Flowers: the wild bunch

Gardening has millions of loyal followers. Bird-watching too. So what's the British public got against wild flowers? Michael McCarthy reports on a hidden world of wonder - and the beginning of a quiet revolution


I've always loved Kew, but one aspect of the Royal Botanic Gardens used to irritate the hell out of me. You would be walking up the path towards Queen Charlotte's Cottage where the wild bluebells are, and on a grassy corner you would come across a medium-sized, interesting-looking tree, and noting that it bore a name label on its trunk, you would step up close and peer to see what it was. And the label said: Juglans nigra.

Just that.

Well, hang on a minute. Whaddya mean, Juglans nigra? What if I am not a professional or even amateur botanist, like the majority of Kew's million-plus visitors a year, and not intimately familiar with the scientific names of wild plants, flowers and trees? What on earth is the use of the label? It's telling me something I can't understand. Why doesn't it also supply the common name, black walnut, and maybe tell me it comes from the USA into the bargain?

The first time I encountered it I felt like kicking it (or perhaps head-butting it since it was six feet off the ground), especially as the effect of the labelling gradually dawned on me: it was to exclude, and those being excluded were non-botanists. It contributed to the general feel Kew used to have - it doesn't any more - of not really being a public place, but rather a private garden for botanists into which the general public were admitted upon grudging sufferance.

It seems to me, looking in from the outside, that there's been a lot of that in British botany, and it's the principal reason why our enchanting, resplendent, endlessly fascinating, heart-catching and now frequently threatened wild flowers, our ragged robin and our spring gentian, our pasque flower and our rock rose, our tormentil and our meadow clary, do not benefit from a fraction of the enthusiasm, support or public interest that they should.

The situation is hardly ever remarked upon, but it is quite remarkable. Just how many people do you think are seriously interested in wild flowers in Britain - interested enough to join something, say? The answer is, very few. Plantlife, a charity started 15 years ago to garner support for saving our native flora, has 12,500 members. The Botanical Society of the British Isles, the long-established learned society, has 2,950. The Wild Flower Society has 800.

Contrast that with the number of people actively keen on cultivating flowers in their gardens. The difference is staggering. The Royal Horticultural Society currently has 365,000 members, and estimates that the total number of people who can properly be described as "keen gardeners" is six million, while another 18 million "dabble" in gardening. Let's make a different comparison - with people who are interested in wild birds. The membership of The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is just over 1m - nearly 100 times that of Plantlife, with which it is directly comparable.

Surely to goodness a peregrine falcon is not intrinsically 100 times more interesting than a bee orchid? Both are wondrous organisms, treasures of creation, unforgettable sights and probably about equally difficult to see in the wild, yet the fan base, as it were, of the one would seem to be hugely greater than that of the other. Why?

I contend that the British public has become largely cut off from appreciating our wild flowers because of the particular long-standing nature of British botany, which as a discipline has been hermetic, arcane and decidedly inaccessible to outsiders or non-specialists. If you're not a botanist yourself, it shuts you out.

I became aware of this years ago when, as a young volunteer warden on a nature reserve, I first came across the Flora, or descriptive list of all the plants of the British Isles, that was then in general use. It was published in 1952 and everybody called it Clapham, Tutin and Warburg (or just CTW) after the three distinguished professors of botany who were its authors. It was hugely authoritative, this hefty tome; but that wasn't what I noticed. What struck me about Clapham, Tutin and Warburg was that it didn't have any pictures.

How were you meant to identify wild flowers with it? By using the key, that's how. You matched any individual plant you found against a set of characteristics, such as hairy stems, or hairless stems. But to do that, you had to know your way round the architecture of the plant, and you had to have a good idea of what family your plant belonged to, in the first place. If you didn't, you were lost.

Why not illustrate the flowers so that non-botanists could identify them more easily? You could say that colour photography was in its infancy in 1952, or that painted illustrations would have added overly to the cost of the book, but I felt the real reason lay elsewhere. Even if the impulse was profoundly unconscious on the part of Messrs C, T and W, its essence was that to have pictures would be unthinkably vulgar; it would somehow just make everything too easy.

For difficulty seems to be prized in botany, almost as an authenticating virtue. As a discipline, botany is anciently academic, far more so than ornithology, say, which is only a recent step up from birdwatching. The first Oxford Professor of Ornithology, Christopher Perrins, was appointed in 1992, but the first Oxford Professor of Botany, Robert Morison, was awarded his chair in 1669. At that time the study of plants was at the cutting edge of science; but 300 years later it had been overtaken in complexity by the range of natural sciences, biology, physics and chemistry, so botany needed difficulty to continue to be able to validate itself. If it wasn't complicated, how could you take a degree in it at Oxford?

Botany has used several other tricks to keep itself difficult and impenetrable to outsiders. One is secrecy; field botanists have often jealously guarded the locations of rare flowers such as orchids, keeping them to small networks, in a way that is quite the opposite of birdwatchers letting each other know extensively where to find "twitchable" species.

