the Joy of Botany

: an occasional column for the socially distanced botanist

The importance of social interaction amongst botanists was made abundantly clear by the Botanical Society and Exchange Club of the British Isles (as BSBI was then known) when in the times of George Claridge Druce the description of its Objects and invitation to membership began with a statement to the effect that ‘The Society offers the advantage of meetings, correspondence and the exchange of opinions between botanists’.

In times such as these, when we may not be able to look forward to field meetings for a while and isolation and social distancing has been brought upon us the new social media offer a way to keep in touch, and where we cannot look forward we must perforce look back.

Thus Druce wrote in the preface of his Comital Flora of the British Isles (January 1932) how ‘a new record was…a real joy’ and reflected on ‘the pleasure of field-work …and of the many friends’. James Walter White in the second sentence of the Preface of his Flora of Bristol (March 1912) put it: ‘my love of botanical pursuits has brought me health, friends and recreation, with a host of delightful experiences’. This column is designed as a forum to share some of those happy times.

Issue #6

Miss Gifford’s whitebeam, Miss Atwood’s whitebeam, and a new first record of Sorbus subcuneata, Somerset Whitebeam

Miss Gifford’s whitebeam: Sorbus subcuneata, the Somerset Whitebeam

Having in my last column re-introduced Miss Isabella Gifford (c 1825-1891) to her successors in the community of Somerset botanists, it was perhaps inevitable that further joyful events in her botanical life would emerge. Browsing the text of the whitebeams (Sorbus species) in the third edition of Sowerby’s English Botany (1864) for an entirely different purpose, her name jumped out of the editor John T Boswell Syme’s account of ‘Pyrus scandica’: ‘Miss Gifford has sent me fresh specimens from Minehead, Somerset, from which our plate is taken’ (Plate 1).

Plate 1. Pyrus scandica’ from volume 3 of the third edition of Sowerby’s English Botany with the relevant part of the related text. This volume was first published in 1864.

Both Syme and Miss Gifford were amongst the then fifty members of the Thirsk Botanical Exchange Club, that sprouting of re-growth out of the ashes of the Botanical Society of London, from which the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland would later arise. Knowing her as we now do, we can appreciate that his must have seemed to her to be a singular mark of honour and respect, her species of eternity as it has been described.

As can be seen in Syme’s text, such plants are listed from a number of localities. I was aware that specimens put under the name ‘Pyrus scandica’ in Victorian times often fall nowadays under the Sorbus latifolia aggregate – trees with sharply-lobed leaves falling variously between the Common Whitebeam and the Wild Service Tree. As we well know, a number of them have since been described as local species.

So which one was this? From what he writes, Syme, who was quite interested in them, felt that nonflowering shoots were impossible to determine, but nowadays it is these that are required, so I was unsure if the plate of Miss Gifford’s Minehead plant could be identified. However, given the likely species group, and knowing that by ‘near Minehead’ Miss Gifford meant a fairly restricted area close to home, from the general leaf shape, after looking at the options in the BSBI Sorbus Handbook, it seemed to be a reasonable match for Sorbus subcuneata, Somerset Whitebeam.

Tim Rich, the BSBI Sorbus referee, broadly agreed, but left open a residual uncertainty. That was resolved when I discovered that the BSBI database included Miss Gifford’s whitebeam specimen in Syme’s herbarium in the Natural History Museum under the name of Sorbus subcuneata. Although in this instance Tim’s name was not given as determiner, the source of the record was a dataset compiled for and used in the Sorbus Handbook. ‘I did that’ Tim said, ‘so I must have seen it’. Determination agreed! Hopefully after lockdown we will be able to get an image of the herbarium sheet through the good offices of Fred Rumsey and match it to the plate. The BSBI record lacks a date and as I have seen, this seems to be a characteristic of hers. But it must come from the early 1860s.

Miss Atwood’s whitebeam: Sorbus bristoliensis, the Bristol Whitebeam

The story of Miss Gifford’s collection of Sorbus subcuneata has a remarkable parallel with the now much-told story of Miss Atwood and her discovery of Sorbus bristoliensis, the Bristol Whitebeam. Both of these independent letter-writing botanical ladies with Welsh roots and Thirsk Botanical Exchange Club membership might have gathered their rare whitebeam species within a mile of their respective English homes.

Also mentioned in Syme’s text on ‘Pyrus scandica’ is that he had seen material from Nightingale Valley, part of Leigh Woods, Bristol, in HC Watson’s herbarium. At this locality it is Sorbus bristoliensis, the Bristol Whitebeam. One of the specimens in HC Watson’s herbarium that Syme saw was the one collected by Miss Martha Maria Atwood of Clifton, Bristol on 10 June 1852 (year by reference to her gathering of common whitebeam which is also in Watson’s herbarium, see his note at the side of the label) which she annotated ‘it struck the eye immediately as distinctive in appearance with the underside of the leaves not nearly so white’ (Plate 2).

Plate 2. Miss Atwood’s original specimen of what was later named as Sorbus bristoliensis, from Nightingale Valley, Leigh Woods, Bristol in 1852, annotated by her ‘it struck the eye immediately as distinctive in appearance with the underside of the leaves not nearly so white’. From the herbarium of Hewett C Watson at Kew.

I have a photograph of her too (Plate 3), so we can picture the two ladies together, whether or not they met when Miss Gifford had collected Epimedium alpinum in Leigh Woods (see my previous column).

Plate 3. Miss Martha Maria Atwood at her microscope in 1856, perhaps examining her moss collections. Original photo presented by her nephew HG Atwood of Aberystwyth to Miss Ida Roper of the Bristol Naturalists’ Society in 1918 or subsequently.

‘Professor Babington mentions it from Culbone Somerset’ … and the writer digresses on the English names for Sorbus subcuneata

A third locality for ‘Pyrus scandica’ in Syme’s account is Culbone (Plate 1). The Sorbus Handbook records Sorbus subcuneata there, although in small quantity, and indicates that it was first collected by Babington in 1850, at Watersmeet, N Devon, there being a specimen in his herbarium at Cambridge University. David Pearman in his Discovery of the Native Flora of Britain and Ireland (2017) accepts this as the first evidence of the species as a native British plant.

In some ways this makes the name Somerset Whitebeam anomalous, especially as 90% of the world population of 300 was reckoned by the authors of the Sorbus Handbook to be rooted in Devon (VC 4) soil, with the 10% remaining spread eastwards along the W Somerset (VC 5) coast to Minehead.

But of course, there is a Devon Whitebeam too (Sorbus devoniensis) which is far more widespread in Devon than is S. subcuneata. Rather to my surprise, the currently used standard English name of S. subcuneata, Somerset Whitebeam, appears to be a recent coining, appearing first in print in the BSBI Sorbus Handbook (2010) and the 3rd Edition of Stace’s New Flora of the British Isles of the same year.

In his review of the Sorbus latifolia aggregate in the British Isles (1989) Peter Sell called it Slender Whitebeam, and of course so do Sell & Murrell (2014) in their Flora of Great Britain and Ireland, explaining the name in a way that transports you to the place: ‘when standing under this tree one can see much more sky than when under S. devoniensis or S. admonitor, [the two other local species in the latifolia group] both of which have a more dense canopy’. Plate 1 gives a faint sense of this. Otherwise, both British and local Floras seem to give it no common name at all, presumably because if a plant wasn’t common, it didn’t require a common name – at least until conservation legislation demanded otherwise.

It was a productive tour of the region for Babington, as his published Journal shows, and his visit on 27 June 1850 to the Gifford’s home in Minehead must also have been etched into Miss Gifford’s memory. But Babington and Miss Gifford would not have discussed strange-looking whitebeams. As the sparse journal entries indicate, Babington was heading west: ’28 June. To Porlock’; ‘29 June. To Culbone’. His gathering of Sorbus subcuneata must have come later.

Dr Gapper’s whitebeam: new first evidence of Sorbus subcuneata returns the Somerset Whitebeam to Somerset

Of course, many local collectors (including myself) have gathered then un-named whitebeams. In some cases it was clearly a trawling, or like waving a butterfly net, as with the many attempts to find more ‘Sorbus hungarica’ in the Avon Gorge. But in many you can detect that ‘quality more worthy than luck’ that JW White of Bristol ascribed to GC Druce when he jumped off a train in 1904, and within minutes had rediscovered living British Koeleria vallesiana, Somerset Hair-grass.

Hoping that there would be a further specimen amongst Miss Gifford’s plants in the Taunton herbarium, I asked Liz McDonnell to scan through the collection of images so patiently made by the herbarium group of the Somerset Rare Plants Group a few years ago and there to look for a whitebeam like the English Botany plate. The response was one of those ‘stained-glass window’ moments (see the third entry in this occasional column): ‘no we don’t have one of Miss Gifford’s specimens, but here is an earlier one’.

The upper specimen in Plate 4 was already named Sorbus subcuneata sometime after the species was published in 1934. The locality, transcribed from the original collector’s label, is ‘near Minehead’. The date, May 1832, is consistent with the collector’s movements : he lived in Bridgwater from 1829-1835. The specimen seemed to me a good match and Tim Rich confirmed its identity, pointing out that unlike the English Botany figure (Plate 1), the specimen had a single leaf of a non-flowering side shoot and so could be named with confidence. This specimen, Tim agreed, therefore represents the first record of the local endemic Sorbus subcuneata.

Plate 4. A sheet of Whitebeams in the Taunton herbarium, re-mounted but marked as from the herbarium of Dr A Southby. The lower specimen is Sorbus aria, Common Whitebeam, from Leigh woods, Bristol, dated May 1823. The upper, as labelled, is Sorbus subcuneata (conf. T Rich), from near Minehead, May 1832, the new first evidence for the species.

So who was Dr A Southby, from whose herbarium the specimen came? In 1832, when he made the collection, his name was Dr Anthony Gapper and in the next instalment of the Joy of Botany, I will introduce you to him. His story is a curious one. It involves (though not necessarily in the same order), the unwrapping of an Egyptian mummy, a journey to the colonies, an association with a vole, being granted a coat of arms, and, most importantly for us, another long-forgotten list of Somerset plants


With thanks to Tim Rich for the definitive determination of the Sorbus images used in this essay, and to Liz McDonnell for extracting from the Taunton herbarium what proved to be the earliest known collection of Sorbus subcuneata, the Somerset Whitebeam. Without their help, we wouldn’t have had this story.

The BSBI Sorbus Handbook (2010), Whitebeams, Rowans and Service Trees of Britain and Ireland, was written by Tim Rich, Libby Houston, Ashley Robertson, and Michael Proctor.

