An annual species of well-drained grasslands, sand dunes, arable fields and waste ground, Sherardia arvensis is easily overlooked. Rings of leaf-like structures arranged in tiers along a square stem give the plant the appearance of a diminutive bedstraw (Galium). However, the small, mauve-pink, funnel-shaped flowers, clustered at the tips of the stems, separate Sherardia from Galium.
Sherardia arvensis is naturally distributed throughout Europe and North Africa, and into western and Central Asia. It has been introduced into other temperate regions, including North America, Australia and even the sub-Antarctic Crozet Islands in the Indian Ocean. In Britain, it is probably native only in the west; in the east, it is probably an agricultural introduction.
Sherardia arvensis was recorded in the Oxford Physic Garden in 1658, although it is hardly a species to be deliberately planted; more likely it was included because it was part of the local flora. In the seventeenth century, field madder was a frequent agricultural weed, whilst its roots could be used as an inferior source of the red dye, madder. Changes in British agricultural practises since the 1950s are associated with the decline of Sherardia arvensis in arable situations.
Field madder, the only species in the genus Sherardia, was named in honour of Leicestershire-born William Sherard (1659-1728). Sherard, who endowed the Sherardian Professor of Botany in the University, was an architect of eighteenth-century botany. He identified and nurtured botanical talent, maintained intellectual networks and built one of the world’s largest pre-Linnaean herbaria. The Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) described him as ‘Botanicus Magnus’, to Linnaeus’ ‘apostle’ Fredrik Hasselqvist, (1722-1752) he was the “Regent of the Botanic world’, whilst in the early nineteenth century he was described as ‘the Sir Joseph Banks of his day’.
Sherard studied law in Oxford, but the friendship he developed as a student with the second Keeper of the Physic Garden, Jacob Bobart (1641-1719), shaped his life. Sherard became passionate about botany and, after a period as consul at Smyrna (modern İzmir, Turkey), a very wealthy man.
Three pre-Linnaean botanists, associated with Sherard through ties of friendship and/ or patronage, chose to honour Sherard by giving three different plants the name ‘Sherardia’; the French botanist Sébastien Vaillant (1669-1722), the Hessian botanist Johann Jacob Dillenius (1684-1747) and the Tuscan botanist Giulio Pontedera (1688-1757). When Linnaeus was choosing names for plant genera, it was Dillenius’ application of the name Sherardia that he chose to use.
Sutcliffe OL and Kay QON 2000. Changes in the arable flora of central southern England since the 1960s. Biological Conservation 93: 1-8.