Wednesday, 25 November 2020

BSBI Science & Research Grant supports botanist despite Covid

In spring 2020 (pre-lockdown), BSBI's Science & Research Committee considered five grant  applications. SRC grants, applications for which go live here on 1st January every year, are intended to support research aimed at enhancing knowledge of the British and Irish flora. Recipients are usually PhD students, academic or amateur researchers. 

Two grants were awarded this year and, while we were quite prepared once Covid hit to put those awards on hold for a year, both recipients consulted with supervisors and came back to tell us that they would be able to carry out their planned fieldwork safely this year.

Below we hear from the first grant recipient, Dr Emma Karoune:


"With a few special health and safety measures (2m distance or face masks for closer work, and lots of hand gel!) botanical fieldwork is still possible, even at this difficult time. The corona virus restrictions have not prevented the start of my fieldwork project to collect plants for a phytolith reference collection, thanks to the support of a BSBI Science & Research grant. I had planned to recruit a group of volunteers from local BSBI groups in Hampshire, but I was forced to gather a select group of colleagues from the University of Bournemouth and family members to help me get the work done. I hope that I can continue this fieldwork next year in other coastal areas and share my techniques with more botanical colleagues then.

The aim of my research is to develop a new innovative method using phytolith analysis to investigate archaeological and palaeoecological deposits. This method will add to what is already known about the exploitation of plants by past humans and also to investigate long-term environmental and biodiversity change. Phytoliths are microscopic silica bodies that are formed within the cells of living plants from the uptake of soluble silica in ground water. They can be identified to family, genus and sometimes even species level. Their main advantage, over other archaeobotanical remains such as seeds and pollen, is that they survive well in most conditions for thousands of years and are therefore found in most ancient sediments. They can help to fill in gaps when preservation of other more routinely used botanical remains are poor.

My project must start with the development of a reference collection for the British Flora, which I am building in collaboration with Historic England and other archaeobotanical colleagues from the University of Bournemouth. There is very little work in this particular discipline related to British plant taxa and therefore archaeological investigations using phytoliths in this country are currently limited. I am starting the reference collection by working on southern coastal plant communities at Farlington Marshes and Eastney Beach, close to Portsmouth in Hampshire. I am concentrating on collecting plants from saltmarsh, grazing marsh and shingle/sand dune communities. I will expand this project next year to sample in other coastal areas such as Poole Harbour and West Wittering/East Head to sample in these types of plant communities again to increase the reliability of my findings and therefore build a more robust method.

Farlington Marshes is an important site for bird breeding, and it is popular with bird watchers but it also has interesting plants. I selected three locations to sample that were typical of different coastal plant communities: lower salt marsh, upper salt marsh and grazing marsh. At each location I collected samples of the different species of plants so that I can use them to examine the phytoliths within them to form identification criteria for each species. I also used a 1m2 quadrat to collect the above-ground plants and take soil samples of the topsoil so that I can examined the differences in the overall phytolith assemblages. This will determine how to recognise each plant community as a whole and I can work out how to distinguish each plant community from each other so that I can then recognise them in ancient sediments.

The lower salt marsh area near the lakes and extensive reed beds of Common reed Phragmites australis was the most difficult to sample in terms of muddiness. We had to make sure that we were only there at low tide otherwise we would get stuck in the mud, but it was a really special place to work. During high tide the area nearest the lake is partially submerged and this makes the purpley green Samphire glisten in the sun. Consequently, the area is dominated by plant species that are used to being wet from the tidal ingress such as Samphire Salicornia spp., Sea Purslane Atriplex portulacoides, a cord grass Spartina sp. probably Common cord grass Spartina anglica, Sea Aster Aster tripolium, Annual Sea-blite Suaeda maritima, Lesser Sea-spurreySpergularia marina and Sea plantain Plantago maritima. There is also some Saltmarsh rush Juncus gerardii and Saltmarsh grass Puccinellia sp. in the slightly less wet areas further from the lake.

The Point field at the south end of Farlington Marshes is an upper salt marsh surrounded by the sea wall on three sides and bramble bushes on the other side that leads to the grazing marsh. This area has not been grazed for many years and is dominated by large tussocks of Creeping Bent Agrostis stolonifera and Sea Couch Elymus aethericus. There are also some wet loving species around the edge of the field close to the stream such as Saltmarsh rush Juncus gerardii and Sea club rush Bolboschoenus maritimus with its beautiful star shaped inflorescence. It was very dry in this area when we sampled but some of the birdwatchers told us that it is normally flooded and boggy for parts of the year.

