The Joy of Botany #6

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

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.

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