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.
Another century was to pass before serious study of the Island's flora began. In 1882 – 1883 the German International Polar Year Expedition collected 13 plants and three ferns from the area around Royal Bay. Then, during the first decade of the twentieth century, Carl Skottesburg paid two visits to the island with Swedish expeditions. On his first visit he recorded an alien plant, Annual Meadow-grass Poa annua, the first of over 60 species likely to have been brought in by human visitors, though fewer than half persist. He added several more native species to the list, and published the first ecological study of the vegetation. Further study had to await the formation of the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey and following that the British Antarctic Survey, with the latter publishing BAS Scientific Report No 45 "The Vascular Flora of South Georgia" in 1964. None of the 25 native species of flowering plants described are endemic to the island, with the possible exception of hybrid burnet.
Since then BAS botanists have identified further species, all aliens, as human visitors have continued to introduce them. In recent years a highly aggressive new species, Wavy Bittercress Cardamine flexuosa, was found at King Edward Point, probably brought in by building contractors. Despite attempts to control the plant, it has continued to spread and seems likely to continue in the wake of other aliens such as Dandelion Taraxacum agg. and Common Mouse-ear Cerastium fontanum. In 2009 botanists from Kew undertook a survey of introduced plants which resulted in a couple more finds, and most recently Cock's-foot Dactylis glomerata was found at Grytviken. Curiously this latest alien is the plant that Cook's botanists had erroneously confused with the first plant that they recorded from the island - Tussac Grass.
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.
Jonathan Shanklin, British Antarctic Survey
Illustrations: Robin Carter
Layout: Bee Design & Art
Printer: Cartor Security Printing
Perforation: 13.25 x 13 per 2cms
Stamp size: 30.6 x 38mm
Sheet Layout: 50 (2 x 25)
Release date: 15 December 2010
Production Co-ordination: Creative Direction (Worldwide) Ltd