The third area sampled was the main grazing marsh. The flora in this area was much less dominated by grasses than the Point field due to the heavy grazing of cattle for most of the year. A. stolonifera did occur throughout but also species indicative of a neutral grasslands with grazing such as Crested dog’s tail Cynosurus cristatus, Red clover Trifolium pratense and Plantain Plantago sp. There were also sunken areas that I assume must flood at wet times of the year as they contained rushes – probably Hard rush Juncus inflexus.

I have been kindly helped with identification of the plants collected by Tony Mundell and Martin Rand, the BSBI County Recorders for Hampshire. It is best to collect plants in late August and September for phytolith reference collections as this allows for the largest production of phytoliths to take place. However, some species were more difficult to identify at this time so still need further identification work next year. I am planning to return to Farlington Marshes in the Spring and early Summer to collect these species when they have floral parts.

I am currently drying and cataloguing all the plants I have collected, and I will be spending the winter in the laboratory preparing the samples for analysis. Hopefully, next year I can report my findings so look out for another blogpost then.

I want to thank the BSBI for the Science & Research grant as without this support I would not have been able to conduct this research. Thanks also goes to Tony and Martin for their expert botanical knowledge. I could not have completed all the sampling without my dedicated team of volunteers that included Siggy Osbourne and Dr Sarah Elliot from the University of Bournemouth and also my son, Akram, and my Dad, Roger. Thanks to Chris Lycett of the Hampshire Wildlife Trust who gave me permission and help to access Farlington Marshes. And finally, thanks to Historic England for supporting my reference collection work.

If you want to find out more about my research and what I will be doing next with the plants and soils that I collected, then please take a look at my poster presentation from Saturday's  BSBI Exhibition Meeting".

Many thanks to Emma for telling us about her research. The images show Emma taking photos while plant collecting in the point field at Farlington Marshes (image taken by Sarah Elliot); Siggy Osbourne (final year undergraduate) from the University of Bournemouth putting down a quadrat in the Point field; l; lower salt marsh area near to the lakes and reed beds at Farlington Marshes; taking soil samples from a quadrat in the lower salt marsh area of Farlington Marshes (images 2-4 taken by Emma).

Thursday, 12 November 2020

October: botanical illustrations, waxcaps and more zooming: notes from the BSBI President

Here is the latest news from BSBI President Lynne Farrell, who in September visited a waterfall and some ancient stones and took part in lots of Zoom meetings. 

So what did October hold for our locked-down President? 

"This month has involved many more Zoom meetings with the autumnal round of various committees so it has been good to escape outside occasionally, although the weather has not been brilliant and the general situation is of ‘doom and gloom’. 

There has also been time to parcel up and send off specimens to BSBI's expert referees and County Recorders, hoping that they prove to be of interesting species.

The autumnal mists have definitely descended in the west (photo above right shows the view across the northern part of Morecambe Bay), and fungi are appearing. 

The Waxcaps are well-represented and often colourful: the photo on the left shows a Red Waxcap. The Grassland Fungi book by Elsa Wood and Jon Dunkelman, published by Monmouthshire Meadows Group, illustrates some of them.  

I’ve continued my artistic work and here (on left) is my latest pastel of the Ennerdale area. 

The Society of Botanical Artists often exhibit at our Annual Exhibition Meeting in November and many of our BSBI members are good illustrators too, as can be seen in our Handbooks and recent publications. 

One of the best illustrators, in my opinion, was Stella Ross-Craig and even though she produced eight volumes, they do not cover all the British Flora. 

Another prolific artist was Marjorie Blamey, a member of BSBI and the Wild Flower Society, who died recently, and who illustrated many field guides especially for the Mediterranean and Europe. 

Then there is Marian North, whose tropical plant pictures feature in her gallery at Kew. But not all botanical artists are women.

So to brighten up life at the moment I'm sending you a few colourful images, including one from my garden (on right) and one from Holehird Gardens (below), near Windermere where they have three national collections – Daboecia, Astilbe and Polystichum". Click on any of the images to enlarge them.


