Steep Holm


Steep Holm is small limestone island in the middle of the Bristol Channel (Steep Holm is the island on the right in the above photograph, while Flat Holm is on the left) and home to the male peony (Paeonia mascula) the only species of peony found in the British Isles.

The island is remarkably difficult to reach, considering that it lies so close to Cardiff. The main reason for this is that the Bristol Channel has the second largest tidal range in the world (15 metres or 49ft) and the island has steep inaccessible cliffs, which make it difficult for ships to land passengers. There have been several occasions when visitors have been marooned on the island for several days.

Several well known botanists had visited Steep Holm before the peony was discovered in 1803. Rather surprisingly none of these botanists recorded the peony. The original report of the discovery claimed that a couple of fisherman had said that the peony had been there for at 60 to 70 years before that.

The question that many people have asked is how did this mediterranean plant get to Steep Holm in the first place? In the 13th century a priory was established on the island and many people think that it was the monks that introduced the peony. The male peony was widely grown as a medicinal plant in medieval Europe and it is quite feasible that this this happened, but how did it survive for a further 700 years without being noticed by anyone. Archaeological excavation has shown that the Romans had a presence on Steep Holm. Several people have asked how such a conspicuous plant could have been missed by the botanists that visited the island? The most illustrious of these was Sir Joseph Banks, who visited Steep Holm in 1773 with John Lightfoot.

Their visit was recorded by Lightfoot, as follows:

"Saturday July 3.

In the island called the flat Holmes found the following plants. Allium ampeloprasum near the landing place. Geranium maritimum all over the island in great plenty. wort Cochlearia danica upon the rocks on the North Side of the island. Ophrys apifera. Crithmum maritimum upon the rocks abundantly Poa colicaea Huds (sic).

Upon the Steep Holmes the following: - Smyrnium olusatrum and Ligustrum vulgare are the predominant plants upon the top of the island, which totally cover it. A little of the Conium maculatum is mixed with it. Upon the rocks on the south side grow Inula crithmoides, Crithmum maritimum, Statice limonium, Asplenium marinum; Lavatera arborea in inaccessible places near the top of the rocks. Allium ampeloprasum: near the stone gateway at the landing place. Euphorbia lathyris:

Mr. Banks found one plant of it upon the island. Geranium maritimum not so plentifully as at the Flat Holmes. Cystus polifolius upon the top of a peninsula called bream Down, a mile from Uphill in Sommersetshire, facing south west, at this time in full flower. This Down is about 2 miles from the Steep Holmes."

Lightfoot, J. (1773). Journal of a Botanical Excursion in Wales in this year 1775.Transcribed by S. Bacstrom.

In some ways it is a miracle that the peonies have survived at all on Steep Holm. They were apparently abundant in the early 19th century, but nearly eradicated by visitors in 1834. Only two plants were seen in 1850 and twenty plants were recorded in 1891. The tenant farmer subsequently took control of the situation and prevented people from collecting it.

The peony suffered further destruction in the 1950s when a group of school children picked all of the flowers and apparently left a trail of destruction behind them. The peonies originally grew along the cliffs at the eastern end of the island, but the increasing quantity of woodland in this area has changed the micro-climate and the surviving plants have been killed by peony blight. The Kenneth Alsop Trust (, which owns the island, has rescued a number of the plants, which are now grown on the site of the old priory.

It is perhaps surprising that the Steep Holm peony is not on sale anywhere. It is a striking plant and deserves to be more widely grown. A few peonies have been transferred to Flat Holm, a short distance away and this may preserve the plant for posterity. The botanical establishment treats the Steep Holm peony as an introduction and, as a consequence, none of the statutory bodies such as English Nature seem to be interested in preserving it for posterity.

Botanists have been known to introduce plants to a location and then claim the discovery for themselves. But if the plant is an introduction, why would anyone chose such an isolated place to do it? Unfortunately we are unlikely to ever find out the answer.

© Martin Page 2004-2010


A peony mystery