The Island’s Botanists

Cottonweed © RGi

Cottonweed © RGi

Botany had its beginnings in Britain, as elsewhere, from the needs of medicine for drugs, the vast majority of which were prepared from plants gathered in the wild or from specially kept gardens. Doctors and Apothecaries were therefore concerned to distinguish plants one from another and to know where certain plants might be found. Although as early as the 1660’s John Ray, the famous Cambridge botanist, was defining a scientific approach for formal botany and later Linnaeus (Carl von Linne) made the naming and categorizing of plants a more formal discipline, many botanists were still driven to the interest by need rather than leisure. Only in Victorian Britain did botany become a scientific and leisure interest and still many of its early figures were Doctors or Clergymen. It was during this period that most first county Floras were written.


The first attempt to catalogue plants found wild on the Isle of Wight was the ‘Flora Vectiana’ of Drew Snooke, published in 1823 [10]. This listed 250+ species in a slim book and drew attention to the useful qualities of many of the plants mentioned. Mr Snooke seems to have been a capable botanist though his choice of species, seen from a present day perspective, is odd and many common ones are not mentioned, though there is no doubt that they existed here then, as now. Snooke made the first record of Cottonweed (Otanthus maritimus, L.) from the coast but it was no longer there when sought by Dr Bromfield.


The frontispiece portrait of Bromfield in Flora Vectensis

The frontispiece portrait of Bromfield in Flora Vectensis

A quarter of a century later there followed the ‘Flora Vectensis’ [9] of William Arnold Bromfield, published in 1856 but from a manuscript prepared before 1850. The author died in 1851 in Damascus, whilst travelling in the middle east.

Bromfield, an M.D., had the help of correspondents around the Island who sent him records and was himself an energetic field botanist, in contact with those like W. J. Hooker and the Rev., G. E. Smith who were at the centre of the botanical community of the time.

Bromfield’s principal interest was in taxonomy and much of his Flora is devoted to the accurate description of species and comparisons between these and similar plants found elsewhere, by himself and others. Emphasis then was on the collection of specimens and the exchange of these with other botanists, so that a reference collection could be assembled and identifications agreed upon.

The Bromfield Herbarium is being curated in Winchester by the Hampshire Museums Service and information about the collection is available on their website here. The site contains an interesting article by our Botany Group leader, Mrs Anne Marston, about how the herbarium survived and was found, after having been thought lost for many years.

Places where plants were found are located in Flora Vectensis either by parish or by a description, together with a description of their habitat, flowering and seeding periods. Our knowledge of the distribution of the Island flora dates largely from this book. In many of the localities mentioned the species are still present, even Bromfield’s best known discovery, the Wood Calamint (Clinopodium menthifolium), new to Britain and found nowhere else in these islands, survives in a few passing places along the same lane, thanks to the efforts of this Society.