  

Saturday, 31 October 2020

An astonishing find in Breckland

You know how sometimes you're out plant-hunting and you think you've found a rare plant? But 99 times out of a hundred it turns out to be something less amazing that's maybe looking a bit unusual? Read on to find out why it's always worth taking a closer look...

The mystery umbellifer in flower
Image: P. Stroh

First BSBI member Ian (mainly a birder but also a pretty good botanist) sets the scene:   

"In late June this year I was contacted by a council Planning & Countryside Officer, who asked me to look at an umbellifer that one of his volunteers had found at a site where the council had undertaken some work to create a wild flower meadow. Much of the area had been flooded over winter and was still damp/marshy in places.

"I had a look at the site a few days later and easily found the umbellifer which was frequent across the site and was certainly intriguing! It seemed to key out to and to best fit the description for Creeping Marshwort Helosciadium repens but, as that species is currently known from just one native site in Oxfordshire, logically it couldn’t possibly be that, could it? Moreover, some of the measurements were marginal and therefore it seemed more plausible that the plant would be some sort of hybrid. Following some consultation with others (who only saw photos) I reported back to the Council Officer that this seemed most likely, possibly even a cross genera hybrid between Berula and Apium/Helosciadium, which would be interesting in itself. However, the plants were at an early growth stage, and I determined to come back at a later date.

The mystery umbellifer in fruit and
with 3-7 bracts below the flower:
a mystery no more?
Image: P. Stroh
"Most of my spare time during July and August focused on surveys of other rare plants for the Breckland Flora Group and quadrat surveys on the BTO’s Nunnery Lakes reserve, and I didn’t return to the umbellifer site until late August. By that time, many of the plants were in fruit, and the tiny nagging voice I had earlier had at the back of my mind suddenly became very loud!

"A few measurements still seemed marginal, however, and given its rarity I still couldn’t believe that the plant would really turn out to be H. repens. I posted some pictures on Twitter to obtain some more opinions, without mentioning a possible ID. This prompted a quick and excited response with a number of Twitter experts suggesting it looked good for H. repens, and I subsequently contacted Pete Stroh, BSBI's England Officer who alerted Fred Rumsey at the Natural History Museum. After seeing the photos, both Fred and Pete came to see the plant in situ the following day".

Pete takes up the story….. 

"After meeting up with Ian, we strolled down to the site. Creeping Marshwort has a very distinctive ‘sickly green’ look to the leaves, and so my hopes were raised when we started looking around at the locally abundant, very neat-looking umbellifer. Several times over the years I’ve been excited about a possible find of this nationally rare species, only to find out after closer examination that it was the stunted growth form of Fool’s Watercress, an apt name all things considered. 

The damp meadow, with
Creeping Marshwort frequent
across the site
Image: P Stroh
"But this did appear to be different, and examination of the number of bracts (at least three, sometimes four or five), and the fruit shape (short and fat), as well as the shape of the basal leaves (as broad as long, more-or-less) raised excitement levels. Fred appeared out of the ether about 10 minutes after me and Ian arrived on site, and after examining some plants, had no doubt that they were Creeping Marshwort. In fact, he was pretty sure before getting to Thetford, based on the photos that Ian had posted on Twitter. No plants of Fool’s Watercress were present, which made the job of searching for a possible hybrid fairly redundant. 

"Wandering around, it was clear the plant was everywhere, and almost certainly must have arisen from the seed bank. It’s a quite amazing find, and credit must be given to the sharp-eyed volunteer who alerted Mark Webster, the Countryside & Planning Officer for Thetford Town Council. Mark organised the removal of topsoil for the specific purpose of seeing what would appear, wild flower meadow creation without resorting to imported seeds – how very refreshing!

"Now the task will be to ensure that the species persists, although given the enthusiasm of Mark, the fact that that the seeds are clearly very long-lived in the soil, and that hundreds of plants were in fruit, all the signs are that with a bit of disturbance now and again, and a few tweaks with mowing regimes, this second extant native site for Creeping Marshwort will remain the best example of wild flower meadow creation I have seen".

So a new dot has now appeared on the BSBI distribution map for Creeping Marshwort and it looks as though the next step will be for Pete to update the Species Account for this rare plant.

Tuesday, 13 October 2020

September: feeling old? notes from BSBI President Lynne Farrell

In August, BSBI President was out looking for butterflies and monitoring rare orchids in the sunshine, but as we moved into September it was time to seek out new challenges.

