The Joy of Botany #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.

Some moments from the Thompson correspondence

Stuart Thompson (1870-1940) described himself a poor cousin of the Clarks of Street. He was born in Bridgwater 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