Clive Lovatt, Stroud, 25 May 2020

Issue #5

Notices of the Rare and most Remarkable Plants in the Neighbourhoods of Dunster, Blue Anchor, Minehead &c. by Miss Isabella Gifford, originally published in the Proceedings of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society for 1855, edited and updated with a biographical introduction by Clive Lovatt, April 2020.


Biographical introduction

I was introduced, so to speak, to Miss Isabella Gifford through a common interest in the plants of Leigh Woods, which clothe the Somerset side of the Avon Gorge. As noted in Captain Roe’s Flora of Somerset (1981) she had gathered a specimen of the alien perennial Epimedium alpinum there in ‘about 1850’. This would have made it the last observation at this site after first being found around 1830. Roe described her as ‘among the leading botanists’ in the early days of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society (SANHS), which was formed in 1849, and he indicated that the specimen was in the Taunton Herbarium, now housed in the Somerset Heritage Centre, but at the time held by SANHS. I wanted to discover the basis for the date and if it could be more precisely fixed, and what might have brought her from her home in Minehead to Bristol. To do this I needed to know more about her. Hopefully, this biographical introduction will become a foundation for building more knowledge of her contribution to Somerset botany.

An obituary in the Journal of Botany for 1892 (30: 81-83) was a good start and after following some of its leads, I found a collection of material about her (and many other Victorian naturalists) which I would otherwise not have had access to on the Natstand website of Richard and James Middleton ( Her main claim to fame (at least to the outside world) is that she was one, perhaps the last, of a group of ladies who became local collectors and experts on the seaweeds around the British coast. All were rewarded by the male professionals they served, either by grateful mention in their publications, or for the best, by having relevant genera named after them: in Miss Gifford’s case, posthumously, a genus of brown algae, Giffordia. For these reasons, a photograph (unknown to her obituarists and to modern-day Somerset botanists) of her appears in Cultivating Women, Cultivating Science: Flora’s daughters and Botany in England 1760 to 1860 by Ann B. Shteir (1996). Isabella Gifford wrote two editions of an illustrated introductory but serious work called The Marine Botanist (published 1848 and 1853), the latter of which is a confident enlargement of the earlier edition.

Plate 1. Miss Isabella Gifford, perhaps not long after the reading of her paper on Minehead plants, by when she would have been about 30. Reference to successive 10-yearly Censuses on the Natstand website shows that her reported age failed to keep pace with the passage of time. He also shows that her date of birth was likely to be in mid-1825 and not in about 1823 as stated generally and in the caption here (Shteir 1996). In her Journal of Botany obituary a cousin apologised that there was no picture of her, save an old one in crayon that was not adequate for printing. Accordingly they relied on a description by a fellow botanist, that she was ‘of medium height, with fair hair and complexion, and a delicate refined face’. The description fits.

Miss Gifford’s paper on the ‘rare and most remarkable’ flowering plants and ferns within easy travelling distance of her home in Minehead was published in the SANHS Proceedings in 1856, volume 6(2): 131-137). It was delivered to the members at the Society’s annual meeting (a three-day affair) during the evening of Tuesday 21 August 1855. As related by a cousin in her obituary over 35 years later this was her ‘field day’, ‘a long-ago scientific meeting at Dunster, where a paper of hers was read, and her collection of the plants of West Somerset exhibited’. Whilst the gentlemen are explicitly recorded as reading their own papers, a lady evidently might not do so. Hers was therefore read by the Reverend William Arthur Jones – the General Secretary of the Natural History section of the Society. The published meeting report also records that ‘The following were exhibited at the Temporary Museum and presented to the Society’ and amongst them was  ‘A collection of marine algae, ferns and other plants – Miss Gifford’.

Miss Gifford was born in Wales around 1825 and moved with her parents from Falmouth to Minehead in 1848, as dated records in the new edition of her Marine Botanist testify. Her obituary states she was schooled at home by her mother, who had a literary bent, and that her scientific interests were encouraged. The family, perhaps supported by Captain Gifford’s military pension, lived on The Parks, evidently at 3 Cranwell Villas, one of a short series of ‘new build’ terraces of a few modest houses each, on the western edge of Minehead. The plant records round Minehead in her paper must therefore have been made between 1848 and 1855. Some additional discoveries of equal merit were made later.

In inverted commas in her published paper, she uses the now unusual phrase ‘flowers of the waste’, in this context meaning wild, uncultivated places. It does not appear to be from the Bible, but it does twice appear in the 1840s in incidentally botanical poetry written by women who had an evangelical mission in encouraging self-improvement. Either or both may have been the source. In Eliza Cook’s Journal, a weekly penny ha’penny publication of 5 January 1850, we have it as part of the journal editor’s poem, ‘On receiving a bunch of Heather, Gorse and Fern’. It also appears in Mrs Jane Loudon’s popular British Wild Flowers (1846), in a couplet which describes the narrow inferior ovary of a willow-herb: ‘Flowers of the waste, the Epilobia throw/ a rosy veil o’er what is drear below’.

Miss Gifford is not known to have been a member of the Botanical Society of London (BSL), but it was already beginning to fail in the late 1840s and its membership records from then on are fragmentary. Certainly, she joined its successor organisation when it was reformed in Thirsk in 1857 and remained for over a decade a member of what eventually became the BSBI. So too did Miss Atwood of Clifton, Bristol, but I have been unable thus far to establish any more personal connection between these two exceptional lady botanists, who had they met, or corresponded, would have found that they had a lot in common. During this period, the Thirsk (and later London) Exchange Club, serving the whole country, had as few as between 25 and 60 members, less than the Somerset Rare Plants Group now boasts. A few of Miss Gifford’s  distributions, including Minehead Fumaria spp., Fumitories, are mentioned in the Exchange Club reports.

Even early on, she was clearly sufficiently well known as a vascular plant botanist to be twice paid a visit by Charles C Babington, when he was botanising in the area. Babington was the author of the leading national flora of the day, the Manual of British Botany. These visits were on 2 July 1849, for tea (though only her parents are mentioned), and on 27 June 1850 for the evening (when Miss Gifford is specifically noted as present). On each occasion Babington’s Journals, edited and published posthumously in 1897, indicate that he had been (and perhaps continued to be) in the company of his friend Reverend WH Coleman, a BSL member and co-author of the Flora Hertfordiensis (1849, the Preface signed by him in January). Coleman, as Babington noted, was temporarily resident in Dunster in mid-1849, suggesting that he might have known Miss Gifford before Babington and introduced him to the family.

Murray’s Flora of Somerset (1896) has more of Coleman’s local plant records than it does of Miss Gifford’s. It is often said that the survivors write the history: both are known to have produced local lists in manuscript, and it is Coleman’s that survives. According to the Atlas Flora of Somerset (1997) there is a catalogue in the library at Kew with 640 plants found by him within 10 miles of Minehead and Dunster. This was one of the many such marked-up copies of the London Catalogue (no 118 of 1849), a sort of 16-page recording card, sent to HC Watson for tabulating in his ledgers by vice-County and eventual summarisation in his Topographical Botany (1873-1874). Miss Gifford’s list, perhaps also written in a copy of the London Catalogue had 550 (see below). However she is only mentioned in Watson’s list of contributors as indirectly supplying him with specimens through the Exchange Clubs, and in the first edition, before being corrected in the 2nd (1883) she appears as J Gifford through a misreading of her herbarium labels (see Plate 2). As she indicated in the title of her paper, it only included the rare species and those most worthy of mention, about 15% of the total.

Miss Gifford was familiar with the published local plant list of Duck from Portishead near Bristol (1852) and the recent Supplement to the Yorkshire Flora (1854) – but not, so far as she indicates, with Swete’s Flora Bristoliensis (1854) or the work of St Brody in Weston-super-Mare towards his Flora of Weston that was published in 1856. Her introduction (below) also quotes from HC Watson’s Cybele Britannica (1847-1859). This was privately printed in a small edition (100-200?) and distributed on request to interested botanists.

Miss Gifford looked forward to the coalescence of such local work into a County Flora and indeed Murray, who had commenced work on the first Flora of Somerset just over a year before her death, extracted a number of records (14 traced) from her list and included them in the Flora completed in 1896. More records were taken from specimens she had distributed to leading botanists such as Watson (pioneer plant geographer and inventor of the Watsonian system of vice-Counties), Boswell-Syme (who expertly wrote the text for the third edition of Sowerby’s English Botany), and Jenyns (known as Darwin’s Lifelong Friend). She was also prescient enough to see changes in the flora and, like Peter Marren in his influential Plantlife report (2000) Where have all then flowers gone? she clearly stated that the loss of a rare native plant would never be a fair exchange for the arrival and spread of a foreign weed.

Her later life was described as very quiet, even unworldly, and she suffered from rheumatism and neuralgia which more and more confined her to home, the conservatory and garden, and her collections and correspondence. At Christmas 1891 the two Isabella Giffords, mother and daughter, who still lived together at The Parks, Minehead, succumbed to Russian Flu within a day of each other during a resurgence of the pandemic.

The following year her executor presented SANHS with ‘a large collection of Botanical specimens gathered by Miss Isabella Gifford, late of Minehead, and including a well-mounted series of Peat Mosses, together with a great number of Marine Algae’. As if to emphasise their value, the note added, ‘These were prepared by Miss Gifford herself’. They were described in the published accessions list as ‘The Botanical Collections formed by the late Miss Gifford of Minehead’.

The flowering plants and ferns in the Taunton herbarium have recently been photographed by the herbarium group of the Somerset Rare Plants Group, but at the time of writing, they have not been catalogued or indexed. Liz McDonnell was able to pick out the specimen of Epimedium alpinum from Leigh Woods mentioned in Roe’s Flora of Somerset, but it was remounted, probably soon after 1910, and its original label and the date of collection are missing. I have also seen three more Gifford collections from amongst the Exmoor material sequestered by Graham Lavender, all undated.

Two have a label in her hand but only one appears in her list and can be used as an illustration there. Asplenium septentrionale from Porlock was a specimen for exchange, so she marked it ‘Ex Hb I Gifford’. The other, although more certainly from her personal herbarium, is not in her list. Asplenium obovatum (as A. lanceolatum), Lanceolate Spleenwort, near Minehead, would have made a good addition (in the Somerset Rare Plant Register it is currently VC5 rare, VC6 absent) and therefore must probably have been found after 1855. The relevant part of a consolidated remounted sheet is shown below to illustrate what we all know, and as JW White of Bristol wrote in 1898, ‘Finality in field botany is fortunately unattainable’.

