London's Rare Orchid Discovery Spotlights Importance of City Greening

The unique environment of a city means there is the potential for greatly increased biodiversity.

roof top garden

Hiroshi Watanabe / Getty Images

Earlier this month, some extremely rare orchids (Serapias parviflora) were discovered growing in the 11th-floor rooftop garden of a Japanese investment bank in London. The 15-plant small-flowered tongue orchid colony—the species is native to the Mediterranean basin and the Atlantic coast of France, Spain, and Portugal—is the only one in the United Kingdom.

At first glance, this story may seem just an interesting botanical oddity. But it also highlights some of the most important considerations when it comes to the future of our built environments. This discovery is notable—not just for the rarity of the orchids, but also because it underlines the vital importance of city greening. 

The orchids were allowed to thrive because of the unique environmental conditions created in this award-winning rooftop garden space, which also supports a range of other flora and fauna. This is the latest in a string of interesting discoveries in London and elsewhere which demonstrate how, as our planet changes, new ecological niches are becoming increasingly important. 

City Greening Is Vital for Biodiversity

Readers may already be aware of the vital importance of biodiversity, and the threats posed to biodiversity by climate change and human activity. 

The unique environment of a city, with the heat island effect and other environmental factors, means there is the potential for greatly increased biodiversity. Green roofs and other city green spaces can often harbor plants and wildlife which are threatened or rare elsewhere. 

When it comes to conservation and ecology, most people tend to think of the countryside. But as this discovery shows, cities can also have immensely ecologically important sites—niche environments which can support a rich variety of life—both that which we plant ourselves and that which potentially just "arrives."

Tall buildings in cities resemble cliffs and are treated as such by birds. There is also a growing understanding that plant life from cliffs and coasts or mountains can often thrive on city buildings. Perhaps then we should consider this discovery as a wake-up call, showing us what is possible when we begin to green the built environment around us. 

If we begin to wild our cities—nature will do the rest of the work. No matter how these particular orchids arrived, this shows that when we give nature the opportunity to colonize our cities—it is sure to do so. 

City Greening Will Be Key to Feeding Cities Sustainably

Considering the Mediterranean origin of these orchids, this story also demonstrates the potential to harness the heat in our cities to grow edible crops not usually easily grown in the climate of the surrounding area. 

Feeding our cities is a pressing concern for the coming years and this discovery demonstrates how microclimate conditions on city rooftops could potentially be harnessed much more widely to facilitate food production for city inhabitants, as well as providing a refuge for rare plants. As our climate changes, adapting our cities and our methods of food production will be crucial. 

Rooftop or balcony gardens, green roofs, vertical farms, living walls, edible landscaping, etc. are all features enabling increased food production in cities. New and innovative city farming and growing solutions are essential for meeting the needs of urban areas moving forwards. City food production won't just improve the cities themselves. It will also help bridge the gaps between producers and consumers, and allow for more sustainable land use outside cities to meet their ever-growing demand for food. 

City Greening Is Crucial to Mitigation and Adaptation

However, while the discovery of these rare orchids could be viewed as a cause for celebration, it could also be viewed as yet another wake-up call about the huge changes being wrought on our environments by global warming. 

City greening can play an important role in climate change mitigation and adaptation. Greening the built environment is crucial in carbon sequestration, sustainable water management, temperature reduction, improvement of air quality, and more. If our cities are to be sustainable, comfortable places to live in the future, city greening must be a top priority. 

Our cities should not be sterile concrete deserts. They should be green, blooming, and abundant spaces, which improve the living environment for people and wildlife and provide for many of the basic needs of their inhabitants. As is so often the case, the answers lie in plants. We need to find new and innovative ways to welcome nature in all areas of our lives – right into the heart of our busiest cities, their rooftops, walls, and streets. 

We need to adapt to our changing environments and work out new ways to let nature take the reigns. It is only when we do so that we will be able to find a pathway forwards for humanity – working in harmony with the natural world.