Over to Lynne for her latest report:  

"Do I feel old? Well occasionally. I must admit that I enjoy looking at ancient stones, as my interest for archaeology was kindled when I lived in Kilmartin, Argyll. Look it up on Google to find some of the amazing things you can see there, and better still, visit them. There are beavers not far away.

"So, in early September I fulfilled an ambition of visiting Routhing or Routing Linn in Northumberland. Here is the largest cup and ringed marked stone in England plus a waterfall (on right). Linn really means a lake, river, pool or waterfall. Routing is said to mean ‘bellowing like a bull’. Make of that what you will. 

"Two BSBI friends accompanied me, and even though all of us are excellent map readers and used to exploring the countryside, we had difficulty locating features near Wooler golf course (on left) and at Weetwood Moor (below right), as they were hidden in the heather and under mosses and lichens. 

"Also this month I’ve spent some considerable time Zooming and trying to tackle the technology- with varying success. The older you get the more difficult it is to work these things out. Some of the results you will see in the President’s Welcome talk prepared for our annual meetings - all being held virtually this year".

A quick interjection from me: you'll be able to hear Lynne's welcome address at the start of the Scottish Botanists' Conference which runs over the weekend of 31st October to 1st November. Registration for this conference - the biggest annual gathering of botanists in Scotland - has already opened here

Lynne will also be opening the BSBI Annual Exhibition Meeting on Saturday 21st November: no registration required for this one unless you want to share an exhibit. If so, you'll want to register here asap

If you don't want to wait to hear more from our President, check out the latest BSBI Annual Review: Lynne's Message from the President is on page 3. 

Ok back to Lynne's report: 

"Exploration of Cumbria continues, and I visited the latest local Wildlife Trust reserve at Bowberhead, near Ravenstonedale, which has several upland hay meadows, a 17th century farmhouse, with fantastic flowery wallpaper (on left) still adding to the charm and several old limestone barns in varying stages of stability. 

"The meadows will be a riot of colour next summer: the views across to the hills are fantastic."

Monday, 5 October 2020

Europe's newest, smallest, rarest fern becomes a media star!

The tiny fern on its rock
Image: R. Hodd

At the end of August we published a paper in our scientific journal British & Irish Botany about a very interesting discovery: Irish botanist Dr Rory Hodd was plant-hunting  in Killarney National Park in Co. Kerry when, on a rock, he spotted a tiny fern which he didn't recognise. 

Rory is one of Ireland's top botanists so if he doesn't recognise a plant, you know it's going to be something very unusual.

Rory sent a specimen to Dr Fred Rumsey of the Natural History Museum, London, who consulted with colleagues and confirmed it as Stenogrammitis myosuroides, a rare cloud-forest fern which had never been recorded before in Europe and whose nearest relatives are in the neotropics.

The sporangia on the underside
of a frond (a fern leaf):
they confirm the ID
Image: R. Hodd

 
We circulated a press release to our media contacts which gives the full story behind the discovery and since then, the little fern - and its discoverer - have spent the last few days in the glare of the media spotlight! 

First the story was picked up by Patrick Barkham in The Guardian, then it appeared on the RTE website and Rory was interviewed on Morning Ireland, the flagship news and current affairs programme for the Republic. Ryan Tubridy, arguably Ireland's top radio/ TV personality, also mentioned it on his show and the Irish Post covered the story here. 

As news services around the world picked up on the story (this one from India and this World News service) and the Botanical Society of America tweeted the news, Rory was keeping it local: he was in the studio giving an interview to Radio Kerry about their little fern that's hitting the headlines around the world.

Amidst all this excitement, there's a serious message here about nature conservation and the importance of habitats such as the temperate Atlantic forest found in the Killarney National Park, which as Rory says is "a habitat which is now mostly lost and highly degraded" but which can act as "a refuge for a wide range of species that would not survive without its protection". 

Sharp eyes (which Rory has!) were
essential to spot the tiny fern!
Image: R. Hodd

It's also a reminder that it's always worth keeping a look-out for plants that you don't recognise, recording what you find and alerting the botanical community to anything unusual. You could be the next person to discover a plant that nobody has ever recorded before on these islands! 

So now you've heard the reason why this little fern is in the spotlight, why not head over here and read the scientific paper all about it? And check out the other fabulous plants that appear in our journal, including - in the same issue - a new variety of Orobanche discovered in the carpark of a well-known purveyor of flat-pack furniture...  

