Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Sunday 4 May 2008

Won't you buy my pretty flowers?

For all its reputation for industrial grime, the East End has its green spaces - and since the 1850s the place to go for locals to indulge their green fingers has been Columbia Road market on a Sunday morning.

Squeezed into a tiny stretch of street about 10 minutes' walk from the other great Sunday markets (Spitalfields, Brick Lane, Petticoat Lane), Columbia Road is raucous, with a bit of banter to go with the gardening advice - and a bit overwhelming.

Stalls line both sides of the street, and the people inch along in between. Those who want to get by a little faster squeeze along the pavements along the outside (did you see what I did there?): definitely not a place for the claustrophobic (what on earth possesses people to imagine they could or should bring a child in a buggy into the crush between the stalls, I just don't know - but they do, and they survive).

Many of the plants are still the old favourite bedding and window-box plants, and plenty of cut flowers to sell to the sightseers who don't have a garden, but - even in the few years I've been visiting it - there seem to be more and more upmarket and exotic plants as the social composition of the area and gardening tastes in general have changed. There are trays of petunias and busy lizzies bobbing along as people hold them overhead, but palms, orchids, bottle-brush wattles and the occasional lemon, orange or olive tree stand out as they sail along above the crowds.

Similarly more and more of the shops round about cater for the quirky and more chi-chi artistic taste, as well the kind of ornaments you might expect people to put in a garden.

Pricing seems to aim at round sums to make the arithmetic easier - adjusting the quantity to the price rather than the other way around. Get there very early to avoid the crowds and see the best of what's on offer, hang around till lunchtime to see if there are any clearance bargains.

Stocking up my window boxes this morning, I got four upright fuschias for £6, four trailing fuschias for £5, six trailing ivies for £5 and a tray of lobelia for £4: in all, about the same as a very average restaurant dinner, a comfortable seat at the theatre, or three or four paperbacks. Not bad for (I hope) a summer's delight, is it?

You can understand the man I overheard saying "I'm the Imelda Marcos of plants".

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