Another is the extensive use of Latin, employed far more than in ornithology or zoology, say. Of course, there is good scientific reason for this: there are 250,000-plus species of plants in the world, as opposed to only about 10,000 species of birds and fewer than 5,000 species of mammals, so a quarter of a million common names in every language would be an impossibility. All the same, one gets the feeling that botanists enjoy the mystery (to others) of scientific names; they enjoy the secret language that Latin becomes for them. Even today, when a new plant is described for the first time, it is in Latin that they write down the initial account.

And so they have kept it to themselves - the joy of our wild flowers, that is. It has not been widely shared. It is not part of the public consciousness; most of the public is ignorant of it. Few young people are interested, and the scientific base itself is in danger of dying out: last year a mere 26 people applied to read f botany at all British universities (and a mere 23 were accepted). Yet if even a tenth of the people the RHS says are keen gardeners took an interest in the plants on the other side of the garden wall, they would number nearly 60 times the current membership of Plantlife.

Yet something is changing. It began with an unusual book published nine years ago, Richard Mabey's Flora Britannica. This was a completely new type of wild-flower guide by Britain's pre-eminent writer on the natural world: it was not a botanical flora, but a cultural one, detailing the historical roles and uses of our wild plants in social life, medicine, magic and art, with the information coming from hundreds of individuals. There was nary a sniff of the academic botanist about the book: it brought wild flowers back to the people. Furthermore, it was sumptuously illustrated with 500 memorable colour photos. No wonder that it struck the chord with the public that was waiting to be struck: it sold 100,000 copies.

Mabey's work was followed three years later, in 1999, by another very original book, Britain's Rare Flowers by Peter Marren. Marren runs Mabey a pretty close second as a naturalist-writer (he has an occasionally acid touch, in contrast to Mabey's characteristic melancholy) and his book is a wonderfully accessible and entertaining account of rarities, of why some flowers are rare and what happens to them when they are - which once again, was lavishly illustrated with exquisite colour photographs.

These books turned their back on the old botany. They broke fresh ground in their combination of formidable learning with ready accessibility for ordinary people - non-specialists, non-botanists - and, importantly, very high quality colour photography and printing. They were just what botany needed. In fact, you could say they began The New Botany. And it is continuing.

This summer we are witnessing a remarkable event: the publication of no fewer than three books on the most glamorous group of our wild flowers, the orchids, and all three embody the characteristics that made Mabey's and Marren's works new departures. They are learned, but easily accessible to the non-specialist; and, above all, they feature liberal use of colour photography that takes the breath away.

For our wild orchids, though by no means as outrageous in shape and hue as their tropical cousins, are still in a class by themselves for sheer beauty; and if you have any feeling for flowers at all you will be knocked back on your heels by the illustration after illustration of lady orchid, sword-leaved helleborine (which leaves lily of the valley in the shade), early spider orchid, pyramidal orchid, autumn lady's tresses, and 50 more species.

The first guide, Britain's Orchids, is the handiest and cheapest; it will just about fit in your pocket. The second, Orchids of Britain and Ireland, is unusual in that it not only gives more detailed descriptions, it gives precise instructions on where to find all the species except the very rarest. And the third, Orchids of the British Isles, aims to be the textbook for the 21st century while still being illustrated with an opulence of colour that is quite dazzling.

The simultaneous publication of these three books (which is a coincidence in timing) marks another major step forward for The New Botany: all three are as far away from the non-accessibility of Messrs Clapham, Tutin and Warburg as it is possible to be. They display instantly the charm and enchantment of our wild flowers; they are ideal for reaching out to, and connecting with, a wider public.

And that is increasingly necessary. Two months ago, the new Red Data List of British plants showed that no fewer than a fifth of our wild flowers are now threatened with extinction. Large losses of many cherished plants have crept up on us unobserved, partly because plant communities are not recorded to nearly the same extent as Britain's birds are, for example; the tumbling in numbers of farmland bird species such as the skylark, because of intensive farming, was picked up relatively early, while the insidious thinning out of cornfield flowers such as corn buttercup was not.

Britain's wild flowers need friends now. Our magnificent but declining flora needs public support, which can only come out of public interest; and The New Botany is what will spark it. Long may it flourish; or Floreat scientia botanica nova, as the practitioners of the old botany might prefer to say, should they realise the error of their ways.

'Britain's Orchids', by David Lang, WILDGuides, £15; 'Orchids of Britain and Ireland, A Field and Site Guide', by Anne and Simon Harrap, A&C Black, £29.99; 'Orchids of the British Isles', by Michael Foley and Sidney Clarke, Griffin Press, £45. To order copies at the special price of, respectively, £14, £27.99 and £42.50 (including p&p) call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798897 or go to

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