Essential reading on British wildflowers

PUBLISHED: 13:58 03 June 2020

Forget me not's tiny but beautiful blue flowers (c) jessicahyde/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Forget me not's tiny but beautiful blue flowers (c) jessicahyde/Getty Images/iStockphoto

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With a lifetime’s interest in wildflowers, Liz Hamilton finds lockdown a time to revisit, and find solace in, her favourite books on British flora.

Common cowslip (primula veris) (c) Tom Meaker/Getty Images/iStockphotoCommon cowslip (primula veris) (c) Tom Meaker/Getty Images/iStockphoto

At this time of year I am normally out and about in Hertfordshire, photographing walks and places for Hertfordshire Life articles, and posting walking routes on the CPRE Hertfordshire website, cpreherts.org.uk. This year much of my exploration has been in my garden, where in recent years I’ve been gardening with wildlife in mind. As springtime has progressed and the days have grown warmer I’ve been out capturing images of plants and wildlife for the CPRE Herts website and social media.

I’ve also met up again with some old friends, my collection of floras – books describing and illustrating our wildflowers. I’m using them now to find interesting snippets of information about the plants I’ve been photographing. They also chart the history of my discovery of our native flora.

My early connections with nature came through my mother, who shared her love of wildflowers with me. We walked regularly in the countryside around our Radlett home and I picked flowers (certainly not approved of now but common then) to press and display in scrapbooks. Her flora of choice was the two volume Handbook of the British Flora, known by us as ‘Bentham & Hooker’. I have the books on my desk as I write – one of text and the other with beautiful black and white illustrations. The main author George Bentham (1800-1884) was an English amateur botanist, who worked with the younger Joseph Hooker on a system for classifying plants. Also with Hooker he wrote a number of foreign floras. His British flora was begun in 1853, first published in 1858, and later edited by Hooker. It was a popular student book for over 100 years with numerous editions.

Joseph Hooker (1817-1911, later Sir Joseph) was born in Suffolk and educated in Glasgow. An explorer and botanist, he sailed as a botanist on a voyage to the southern hemisphere, including Antarctica, and later explored the Himalayas and western USA. He was Charles Darwin’s closest friend and for 20 years was director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in succession to his father.

Common dog-violet (Viola riviniana) (c) hekakoskinen/Getty Images/iStockphotoCommon dog-violet (Viola riviniana) (c) hekakoskinen/Getty Images/iStockphoto

My mother signed and dated her Bentham & Hooker in July 1943. Aged 14, she was living in Somerset and spent many hours there exploring the countryside looking for flowers. She coloured the Bentham & Hooker illustrations of some she found with a watercolour wash. Most of the drawings for Bentham & Hooker were by W H Fitch (1817-1892), a renowned botanical illustrator.

Another of my mother’s floras was by Edward Step (1855-1931), who wrote numerous guides to British wildlife. His Wayside and Woodland Blossoms was published in 1905 with illustrations by his daughter Mabel. Its three volumes have coloured illustrations next to the plant descriptions which made identification easier for novices like me. In contrast to the strict botanical descriptions in Bentham & Hooker, Step added more narrative, such as in this description of the yellow flag or iris, commonly encountered on wetland edges: ‘Fringing our rivers, ditches and lakes, the Yellow Iris appears to be defending them with drawn sword.’ Describing the lesser celandine, which has been flowering for several weeks in my garden as I write in early April, he wrote: ‘As soon as there comes a slackening of the iron rule of winter... the burnished gold stars of the Lesser Celandine glitter in the wintry sunshine.’

I progressed from school to university geography, and in my third year I grappled with botanical Latin while trying to comprehend papers about the recovery of our native vegetation following the last ice advance in Britain. I realised during those evenings in the college library that I wanted a career in plants. That Christmas I must have asked for The Concise British Flora in Colour, by W Keble Martin, since I’ve dated my copy December 1975. This small volume took me through a masters degree in landscape ecology, and was so well used that it is now falling apart.

