Wild Flower Society: Floral fixation

While twitchers are dedicated to spotting birds, the Wild Flower Society, founded in 1886, is just as obsessed with sighting rare blooms. Peter Marren meets them
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The Independent Online

There it is. The sought-after mountain flower, all of three inches tall, dull green and growing in a puddle. The raw wind plucks at my waterproofs, crafty slaps of rain licked my face, and I've never been happier in my life. For this little puddle plant is Carex microglochin, aka the Bristle Sedge (microglochin means little arrow-barb: a reference to its arrow-like shape). This is far from the prettiest flower in Britain, but it is almost certainly the most remote. Nowhere does it put forth its meagre little arrow-barbs near civilised places. I have flogged myself up four miles of Perthshire hillside to find it. From a distance these green hills look grassy and sweet. Believe me, they are not. They are bogs. Or rather, one single, bloody great big bog.

Sedge spotting, I admit, lacks the mass appeal of bird twitching. Birders flock together in their hundreds to witness once-in-a-lifetime arrivals, such as the tufted puffin in Kent last year, or the eastern crowned warbler that turned up out of the blue in a quarry near South Shields. I may be the only visitor Bristle Sedge gets for months. Birders share an insider's hotline and their own jargon, full of phrases like dip out, burn up, grip off, crippler, megatick. And their exploits are celebrated in best-sellers such as Bill Oddie's Little Black Bird Book and Mark Cocker's tribute, Birders: Tales of a Tribe.

There is none of that with wild flowers. Rare plants attract more bees than twitchers. Yet there are compensations. For a start, flowers do not fly away, and they have a habit of growing in beautiful places. Unlike eastern crowned warblers, they are stitched into the landscape. Cheddar Pinks and Dorset Heaths help to define a place. Even Bristle Sedge must be saying something about its surroundings: probably that you have just found the coldest, wettest place in Britain, a visitor's book statement from a plant that feels more at home in Greenland.

There is a group of plant hunters that is every bit as dedicated as twitchers. This is the Wild Flower Society, the only society ever created for amateur flower lovers. Formed in 1886, it grew out of the 23-year-old Edith Vere Annesley's habit of keeping a diary to record flowers she saw on walks. Other members of the family joined in; they printed a magazine and held a competition. And suddenly, unintentionally, there was a growing society, every member of which kept a similar diary of their finds and jottings. They organised themselves into local branches with a section for juniors. They went on excursions, including a first and last "hunt" normally held in March and September, and they always concluded the season with a tea party.

Among the Society's members were (and are) some of our leading botanists. Noel Sandwith, the curator of plants at Kew, was an early member. So was Mary Grierson, one of our finest botanical artists, and Geoffrey Grigson, the poet who wrote a botanical classic, The Englishman's Flora. The current president is Sir Ghillean Prance, botanical doyen and rain forest expert, who first learnt his plants from keeping a Wild Flower Society diary. The pleasure they all take in finding and naming plants is obvious in the pages of the Society's journal, The Wild Flower Magazine, a running record of floral quests, social encounters and tips on telling one tricky plant from another.

Although they would never call it "twitching", every member sets themselves the goal of seeing, and, more importantly, correctly identifying, as many different wild flowers as possible. They have rules about this. To count as a tick, the plant has to be in flower, unless it is a sedge or rush when a fruiting specimen will do. Ferns are honorary flowers, but have to be producing spores to count. Around 1926, the rules were relaxed allowing you to touch a plant to add to your score, rather than pick and press it.

Those who have managed, usually over the best part of a lifetime, to see around 2,000 species from a printed list of plants, become members of a caste apart. Some are put out to graze in a special branch of the Society called Valhalla, the Elysian Fields of British botany. Those even more seriously addicted dwell in the clouds in another section called Parnassus.

Has anyone ever managed to see every wild flower in Britain – around 2,000 native and long-established species? At least one member, George Claridge Druce, saw every native flower. In the herbarium at Oxford University there is a pressed specimen of Guernsey Centaury with a line in Druce's spidery handwriting saying "my last plant". He was aged 69 by then. To match that feat today one would need a lot of luck. One species, the Ghost Orchid, has only flowered once in more than 20 years. And until recently, the exact site of some flowers was kept secret in case a collector dug them up.

Many new species of wild flower have been discovered by zealous searchers from the Wild Flower Society. Noel Sandwith, for example, was the first to find viper's grass, a distant relative of garden salsify, and Northern Spike-rush, a plant you need a hand lens to identify. More recently Martyn Rix identified a newly discovered mystery flower as Radnor Lily; it had escaped attention because the golden-yellow flower appears as early as January. At least 14 of the Society's present members have had plants named after them.

But perhaps their most remarkable find was the Bristle Sedge. Although known from the Alps and other parts of the world, it remained undetected in Britain until 23 July 1923 when two wild flower enthusiasts became separated from the rest of the party on the misty heights near Ben Lawers. They were Lady Davy and Gertrude Bacon (later Mrs Foggitt), stalwarts of the Society in its heyday, and, in the latter case, an expert on sedges (she had contributed an article about them in The Wild Flower Magazine called "Those Carices!"). They found the sedge, realised that it was new, and had a good idea about what it might be. They were right.

In my book, Britain's Rare Flowers, I imagined the scene. Lady Davy probably heaved herself to her feet and took a nip from her flask, while Gertie, who was to become one of the first of a doughty breed of women flyers, might have danced a little jig. Perhaps they finished by singing the national anthem. This was just my fancy, but I do know what happened next. They informed the great Dr Druce ("Be it ever so abstruse, pack it off to Dr Druce"), who made haste to come and see it for himself. And he did what he always did on finding a new plant. He solemnly raised his hat. In his lifetime, that hat had been raised approximately 2,000 times.

I had no hat, but I felt privileged to be at the same spot, the rain tipping down, Carex microglochin bristling from its peat-black hollow as it has done every summer since the Ice Age. You can't really explain why finding rare and precious things produces this warm glow. Perhaps, like collecting, it is the distant hunter-gatherer in us, calling from the wild. Flower finding combines natural history with a treasure hunt: the trail, the search, the reward, the fun.

Like the Bristle Sedge, the Wild Flower Society holds its place in a changing landscape. "The Society is wonderfully anachronistic", says Clare O'Reilly, long-standing member and now a professional botanist. "It's a little piece of Edwardian Britain preserved into the 21st century". It has moved with the times – you can now download information into an online diary – but it has had the confidence to maintain its traditions. It still reaches the parts that more exclusive scientific societies cannot. And it attracts lovers of wild flowers of all kinds, from the junior starting out, to the retired warrior from the flowery plains of Valhalla.