Thursday, 14 February 2019

An early gleam of Spring.

An early gleam of Spring; The Radnor Lily or Early Star of Bethlehem; Gagea bohemica.

Seren gynnar Bethlehem (Cym)  

It seems appropriate to start my term on the Welsh Officer blog with a post about a local herald of spring; the Radnor Lily (Early Star of Bethlehem) or Gagea bohemica.

Gagea bohemica as photographed by the author on Febraury 6th this year. 

John Crellin (VCR for Brecknockshire) organised a visit to Stanner Rocks on the 6th of February  especially to see this flower . We were guided by Andy Shaw, a local botanist who has surveyed the plants there regularly.

Andy gave us an enthusiastic introduction to the history of botany in the area, mentioning the groups of Victorian botanists that used to alight from an old train station less than 100m away, spending their days collecting and botanising in the vicinity. Their attention was drawn by the unusual summer flora  which included Spiked Speedwell (Veronica spicata), Sticky Catchfly (Lychnis viscaria). This had prospered on the rock owing to the thin well drained soils which were somewhat alkaline owing to the underlying igneous rock mass. In consequence, several of the species which flourished on the warmer south facing slope were usually associated with the Mediterranean.

Yet despite all this activity the Radnor Lily remained unnoticed. Its thin, wiry crocus like leaves were hard to pick out amongst the grasses and the botanists were Summer migrants. 

The leaves of Gagea bohemicus are not too difficult to find in February but die back quickly as spring advances.

The years rolled by, the small train station closed, and Stanner rocks became a Site of Special Scientific interest in 1954 owing to those summer flowers. Later the designation was changed to make part of the area a National Nature reserve.

Due to the designation, surveys were commissioned to study the mosses and liverworts of the site. R Kemp, a moss specialist, carried these out during the winter of 1965. On returning to the lab, he noticed amongst his samples some curious wiry crocus like leaves, which he thought might belong to the closely related Snowdon Lily Gagea seratina . In April 1974 Ray Woods went to search the area to find a better specimen and noticed that the leaves of the plant were not hairy like those of the Snowdon Lily. Suspecting Gagea bohemica he went back the following January and found a flower.. and so the identity of the mystery plant was finally confirmed. It has never been found anywhere else in the British Isles. 

Subsequent counts have found as many as 1,000 plants on Stanner rocks, but only a very few of these plants flower at all. This may be because conditions on the rock are not quite right for this Mediterranean plant, and it may also explain why Stanner rocks is its only UK site.

The area where the Lily grows is fenced off and visits can be made through Natural Resources Wales (NRW). If you do arrange a visit, be prepared for a steep climb and to peer over rock ledges. 

If you wish to see the summer flowers, Andy Shaw will be leading another BSBI visit on Saturday 1st of June. See for more information. Please book a place with Andrew Jones on