A short history of botanical discovery on The Lizard

This article is an extract from Classic British Wildlife Sites – The Lizard Peninsula by Andrew Byfield in British Wildlife, 3 (2), pp. 92105 (1991).

The blue of Autumn Squill among other plants, near Kynance

When the eminent Cambridge botanist, John Ray, recorded ‘Juniper or Firre-leaved heath (Erica vagans), with many flower, by the way-side going from Helston to Lizard point in Cornwall, plentifully’ [sic.] in 1667, he contributed the first botanical record for The Lizard Peninsula. On reaching Lizard Point, he added Autumn Squill (Scilla autumnalis), Fringed Rupturewort (Herniaria ciliolata), and Wild Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis ssp. prostratus), all growing abundantly, and the last two new to the British flora (Ray, 1670).

John Ray may not have realised it at the time, but his records for these four species were the first from a long history of botanical discovery, which ultimately put The Lizard Peninsula, an extraordinary promontory and the most southerly part of the mainland, on the list of Britain’s most revered botanical areas, together with Teesdale, the New Forest, Breckland, Ben Lawers and the Burren.

The Lizard is a remote place – early botanists to the area were few, and they recorded only the most showy species such as Bloody Cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum). It was not until the 1830s that the Peninsula was truly put on the botanical map, and the honour of this ‘discovery’ should go to the Rev C A Johns, author of Flowers of the Field and Forest Trees of Britain. His botanical exploits are recounted in his A Week at The Lizard (1848) which recalls his first visit to the area: ‘On the 24th of August, 1831, I happened to be residing in Helston, and having heard a great deal of the beauty of the scenery of Kynance Cove, and of the rare plants which grew on the rock there, I determined to see for myself whether the accounts which I had heard were true’. They clearly were, for Johns frequently visited the west coast of the Peninsula during his 15-year Cornish residence.

At about this time the three classic ‘Lizard Clovers’ were discovered, all new to the British floral. In 1838, the Rev. William Strong Hore, a friend of Johns, discovered the Long-headed Clover (Trifolium incarnatum ssp. molinerii), to the west of Lizard Point. Despite early claims that it was an alien species, perhaps even planted by Johns or Hore in order to gain a ‘mite of éclat’, it is now known to be unquestionably native, occurring in about nine Lizard localities.

A year later the Twin-headed Clover (Trifolium bocconei), was discovered by Charles Babington and William Borer on a hedgebank near Cadgwith in July 1839. It has subsequently been found in about 20 Lizard sites (all in natural turf), but is otherwise unknown from the British mainland. The third of the trio, Upright Clover (Trifolium strictum), was discovered, appropriately by Johns himself, at Caerthillian Valley in July 1847. It was here, illustrating the importance of The Lizard for members of the pea family, that Johns performed his oft-quoted ‘hat trick’ (Johns 1847): ‘So abundant are the leguminosae at this spot that I covered with my hat Trifolium bocconi, T. strictum, T. molinerii, T. scabrum, T. striatum, T. arvense, Lotus hispidus, and Anthyllis vulneraria var. Dillenii. Had the rim been a little wider I might have included Genista tinctoria and Lotus corniculatus.’ Elsewhere, Johns admits that his impromptu quadrat was a ‘straw hat with a broad brim’!

Nevertheless with 14 species of Trifolium in this single valley, Caerthillian remains the richest spot for clovers in Britain.

Another Helston botanist, James Cunnack, ‘worked’ the area during the 1870s adding notable finds to The Lizard flora. He was the first to notice the handsome, south-western Wavy-Leaved St. Johns-wort (Hypericum undulatum) in Britain, but failed to publish his find; T R Archer-Briggs , author of the Flora of Plymouth, claimed the credit some 20 years later, in the 1870s. Cunnack discovered the elusive Shore Dock (Rumex rupestris) at Gunwalloe in August 1875, but again Archer-Briggs pipped him at the post, recording this species new to Britain from Plymouth just one month earlier! Cunnack’s other important discoveries were Four-Leaved Allseed (Polycarpon tetraphyllum), and a prostrate version of Juniper (Juniperus communis), both new to the Peninsula. The latter is of especial importance, for it is morphologically distinct and geographically separate from any other British populations.

By the 1870s and 1880s The Lizard was firmly established as a mecca for flower hunters in search of rarities. From this time onwards strings of botanists from across Britain visited the Peninsula, although at least one Kew taxonomist caustically remarked that their visits were little more than ‘fleeting hunts for rarities’ and such travellers often contributed little to our knowledge of the flora. Nevertheless, eminent botanists such as Druce, Marshall, Linton and Lousley were responsible for notable records or observations.

