The Lizard’s magic carpet

Wild asparagus on the Lizard

If you want to stand on one of Britain’s most botanically famous spots, head to its most southerly point – but be careful where you put your feet!

Much as the tiny natural jewels of the colourful Lizard cliffs deserve to be admired, the human step can be a threat to their fragile existence. Even some ‘hardy’ plants like thrift and sea plantain can’t survive more than one footstep per hour – a statistic worth considering with 250,000 pairs of shoes treading the site each year. Conversely, other rare plants actively thrive on well-trampled paths so looking after these native treasures is a constant balancing act.

Foodies might enjoy knowing that Britain’s largest population of precious wild asparagus grows happily on the precipitous cliffs here, as do rare wild chives. The Lizard is also home to more common relatives of our weekly shop, including wild carrot, wild beetroot and wild radish. Not that anyone should ever think of foraging for them. They provide a valuably wide gene pool for agricultural scientists to dip into, looking for solutions to modern problems of disease or drought. 

To prove just how celebrated the flora and fauna of this wild peninsula is, you could try the Revd C A Johns’ ‘hat-trick test’. When in 1847 the accomplished Victorian plant expert visited with his friend Charles Kingsley (author of The Water Babies), he wrote ‘If I throw my hat on the ground, wherever it lands there will be at least ten species of wild plant underneath’.

Happily, the chances of Revd Johns’ claim being true today are looking rosy once more but he might have been on rocky ground in the latter part of the twentieth century.

The intrepid clergyman would have shuddered at the real possibility of a world without Fringed Rupturewort, which grows nowhere else on Britain’s mainland, or Pygmy Rush, a lover of slushy winter puddles. Many others like Land Quillwort, Yellow Centaury and Twin-Headed Clover - all of them as magical as they sound - were not that long ago at risk of fading from the pages of botanical reference books. 

Why? The demise of traditional cliff-top grazing, allowing cattle to munch their way through rank grasses and invasive scrub, led to a smothering of the ground-hugging treasures that so delighted the early travellers. Inland feeding wasn’t the only enemy. Flower power might have been the buzz phrase of the late 1960s and early 70s but as farmers started to use fertilisers and sprays to optimise their crops and manage their land, these vulnerable beauties succumbed along with the weeds.

It’s not all been gloom and doom since the days of our hat-throwing Reverend. There would have been no need for him to worry on behalf of the Sea Captains who used to stow bottles of Scurvygrass juice to keep their crews topped up with Vitamin C, or the livestock owners who boiled Tormentil in milk to cure their calves (and sometimes children) of diarrhoea. Both plants have always grown plentifully.

Thankfully, The National Trust and other conservation organisations have worked closely with local landowners and farmers to reintroduce coastal grazing, ban harmful chemicals, re-route old paths and create new ones. So your feet will now be standing on ground with a healthy future. A peninsula in step with nature, you might say. 

Additional facts:

  • John Ray, known as the ‘Father of English Botany’ made the first botanical record here in 1667
  • The law is on the side of wild flowers. Unless you have a licence, it is illegal to pick any flowers listed in the Red Data Book
  • The serpentine soil on the Lizard is rich in magnesium
  • Thanks to the Gulf Stream and prevailing warm westerly winds, the Lizard has the mildest climate in mainland Britain
  • Since the twin-headed clover was discovered in Cadgwith in 1839, botanists on the Lizard have listed 17 of Britain’s 20 clovers
  • The Cornish Heath is the most celebrated wild flower on the Lizard. It only grows on serpentine.