Michael McCarthy: Our wondrous flora has been left in the shade

Nature Notebook: We seem to have lost interest in plants per se at all levels
Click to follow
The Independent Online

You interested in wild flowers? Who is, these days? The body that campaigns for our exquisite native flora, Plantlife, has fewer than 10,000 members. Compare that to the people who get really excited about cultivated plants in their gardens, the paid-up members of the Royal Horticultural Society. They number 360,000. Go even further and compare it to the people who get excited about wild birds, the members of the RSPB – there are more than a million of them.

And then think about it. There are a hundred times more people interested in birds in Britain – enough to join something – than there are people interested in wild flowers. What's going on? Surely a terrific wild plant, such as a bee orchid, is not a hundred times less fascinating than a special bird, such as a peregrine falcon? Both are wonderful examples of creation, each utterly captivating in its own way. So why does the one have a relatively tiny group of admirers, while the other has a seven-figure fanbase?

This conundrum is bothering Plantlife, which at its annual members' day on Friday is holding a panel discussion on the theme of "Wild plants – the wallflowers at the biodiversity ball?" I think wallflowers is right, but why?

Even though all of human life depends on a suite of about 30 plants – such as wheat and rice – we seem to have lost interest in plants per se at all levels, from academic studies to children's hobbies. In 2007/8, the last year for which figures are available, 18,405 students were accepted to read biology in British universities, while 29,365 studied sports science and 44,625 psychology.

The number accepted for botany, once at science's cutting edge? 195. I'm surprised it was even that many. As for young people – do you know a single boy or girl interested in our flora, in our heart-stoppingly lovely gentians and pasque flowers, our sainfoin and our melilot, our grass of Parnassus and our dog rose? It's as if they've just disappeared off the radar, not just for children, but for the whole population. You know what I think? You don't know what you're missing.

There's life beyond birds

Plantlife is holding its members' day – it's not open to the public – at the Wetland Centre in Barnes, the nature reserve in west London best known for its stunning bird life from bitterns to lapwings.

But Barnes holds a lot more than just birds – it's a great site for dragonflies, and also for bats – and its wild plant assemblage is enormously attractive. You can see bee orchids in Barnes (you have to look hard) and also ragged robin, the charming pink flower of ditches and damp places that is now becoming increasingly rare.