One of the most remarkable discoveries at this time was made by William Beeby. In early June 1872 he visited Cornwall, adding the Dwarf Rush (Juncus capitatus) to the British list from a barren moor north of Land’s End, and from Kynance on The Lizard’s west coast. Only days later he located a second new rush, Pigmy Rush (Juncus pygmaeus), in the cart tracks across Kynance Downs. Dwarf Rush has its British headquarters on The Lizard where it is locally abundant: elsewhere it has been recorded from only three Cornish and four Anglesey sites. Pigmy Rush is considerably rarer: it has been recorded from only seventeen sites and is confined to The Lizard.

With the majority of showy species long since discovered, some of the most notable plant discoveries of the first half of the 20th century were diminutive indeed. But the flow of new discoveries was by no means faltering. On 19th June 1919, the plant collector Fred Robinson was stripping large quantities of rare clovers from Johns’ classic site at Caerthillian. On emptying his vasculum he discovered the bulb and withered leaves of a plant later confirmed as Land Quillwort (Isoetes histrix): ‘The first for England I believe’. The discovery of the plant was later discredited by G C Druce in his Comital Flora, where he stated ‘the Lizard record is an error’. How very wrong he was, for history was to repeat itself. On the evening of 16th May 1937, Dr Melville, from Kew Herbarium, was uprooting a specimen of a rush – and with it came Land Quillwort. Further searching by Melville revealed a number of sites along the coast near Kynance, whilst a full census, by the University of Bristol Lizard Project in 1982, estimated a total of 100,000 plants in some 20 sites. Land Quillwort had truly been restored to the British flora!

Land Quillwort had eluded earlier discovery perhaps for two reasons. Firstly it is inconspicuous, superficially resembling the leaves of Spring Squill (Scilla verna), with which it often grows. But perhaps the main reason was the result of its ‘Mediterranean’ life-cycle: it starts into growth in autumn after the autumn rains moisten the summer-droughted soils. Growth continues through the winter, so that by the spring it is producing spores before dying down by early summer. Quite simply it is rarely above ground when most botanists visit The Lizard. The same can be said for the Early Meadow Grass (Poa infirma), a pallid relative of the ubiquitous Annual Meadow Grass (Poa annua), which eluded botanists until 1950, when its presence on mainland Britain was detected by John Raven and party during a Lizard visit.

It was at this time that workers, and especially W E Nicholson, turned their attention to lower plants, and notably the bryophyte flora. During the pre-Second World War decades Nicholson systematically worked the Kynance and Lizard Point areas, and discovered a bryophyte flora every bit as rich and ecologically fascinating as the vascular plant flora. In particular he noted a preponderance of ephemeral species, particularly liverworts, associated with winter-wet/summer droughted habitats, and recorded many of the rare species for which The Lizard is now famed. Notable finds included Cephaloziella dentata, Gongylanthus ericetorum, Fossombronia hunotii var. anglica, Riccia nigrella and R. Crozalsii.

To bring this botanical history up to date mention must be made of two further botanists, Drs David Combe and Lewis Frost. In 1950, at the request of a newly formed Nature Conservancy, they were amongst a party of Cambridge botanists who visited the area to assess both the value of its flora, and the ecology of its heathland and coastal habitats. They have maintained their interest in the area and have actively contributed to our knowledge ever since. In addition to a series of pioneering ecological studies, they instigated a flora-mapping project, which has recorded the Peninsula’s flora on a 1-km square basis. Systematic recording of this nature has added a considerable number of new species to the ever-lengthening list: interesting species (in some cases rare or absent from the remainder of Cornwall) have included Narrow Buckler Fern (Dryopteris carthusiana), Upright Brome (Bromus erectus), Bog Hair-grass (Deschampsia setacea), Carex montana, C. pseudocyperus, Meadow Thistle (Cirsium dissectum) and Common Butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris).

One element of the flora poorly studied to date was the ‘critical species’, the seemingly innumerable and impossible to identify dandelions, brambles, hawkweeds and others, avoided by so many botanists. This element of the flora was championed by Len Magretts, former vice-county recorder for West Cornwall and co-author of the Review of the Cornish Flora (1981) and its supplement. This critical work has been summarised in Magretts (1988), where some 28 taxa of Rubus, 13 Rosa, 44 Taraxacum, amongst others are recorded. Appropriately, Len’s work during the 1980s has been acknowledged by the naming of the dandelion Taraxacum margettsii, described new to science in Haworth (1990), and which is apparently endemic to The Lizard Peninsula.

In drawing this historical account to a close it is fitting to mention one final clover, which was described new to science from here as late as 1961. Drs Combe and Frost were botanising in one of The Lizard’s most famous botanical spots, Kynance Cove, in 1957, when Dr Coombe spotted the leaves of a clover which he failed to recognise. In 1961 it was formally described by Coombe as Trifolium occidentale, its specific epithet reflecting its European western-seaboard distribution. Among the characters which distinguish it from T. repens are both its earlier flowering and prostrate habitat. Johns (1847) had remarked that at The Lizard ‘Trifolium repens is one of the earliest flowers and has its stem, leaves, and flowers closely pressed to the ground’  surely an unwitting reference to the plant described by Coombe 110 years later.