the Joy of Botany

: a weekly 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.

Week #2

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