Recording in Lewes 2020

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Source: Harmes, Paul. “Recording in Lewes 2020.” Sussex Botanical Recording Society Newsletter, no. 91 (November 2020).

During the preparation of The Flora of Sussex, I managed to unearth Thomas Woollgar’s unpublished Flora Lewensis, mentioned in Wolley-Dod (1937), which Brad Scott and I are hoping to publish. As part of this project, it will be important to make comparisons between the plants known to Woollgar and those which remain to this day. Therefore some fieldwork would be needed and, given that it was unlikely I would be travelling abroad leading tours in the short term, there was no time like the present.

At the turn of the nineteenth century Woollgar resided in the Cliffe area of Lewes, to the east of the town. He would have been familiar with the Downs, including Cliffe Hill, Malling Hill, Bible Bottom, Oxteddle Bottom, Malling Down and Southerham in the east, Landport Bottom and Offham Hill in the west, site of the Battle of Lewes, as well as the River Ouse and the Levels stretching south towards Newhaven and north towards Malling.

In March of this year I was leading a botanical tour in Andalucia, southern Spain. After four days my group and I were confined to our hotel due to Covid-19, before returning, early, to the UK. Once home I had to self isolate for two weeks, as the UK went into lockdown. After this period of quarantine, I began to go out for a walk for an hour, in the early morning. Not content with just walking, I began to take a closer look at the flora of Lewes as I went. I decided to record more widely than just the area that Woollgar would have been most familiar with, in the hope that the additional information gathered will lead to either a new Flora of the town, a checklist or a ‘Wildflowers of Lewes’ type of publication. As yet, I am undecided which. The area covered lies within six tetrads: TQ30Z, TQ31V, TQ40E, TQ40J, TQ41A & TQ41F.

The chalk grassland on the peripheries of the town has all the species one would hope for. Principal among these being Phyteuma orbiculare (Round-headed Rampion), Cerastium arvense (Field Mouse-ear), and Clinopodium acinos (Basil-thyme), together with Gymnadenia conopsea (Fragrant Orchid), Spiranthes spiralis (Autumn Lady’s-tresses), Succisa pratensis (Devil’s-bit Scabious), Ophrys apifera (Bee Orchid), Helianthemum nummularium (Common Rock-rose), Campanula rotundifolia (Harebell), Plantago media (Hoary Plantain), Pimpinella saxifraga (Burnet-saxifrage) and Sagina nodosa (Knotted Pearlwort).

Picture of Cerastium arvense near Lewes
Cerastium arvense near Lewes

On the 1795 Figg and the 1817 Edwards maps of Lewes extensive pastures, crossed by drainage ditches, are evident to the south of the town, and to the north, between the Cliffe and the (then) village of Malling. Although this northern section is now largely developed, the area would have been very familiar to Woollgar, together with its flora.

For many years there have been regular records for Apium graveolens (Wild Celery) from the banks of the tidal Ouse, from Southerham into the centre of the town. This is very much still the case, although it would appear it is now spreading northwards along the river towards Landport and Hamsey. Another Umbellifer which likes the riverbanks, although out of reach of the high tides, is Oenanthe pimpinelloides (Corky-fruited Water-dropwort), which has extensive populations either side of the urban area. In addition, the levels to the south have produced some exciting finds. These include Catabrosa aquatica (Whorl-grass), Potamogeton natans (Broad-leaved Pondweed), Stratiotes aloides (Water-soldier), Ranunculus baudotii (Brackish Water-crowfoot), Hippuris vulgaris (Mare’s-tail) and Veronica catenata (Pink Water-speedwell), along with Stukenia pectinata (Fennel Pondweed), Sparganium erectum subsp. oocarpum (Branched Bur-reed), Utricularia australis (Bladderwort) and Carex acuta (Slender-tufted Sedge). The Levels to the north of the town have two locations for Rumex hydrolapathum (Water Dock), one site each for Potamogeton lucens (Shining Pondweed) and Potamogeton crispus (Curled Pondweed) and Veronica anagallis-aquatica (Blue Water-speedwell), Berula erecta (Lesser Water-parsnip) and Veronica beccabunga (Brooklime).

An urban flora is always going to produce opportunists and colonists which adapt to this artificial habitat, as well as numerous garden escapes. For example, the wide verges of the suburban areas, the five churchyards, town cemetery and parkland produced extensive populations of Ranunculus bulbosus (Bulbous Buttercup), Rumex acetosa (Sorrel) and Taraxacum agg. (Dandelion), Anthriscus sylvestris (Cow Parsley), Jacobaea vulgaris (Ragwort) and a good selection of grasses. During the recent Covid-19 lockdown, all the verges in Lewes were left untended, so many grass species were able to come to flowering. This meant it was possible to identify those that would normally have been mown regularly.

The area around the ruins of the Priory of St. Pancras has produced a couple of intriguing plants. We have known for some time that Lepidium latifolium (Dittander) has occurred to the south of the site, along the banks of the Cockshut. Our chairman wrote an article on this plant (BSBI News 58, page 23) in which he refers to passages in Naturalis historiae (Natural History) by the Elder Pliny, who prescribes Dittander for the treatment of ‘Leprous sores’. The Priory was associated with St Nicholas Hospital, thought to have been founded by William De Warrenne, 1st Lord of the Barony of Lewes, 1st Earl of Surrey, to treat the poor. This was also known as the ‘Leper House’ (Whittick, Sussex Archaeological Society 2020). So it is not impossible that the Priory gardens may have cultivated Dittander for use in the hospital. The second species is Atropa belladonna (Deadly Nightshade), found within the Priory grounds, also known to be cultivated by monks for medicinal use.

Picture of Lepidium latifolium in Lewes
Lepidium latifolium in Lewes

Aliens are always present in an urban flora, especially plants which have escaped from our gardens or from cultivation, as well as those species long established in our flora, and Lewes is no exception. Familiar species such as Reynoutria japonica (Japanese Knotweed), Acer pseudoplatanus (Sycamore), Erigeron karvinskianus (Mexican Fleabane), Epilobium ciliatum (American Willowherb), Pentaglottis sempervirens (Blue Alkanet), Polypogon viridis (Water Bent), Populus x canadensis (Hybrid Black-poplar), Cochlearia danica (Danish Scurvy-grass), Campanula portenschlagiana (Adria Bellflower), C. poscharskyana (Trailing Bellflower) and the usual array of shrubs, including Cotoneaster and Cornus species, escaping naturally or bird-sown, to name but a few. In addition Cotula austriaca (Austrian Chamomile), a new county record, has an extensive established population, together with Rostraria cristata (Mediterranean Hair-grass) in the roads around The Grange. Euphorbia oblongata (Balkan Spurge), Lonicera japonica (Japanese Honeysuckle), Rumex cristatus (Greek Dock), Symphytum orientale (White Comfrey), Allium subhirsutum (Hairy Onion) and Allium roseum (Rosy Garlic) all occur regularly, with occasional records for Symphytum caucasicum (Caucasian Comfrey), Lonicera x italica (a Garden Honeysuckle), Pyracantha coccinea (Firethorn) and Phlomis russeliana (Turkish Sage).


When his work commitments permit, Nevil Hutchinson has joined me for some ‘social-distancing’ botanical recording and Alan Leslie and Matthew Berry have offered assistance and guidance with the identification of garden/alien species.

NB. Plant names listed here follow Stace (2019)