The Biological Flora of the British Isles: 75 years and blooming

Did you know that The Biological Flora of the British Isles celebrates its 75th anniversary this year? The long running and popular series is published in Journal of Ecology alongside the Journal’s other articles, and has featured hundreds of species accounts to date.

Editor Tony Davy has written a piece that was published in the Society’s quarterly magazine for June, The Bulletin, which you can find more information about here.

Readers of the Journal of Ecology will be familiar with the single-species accounts of British plant species that can be found tucked away at the back of most issues. However, after the Journal of Ecology itself (1913) and the Journal of Animal Ecology (1932), the ‘BFBI’ is the British Ecological Society’s longest-running project. It was in 1941 at the bleak height of the Second World War that  Council revived a prescient proposal, made by E.J. (later Sir Edward) Salisbury back in 1928, to publish a series of autecological accounts of British plants (Salisbury 1928). As it had become so  difficult to do new research, they decided that the energies of such ecologists as were still available could be deployed usefully thus: ‘It is felt that the present wartime circumstances, which are unfavourable to long-term investigation and to much field work, may not be so unfavourable to the sorting out of data which have, for the most part, already been collected’ (Foreword 1941). Council resolved that the accounts should be published in the Journal of Ecology and gave responsibility for them to a small committee, including the editors, Arthur (Roy) Clapham and Paul Richards, assisted by a zoologist, O.W Richards, to oversee the anticipated lists of animal feeders. War may have been the practical trigger but the BFBI was also an idea whose time had come. Although a focus on describing vegetation had continued to prevail for much of the first half of the 20th century (Anker 2001), there was now a growing perception of the need for a more experimental approach that would integrate with the findings of plant physiology and animal ecology to explain the distributions of plants, as Clapham recalled later in his Presidential Address (Clapham 1956).

The original aims have changed little over the years. We still strive to provide a largely self-contained summary of all that is known about the ecology of a species, within a standard structure of headings (‘the schedule’) that facilitates comparisons between species. The headings are perhaps not as we might design them now, but with small changes have proved flexible enough to accommodate the new kinds of information that have become available, without sacrificing continuity within the more than 280 published accounts (covering rather more species). Sometimes it is not possible to provide information under all of the headings, desirable as this would be. In any case, we celebrate diversity, seeking to highlight what is perceived as particularly interesting and distinctive about any species, whether that be rarity, an unusual life history, genetic or taxonomic diversity, world-wide economic importance as a weed, invasiveness, sensitivity to climate change, exceptional environmental tolerances, or threat from introduced diseases and pests, amongst other possibilities. Some recent accounts exemplify this diversity. They include Britain’s rarest plant (Ghost Orchid, Epipogium aphyllum), whose ghostly flowering spikes recently re-appeared in the woodland gloom shortly after it was declared extirpated in Britain (Taylor & Roberts 2011). There have been so many recent accounts of orchids that 12 of them could be featured in a virtual issue of the journal last year. Accounts of the weedy, cosmopolitan fern Bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) by Marrs & Watt (2006) and of Creeping Thistle (Cirsium arvense), a scourge of agriculture (Tiley 2010), are already well cited. Perennial Glasswort (Sarcocornia perennis) is a succulent halophyte with a distinctive distribution in world salt marshes (Davy et al. 2006). Recent additions to the British flora are represented by the North-American invader Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia), a hyper-allergenic hazard for hay-fever sufferers (Essl et al. 2015), and Giant Rhubarb (Gunnera tinctoria) – displaying a unique, intracellular symbiosis with cyanobacteria that fix di-nitrogen, collected by Darwin on The Beagle and now widely naturalized in the west of the British Isles (Gioria & Osborne 2013). The most recent account, of Ash (Fraxinus excelsior), is the largest ever and features the landscape-changing double threat from ash-dieback disease and the emerald ash borer beetle (Thomas 2016). Perforce the accounts have become much bigger, more detailed and more critical with the information explosion. The information available in the 1940s represented truly meagre pickings compared with the present day – to the extent that the schedule provided a list of ‘standard works’ to be searched, each with a ‘standard abbreviation’, internal to the BFBI. In fact, we abandoned these hallowed features only relatively recently: the former became redundant with the great diversity of electronic resources and the latter because of the desirability of crediting cited authors appropriately in these times of bibliometrics.


