Land Quillwort

Look out for the ‘Catherine Wheel’ leaf rosettes of Land Quillwort between autumn and spring, a plant that, in mainland Britain, is only found on The Lizard.
Photo: Steve Townsend

Scientific name: Isoetes histrix

Conservation status: Cornwall Red Data Book species; Vascular Plant Red Data List for Britain; IUCN, Vulnerable

It is very easy to overlook Land Quillwort, a small plant growing close to the ground, or to mistake its rosette of thin curling leaves for Squill or Thrift. This is, however, a Lizard speciality, at the northern edge of its overall Mediterranean range and occurring nowhere else on mainland Britain (it is also found locally in the Channel Islands).

Land Quillwort is usually found growing in pans of thin acidic soil over rocky ground, on the coastal path and in areas of coastal erosion, that are flooded in winter but dry in the summer; it is mostly found on the western coast of The Lizard, though there are inland colonies at, for example, Goonhilly Downs. In this type of habitat it is less at risk of being outcompeted by more vigorously growing vegetation, and is often found in the company of Spring Sandwort, an Arctic plant that enjoys a similar habitat and is here at the southerly edge of its distribution. The leaf rosettes (often likened to Catherine Wheels) first appear in the autumn and remain into late spring, growing from a corm-like stem; the plant is perennial and reproduces by spores, formed at the bases of the leaves, that ripen in mid to late spring as the leaves fade from a rich green to a more orange-yellow colour.

Land Quillwort is one of a group of rarer plants found on The Lizard that benefit from some low-level disturbance, such as grazing or trampling; this maintains a low sward height, reduces competition from more vigorous plants, and helps distribute spores.

Did you know…?

…If you are not sure whether you are looking at a Land Quillwort plant, use a hand lens and look for the two rows of stomata arranged along its leaves: these are just about visible in the photograph above.

…Land Quillwort was first identified on The Lizard in 1919.

More information and references:

Bates, R. and Scolding, B., 2002. Wild Flowers of the Lizard. Cornwall County Council, Cornwall.

Rose, F., 1989. Colour Identification Guide to the Grasses, Sedges, Rushes and Ferns of the British Isles and North-western Europe. Viking Press, London.

Stace, C., 2010. New Flora of the British Isles, 3rd edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Published: February 2014
Author: Amanda Scott
Photos: Steve Townsend