, but are poisonous to people.

The generic name is of unknown origin. It may stem from the Latin verb solare (’to soothe’), referring to the medical properties of some nightshade species. Their usage in folk medicine is described on the page Plants: Plants in folklore and poetry.

 

 

Bittersweet nightshade prefers to grow in humid areas, sometimes forming dense, almost impenetrable growths. However, it is also able to thrive in drier areas, such as this plant, growing near a railroad track at Horsens Station, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

 

(Uploaded July 2018)

 

(Latest update September 2022)