Plate 2. Asplenium obovatum (as A. lanceolatum), Lanceolate Spleenwort, collected by Miss Gifford near Minehead, Taunton Herbarium. Undated but must be after 1855, as despite its great rarity in Somerset, it does not appear in her list.

A copy of an original Gifford label from an Exchange Club specimen of Erodium maritimum, Sea Stork’s-bill from Minehead (Hb Augustin Ley, Birmingham University, accessed via the Herbaria at Home website), is also included in its place in the list because this one at least has a date, but it is a decade after Miss Gifford’s list of rare and remarkable plants had been published.  

Author’s introduction to the Plant List

I am quite aware that in offering so slight a sketch as the present to the notice of this Society, I can give but a very imperfect idea of the rich and varied Flora of this part of Somerset. It is only after a careful enumeration of species, and by a comparison of their greater variety or frequency in the adjoining districts, that the Flora of any particular district can be correctly estimated. Were such comparison fully carried out between Somerset and Devon, I have no doubt that the number of species in this county would equal those recorded in Devon, and that this district, from its bordering the sea, would afford many species not found in any other parts of the county.

On reference to my lists, I find upwards of 550 flowering plants and ferns recorded as growing in this district. Arranging these according to their ‘types of distribution’ [as elucidated by the author of the Cybele Britannica, Hewett C. Watson], ten, or perhaps more, belong to the Atlantic type – that is, species that have their headquarters in the south-west of England, and run out northward and eastward; two to the Germanic type, viz., Ophrys apifera and O. muscifera; and one only to the Highland type, Lycopodium alpinum, which reaches its southernmost limits in this part of the county; three appertain to the Scottish type, Empetrum nigrum, Listera cordata, and Lycopodium selago; 108 to the English type, species which have their headquarters in England, especially in the southern provinces, and become rare and finally cease altogether towards the north. The rest, with the exception of a few of uncertain type, belong to the British type, species which are more or less generally diffused throughout the whole extent of Britain.

The foregoing is necessarily but a hasty attempt at estimating the number of indigenous species; it neither includes varieties nor any species doubtfully wild. In the plants particularly specified, I believe I have named some of those most worthy of notice; but as there is no work published on the botany generally of this county to which reference can be made, I am in doubt whether I may not have called attention to species more universally distributed over the county than I am aware of.

As regards the littoral species, possibly all those observed here range along the whole extent of the Somerset coast. In a short list appended to the Natural History of Portishead, I see the names of many such. In a county so extensive as this, with such variety of soil and aspect, there is a very wide field afforded for the botanist, and it is not a little surprising, and much to be lamented, that there is no published Flora of Somerset, containing in its pages all the necessary information. In the literature of botany, county or local Floras become of much account – such, for instance, are Leighton’s Flora of Shropshire, and Mr Baker’s recently published supplement to the Flora of Yorkshire – books the value of which are well known to botanists.

Before closing this paper, I would beg leave to suggest to persons interested in the science, the benefit which may accrue to its more complete study by their noting down the species occurring in their respective neighbourhoods, in the last edition of the London Catalogue of British Plants – the one generally employed for that purpose by English botanists.

The enclosing of commons and waste land, and progress of agricultural improvements generally, must unavoidably destroy the habitats of many rare plants, and in some instances lead to their extinction; such, I fear, is the case with Chrysocoma lynosiris and Lobelia urens, which used formerly to grow near Axminster. Therefore, it is particularly desirable that a record should be kept of rare indigenous plants. Some few species there are, such as Veronica buxbaumii [now V. persica], which become naturalized in our fields by the agency of the farmer, who scatters the germ unwittingly along with his clover or other seed obtained from the Continent; and though the botanist may not look with an unfriendly eye upon the foreigner, he still feels that it cannot make amends for our native plants, the growth of our native soil, introduced by no human agency, placed in their appointed spot by the Almighty will, flourishing for long years the ‘flowers of the waste’, and dying, at the approach of cultivation, like the Red Indian disappearing from his hunting-grounds before the advancing footsteps of the white man.

Editor’s Introduction to the Plant List

So far as is possible, the scientific nomenclature has been updated to Clive Stace’s New Flora of the British Isles, 4th Edition (2019). Standard English names are taken from the same source. Where they differ, original names, both scientific and English, are retained in brackets in the form (as … ).

There has been a great increase in the number of British Rubus (bramble) species since the 1850s so it would be difficult to ascribe modern names to the Rubus records – of which there are a surprising number. Some though may even retain their original names and others might easily have their names updated by reference to the currently known bramble flora of this part of Somerset. There may even be voucher specimens in Miss Gifford’s herbarium in Taunton.

For ease of access, the list (83) is divided into the following sections with the number of entries in brackets: ferns (21), trees and shrubs (1), orchids (8), grasses (1), and other plants (40). Brambles (12) are listed as Appendix 1. Within these categories, plants are listed in alphabetical order of their scientific names. As will be seen, there are no sedges and only one grass and one shrub. In a popular account, and/or because of the author’s inclination, difficult and critical groups such as roses, hawkweeds, and the coastal Oraches are not touched. Being a list of the less common plants, widespread species such as primroses and bluebells are of course unmentioned.

The author’s localities are given in the original words wherever reasonably possible. As several plants would often appear for one general locality, reference to the original paper may sometimes be more informative. Editorial insertions are in square brackets. [M] indicates that the record appears in Murray’s Flora of Somerset (1896). A gazetteer is added as Appendix 2, although a map might be more useful. Notes about the subsequent and current records of some of the plants would make an interesting addition. It would also be particularly helpful in due course to add to this list any voucher specimens which might be found in the Taunton herbarium.



Asplenium adiantum-nigrum Black Spleenwort. Grows in the district.

Asplenium ceterach (as Ceterach officinarum) Rustyback. Old walls at Stanton, Minehead, and Allerford.

Asplenium marinum Sea Spleenwort. I believe it grows under Bossington Point.

Asplenium ruta-muraria Wall-rue. Grows in the district.

Asplenium scolopendrium (as Scolopendrium vulgare) Hart’s-tongue Fern. The several multifid varieties of this common fern are frequent in the hedges about Minehead.

Asplenium septentrionale Forked Spleenwort. This fern has been found in the parish of Porlock, and ‘on the borders of Devon and Somerset’. I am indebted to the Rev. G. B. Warren, of Exeter, for a specimen, obtained from a station near Culbone, and which, I believe, is the locality alluded to by Newman in his History of British Ferns, as being ‘near Glenthorn, about six miles from the boundary of Devon’. All the stations hitherto observed for the fern have been on the Somerset side of the boundary. In North Devon, Mr Warren informs me, he has often searched for it, but has never yet seen or heard of it across the borders, though very probably it may be found on Countesbury or Brendon.

Plate 3. Asplenium septentrionale collected by Miss Gifford near Porlock, but marked Ex Herb I Gifford, implying it was a specimen she gave to another botanist. From Miss Gifford’s account above, there is a suspicion that by 1855, she had yet not seen it here. From the Taunton Herbarium.

Asplenium trichomanes Maidenhair Spleenwort. Grows in the district.

Athyrium filix-femina (as Athyrium filix-foemina) Lady-fern. In one or two varieties in the combes of the district.

Blechnum spicant (as Blechnum boreale) Hard-fern. In the combes of the district.

Botrychium lunaria Moonwort. Rev. G. B. Warren of Exeter informs me he has seen this growing near Meyn Farm. [Locality not traced. Perhaps from context, it was near Glenthorn, Somerset, about six miles from the Devon boundary. It might be found on a contemporary map.]

Dryopteris aemula (as Lastrea dilatata foenisecii) Hay-scented Buckler-fern. In the combes of the district. [The name given appears to be with ‘foenisecii’ as a varietal name, but I have not been able to trace it in the specific form given. It was the standing name for this species at the time (e.g. Babington 1847). It might be thought that there was a missing ‘and’, i.e. that two species were intended, but Dryopteris dilatata is too common a plant to have been included in this list.

Dryopteris filix-mas perhaps including D. affinis (as Lastrea filix-mas). I have gathered the incised variety on Conygar Hill, in Periton Combe, and elsewhere.

Diphasiastrum alpinum (as Lycopodium alpinum) Alpine Clubmoss. In this district confined to Dunkery. [Extinct in Somerset since 1927 (Roe 1981).]

Huperzia selago (as Lycopodium selago) Fir Clubmoss. In this district confined to Dunkery.

Lycopodium clavatum Stag’s-horn Clubmoss. On Porlock Hill. [M.]

Ophioglossum vulgatum Adder’s-tongue. Said to be found in meadows near Selworthy. [Not clear from the text whether the record  is from Rev. G. B. Warren of Exeter or Newman’s History of British Ferns?]

Oreopteris limbosperma (as Lastrea oreopteris) Lemon-scented Fern. In the combes of the district.

Polypodium vulgare Polypody. I have observed the incised variety called ‘Cambricum’ in Bossington Woods. [Almost certainly P. cambricum, the fertile incised form Semilacerum, which has been found wild in several places in Somerset in the last 50 years; Cambricum itself (renamed Cambrian to avoid confusion with the species) is sterile and rare, and was later found, perhaps cultivated, on a wall at West Pennard near Glastonbury.]  [M].

Polystichum aculeatum (as Aspidium aculeatum) Hard Shield-fern. This species does not, I believe, appear in this neighbourhood. According to a writer in the Phytologist for May, 1851, A. angulare and A. aculeatum rarely grow together in the same district; and A. angulare is rare in the North of England, showing its tendency to be tender.

Polystichum setiferum (as Aspidium angulare) Soft Shield-fern. This fern in its various forms adorns the hedge-banks of the district.

Pteridium aquilinum (as Pteris aquilina) Bracken (as Common bracken). Grows as far up the hills as cultivation is practicable.


Viburnum lantana. Wayfaring-tree (as Mealy guelder rose). Common in the hedgerows about Blue Anchor.


Anacamptis pyramidalis (as Orchis pyramidalis) Pyramidal Orchid. In the vicinity of Blue Anchor. [M].

Dactylorhiza praetermissa (as Orchis latifolia) Southern Marsh-orchid. In the vicinity of Blue Anchor.

Neottia cordata (as Listera cordata) Lesser Twayblade. On Dunkery. With the exception of Coddon Hill, near Barnstaple, this is the only station for it in the West of England.

Neottia ovata (as Listera ovata) Common Twayblade. In the vicinity of Blue Anchor.

Ophrys apifera. Bee Orchid (as bee orchis). In the vicinity of Blue Anchor.

Ophrys insectifera (as Ophrys muscifera). Fly Orchid (as fly orchis). In the vicinity of Blue Anchor.