Thursday, 1 October 2020

Best time to join BSBI? Right now!

Large-flowered Hemp-nettle
Image: P. Stroh
If you have an eye for a bargain, this is the best month of the year for you to join BSBI, with our autumn special offer which opens today, 1st October. Join us now for 2021 and your membership starts at once, so you could enjoy 15 months of membership benefits for the price of 12 months. 

If you've been mulling over the pros and cons, and trying to decide whether BSBI membership is right for you, please read on to find out about all the benefits you can enjoy and all the ways in which your subscription can help us support both our wild plants and the botanists who care about them.

The first benefit is BSBI News, our members-only newsletter: 84 pages jam-packed with botanical delights. We'll send you three issues each year and you'll have on-line access to all the back copies (all 144 of them!) Here's a taster of what's in the latest issue and you can view or download a sample issue here. We also make one full article from every issue freely available and this time we've chosen a review of seven wildflower ID books: take a look and then head over to the BSBI News page to check out the previous sampler and a review of plant ID apps.

As a BSBI member you also get exclusive access to our network of 108 expert plant "referees" who include some of the top specialist botanists in Britain & Ireland: they will help you identify difficult plant groups.

Next, there are the special money-saving offers on botany books. In the past year we've published four titles under the BSBI banner: BSBI Handbook #19 Gentians of Britain & Ireland; Grassland Plants of the British and Irish lowlands; the second edition of the Vegetative Key to the British Flora and BSBI Handbook #20 Hawkweeds of south-east England. Any BSBI member ordering all four of those titles would have saved a total of £30 compared to RRPs. 

In July we arranged a 30% discount for our members on copies of The Multifarious Mr Banks from Yale University Press and there's currently a 30% members' discount on a copy of Britain's Orchids from Princeton University Press (that offer runs for our members until the end of November). And I haven't even mentioned the savings available to BSBI members who order botany books from our book sales agents Summerfield Books (they are currently offering members' discounts on 36 titles). There are five more BSBI Handbooks currently in the pipeline (two brand new titles and three new editions) and of course there's the third of our ground-breaking plant Atlases: we've been collecting data for it for 20 years and it's finally due to be published early in 2022. 

Thinking of taking a botanical training course? Then you may also want to apply for a BSBI Training Grant of up to £250 to help pay for it. Carrying out research? Then you'll want to check out our Plant Study Grants and Science & Research grants. Applications for all these grants open on 1st January each year here and although you don't have to be a BSBI member to apply, "members are favoured if there is competition for grants". And I've never known a year when there wasn't competition for grants! 

BSBI training session in Wales:
learning about plant families
Image B. Brown

Other membership benefits include access to scientific papers in New Journal of Botany, the BSBI Yearbook and other resources on our password-protected members-only area; a membership welcome pack; volunteering opportunities which can help you build up skills and improve job prospects; advance notice of forthcoming BSBI conferences, field meetings (in a "normal" year!) and exhibitionsmost of our events are open to all but some are members-only, or members have priority booking; and of course you'll have the chance to vote at our Annual General Meeting...

As a BSBI member, you'll also be helping to support our work, becoming part of the amazing achievements of our volunteer members:

To find out more about what our fabulous BSBI members - all 3,123 of them - achieved in the past year, take a look at our latest Annual Review. If you are already one of our members, we'd like to say a huge thank you to each and every one of you. If you haven't joined us yet - why not head over here and become member number 3,124? 

On our membership subscription page you'll see the various ways to pay: with options such as Paperless Direct Debit and PayPal, it's never been easier to join us and we can't wait to welcome you as a fellow BSBI member! And if you're already a BSBI member, why not forward a link to this blogpost to any friends, relatives or colleagues who you think might enjoy becoming a member? Together, we can offer even more support to our wild flowers and to the people who care about them. 

Tuesday, 29 September 2020

Britain's Orchids: interview with Mike Waller

There’s a new addition to the bookshelves of orchid-lovers across Britain and Ireland. Britain’s Orchids is published this month by Princeton University Press (part of the WILDGuides series), it features BSBI distribution maps throughout and there’s a special money-saving offer exclusive to BSBI members

There are two authors behind this new book, both BSBI members: Sean Cole, author of a paper on the Ghost Orchid for New Journal of Botany, and Mike Waller; a Plantlife ecologist and author of A beginner's vegetative guide to orchids of the British Isles for the Natural History Museum, London. 