Lesser celandine (c) callum redgrave-close/Getty Images/iStockphotoLesser celandine (c) callum redgrave-close/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The Rev William Keble Martin (1877-1969) was another amateur botanist, who made his living as a Church of England parish priest, spending the last 48 years of his life in Devon. During a period of 60 years he painted more than 1,400 native plants in colour and made many black and white drawings as well. In 1965, when he was 88, his book was published and was an immediate success.

Keble Martin’s flora is indeed concise, with only a few lines of description for each plant. When I found myself researching woodland history and ecology in the woods of the Tamar and Tavy valleys on the borders of Devon and Cornwall in the late 1970s, I needed something weightier. Flora of the British Isles by Clapham, Tutin and Warburg is a much more comprehensive flora but was small enough, just, to accompany me into the woods. The authors were all academic botanists. Published in 1952 theirs was the first, and for several decades the only comprehensive flora of the whole British Isles. This was serious botany and without illustrations, except for a few line drawings of plant parts to aid identification. It became a close companion and I still use it from time to time.

At around the time of my arrival in Devon a new type of flora appeared, produced by photographer Tony Phillips. He used photographs instead of drawings or paintings, a novelty at the time, and he arranged the plants not by the traditional method in botanical families, but by the time of their flowering. The photographs helped to give the reader an instant feel for the characteristics of the plant. Common plants were picked and grouped together to photograph, while rare species were photographed where they grew. I loved this book, and still do. After the success of his Wild Flowers of Britain Phillips produced similar books on other botanical subjects, equally useful.

Soon after I started to work for the Woodland Trust I supplemented my Keble Martin with a new flora, The Wild Flower Key, published in 1981. Its pocket-sized format describes 1,400 plants, with pin-sharp and meticulous colour paintings of 1,000 of them by four different artists. Its author Francis Rose (1921-2006), another academic, was described as ‘unquestionably one of the finest field botanists of his generation’. The book is still regarded as the best of its kind because of the quality of the illustrations and the use of keys – a method of working your way to identifying a plant using its botanical characteristics. This book saw me through the 1980s with the Woodland Trust and into the 1990s as a self-employed ecologist. Later, no longer working professionally as an ecologist, it was my constant companion on walks and UK holidays and is still in regular use.

The last book I want to mention is not a flora in the classic botanical sense, but rather a compendium of folk memory and cultural knowledge about plants. Flora Britannica (first published in 1996) is described as ‘a new flora for the people’ and was the result of five years spent collating information about plants submitted by people from throughout Great Britain. It was written by Richard Mabey, one of the country’s leading natural history writers, who was born in 1941 and grew up in Berkhamsted, where he also spent much of his adult life before moving to East Anglia. His Berkhamsted home was close to where my family moved in the 1960s when I was 10. In his book Home Ground (published in 1990) Mabey describes his explorations of the same fields, woods and commons that I also came to know.

Flora Britannica weaves accounts of memories, local names, encounters and customs for over 1,000 species into intensely readable entries. Into these Mabey incorporates his own observations, as well as botanical research, habitat details, medicinal uses, and literary and artistic references. The result is a botanical masterpiece. It’s not a book to take out with you but one to refer to after your own encounter with a plant or tree.

In February the National Trust revealed the results of research it had commissioned into people’s experiences of nature. It found that those who take time to notice nature by listening to birdsong or smelling flowers are happier overall than those who don’t. Shockingly it found that 77 per cent of children and 63 per cent of adults never or rarely listened to birdsong, and 83 per cent of children and 79 per cent of adults never or rarely smelt wildflowers. As I write this during the Easter weekend, firmly in the grip of lockdown, many people are reporting that encounters with nature are helping them to cope with this intensely difficult time. I’m often reminded that my mother, back in the Second World War, also found some escape from those difficult years among wildflowers.

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