Orchis mascula Early-purple Orchid. In the vicinity of Blue Anchor.

Platanthera chlorantha (as Habenaria chlorantha) Greater Butterfly-orchid. In the vicinity of Blue Anchor. [M].


Phleum arenarium (as Phleum arenaria) Sand Cat’s-tail. Occurs as a maritime plant in the district.


Armeria maritima Thrift. At the mouth of the River Hone. [M].

Artemisia maritima Sea Wormwood. Occurs as a maritime plant in the district.

Blackstonia perfoliata (as Chlora perfoliata) Yellow-wort. In the neighbourhood of Blue Anchor.

Bolboschoenus maritimus (as Scirpus maritimus) Sea Club-rush. Occurs as a maritime plant in the district.

Cirsium arvense (as Carduus arvensis) Creeping Thistle. Minehead Warren, common with white blooms, though plants of the usual colours are likewise to be seen in the same spot.

Cochlearia danica Danish Scurvygrass. In crevices of the rocks near the sea under Greenaleigh and at Bossington Point. [M].

Cynoglossum officinale Hound’s-tongue. Minehead Warren, common with white blooms, though plants of the usual colours are likewise to be seen in the same spot.

Drosera rotundifolia Round-leaved Sundew. In small patches of boggy ground on the hills of the neighbourhood.

Echium vulgare Viper’s Buglossor Lycopsis arvensis Bugloss (as Lycopsis vulgaris). Minehead Warren, common with white blooms, though plants of the usual colours are likewise to be seen in the same spot. [The name Lycopsis vulgaris does not appear in British floras of the period and must be an error. Lycopsis arvensis Bugloss and Echium vulgare Viper’s Bugloss (using their Latin names in Babington’s Manual of 1847) both occur at Minehead Warren and on nearby beaches, though neither have been recorded with white flowers here. Current records from Miss Gifford’s area have no mention of white flowers for either plant Only might have been otherwise worthy of mention but only the latter is mentioned as sometimes having white flowers in CTW, Sell & Murrell, and in the spur for a ‘list to end such lists’ that appears in McClintock’s Supplement to The Pocket Guide for Wild Flowers (1957). On this particular basis it seems far more likely that the plant intended was Echium vulgare. However, normally with an error of this sort it would be the specific name that is a mistake, particularly with ‘arvensis’ and ‘vulgaris’ appearing so frequently amongst British plants; and Echium vulgare requires two mistakes. It is difficult to be certain, but my preference is for Echium vulgare – after all, Miss Gifford did record white-flowered Creeping Thistle there too.

Empetrum nigrum Crowberry. On Porlock Hill.

Erica tetralix Cross-leaved Heath. In small patches of boggy ground on the hills of the neighbourhood.

Eriophorum angustifolium (as Eriophorum angustifolia) Common Cottongrass. In small patches of boggy ground on the hills of the neighbourhood.

Eriophorum vaginatum Hare’s-tail Cottongrass. In small patches of boggy ground on the hills of the neighbourhood.

Erodium cicutarium Common Stork’s-bill (as Common hemlock stork’s bill). Frequent with white blossoms on Minehead Warren. [This seems highly likely to be the habitually pale-flowered E. aethiopicum (formerly E. lebelii), Sticky Stork’s-bill, still occurring on Minehead Warren and nearby beaches, but nowhere else in Somerset.]

Erodium maritimum Sea Stork’s-bill. Exceedingly common in sandy and grassy places close to the sea. It also grows at some distance from it, on the summit of Grabhurst, on Minehead Hill, and on a wall near Alcombe – three rather unlikely situations for this species. [M].

Plate 4. The label of a specimen, in her own hand, of Erodium maritimum collected by Miss Isabella Gifford at Minehead in 1866 from the herbarium of Augustin Ley in the Birmingham University Herbarium. Image from the website Herbaria at Home. Her numbers are difficult to read and have caused errors amongst the few other of her collections on this website. Her initial ‘I’ is also sometimes incorrectly read as ‘J’. She did not live in Minehead in 1846. In 1866 she was one of the 25 members of the London Botanical Exchange Club, the successor to the Thirsk BEC. The number 227 is the London Catalogue number, used to facilitate exchanges, but the gathering is unmentioned in the 1866 LBEC report. Unfortunately, the numbering of this species did not change between 1846 and 1866. ‘Lo.’ is an abbreviation for ‘Locality’; ‘Co.’ for ‘County’; and ‘Coll:’ for ‘Collected by’.

Euphorbia paralias Sea Spurge. Occurs as a maritime plant in the district.

Honkenya peploides (as Arenaria peploides) Sea sandwort. Very sparingly on the Warren near Minehead. [M].

Hypericum elodes Marsh St-John’s-wort. In small patches of boggy ground on the hills of the neighbourhood.

Juncus maritimus Sea Rush. Occurs as a maritime plant in the district.

Lathyrus aphaca Yellow Vetchling. In the neighbourhood of Blue Anchor. [M].

Lathyrus nissolia Grass Vetchling. In the neighbourhood of Blue Anchor and in the vicinity of Minehead.[M].

Lathyrus sylvestris Narrow-leaved Everlasting-pea. In the neighbourhood of Blue Anchor. [M].

Lysimachia maritima (as Glaux maritima) Sea-milkwort. Occurs as a maritime plant in the district.

Lysimachia tenella (as Anagallis tenella) Bog Pimpernel. Often occurring with Sibthorpia, bordering the little rivulets which run down the sheltered combes in the district.

Melittis melissophyllum Bastard Balm. In the woods on the road-side near Cutcombe.

Myosotis ramosissima (as Myosotis collina) Early Forget-me-not. Minehead Warren, common with white blooms, though plants of the usual colours are likewise to be seen in the same spot. [It might be thought that M. discolor, Changing Forget-me-not is more likely, but only M. ramosissima seems to occur on the beach; and McClintock’s Supplement to The Pocket Guide for Wild Flowers (1957) allows for it to sometimes have white flowers.] [M].

Narthecium ossifragum Bog Asphodel. In small patches of boggy ground on the hills of the neighbourhood. [M; interpreted as hills near Minehead].

Papaver cambricum (as Meconopsis cambrica) Welsh Poppy. Near Stowey Mill and in Culbone Woods, near Porlock.

Plantago maritima Sea Plantain. Occurs as a maritime plant in the district.

Salsola kali. Prickly Saltwort. Appears occasionally on the Warren near Minehead. [M].

Salicornia spp. (as Salicornia herbacea) Glassworts. Occurs as a maritime plant in the district. [In this period, annual Glassworts were not subdivided into different species. Several species have been recorded in recent years, mostly in the marshes at Porlock and Bossington.]

Sibthorpia europaea. Cornish moneywort. This delicate little creeping plant is one of the rarest plants of the district, and until the last few years it was only known as a native of Cornwall. It may be observed bordering the little rivulets which take their course down the sheltered combes. It generally grows associated with the tiny little ivy-leaved harebell, Wahlenbergia hederacea, and Anagallis tenella.

Silene uniflora (as Silene maritima) Sea Campion. Blue Anchor.

Suaeda maritima (as Schoberia maritima) Annual Sea-blite. Occurs as a maritime plant in the district. [Schoberia is used in the 2nd edition (1847) of Babington’s Manual of British Botany but is replaced in the 3rd by Suaeda. This may give a lead to identifying what book Miss Gifford primarily used when compiling this plant list.]

Trifolium squamosum (as Trifolium maritimum) Sea Clover. Observed by Mr Babington when botanising at Blue Anchor some years ago. [Babington’s published Journals relate that on two occasions whilst botanising in the area he visited the Giffords at Minehead, on 2 July 1849, and 27 June 1850. On the latter occasion he had just found the clover at Dunster Marshes, as also reported in the Botanical Gazette (2: 251). Visits to Blue Anchor are recorded on 30 June 1849 and 26 June 1850.]

Triglochin maritima (as Triglochin maritimum) Sea Arrowgrass. Occurs as a maritime plant in the district.

Tripolium pannonicum (as Aster tripolium) Sea Aster. Occurs as a maritime plant in the district.

Veronica chamaedrys Germander Speedwell. Minehead Warren, sometimes with white blooms, though normally of the usual colour.

Vicia bithynica Bithynian Vetch. In the neighbourhood of Blue Anchor. [M].

Wahlenbergia hederacea Ivy-leaved Bellflower. Often occurring with Sibthorpia, bordering the little rivulets which run down the sheltered combes in the district.


Rubus. An interesting but, until lately, little investigated genus. According to Mr Lees, the well-known student of this genus, the woods around Dunster are particularly rich in the various species. [Records from Ilford Bridge may have been provided to Miss Gifford by Lees.]  [Unless voucher specimens occur in Miss Gifford’s herbarium in Taunton, it might be difficult to ascribe modern names to the Rubus records, owing to the great increase in the number of British species since the 1850s. Some though may even retain their original names and others might easily have their names be updated by reference to the currently known bramble florula of this part of Somerset.]

Rubus amplificatus. I have collected this species in the wood surrounding Conygar Tower, together with all the commoner kinds. I. G. Ilford Bridges, near Lynton, with seven other named species, and others [Record perhaps from Lees].

Rubus cordifolius. Ilford Bridges, near Lynton, with seven other named species, and others. [Record perhaps from Lees.]

Rubus fuscus. Ilford Bridges, near Lynton, with seven other named species, and others. [Record perhaps from Lees.]

Rubus idaeus. Growing with Rubus leesii near Boniton Wood, and in the woods along the Timberscombe road. [M].

Rubus leesii. Near Boniton Wood, and in the woods along the Timberscombe road. A peculiar species of raspberry, named by Mr Babington in honour of Mr Lees, who first discovered it at Ilford Bridges, near Lynton. The specific differences will at once be seen on examination with the common kind, Rubus idaeus, which grows commonly in the same woods.

Rubus lindleianus. Ilford Bridges, near Lynton, with seven other named species, and others. [Record perhaps from Lees.]

Rubus rosaceus. I have collected this species in the wood surrounding Conygar Tower, together with all the commoner kinds.

Rubus rudus. Ilford Bridges, near Lynton, with seven other named species, and others. [Record perhaps from Lees.]

Rubus sprengelii. I have collected this species in the wood surrounding Conygar Tower, together with all the commoner kinds.

Rubus suberectus. Ilford Bridges, near Lynton, with seven other named species, and others. [Record perhaps from Lees.]

Rubus vestitus. Ilford Bridges, near Lynton, with seven other named species, and others. [Record perhaps from Lees.]

Rubus villicaulis. Ilford Bridges, near Lynton, with seven other named species, and others. [Record perhaps from Lees.]


