Researched and written by Dominic Hodnett for the Jersey Biodiversity Centre, May 2017.
Red Valerian is perhaps one of Jersey’s most common and well known summer flowers, adorning walls, hedge banks and stony ground from May until September. A persistent perennial, the plant re-sprouts from the roots up when damaged, allowing it to re-establish both in springtime and after the twice-annual branchage.
Known as ‘Lilas d’Espagne’ in Jersey French (meaning ‘Spanish lily’), the flower is naturally found through a great number of Southern European countries from Portugal to Croatia, preferring the similarly stony, maritime terrain which it thrives on over here. Given the plant’s preference for higher, dryer sites as found in the Mediterranean, it seems a wonder that it ended up in Jersey, with our distinctly milder climate and wetter soil.
Another local name for the flower was ‘Lilas d’Muthaille,’ meaning ‘Wall lily’, as it often grows in the pointing of old stonework.
The plant’s introduction is a allegedly a legacy of Jersey’s old fishing industry, with the flower’s presence in the island being a memento of Jersey’s sea captains who frequented foreign ports.
From the 17th century onwards, Jerseymen would join their Norman and Breton counterparts in fishing for cod off Gaspé in Canada, trading their catch in various places ranging from South America to the Mediterranean for goods to trade in the European markets. These sea captains introduced all manner of wares to the island after trading their catch elsewhere, including mahogany wood for furniture, spices for cookery as well as tobacco, tea and cotton – and ultimately are believed to have brought back several species of ornamental flower for their gardens, including valerian (‘introduite… par les matelots jersiais autrefois’).
Sailors often traded their catch in various ports, and sometimes brought back seed. It is believed that both Mexican Fleabane and Red Valerian were introduced to the island by fishermen who stopped off in foreign ports during the trade cycle of the Cod Fishing Industry.
Certain Jersey sea captains travelled the world many times over, such as Édouard Le Feuvre, who was said to have journeyed around the world seven times. Fishing and trading firms such as Robin and Co flourished into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, leading to tremendous profits for some company proprietors, many originally from Jersey. In a piece of private correspondence written in 1931, a member of the Le Feuvre family claimed that a another sea captain, Philippe Syvret (relative of the above mentioned Édouard) introduced valerian to the island in the 1830s, which would approximately coincide with its supposed date of introduction and subsequent naturalisation. Similarly, the plant was introduced to gardens around many Northern French ports, and is today frequently recorded around towns such as Cherbourg.
- The flower of Red Valerian is formed as a corolla, meaning that the petals form a tube around the carpels. These tiny, slender flowers form sprays on the upright stems.
The botanist Lester-Garland, writing in 1903, described Red Valerian as forming ‘enormous masses of colour in June’ which was reaffirmed by Le Sueur in 1984. Both botanists comment on the frequent prevalence of the white forms locally, which can be seen wherever the species is abundant – good places to see this include L’Etacq in St Ouen, Faldouët in St Martin and at Gorey Castle, where the plant persists as a nuisance in the walls.
Next time you see this rosy, locally abundant species, perhaps you may see it as a legacy of the sea captains of the cod industry in Jersey. In many ways this species reflects the actions of man on his environment, and serves as a reminder of the diversity of Jersey’s past as well as the biodiversity of its flora.
- Pg 193, Streeter ‘British Common Wild Flower Guide’, William Collins 2015
- Pg 141, Lester-Garland ‘Flora of the Island of Jersey’, 1903
- Pg 150 Le Sueur, ‘Flora of Jersey’, La Société Jersiaise, 1984
- Plate 48 and annotation, Provost ‘Atlas de repartition des plantes vasculaires de Basse Normandie’ Presses Universitaires de Caen, 1993
- Pg 324, Le Maistre, ‘Dictionnaire Jersiais-Francais’ Don Balleine 1976 ed.
- Letter dated 1931
About the author: Dominic Hodnett is an amateur nature enthusiast and member of La Société Jersiaise, an environmental and heritage organisation founded in Jersey in 1873. He is in his final year at Victoria College and hopes to start studying at university in the autumn. Dominic is also a former employee of Jersey Heritage and a volunteer at the Jersey Archive.