The Steep Holm Peony
Fieldwork and excavations on Steep Holm (1976-2009) have proved that the island was an important Roman signal station, it is equally likely that the peony, like Alexanders (smyrnium olusatrum) could have been introduced much earlier than during the 11th-l2th centuries.
The Mediterranean peony was well known to the Romans as a magical and medicinal plant, and Steep Holm, because of its 'micro,climate' and topography, is within the northern limit of its natural habitat. Why botanists did not record the peony until August 1803 is a mystery, as fishermen who ferried visitors to the island knew of its existence long before then. It needed a sharp-eyed observer at the right time of year, with a large slice of luck to notice the plant if smothered by rampant vegetation such as Alexanders. Unless the few privileged explorers of the 18th-early 19th century were taken across when the peony was either in its brief flowering or as the spectacular seed heads opened it would have been easily missed. After the Harris family became tenants in the late 1940's it became an added attraction for tourists. When the peonies grew on the east cliffs above the beach, they usually flowered late May into June each year.
Before the Kenneth Alsop Memorial Trust purchased and managed Steep Holm, members of the former Trust which leased the island realised that some plants were diseased and moved the healthy ones to a new location on the plateau neat the Barracks One of two still thrive there and others have been grown from seed by the present Trust and planted alongside the Nissan hut just north of the priory site as illustrated in Jenny's article. My favourite comment was by a little girl who came on the site when the unripe seed heads were large, curving and green "Look Mummy - a banana plant!"
When ripe they split open, to display round black and misshapen red seeds Only The black ones are fertile. These are still collected and planted in various positions away from the east cliff where there is little sunshine, to propagate the pure species and they now flower mid April-early May. The last 'wild' specimen of the cliffside plants was destroyed apparently by a scree fall sometime during the 1980's and no seedlings ever appeared. Strange that after surviving the last war - it should succumb so easily.
When the Harris family moved from Steepholme to Flatholme in the early 1890's they took plants for the inn garden. Frank Harris(grandson of Fred of Steep Holm fame) continued to guard Them until, and during the wartime occupation, when he remained on the island as boatman to the military, but few survived post=war. Were any re-introduced? If so, when and by whom? No Wardens were appointed until 1987, and a couple of plants were there in the 1970's. Now specimens are nurtured close to a main path and in the old Inn garden.
Last Peony on Steepholme