Alcombe. SS9745. Now a suburb at the south-east of Minehead, south of Minehead Station and The Strand.

Allerford. SS9047 and SS9046.

Blue Anchor. ST0243. The second railway station east of Minehead. The Blue Anchor Bay has a muddy rather than rocky shore.

Boniton Wood. SS9842 Bonniton Lane, Bonniton and Bonniton Gate marked on current online maps south-west of Dunster.

Bossington Point. SS8949. Presumably now Hurlstone Point, 1km north of Bossington village.

Bossington Woods. SS8948 and SS8947. Presumably, the wooded combes north and south of Bossington but could be Allerford Plantation above Bossington Hall (SS9047).

Coddon Hill, near Barnstaple. SS5829. In Devon.

Conygar Tower. SS99174410: An 18th Century Folly in Conygar Woods on the hill above Dunster Station and Beach.

Culbone Woods, near Porlock. SS8248 and SS8348. Culbone Wood is currently marked on the OS map on the coast to the west of Culbone, but Miss Gifford’s site might have included Yearnor Wood, on the east (Porlock ) side of Culbone.

Cutcombe. SS9239. Small village extending into SS9339 where the church is.

Dunkery. SS8941. Dunkery Beacon and Hill.

Dunster. SS9943:  The castle and church. The first railway station east of Minehead. SS9843: West side. SS9944. North side, and Conygar Woods. Just reaching beach.

Glenthorn. SS7949. Now Glenthorne.

Grabhurst [Hill?]. SS9743 and SS9843. Now Grabbist Hill, the south facing slopes on the west side of Dunster.

Greenaleigh SS9548. Greenaleigh Point. SS9547. Greenaleigh Farm and Moor Wood.

Ilford Bridges, near Lynton SS7448. Close to Watersmeet but name not in current usage.

Meyn Farm. Not traced.

Minehead. SS9746. Square includes Minehead Station.

Minehead Hill. Not traced. Probably to north-east of Minehead or built over (SS9546; Higher Town).

Minehead Warren. SS9846. Warren Road continues into SS9746.

Periton Combe. SS9545, reaching into SS9544. Stream runs down to the north.

Timberscombe road, the woods along the. SS9542 for the village. Timberscombe Road is presumably the road from Dunster to Timberscombe. If so, the woods might be the now coniferised Whits Wood (SS9742) and Vinegar Hill (SS9843) although the latter should be described as near Dunster. South-west of Timberscombe by the road there is Oaktrow Wood SS9340 and other woods which would be better described as near Cutcombe, or Cutcombe Hill.

Porlock. SS8846.

Porlock Hill. SS8746.

River Hone. An old name for the River Avill as it passes the east side of Dunster Castle and divides at Marsh Street to reach the sea either side of Dunster Beach. The mouth of the River Hone would be the area of ponds called The Hawn (presumably Hone and Hawn have the same origin) an  in the old marsh above the beach, in SS9945, SS9944 and ST0044.

Selworthy. SS9146. Small settlement at SS918467 with stream in Selworthy Combe flowing south.

Stanton. Not traced.

Stowey Mill. SS9439. In ruins, east of Cutcombe.


Issue # 4

The story in the picture: Arthur G Tansley (1871-1955), H Stuart Thompson (1870-1940) and the Sharpham Moor Plot (ST465389)

Plate 1. Arthur G Tansley recording the flora and vegetation at the Sharpham Moor Plot, North Somerset, 23 June 1923. From the Natural England Archives courtesy of Steve Parker. Photograph by H Stuart Thompson. The negative may be in the Special Collections, University of Bristol Library. Tansley’s notebook may be in the Cambridge University Library. ‘I very much enjoyed my visit’ Tansley wrote to Thompson some years later.


At the Somerset Rare Plant Group’s AGM on Saturday 18 January 2020, Steve Parker, our Chair, delivered one of his now traditional ‘pumpkin-head’ quizzes, in which teams divided by affiliations to the north (the half that looks like a pretty snail shell according to one member) or west of the county (the slimy foot of the snail) vie to identify each other on images taken at field meetings from their particular clothes, field bags, or bodily posture, their heads and headgear being covered by a strategically placed pumpkin, which is later electronically erased to the great amusement of all.

As part of this quiz, though without the necessity of disguise because it was so long ago, Steve introduced the image above, later explaining that it was taken on the Sharpham Moor Plot, one of the reserves owned by the Somerset Wildlife Trust. At this point, knowing the story of Stuart Thompson’s interest in the site I was able to deduce that the man in the gabardine recording the plot was no less than the great Arthur G Tansley, variously: lecturer at Cambridge and Professor of Botany at Oxford; founder of the New Phytologist Trust and the British Ecological Society and editor of both of their journals; editor of Types of British Vegetation in the heady days of 1911 and sole author of the genuinely monumental The British Islands and their Vegetation (1939); the issuer of an invitation to Clapham, Tutin and Warburg to write a new British Flora (published 1952), and finally a founder and first Chair of the Nature Conservancy.

Oh yes, and Tansley was also the author of The New Psychology and its Relation to Life (1920). By 1923 it had sold over 10,000 copies – almost seven times the print run of his Types (1911). Between late 1923 and 1925 he visited Vienna for two several-month periods as a student of Sigmund Freud and on his return, he became a full member of the British Psycho-Analytical Society. Indeed Tansley had a dream ‘Out of Africa’ (which he had visited) involving a gun, Africans in the bush with spears and a ‘Woman in White’, perhaps his wife but according to Freud, representing Tansley’s undying love of botany – personified as Flora herself.

So how was it that Stuart Thompson, a quite different character, came to know Tansley? And what is the significance of what they were doing here?


Thompson, who never married, was a Quaker from Bridgwater and is buried with his father (also a plant collector) and two sisters in the Friends’ cemetery on Wembdon Road near there. He seems to have gone up as an undergraduate to Christ’s College Cambridge in 1889. He was secretary of the Cambridge University Botanical Club in February 1891 but, for reasons that are not yet wholly clear, he did not complete his degree; by mid-May that year he was ‘now engaged in Land Surveyor’s work’. He pursued that employment as a Land Agent in Birmingham until about 1902, before becoming fully engaged in British and Continental botany. After much moving about, by 1918 he had settled in Clifton where he remained, in a succession of at least six flats, for the rest of his life.

Plate 2. H Stuart Thompson in his older years from a newspaper obituary in 1940. A striking series of three professional photographs at intervals of 10 or 15 years, one probably contemporary with his photograph of Tansley, is in the archives of the Linnean Society of London. This one would be not long after Tansley and Thompson’s last meeting in 1935.    

Thompson was a keen photographer and thousands of his negatives, together with a mass of botanical correspondence are deposited in the Special Collections of the University of Bristol Library. In 1917 he took a picture of JW White, the author of the Flora of Bristol (1912), who had earlier (1901) acknowledged Thompson’s ‘great gift or enviable faculty of turning up rare plants in unexpected places’. In his photograph below (Plate 3) he shows us his botanical study.

Plate 3. ‘Plant Press and Cabinets’, in one of Thompson’s Clifton flats c. 1922, with vasculum, an easy chair, a bookcase and paintings including an alpine scene. Photo by HS Thompson from the negative in the Special Collections, University of Bristol Library. The painting below the alpine scene, Caltha palustris by Gulielma Stephens of Bridgwater, one of Thompson’s lady relatives, was given in 1938 to the Botany Department at the University of Bristol, held by CML for many years and then passed on to Kay Ungless, who has family connections with the Bridgwater Thompsons.

Aside from a long involvement with the Watson Botanical Exchange Club in two spells as Secretary and Editor, Thompson was, like Tansley, a botanical author. Alpine Plants of Europe (1911) has this as part of one of its selected quotations: ‘The sense of independence, of self-confidence, induced by the great precipices and vast silent fields of snow is something wholly delightful. Every step is health, fun and frolic. The troubles, cares of life … are left far below’. This is all highly reflective of Thompson’s frequent state of anxiety. His second book, Sub-alpine Plants of the Swiss Meadows was published in 1912. (Thompson’s parents were, unusually, married in Switzerland.) No wonder that White, who had by then known him for over 20 years, wrote to him, ‘what a literary man you have become’, adding that he would never touch another once his Flora of Bristol was off his hands.

Tansley and Thompson: Cambridge, the Continent and Conservation

There is a possibility that the Tansley and Thompson might have encountered each other as undergraduates. Tansley read Natural Sciences at Trinity College Cambridge, but being a year older than Thompson, went up to in 1890. His biography (Ayres 2012, see below) indicates that ‘student societies and gatherings dominated his first year’ – when as indicated above, Thompson was secretary of the University Botanical Club. Although for different reasons neither might have much wanted to talk about those days, it could have helped the two alumni to form a bond.

Tansley, who was by then a Cambridge lecturer, indicated that he and Thompson met in ‘about 1910’ (Rix 1973, see below). However, it was not until around May 1911 that Thompson returned to live in Cambridge. He was perpetually trying to get work as a herbarium assistant as he had briefly been at Kew some years earlier, but on this occasion he was clearly finishing off his Sub-alpine Plants:the Preface dated May 1912 thanks the Cambridge Botany School’s Professor and the herbarium Curator who allowed him to ‘freely consult’ the herbarium and library.

Though this time there is no Cambridge acknowledgement in its preface, Thompson clearly had in mind his next book: Flowering Plants of the Riviera (1914). In his copy, Thompson kept various mementos, so many that – as he wrote on the Boots the Chemists envelope in which they were later packaged and deposited in the archives of the Bristol Naturalists’ Society – it made the book bulge.

One of the items thus preserved is an invitation from Tansley in March 1912 for Thompson to dine with him (and his wife, Edith) ‘to discuss the Maritime Alps’ – part of the area covered by Thompson’s Riviera book (Plate 4). The two of them might have simply bumped into one another in the tearoom or corridor but equally might have been introduced by Charles E Moss, a fellow member of the Watson Botanical Exchange Club (which had less than 60 members), a sometime Somerset schoolmaster who had published an account of the Geographical Distribution of the Vegetation of Somerset in 1907, and who was now in charge of the Cambridge herbarium.

Plate 4. An invitation from Arthur G Tansley to Stuart Thompson, dated 14 March, to dine with him to discuss the Maritime Alps, suggesting it was a place familiar to both of them. Although Thompson has added the year 1911, the reference to ‘tomorrow (Friday)’ makes it clear that it was in 1912. From the Archives of the Bristol Naturalists’ Society.

