Sussex Bryophytes

Source: Matcham, Howard. “Sussex Bryophytes.” Sussex Botanical Recording Society Newsletter, no. 60 (May 2005).


Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

Long, long ago: Monday 13th April 1964, to be precise, Swedish bryologist Gillis Een left Portsmouth docks for a leisurely journey by car back to London; accompanying him were two giants of 20th century British bryology, the late Eustace Jones and the late Ted Wallace.  Many of you will have fond memories of Ted, who was a member of the SBRS.

The three of them had spent the previous week attending the British Bryological Society spring meeting held on the Isle of Wight. (Perry 1965).  To break the journey and to show their Swedish guest Sussex bryophytes, Ted had suggested (Een 2004) a stop off at Kingley Vale, which has the reputation of being one of the finest yew woods in Europe. Duly arriving at Kingley Vale they set off to collect a few bryophytes.

Returning to Sweden, Gillis, with a busy professional career, put the Kingley Vale collection of bryophytes to one side to look at them at a later date.

Ten years elapsed!  During 1974 this collection was resurrected and one bryophyte was found to be unfamiliar and again it was put to one side.

Thirty further years elapsed!!  Last year, 2004, the puzzling moss was finally identified as Sematophyllum substrumulosum (Hampe) E.Britton (Bark Signal-moss) a new record for mainland Britain!

This species had first been reported in the British Isles (Holyoak 1996) from Tresco in the Isles of Scilly, growing on the dead trunk of a Monterey Pine (Pinus radiata). Evergreen trees are a habitat favoured by this species, and it was subsequently found in further localities in the Isles of Scilly, mostly growing on the bark of pines.

Church et al., (2001) included this species in the British Red Data moss and liverwort book, on the basis that it is found in southern Europe, the Azores, the Canary Islands and Madeira and that its “occurrence in the Isles of Scilly might be a natural range extension” and “it is certainly a rarity in Britain and the case for its status as a native plant is at least credible”.

With this in mind I decided to try and re-locate this moss at Kingley Vale even though 41 years had elapsed since the original chance discovery!

On the 17th February 2005, in company with Brian O’Shea, a friend and fellow bryologist who works at BM (Natural History) and has a special interest in members of the Sematophyllaceae worldwide. Hampe’s type specimen of S. substrumulosum is housed at the BM. We travelled to the car park at the village of West Stoke and headed for the southern entrance of the National Nature Reserve.  On reflection this was probably not where Ted and the others had entered Kingley Vale as the original collection was made at Bow Hill, where it would have been easier to have parked the car by the side of the B2141 and walked along the footpath that leads up to Bow Hill; because of the number of years that have elapsed Gillis is understandably not able to recall the route taken (pers. comm.).

Brian and I walked into Yew Tree Grove.

Have you been to Kingley Vale?  Under yew trees that are reputedly 700 years old? (Tansley 1939).  Ancient history is wrapped in a blanket of time around you.  The temperature plummets, devoid of ground flora, a place of goblins and ghosts, tawny owls stare through wide black eyes, nervously shifting their feet, mournfully hooting on silent wings.  I would not come here alone!

Shivering, we nervously made our silent way to a fallen yew, once majestic but felled by the vicious fleeting storm of 16th October 1987. Of those that survived, many later succumbed to an equally vicious blow during the winter of 1990 and it was to these that we made our way.

Two common mosses resemble S. substrumulosum: Hypnum resupinatum (Supine Plait-moss) and Rhynchostegium confertum (Clustered Feather-moss) could both be expected to be found here. However, within fifteen minutes we had found candidates for the Sematophyllum which, when looked at under a x20 hand lens, had a leaf that was devoid of a midrib or nerve.  Could we really have found the Sematophyllum?  The more we looked the more we found, and on some boughs and twigs it was the dominant moss. Subsequent microscopic examination confirmed that we had indeed found the species. In all we walked about two thirds of a mile and of the thirty two small gatherings that we made between us, all but two were of the Sematophyllum.

Absolutely incredible!  A fabulous re-discovery, especially as such a long time has elapsed after the original chance collection.  Stimulated by the extent of the discovery, which, some three weeks later, Rod and Vanessa Stern were able to further increase, Brian and I have approached the Conservation Committee of the British Bryological Society with a view to re-assessing the status of this moss in Britain.  How wonderful to have this beautiful moss in Sussex.

English Nature are going to conduct a survey of Kingley Vale at the beginning of April to ascertain the number of colonies and the extent of this species along Yew Tree Grove and up onto Bow Hill.  Rod Stern and I are intending to visit yew woods on the Sussex/Hampshire border in the hope of finding this species elsewhere.

NB:  On Monday 13th April 1964 I relaxed at my parents’ home at Poling on leave from the Royal Navy where I had just spent eighteen months in the Far East serving on HMS Caesar.

Where were you?



Church, J.M., Hodgetts, N.G., Preston, C.D. & Stewart, N.F. (2001).  British Red Data Books mosses and liverworts.  JNCC Peterborough.

Een, G. (2004).  Sematophyllum substrumulosum new to mainland Britain. Field Bryology 84:  6-7.

Holyoak, D.T. (1996).  Sematophyllum substrumulosum (Hampe) Britt. in the Isles of Scilly: a moss new to Britain.  Journal of Bryology 19:  341-345.

Perry, A.R. (1965).  The annual meeting 1964.  Transactions of the British Bryological Society 4: 893-895.

Tansley, A.G. (1939).  The British Islands and their Vegetation.  Cambridge University Press.