Although South Georgia was sighted as early as 1675, knowledge of its flora did not begin until James Cook landed on the island one hundred years later. He recorded “Not a tree or a shrub was to be seen, no not even big enough to make a toothpick… Our botanists found here only three plants, the one is a coarse strong bladed grass which grows in tufts, Wild Burnet and a Plant like Moss which grows on the rocks…..The land or rocks bordering the Sea Coast, was not covered with snow like the inland parts, but all the vegetation we could see on the clear places was the grass mentioned above”. The grass was Tussac grass Poa flabellata, which fringes much of the island. The Wild Burnet was Acaena magellanica, but the identity of the “Plant like Moss” is uncertain – it might be a moss as Cook literally reported.
Small Fern Blechnum penna-marina, shown on the 27p stamp, is only known on north facing slopes in a valley above Husvik, where it is frequent. It is widespread in the Falklands, other subantarctic islands and southern South America, and has been found in England as an introduced plant, though here it is known as Little Hard-fern. The plant has separate vegetative and fertile fronds, with the latter growing up to 35 cm high. Its Latin name Blechnum is derived from the Greek name for a fern – Blechnon.
Water Blinks Montia fontana (70p stamp) often covers patches of damp ground by streams, though its small white flowers can be confused with another plant that occurs in the same habitat – Antarctic Water-starwort Callitriche antarctica. Water Blinks has a widespread distribution across the globe and the plant genus Montia was named after the Italian botanist Giuseppe Monti who died in 1760. Its leaves are edible, though make a somewhat bland addition to a salad.
Antarctic Pearlwort Colobanthus quitensis (95p stamp) is, as its name suggests, found in Antarctica and is one of the continent’s two native flowering plants (the other is a hair-grass, Deschampsia antarctica). On South Georgia it is widespread and often forms cushions on stony ground. The flowers are only a few millimetres across and rarely stand more than a centimetre above the cushion. Its range extends north along the Andes to Mexico and so it is sometimes called Andean Pearlwort.
Looking a little like a rattlesnake’s rattle, the “flower” of Adder’s-tongue Ophioglossum crotalophoroides (£1.15 stamp) is sometimes hard to spot in its damp grassland habitat. This little plant puts out a single leaf from its bulbous rhizome and the spore cases are born on the “rattle” held on a short stalk a few centimetres long. It is also found in the Falkland Islands and central Chile. The family of the Ophioglossaceae is an early branch of the vascular plant lineage, and it is separate from that of the true ferns, which includes all the other ferns found on South Georgia.
Title: Flora – South Georgia
Date of Issue: 15 December 2010
Country: South Georgia
Denominations: 27p, 70p, 95p, £1.1