In the Preface to Thompson’s book (Plate 5), dated 12 January 1914, he notes that he had taken many photographs of Riviera vegetation in 1912 and 1913 (November 1912 to June 1913 according to his photographic diary) and he thanked Tansley ‘not only for help and encouragement but [also] for his kindness in writing an introduction on Riviera Vegetation’. There is a letter from Tansley dated the following day, returning a draft of the preface after review, and adding how pleased he was to see as many as 80 grasses covered (BNS Archives).

The Riviera Vegetation account is nine pages long and is plainly written with a personal knowledge of the habitations, gardens, wild plants and vegetation –  and of travelling by train. This gives a flavour:  ‘A little away from the actual coast, up among the hills … it is easy to walk for a day amongst the pine woods and flowering shrubs with no let or hindrance, and without meeting anyone but an occasional peasant’.

Plate 5. The title page and frontispiece (behind an aged tissue guard) of Thompson’s Flowering Plants of the Riviera (1914), clearly showing that the book included an account of Riviera Vegetation by Tansley, accompanied by Thompson’s photographs.

It does not appear that Tansley joined Thompson in the Riviera to write this account. From a recent biography, Shaping Ecology: The Life of Arthur Tansley by Peter Ayres (2012), there were various pioneering University ecology field courses which Tansley was involved in: several in Brittany (1904-1906) and at least one in the Provence (1914). However, the one occasion mentioned by Ayres when Tansley was in the Riviera was in February 1904, on his (delayed) honeymoon. The couple stayed for two weeks in Cannes in the warm sunshine, and, before moving on to Pisa (where Tansley had been before as an undergraduate), Rome, Naples and Sicily, they spent ‘two delightful afternoons’, even though in less clement weather, at the well-known tropical garden of Sir Thomas Hanbury at Menton, close to the Italian border. Clearly impressed and recalling the visit, Tansley writes, on the first page of his account of Riviera Vegetation: ‘The variety of trees and flowers from all parts of the world which can be and are cultivated in the Riviera gardens is immense, as may be realized most vividly by a visit to the famous garden founded by the late Sir Thomas Hanbury at La Mortola near Menton’. Tansley’s notebooks are extant (Cambridge University Library) and begin in 1901; and they are evidently full of detail concerning plants, soil, topography, vegetation patterns and at least some have details of travel and travelling companions. If there is relevant material it might be usefully compared with the printed account of Riviera Vegetation with its sections on: woods of maritime pine and cork-oak; maquis; Aleppo pine-woods; garigues; stone pine-woods; sandy shore vegetation, vegetation of shady ravines; and montane and sub-alpine vegetation.

In 1916 the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves (SPNR; eventually to become the Royal Society for Wildlife Trusts, now known as The Wildlife Trusts, and serving as an umbrella organisation for the county trusts) printed a list of 284 sites they believed worthy of protection and which were proposed as nature reserves. It can be no coincidence that Tansley and Thompson are (separately) credited with having suggested some of these sites, now known as Rothchild’s Reserves (see the book of this title, by Miriam Rothschild and Peter Marren, 1997).

Tansley’s sites were of course, grander and less parochial than Thompson’s, and two became National Nature Reserves, the first-named under Tansley’s own watch in 1952: Kingley Bottom (Vale), Staffhurst Wood (Surrey), and Wistman’s Wood. Thompson suggested two, both allocated to SPNR’s second league: Burnham and Berrow dunes, and Pitts (or Pills) Wood, which was in suburban Birmingham where Thompson used to live until late 1902. It was a hardly bigger site (3 acres) than the Sharpham Moor Plot (1.4 acres). But here we learn that Thompson had written to local councillors and alderman deploring the misuse of the wood and published a note about its merits in the Journal of Botany. Not just ‘Mr Angry of Clifton’ as I have earlier termed him, but an early campaigner for the preservation of small but special wild places.

Over the years Tansley and Thomson exchanged correspondence about how the sales of their respective books were doing and in August 1922 Tansley wrote about his plans to go to Vienna, explaining, ‘I want to be analysed by Freud’.

It is likely that what had brought them back into touch was Thompson’s paper, Changes in the Coast Vegetation near Berrow, Somerset, published in 1922 in the Journal of Ecology where Tansley was still the editor. It was a study which has much in common with the work of the pioneers of ecology in Britain and it must have been appreciated by Tansley. Two of Thompson’s Berrow photographs appear in Tansley’s heavyweight 1939 book, on Plate 140 showing ‘Glycerietum’ – stabilised saltmarsh turf above the muddy Salicornia zone, dominated by Puccinellia (then Glyceria) maritima.

The Sharpham Moor Plot: the story in the picture

Like the home of the Badgeworth Buttercup in Gloucestershire, the Sharpham Moor Plot is an SSSI, owned by the county Wildlife Trust, small, well-studied, and was acquired by private subscription in the early days of the nature conservation movement with the preservation of one particular plant in mind. That the two reserves have taken a different historical trajectory surely owes as much to the relative charisma of the plants involved as to the contrasting accessibility of the sites: one has been maintained as a species reserve, whilst the other became a place where ecological succession, which as we now appreciate, can lead to the disappearance of the specialist or niche plants, could be studied.

Steve Parker has kindly sent me copies of two documents about the Sharpham Moor Plot from the Natural England archives, a management plan 2009-2019, and ‘a stimulus to its study’ made in 1973 by Graham Rix – and so it proved for he became the voluntary reserve manager. I haven’t seen his paper on the site’s history in the SANHS Proceedings for 2001 (145: 195-199) but, like an art historian explaining the context and content of a mysterious canvas, I am here more concerned with the story in the picture (Plate 1) and the relationship between Tansley and Thompson and how it might have facilitated the establishment and survival of this early nature reserve.

The discovery of Carex x evoluta at the Sharpham Moor Plot

On 8 July 1915, Thompson discovered a hybrid sedge, then regarded as new to Britain, whilst collecting specimens of Carex lasiocarpa (Slender Sedge) at the eastern end of the peat moor between Edington and Street. Thompson explained that he was botanising ‘where it was known’ to his Great Uncle Thomas Clark, whose herbarium Thompson possessed. Specimens gathered in 1857 and 1859 can be seen on the Herbaria at Home website, the first ‘by a fir plantation of Cousin James Clark’s near the eastern end of the moor’ (Plate 6 below) and the other ‘about a mile north west of Sharpham Park’. As it happens, these locations tally at ST452381, a mile south-west of the Sharpham Moor Plot (ST465389). As usual, as well as expertise, a little serendipity can be attached to the discovery.

Plate 6. Carex lasiocarpa, Slender Sedge, collected on 23 June 1857 by Thomas Clark, from an image on the Herbaria at Home website, part of Stuart Thompson’s herbarium donated by him to Birmingham University. The specimen seems to have inspired Thompson’s visit to the area when he found Carex x evoluta at the Sharpham Moor Plot. Though Thompson found Carex lasiocarpa there, Clark’s specimen of this rare sedge in Somerset was from a mile away.

More recently an 1833 specimen of the hybrid from Cambridgeshire has been identified as the first British record. At the Sharpham Moor Plot, it was last seen in 1955 but it was later found on Street Heath which was used to source a reintroduction at its original site in 2006, though it ultimately failed to survive there (Steve Parker pers. comm. to CML). It has only been found in two other sites in Britain and Ireland.

Although both the initial report in the Journal of Botany for 1915 (53: 309) and the report in the Watson Botanical Exchange Club for 1916 (when a second set of specimens were sent out) lists it as a species (C. evoluta), the detailed accounts make it clear that it was identified as the hybrid between the Greater Pond-sedge Carex riparia and C. lasiocarpa. It grew in quantity with the latter, though not within a hundred yards of the former.

Rix (1973), who saw letters from Thompson to Tansley in the latter’s (or site) archives, states that Thompson’s ‘concern about the probable future destruction of the habitat of this [hybrid] sedge was communicated to … Tansley’. It is this that lay behind the subsequent acquisition of what was to become known as the Sharpham Moor Plot.

The Carex evoluta fund for the purchase of the Sharpham Moor Plot

The Sharpham Moor Plot was the first designated nature reserve in Somerset. The southern part of Leigh Woods on the Somerset side of the Avon Gorge was given to the National Trust in 1909 but more for landscape and archaeology; at Brean Down in 1912, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds bought out the shooting rights and land was not acquired until later.

The following is from Rix’s (1973) account. ‘Tansley and Thompson visited the plot on 23 June 1923 and listed about 100 species in two to three hours. Tansley saw the plot as containing a rich variety of peat habitats in which ecological investigations could be carried out over a period without disturbance if this were to become a nature reserve. In August 1923 he offered £20 to help in its purchase for the National Trust. Thompson found 31 other donors who contributed from 2 guineas to 10 shillings each to raise the £45 for the purchase. The National Trust suggested the plot was more suitable for the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves. They accepted on condition that the local committee agreed to pay the upkeep and the Society could dispose of the plot if they should default’. SANHS, Rix also explained, provided 10 shillings a year for upkeep for at least the next decade.

Generally, modern narratives of the acquisition emphasise Tansley’s involvement as a man of national importance, and without doubt underestimate the initiatives and involvement of Thompson, ‘the local man on the ground’. Thompson’s obituary in the Bristol Naturalists’ Society Proceedings for 1940 was written by the Professor of Botany at Bristol University, Macgregor Skene, who around that time had become the site manager on behalf of the SPNR. Skene wrote that Thompson ‘took the chief part in securing the purchase of the Sharpham Moor Plot’.

Thompson’s appeal also preceded the visit by Tansley. There is a letter dated 11 May 1923 in Thompson’s correspondence from TB Blow, a fellow Quaker, known as a collector of Charophytes from many countries, who sent half a guinea (ten shillings and sixpence) for what was referred to as the ‘Carex evoluta fund’. The date of August 1923 (after the visit) which Rix gives for Tansley’s contribution rather makes it clear, as well as does Thompson’s pre-existing interest in creating small local reserves, that the motivator was Thompson, not Tansley – contrary to the assertion appearing on the Somerset Wildlife Trust’s website. That they approached the National Trust first seems surprising, but it could well have arisen from their mutual knowledge of the good intentions but limited follow-through of the other organisation and a hope that the National Trust might meet the management costs.

More or less coinciding with moving to a new Clifton address, and a loss on his investments, Thompson was thinning out his books and collections of paintings and drawings, both before and after photographing Tansley at the Sharpham Moor Plot. This would all have been a concern on his mind at the time. In April 1923: ‘If your means are smaller than ever are you being fair to yourself in exhibiting such generosity?’ wrote someone at Birmingham Museum, and then ‘Why give away pictures when you ought to turn them into cash?’

