A History of Sark Botany

Sark may be small, but it has held the interest of botanists for centuries. Since the first known written description of a plant on Sark, Digitalis purpurea with white flowers, recorded by Thomas Knowlton on a visit in 1726, visitors have been fascinated by the variety of the plant life.  On approaching the island by sea the sheer cliffs can appear rather forbidding, rising 300 ft above sea level, with hardly a hint of habitation.  But Sark is full of surprises, with its plateau of cultivated fields and pasture, its heathland and wooded valleys, and a choice of roads and paths bordered by hedgerows leading to exposed cliffs or rocky shores, all revealing varied and flourishing plant life.

Charles Cordale Babington spent five days on Sark, end July/early August in 1838 and noted 247 flowering plants and ferns which he recorded in his Primitiae  Florae Sarnicae,* published in 1839. 

This was followed by Dr Martin Bull who in 1872 published an article in the Journal of Botany Vol. X*, with additions in Vol.XIII in 1874*,in which he lists Sark plants, adding 89 new species to those already recorded by Babington.

Twenty years later Mr W F Miller from England spent two weeks in late August 1892 and added twenty six more plants to those already known. His findings were published in the Journal of Botany Vol. XXX* in November 1892.

The next contribution came from Mr G T Derrick of Guernsey who published three papers in the Transactions of the Guernsey Society of Natural Science Vol. III 1896*, 1897* & 1898*.  In these he recorded 345 flowering plants and ferns, and included in brief notes on their locations based on his own observations. His papers included 50 which had not been noted before.  He was surprised that there was not more affinity with plants from Jersey considering that the settlers in 1565 mostly came from there.  One of the species which was abundant in Jersey, Stellaria holostea, did not occur in Sark at all, but nearly a hundred years later it was sighted in 1988 by Mrs Marcia Marsden near the Collinette where it still persists today. 

Mr E D Marquand wrote a section on Sark in his book Flora of Guernsey and the Lesser Channel Islands, 1901*. He mentions that Mr W F Miller had handed him his complete catalogue of plants with localities for the less common species.  As the earlier works of Babington and Bull did not include locations this, with Mr Derrick’s records, was a very useful contribution. Besides the flowering plants which came to 410, E D Marquand also lists 15 Ferns, 8 Mosses, 1 Hepatic, 89 Lichens, and 38 Seaweeds.  Additions to the mosses under the title The Mosses and Hepaticae of Sark was published in Transactions of the Guernsey Society of Natural Science Vol. IV, 1903*.

Mrs Frances Le Sueur from Jersey and Mr David Mc Clintock undertook detailed work to record the most up to date list of Sark plants for Atlas of the British Flora, 1962.  The result was published in Reports and Transactions of La Société Guernesiaise for 1962 under the title A Checklist of Flowering Plants & Ferns Wild on Sark and its off Islets*, with a revised check list in 1979.  Mr Mc Clintock also published The Wild Flowers of Guernsey*1975, a book which includes records for Sark, with a Supplement in 1987*.  He became BSBI recorder for Sark until 1995 when Dr Roger Veall took over and is our recorder to this day.

With the formation of La Société Sercquaise in 1975 botany got a new lease of life under the supervision of Mrs Marcia Marsden. She was a founder member of La Société, its secretary for several years, and played an active role in botany, becoming the section head.  With the card index given to her by Mrs F Le Sueur, compiled by K G Messenger from the Uppingham School Field Club of finds from their visits to Sark between 1954 and 1958, Mrs Marsden started a herbarium with the increasing number of specimens which had been collected since then. This was begun in 1980 and was the foundation of what is our Sark Herbarium today with 550 specimens (November 2009).  In 1994 Mrs Marsden produced a New Checklist of Flowering Plants and Ferns Wild on Sark and its off islets*.  Her death in 2004 was a great loss to the island.

However, Dr Roger Veall had first met her in 1984, and he has been visiting the island at least twice a year ever since.  Besides being BSBI recorder for Sark, he contributes much of his time perfecting the kilometre square survey of plants with his wife Psyche, searching for new plants or noting others less frequent, and keeping the herbarium up to date. Dr Veall also plays a major part in the Wild Flower Fortnight run by Sark Tourism each year in late April/ early May, as an expert guide for specialist habitats.  In 2001 he published Plants of Sark*#, a very comprehensive and useful booklet which not only gives the location and who recorded it, from the earliest recordings by Babington 1839, but also indicates the scarcity value of a plant.  He has also, with Mr Rod Stern, done research on bryophytes, and they have published their findings under the title Bryophytes of Sark in Reports and Transactions of La Société Guernesiaise, 2002*.

The Botany section endeavours to continue the good work of all these individuals both past and present and continually attracts regular visitors who take interest in certain aspects of the field.  Dr Ann Allen and Dr Barbara Hilton have not only produced an interesting booklet entitled Flowers of Sark 1993*#, a field companion with very useful drawings, while their extensive research on lichens resulted in the publication of Lichens of Sark for Reports and Transactions of La Société Guernesiaise, 1999*.  They have also contributed to the study of Sark marine life, notably a pamphlet on Invertebrates of the Rocky Shore, 1989*#, and a pamphlet on the Gouliot Caves*#, now republished as a booklet in time for the designation of the caves as a Ramsar site in April 2007.

Rob Waterman and Carolyn Heylar have been monitoring our trees for three decades, and have produced a wonderful collection of slides showing the changes over the years. Roger and Margaret Long from Jersey are among a number of expert botanists who visit each year and regularly contribute discoveries and rare sightings.  We are greatly indebted to all who show such interest in Sark’s natural environment and contribute to our plant records.  Anyone wishing to see the herbarium should get in touch with Susan Synnott 01481-832314.

*Copies at La Société Sercquaise
# Available for sale in the Gallery Stores