Trifolium stellatum 1908

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Picture of Trifolium stellatum (Starry Clover)

Shoreham beach is a very well known site for the Mediterranean Trifolium stellatum (Starry Clover), and the species is believed to be an introduction via ships’ ballast, as Frances has outlined in The Flora of Sussex. It was found there by William Borrer, and described by James Edward Smith in volume 22 of English Botany:

We are happy to add the real Trifolium stellatum to the list of British plants. T. maritimum [T. squamosum (Sea Clover)] was long mistaken for it …, not did any botanist suspect we had both species till Mr. W. Borrer found the stellatum, on the 30th of July 1804, growing in great plenty between Shoreham harbour, Sussex, and the sea. The two plants are by far too different to be ever confounded again.

Sowerby’s illustration of Trifolium stellatum from English Botany (1806), Tab. 1545 [p. 67]

Given the plant’s scarcity in Britain, the site has long attracted botanists and has been the location of two recent SBRS field meetings in 2016 and 2017. The plant has been familiar to many local residents too, and in 1937 Wolley-Dod noted that “The existence and exact habitat of this plant are well known to many living in the neighbourhood, including such people as taxi-drivers, and it has been known to have been exploited for profit, so it may be preserved for that purpose.” (p 115).

This local familiarity was evidenced yesterday when Sue Rubinstein and I were at Portsmouth Museum looking at the Guermonprez herbarium. Though we were mostly examining the bryophyte collection, we also took the opportunity to leaf through some of the correspondence received by Henry Guermonprez (1858-1924). He lived in Bognor and amassed a huge natural history collection, including plants, invertebrates, fossils and much else. Many specimens were sourced from other people, but he also travelled around the area collecting and identifying a large number of plants and animals.

For many years Guermonprez wrote the Selborne Notes column in the West Sussex Gazette, which resulted in his receiving many letters from all over the county asking for help with identifications or offering interesting nature observations. Those letters to him that survive deserve further study since they provide insights into the extent of interest in natural history in the county in the early part of the twentieth century.

One such letter shows that Guermonprez clearly visited Shoreham beach in 1907; on 23 June the following year J.B. Charles, a Shoreham postman, wrote to him with “a few sprigs” of Trifolium stellatum “As I think you are the Gentleman that I met on Shoreham Beach last year, who was searching for a certain clover”. At the time of their meeting, Mr Charles wasn’t familiar with this local botanical celebrity but “on enquiry” had ascertained that the plant was “only to be found on Shoreham Beach”, adding that “I forget the name of the certain clover you were searching for so trust that this is the needful”. The letter has a small hole cut in its centre, through which the sprigs of Trifolium stellatum are pushed, ensuring they did not become disassociated from the written note.

Image of the letter from J.B. Charles to Guermonprez
Letter from J.B. Charles to Guermonprez, 23 June 1908

Since Guermonprez didn’t find the plant on his visit makes me wonder whether was he in the wrong part of the beach, or had the frequency of the plant already much decreased in the 100 years since Borrer saw it? In any event, as Wolley-Dod suggested, there was at least enough of a local awareness of the plant so that Mr Charles could find out about it. That the latter was a postman may have helped; routinely travelling around the streets of Shoreham may well have given J.B. Charles a sense of who knew something about plants in the town, so he knew who to ask.

Trifolium stellatum from James Edward Smith’s herbarium at the Linnean Society. Specimens numbered 2 are those from Borrer (“1805”); those numbered 1 are unlocalised European specimens originating from the herbarium of Edmund Davall.

See also:

Sturt, N. (1997). Henry Leopold Foster Guermonprez 1858-1924. Sussex Botanical Recording Society Newsletter, 43. Retrieved from

Scott, B. (2019). Bryophytes in the Guermonprez collection at Portsmouth Museum. Sussex Bryophytes.