Unexpected biodiversity : the cemetery episode

When you think of cemeteries, you usually think of sadness, gloominess and death. But cemeteries are also peaceful and quiet places, where plants and animals can thrive with little disturbance…

I visited the Cimetière de Schaerbeek (which is one of the 19 municipalities of Brussels) with scientists from the AEF (a Belgian association which studies botany and floristics), and discovered a rather unexpected biodiversity.
The cemetery is famous for holding the grave of what is probably the most famous Belgian painter, aka René Magritte. For those who don’t know, he was obviously a strange guy, and a great ambassador of surrealism. I would have expected his gravestone to be more…imaginative, though!

In the wooded areas, the wet soil (in April, we’ve had three times the ‘normal’ amount of rainfall!) hosts many different species of mosses. I hope I could ID those as easily as plants!

Between the tombstones, the stony and drier soil is home to small inconspicuous plants like Aphanes arvensis (Parsley-piert) which is very rare in Brussels or this lovely little Geranium with rounded leaves (Dovesfoot Cranesbill, Geranium molle).

There was also many individuals of this gaunt-looking plant, which has ridiculously long stems, small white flowers and hairy leaves at the base. Has anyone guessed what this could be?

No? Then I’ll give the answer : it’s Arabidopsis thaliana (Thale Cress), the plant used as a model in genetics labs all over the world, the first plant to have its complete genome sequenced in 2000. Surprising, isn’t it? 😀

Now good news for biodiversity? Montia minor (a kind of Blinks) is showing a considerable increase in its distribution range in Belgium. In the past few years, it has been discovered in many new places, and it seems to thrive in urban environments like Brussels. This cemetery is the newest addition to the range of places where it can now be found!
Unfortunately it’s so small that it’s quite a pain to photograph…
A companion of Montia minor is Rumex acetosella (sheep’s sorrel) which has quite remarkable arrow-shaped leaves. It’s also edible (soups, sauces), with a bitter taste due to oxalic acid…I didn’t try though 😀

The next area of the cemetery is made of large lawns where ashes can be scattered. We found  several interesting species there, like the creeping Ornithopus perpusillus (Bird’s-foot) pictured here, or the Field Wood-rush (Luzula campestris).

The walking paths are made of ballast-like rocks. Unlike in many other places in Brussels, they don’t seem to be spraying weedkillers here, so we can still see this characteristic drought-resistant vegetation : Erodium cicutarium (Common Stork’s-bill), Sedum acre (Biting Stonecrop)…

Fauna is not absent from the cemetery! There are a lot of birds (I even saw a Green Woodpecker), insects and…rabbits, many rabbits! A cute little one I managed to snap between two trees 🙂



  1. Hello,
    Arrivée sur ton blog via le forum insectes, parce que j’ai vu que tu ‘chassais’ en forêt de Soignes…
    Pour tes mousses, la première me semble un Plagiomnium undulatum, ensuite tu as Rhytiadelphus squarrosus et 2 polytrichaceae (que je n’ose pas déterminer sur photo).
    Par ailleurs, chouette de savoir que la visite chauves-souris de vendredi passé au Vogelzang t’a plu. Si tu as envie d’en voir et d’en savoir plus, n’hésite pas à te manifester (chez moi ou lors des formations à venir), il y aura de quoi faire en région bruxelloise cette année 🙂 !
    Bien à toi,

    1. Un grand merci pour les mousses! Je sais bien que je devrais prendre un échantillon à chaque fois, ce serait plus facile à identifier que sur photo, mais je n’ai pas encore le réflexe.
      Je suis la formation Plecotus qui a lieu en ce moment, c’est passionnant! Ce serait avec grand plaisir pour des activités chauves-souris ou autres d’ailleurs sur Bruxelles 😀

  2. Hi, great post. I don’t think people realise how much diversity there can be in a cemetery/churchyard. You probably won’t be surprised to know that there’s a Living Churchyard Project in the UK run through The Wildlife Trusts!

  3. Salut Sophie!

    Génial ton blog et de voir toute la biodiversité dans les alentours de Bruxelles!

    Bien à toi,

    Jérôme (un de tes anciens collègues de Gembloux) –> Aaaatchaaaaaaaaa! (Private Joke)

    1. Hahaha je vois 😀
      Coucou et merci pour ton message…les Bruxellois ne se rendent pas forcément compte de toute la biodiversité en ville. 😉 J’espère que tout se passe bien pour toi, toujours à Gembloux?

  4. Oui ça se passe pas trop mal…

    Fini Gembloux en 2010, j’y ai travaillé 11 mois, me voilà maintenant sur Liège à l’ULg dans le bâtiment de Botanique: tiens tiens comme c’est bizarre 😉

    J’espère que tout se passe bien également de ton côté!?

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