Thompson was by nature generous, but on his own admission in 1924, ‘I have been quite a poor man since the war’. Tansley too was renowned for his financial generosity but was wealthier. I assume Thompson made one of the smaller donations – Rix rather suggests there may be a list rather than just a count. Another report mentions 33 donors, and as Rix mentions Tansley, then says ‘Thompson found 31 other donors’ we may well take it that ‘other’ means, ‘other than Thompson himself’.

The Tansley/Thompson Survey of the Sharpham Moor Plot

Tansley’sbook Practical Plant Ecology (1923, the preface signed in April) was written ‘as a guide for those who are attracted to ecological work but are uncertain of how to set about it’ so it is quite helpful in showing how basic ecological work was practiced at the time. There are sections on the primary survey and on notebooks and note-taking in the field which give a ‘feel’ to the approach being followed by Tansley in the photograph. Tansley knew, ‘it is always essential to make notes on the spot’ and that facts should be clearly separated from hypotheses or preconceived opinions.

The term ‘primary survey’ (as opposed to reconnaissance) recalled the surveying style of the first ecologists who had been working on British vegetation, covering huge swathes of land 20 years earlier, ‘recognising and describing the larger vegetation units, …, making lists of their floristic composition, studying their relationships and the general nature of their habitats, and recording their distribution on topographical maps … ’. As to note-taking, Tansley urged a systematic approach, lest the worker having departed the site found that they had omitted to record some important detail. ‘But’, he added ‘no system, of course, can be a substitute for the activity of an alert and imaginative mind’ (which Thompson is known to have possessed). Head bowed in concentration, Tansley would have been oblivious of sinking into the mire. Another year (1925), Thompson would be forced to walk on hedge trimmings to traverse the plot.

But of course Tansley was not alone: the photographer was a co-worker in the enterprise. Thompson always considered that ‘habitats’ was one of his ‘strong points’. Tansley was aware that his skills in plant identification in the field might not be as expert as someone whose primary expertise was that of a field botanist, and consequently in his academic life he liked to have what he called a ‘florist’ on hand. The early ecological excursions he had been on in Brittany put the students in groups of three: a surveyor, a diarist and a collector. One has to be alert to the context because someone writing in a notebook may be taking notes, or taking dictation, or taking possession of the data.


Although Tansley is photographed writing in his notebook (will it prove to be one in the Cambridge University Library?), Rix (1973) describes the plant list as ‘Thompson’s list of vascular plants’ and notes that Thompson increased the site total from 100 in 1923 to 130 in 1924, and to 140 in 1925. Thompson also repurposed a laundry card (a bachelor-like transgression of the systematic recording recommended by Tansley) to jot down various details which Rix was able to superimpose on a modern site map. But as these include information about site clearance and boundary ditch ownership, they cannot, (as Rix was aware) have been made during the visit shown on the 1923 photograph.  

Something the two may have discussed when they met (but how did they travel there and did Tansley ever visit other parts of Somerset?) comes out in a letter from Tansley to Thompson a couple of months later (25 August 1923, Thompson correspondence, but I’ve no note this letter mentions Tansley’s £20 donation that month): what was the status of Hornbeam in the west? ‘Do I understand that Mr White now thinks the Leigh Woods locality may not be a native one? … But still, the Wye Valley may be a genuine native habitat as I believe is true of the Beech at Symonds Yat’. If I may butt in to their conversation, the main area of occurrence of Hornbeam in Leigh Woods is the early 19th Century ‘New Plantation’ on the southern edge of the ancient and embanked woodland, so White’s new belief must be correct.

On 6 January 1927 Tansley wrote that ‘I am very sorry that you are suffering so much financially that you have to resign from the British Ecological Society’. Nonetheless, Thompson’s follow-up paper, Further Changes in the Coast Vegetation near Berrow, Somerset was published in their Journal of Ecology in 1930. Tansley’s 1927 letter added, referring to the Somerset peatmoors  ‘I very much enjoyed my visit some summers ago’. On Thompson’s part, there is a 1933 letter in his correspondence from GW Hedley (the second of the three successive author/editors of the Flora of Gloucestershire 1948) about the acquisition and initial management (fencing) of the Badgeworth reserve. It has the pertinent comment, clearly alluding to the Sharpham Moor Plot, ‘you’ve been through the same thing yourself’.

Last visits

In 1933 Thompson took the great amateur botanist JE (Ted) Lousley to visit the site (Rix 1973). Thompson described Lousley as ‘a keen London botanist’ (a draft letter to Hedley in the Thompson correspondence dated 3 May 1937) and took him around the Avon Gorge on 19 July 1933, so that date probably coincides with their visit to the Sharpham Moor Plot. Lousley went on to write Floras of the Isles of Scilly (1971) and Surrey (1976).

According to Rix (1973): ‘Early in 1934 Tansley asked Thompson to write a history of the Plot with plant lists for the Journal of Ecology. The manuscript dated 10 August 1934 seems never to have been published, perhaps because Thompson invited more editing than Tansley had time to undertake’.

‘In 1935 (25 August 1935 according to Rix’s marginal note) the plot was visited by Tansley and Godwin with Thompson. This was the last meeting of the two men responsible for the creation of the reserve’. Harry Godwin, later Sir Harry, was in the 1960s the ‘peat and pollen’ Professor in the Botany School at Cambridge and was author of The History of the British Flora: a factual basis for phytogeography (1956; 1975).

Thompson continued to visit the plot throughout the 1930s, cutting Molinia and scrub. Rix mentions a pencil note by Thompson on a letter to Tansley dated 18 July 1939, ‘it has been terribly overgrown of recent years, impassable in places’. Thompson died some months later on 3 March 1940.

In September 1955, at the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, held at the University of Bristol, Tansley delivered his last significant lecture. Tansley died two months later on 25 November 1955. Whilst in Bristol he must have greeted his old doctoral student JF Hope-Simpson, who co-authored the chapter on Vegetation in the meeting handbook, Bristol and its adjoining Counties (1955), and H-S, as we knew him, was at the time the warden of the Sharpham Moor Plot. Within a mile of where his old friend Thompson had lived, and a short distance from the Sharpham Moor Plot where the two had twice met, Tansley might have paused, reflective, and in the evening raised a last glass in their memory.

Clive Lovatt, Stroud, 16 April 2020


Week #3

The Joy of Botany: a weekly column for the socially distanced botanist

The excitement of research

Nature, as we know, abhors a vacuum, and being unable to get out in the field I have been putting some time on the history of the Avon Gorge flora and local botanists. Research of this type is every bit as absorbing as botanising somewhere you haven’t been. In the same way, if you allow yourself to wander where fancy takes you, you never know what you might find. Here’s a few things that have come to light in the last week or two.

Take first the history of Barrenwort, Epimedium alpinum, a garden escape which grew wild in Leigh Woods for a decade or more between 1830 and 1850. It was last collected by Miss Isabella Gifford (c 1823-1892) of Minehead, a forgotten Somerset botanist important enough at the time to have been paid a visit by Charles Cardale Babington – best known to us as the author of Flora Bathoniensis (i.e. Bath, 1834 & 1839) but more importantly author of the Manual of British Botany (1843, 1847 etc.), a pocket book so carefully observed that a contemporary joked that it included not only species, sub-species, but also Bab-ies. Miss Gifford lived with her mother and they both died of Influenza at Christmas 1892, within a day of each other, during a winter resurgence of the pandemic ‘La Grippe’ or Russian Flu. Take care everyone!  Hopefully by next week I’ll have written her up and opened the opportunity for further research by other SRPG members.

Returning to ES Marshall, it turns out that, his daughter Phyllis had developed an interest in folk song and dance at University and whilst living in the Rectory at West Monkton she collected folk songs from several local residents.

As a result researchers from another direction have studied the Marshall family and their achievements. Songs from Phyllis Marshall’s manuscripts with allegorical references to plants include versions of Cupid’s Garden, the Seeds of Love, and a fragment of the Banks of Sweet Primroses. There is also  the Spotted Cow, a song mentioned by Thomas Hardy in Tess of the D’Urbervilles and resurfacing in the discography of Steeleye Span. One wonders what her parents may have thought of this sort of music, especially in its native unbowdlerised form. Cecil Sharp, the founder of the revival did much of his work in Somerset and is known to have collected in West Monkton (earlier); maybe he would have called in at the Rectory.

We also learn at the time of the 1911 census the Marshall household had four servants, a cook, a parlour maid, a housemaid and a kitchen maid. But more important, it seems that in 1925 Phyllis, who lived on at the house the Marshalls had moved to in Tidenham near Chepstow and where they died in 1919, paid £600 to have a memorial window installed in St Mary and St Peter’s, the Tidenham Parish Church where her parents (and later she with them) are buried. According to the account of Phyllis Marshall ( ) the window is inscribed ‘To the glory of God and in loving memory of Edward Shearburn Marshall, priest, and Fanny Isobel Marshall, his wife’ and ‘is a triptych design matching the three windows under gothic arches, with a centre image of Mary and Jesus’. Of course, I have been unable to go and check it out, but the image below matches.

Stained glass window at Tidenham Parish Church, Gloucestershire, believed to be the one dedicated to the memory of ES Marshall, author of the Supplement to the Flora of Somerset (1914) and his wife and companion. Photo attributed to John Wilkes of Cam near Dursley, Gloucestershire; accessed at .

By coincidence, there’s another stained-glass window I’ve known for over 13 years which is dedicated to a local botanist (Bristol, but he visited N Somerset too). Dr Henry Oxley Stephens is best known to botanists as the discoverer of the Round-headed Leek, Allium sphaerocephalon in the Avon Gorge in 1847, but he went on to be Medical Superintendent at the Bristol Lunatic Asylum, which around 1860 moved to Stapleton. Its Chapel, now a small museum (Glenside Hospital), has another three-piece design, installed by his  wife and children after his death with the rather apt biblical quotation ‘All they that had any sick with divers diseases brought them unto him’.

Photo of the HO Stephens memorial window in the Glenside Hospital Museum, Stapleton, taken by Viv Jenkins, Curator, for Clive Lovatt, then in Malawi, March 2007. In response to CML’s article on Stephens in the BNS Bulletin, Viv responded, ‘No, we don’t have a photo of him, but we do have a stained-glass window’.