For many years before the advent of internet publication, the series was the vehicle for the publication of updated distribution maps. Maps from the pioneer Botanical Society of the British Isles Distribution Maps Scheme illustrated the accounts from 1957 onwards, well before the publication of the Atlas of the British Flora in 1962, and after its publication many of the maps were updated by the Biological Records Centre with additional records collected by BSBI. The philosophy and modus operandi of the Biological Flora have also stood the test of time. It was always intended as a broadly collaborative project: ‘The Council therefore invite all members of the Society to an active cooperation in gathering together this material, and they would welcome also assistance from all botanists and field naturalists who… may be willing to help. Assistance can be given either by sending information to the authors who have accounts in preparation, or by offering, singly or in collaboration, to prepare accounts of species themselves.’ (Foreword 1941). As then, accounts are not published in any regular order, but as the necessary information and authors become available. The Biological Flora is perhaps unusual these days in that the editors work with authors to achieve the best outcome, rather than making summary decisions about manuscripts. David Gibson, the current Executive Editor of the journal, recalls his BFBI accounts as amongst the most enjoyable and satisfying of his writing experiences. We depend on volunteer authors with particular knowledge of species and, these days, they may not be members of the Society or even be based in the British Isles. If you have the expertise to write, or contribute to, an account of a species not yet covered so far, please contact Tony Davy, the current Editor (


There have been surprisingly few editors over the years, although history is vague about some details. Since the founding ‘fathers’, a senior or receiving editor has been hugely assisted by a small group of expert associate editors, selected for their accumulated knowledge of aspects of the British flora and generosity of spirit to share it: I am specially indebted to Chris Preston, Michael Proctor, David Streeter, Peter Thomas and Michael Usher. It is no secret that some of them, having served long terms, are anxious to retire, so ecologists with appropriate experience are urged to contact Tony Davy! The original editors were joined by David Coombe and Donald Pigott, who is the longest serving senior editor (1954-1978); in turn, they were first joined and then succeeded by Trevor Elkington, Franklyn Perring, Arthur Willis, Peter Grubb and Andrew Malloch; Peter was senior editor 1978-1987, to be followed by another long and distinguished reign (1987-2005) from Arthur, before I took over the reins.


Who uses the Biological Flora? Originally it was available by subscription as reprints from the journal; latterly the Society has for gone this handsome income stream and made accounts available free online. Judged by citations, some accounts are remarkably influential – not surprisingly those of species with wide distributions or economic importance. The overall influence of the BFBI is undoubtedly more pervasive, often in the background when research, restoration or conservation projects are planned. Indeed, its role in ‘recognising and defining the relevant problems’ was stressed by Clapham (1956). So while accounts may feel like the ‘last word’ for their authors, in truth they are only ever interim, working documents. In this spirit, we have recently allowed ourselves the luxury of publishing replacement accounts for a few of the earlier ones. Although representing a restricted geographical area itself, the Biological Flora idea has spread much more widely, spawning similar journal series (or books) that cover other areas or particular biotopes e.g.: the Canadian Prairie Provinces, Central Europe, Dunes and coastal wetlands, Malaysia, New Zealand, Israel and Japan. In the words of Clapham himself (1956) ‘Our Biological Flora is something of which we have reason to be proud. … At present it describes lamentably few cases. I appeal to all of you to their number’. Amen and Happy Birthday.


 Tony Davy, University of East Anglia, Editor of the Biological Flora





Anker, P. (2001) Imperial Ecology: Environmental Order in the British Empire, 1895-1945. Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, USA.


Clapham, A. R. (1956) Autecological Studies and the`Biological Flora of the British Isles’. Journal of Ecology, 44, 1–11.


Davy, A.J., Bishop, G.F., Mossman, H., Redondo-Gómez, S., Castillo, J.M., Castellanos, E.M., Luque, T. & Figueroa M.E. (2006) Biological Flora of the British Isles: Sarcocornia perennis (Miller) A. J. Scott. Journal of Ecology, 94, 1035-1048


Essl, F., Biro, K., Brandes, D., Broennimann, O. et al. (2015) Biological Flora of the British Isles: Ambrosia artemisiifolia. Journal of Ecology, 103, 1069-1098.


Foreword (1941) Foreword. Journal of Ecology, 29, 356–357.


Gioria, M. & Osborne, B.A. (2013) Biological Flora of the British Isles: Gunnera tinctoria. Journal of Ecology, 101, 243-264.


Marrs, R.H. & Watt, A.S. (2006) Biological Flora of the British Isles: Pteridium aquilinum (L.) Kuhn. Journal of Ecology, 94, 1272-1321.


Salisbury, E. J. (1928) A Proposed Biological Flora of Britain. Journal of Ecology, 16, 161.


Taylor, L. & Roberts, D.L. (2011) Biological Flora of the British Isles: Epipogium aphyllum Sw. Journal of Ecology, 99, 878-890.


Thomas, P.A. (2016) Biological Flora of the British Isles: Fraxinus excelsior. Journal of Ecology, 104, DOI: 10.1111/1365-2745.12566.


Tiley, G.E.D. (2011) Biological Flora of the British Isles: Cirsium arvense (L.) Scop. Journal of Ecology, 98, 938-983.

3 thoughts on “The Biological Flora of the British Isles: 75 years and blooming

  1. Pingback: The Journal of Ecology Blog: 2016 Success and 2017 New Challenges | Journal of Ecology blog

  2. Pingback: BFBI: Milium effusum | Journal of Ecology Blog

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