In Stuart Thomson’s extraordinarily rich correspondence archive, there is a mention on 25 March 1921 and later of the correspondence of William Whitwell of York, which (from my 40-year old notes – it takes a long time to make a story) he must have bought for 30 shillings.  It  now transpires that in 1936 Thompson donated it to the Linnean Society of London, who have an index of its contents in their online archive catalogue. Whitwell, it seems, had collected autograph letters of contemporary botanists and their photos and amongst them are two of flora-writing Somerset botanists, both unpublished and unreported in Desmond’s Dictionary of British and Irish Botanists. One is of ES Marshall, aged 42, who until they are able to open to researchers again, we’ll have to imagine – I would be guessing that the whiskery Victorian gents were by then the older generation. The other – and I never expected I would find such a relic – is the itinerant tutor of languages and Natural History Dr Gustavus Adolphus Ornano St Brody, who published in 1856 in the form of a monthly calendar, a small Flora of Weston (i.e. Weston-super-Mare), which has both charmed and puzzled botanists ever since. It was given to Whitwell by his wife, then destitute and looking for work as a housekeeper in 1902, after her husband’s death, so it will probably be in the form of a professional carte de visite.

Such are some of the joys of botanical research.

Poet’s corner

It may not be generally known, but two of our members are published poets of some distinction, both delightfully able to weave the natural world into their works. It was, however another, unpublished member who sent me the short poem below. It was created more as a pass-time than a pastime.

Touch-me-not. A poem for the soapwort days of 2020

The bittersweet pursuit of flowers

Enhances traveller’s joy.

So if you’re getting melancholy

This’ll gloom destroy.

An early dog walk : no cuckoo?

Flowers may be your balm,

Or bird’s foot tracks on a muddy patch

Spring beauty offers calm.

The townhall clock runs slowly now;

The hours with different feel,

Ladies smock to speed well time

And all seed makes self heal.

It’s time to keep your eye bright

And with honesty record.

Not a rueful word or torment

Till the soapwort days are stored.

How many flowers? About 22.

Author: Mind your own business

When I read the puzzle-rhyme, I remembered seeing something similar recently in old copies of the magazine of the Wild Flower Society. 60 English names, taken from Bentham & Hooker, were buried into a story in prose. I hesitate to offer it to members because I don’t have the subsequent issue with the answers, and because Bentham was brought up in France and consequently preferred to invent ‘common names’ by translating the Latin in their scientific names. But I can’t resist a tempter, just to show how difficult it is. To get you going, answer (1) is daisy (day sy–).

A Botanical Journey

One (1) –dney and his sister (2) decided to take a (3)day in (4). They consulted a (5) –st they should lose their way. They had not (6) so they agreed to (7) w–  –ted bag was to hold their luggage, which consisted of (8) –ings, a (9), a (10) of (11), a cake of (12) –h much to them, and some (13) b – .

(From the Wild Flower Magazine October-November 1910, unsigned.)

A verse by H Stuart Thompson

Amongst Stuart Thompson’s correspondence in the Bristol University Special Collections which I drew on in the last column (#2), I found a poem he seems to have written in Clifton around 1929.

If only more people to Nature would look

Take something themselves from her beautiful book

They would find on the Downs and the fair Avonside

A real satisfaction to fill them with pride.

After the low style of verse, it is signed Jas (James) Doggerel.


There are to my knowledge four Oxford graduates mentioned or alluded to in this week’s column, and four who attended Cambridge University. A small prize (an honourable mention) to anyone who can identify at least seven. Clive Lovatt, Stroud, 3 April 2020


Jumping for Joy

I once saw in H Stuart Thompson’s collection of letters in the University of Bristol Special Collections a cartoon drawn by one of his relatives, where a very happy botanist is jumping in the air shouting ‘a new plant’. It really happens that way. Around 1980 the late George Garlick of Yate, who had carried out a very detailed survey of the plants of the Avon Gorge in 1951, explained to me what happened when the following year he showed the Beech Fern, Phegopteris connectilis, which he had found in Leigh Woods, to Noel Sandwith of Bristol and Kew. Sandwith jumped in the air, for it was the only site in the Bristol area. Sadly it seems to have disappeared as a result of the droughts of 1975 and 1976, and I never saw it.

George Garlick in Leigh Woods, about 30 years after he discovered the Beech Fern there.

As shown by the portrait of the Marshalls in last week’s column, they were very content in the field. The discovery of a new British plant must always produce a bit of a thrill and I should have told the tale of when in 1897 they discovered the genuinely rare native String Sedge, Carex chordorrhiza, in Scotland. The story came from WA Shoolbred, later author of the Flora of Chepstow, who was with them. ‘It was a terrifically hot day, and the plant was growing in a very wet black peat-bog. We were both pulling up specimens, and at the same time being devoured by clegs and midges, which we were unable to resist knocking off our faces with our black hands! The effect on our appearance can be better imagined than described!’

Of course, some of us prefer to keep our feet on the ground after we have come across an unexpected plant, with good cause if you are up a cliff somewhere. There’s another cartoon I once saw of three identical unemotional bowler-hatted and briefcase-carrying accountants (my own trade), each one captioned differently, the joy of discovery, the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat. I didn’t manage to catch him unawares, but Eric Edees really was rather excited to see and collect for the first time his own species Rubus fuscicaulis in Leigh Woods, when I took him and Alan Newton, the two national bramble experts at the time, on a foray in 1980. As he explained, it had been distributed from here through the exchange clubs by all the old botanists, but it seemed from their gatherings that it was rather variable, so he decided against naming it Rubus leighensis, the Leigh Woods bramble, and he took the type from elsewhere. He was now satisfied that the variation was due to varying exposure, with stiff-leaved and more prickly forms arising in the sunlight after coppicing. I wished I had been able to take him there earlier.

Eric Edees, having collected his own species, Rubus fuscicaulis in Leigh Woods in 1980.

On staying at home

Last week the warning was that we should be socially distanced. Now we are in lockdown with one instance of outdoor exercise allowed per day, and strong discouragement against travelling to do it. No public meetings of more than two people are possible unless you are a household group. The Wild Flower Society have cancelled the year’s programme of meetings whilst others are more inclined to wait and see. I’ve been busy writing, and you can always name the weeds as you do your gardening. When I moved in, I found the uncommon Epilobium roseum, Pale Willowherb, in my garden, and it is easily told as a seedling by the petiolate leaves.

A more courageous pair: some moments from the Thompson correspondence

Stuart Thompson (1870-1940) described himself a poor cousin of the Clarks of Street. He was born in Bridgewater and his Great Uncle was Thomas Clark (1793-1864), author of a paper on the plants of the Somerset Turf-moors (1856). Thompson’s correspondence has many chatty letters from 1889-1940.

There are some funny moments described about botanising in Somerset, and many that tell you about the man and his correspondents. In 1906 Marshall wrote about botanising with White of Bristol at Highbridge: it was such inclement weather that White’s umbrella was wrecked. AG Tansley, the pioneering plant ecologist, had contributed a section on Vegetation to Thompson’s Flowering Plants of the Riviera (1914). In February 1915 he commiserated about its poor sales. Unsurprisingly, by 1922 it was doing better. In April 1915 Thompson underlined some text in the Spectator in an article about the lure of drink – he was, after all, a Quaker. In 1919, Noel Sandwith of Bristol, just about to go up to Oxford University, set out for an excursion to Max Bog. ‘We failed hopelessly’ he wrote, explaining that they ‘couldn’t even find the bog’. A century on, it is still there, and I’ve never been.

This is the best story. In October 1917 Dr Newman Nield wrote a letter which Thompson found ‘very amusing’. Thompson was a constant scribbler of notes for posterity, as well as a frequent and often anonymous writer to the newspapers as his scrapbooks in the Bristol Naturalists’ Society archives reveal. In this guise I call him ‘Mr Angry of Clifton’. ‘Young people are so rude these days’, he complained. ‘Three were walking side by side and pushed me off the pavement’. Thompson had told Nield where to look in Leigh Woods for the Lily of the Valley and Angular Solomon’s-seal. ‘Funnily enough I found two plants of Belladonna at the top of the quarry south of Lily Point, possibly descendants of the ones mentioned in White’s Flora [of Bristol, 1912]. One was small and fairly happy but a large stone, the brute, had knocked off the upper 2/3 of the other’. On the way down, ‘My new set of teeth were so painful that I pocketed them, and slithering down Lily Point they so chattered with sheer terror in my pocket that I was quite unable to go on and had to go back! I am going to ask my dentist for a more courageous pair’.

Clive Lovatt, Stroud, 26 March 2020

Week # 1

Edward Shearburn Marshall became the Rector of West Monkton near Taunton in 1904 and his Supplement to the Flora of Somerset was published in 1914. The West Monkton Rectory, adjacent to the Church of St Augustine, is now privately owned as Glebe Court but has a flat used as an Airbnb establishment. Access to the gardens is permitted but apparently the rock garden where the Marshalls grew Saxifrages has gone.

When I made a display and later gave a presentation to the Somerset Rare Plants Group a year or two ago on the earlier botanists and Floras of Somerset I used a photo of Marshall, in clerical garb, unsmiling, as if he was suffering from ‘the harassing cares of an exacting occupation’ that White (see above) had gone on to mention. It seems that as an educated man in a country parish, with strong views from which it was difficult to shift him, his sermons proved to be rather too clever for the comprehension of some of his parishioners (see article by Anthony Pugh-Thomas in the online edition of the Village News Monkton Heathfield, West Monkton and Bathpool issue no 107, July-August 2017).

Photograph by FJ Hanbury, 1915, published in the Report of the Botanical Society and Exchange Club for 1919 with the most intimate of their Obituaries.

I was therefore delighted the other day to come across again this happily smiling portrait of Marshall, with his wife, hatted and dressed up for the field. It was taken by their friend and Marshall’s co-author of the Flora of Kent (1899), Frederick Janson Hanbury, whilst they were collecting variegated reeds together on the coast of Caithness in 1915.

The three had long known each other. Marshall, at the time a young curate in Tottenham, met Hanbury in 1884, when a Suffragan Bishop of London introduced the fellow botanists. Marshall’s known interest in botany seems to go back to a visit to Teesdale in 1883, for which according to Pugh-Thomas there is a plant list in his journal. When she was still Fanny Isabel Foster of Witley, Surrey, Hanbury had met the future Mrs Marshall and her sister and father on a botanical excursion near Cromer.

Marshall only later met his wife-to-be when he became the Curate of Witley. She was active as a clergyman’s wife, well-known and remembered in West Monkton for her good humour, charm and tact and for training the village choir and playing the organ. She also seems to have taken a full part in Marshall’s botanical life both at home and in the field and Hanbury relates that she had ‘a good general knowledge’ of the subject, ‘and was extraordinarily apt at grasping the characteristics of a plant and often being the first to discover the objects of our search. She was an excellent walker and never shirked difficult climbs or going into the wettest places.’

Clive Lovatt, Stroud, 20 March 2020