I caught up with Mike and asked him to tell us more about Britain’s Orchids

LM: Mike, the new book is 288 pages long and covers 51 orchid species and 54 hybrids. When did you and Sean start working on the book? 

Marsh Helleborine
Epipactis palustris

MW: You know, I can barely remember! It was in 2015 that we had the first meeting with Princeton, signing the book deal in early 2016, but the concept for the book was born long before that. Ever since we began orchid hunting, we’ve both wanted to build something more identification focused than the current spread of orchid guides and put to bed some of the confusion around Epipactis and Dactylorhiza identification while at the same time introducing new avenues of orchid ID such as pre- and post-flowering identification. It was vital for us that it was as highly visual with as few technical terms as possible to make the guide as accessible as possible. We don’t buy in to using big scientific words to look clever! 

LM: Ah I couldn’t agree more Mike, jargon is really off-putting, especially when you’re just getting started with plant ID. But tell me, how did you and Sean divvy up the work on the book? Did one of you do the images and one of you the text? Did you decide in advance who would work on which species or did you work on everything together? 

MW: In terms of the hard nitty-gritty of writing the book, we are fortunate in having different strengths. Sean is the ideas man and I’m the detail and technical man. This works well because it means we can work effectively as a team and drive different elements of the book without too much interference from each other. We also have our respective passions and interests within the orchid subject itself so, although most sections in the book were a joint effort, other sections were written entirely by one or other of us. For example, Sean was the sole author of the Identifying Epipactis section (a particular interest of his) whereas I pulled together the opening sections (e.g. Habitat and What is an orchid?) and vegetative (‘in leaf’) sections because of my background as an ecologist and experience writing the NHM vegetative guide. This ability to recognise strengths and run with it was, I think, critically important. 
In the field: Mike (on right) and
Sean (pointing at an orchid)


The areas of text upon which we probably focused most of our time, repeatedly re-editing, were those where we cover taxonomy and our treatment of various controversial named types in the ‘New identities’ sections which appear at the beginning of the Epipactis and  Dactylorhiza sections. Setting out clear and logical criteria for defining species, subspecies, varieties and formas in the initial ‘Orchid taxonomy’ section was the first stage and then, from that, we were able to lay out our argument for or against including certain confusing taxa such as, for example, ‘Leopard Marsh orchid’. 

Dark Red Helleborine
Epipactis atrorubens
Our aim was simply to provide some clarity to the confusion around the many named types which have accumulated over the years. Getting this exactly right was, therefore, extremely important to us because, ultimately, taxonomy is frustratingly subjective and it needed to be water tight. 

LM: Ok so could you give us an example please of one of the taxa you cover and what we can expect to find out from the new book about its taxonomy, identification, distribution and current status? 

MW: OK well let’s pick one of the trickier species – Pugsley’s Marsh-orchid Dactylorhiza traunsteinerioides. This species has been causing botanists a real headache for over a decade because it can look virtually identical to other marsh-orchid species, particularly when they’re small and weak. Following genetic work published in 2012, Pugsley’s Marsh-orchid populations in southern England were reidentified as a type of Southern Marsh-orchid Dactylorhiza praetermissa var. schoenophila. This immediately put all previous British and Irish orchid guides out of date. 

This change needed to be reflected in a new, up-to-date distribution map including records up to one month prior to the book being signed off in July this year. However, it also opened up the requirement for a much more detailed examination of Pugsley’s Marsh-orchid ID than had been previously published. It’s a species we’ve both spent a lot of time looking at so we wanted to get it right! 

In order to do this, we gave Pugsley’s Marsh-orchid an additional double page spread to nail the ID features and help, as best we can, separate this cryptic species from dopple-ganger marsh-orchids and that confusing fenland type of Southern Marsh-orchid from southern England. Using side by side image comparisons and key annotations, we guide the reader through the subtleties of the morphology and (hopefully!) dispel some of the confusion. 

Mike's 1st field notebook:
11 years old and already 
recording orchids! 

LM: Sounds like you made a point of looking at lots of plants in the field to really nail those ID features. You must have visited a lot of locations across Britain and Ireland in the course of your research. Are there any that particularly stand out in your memory? 

MW: We’ve been all over the place! Surely one of the best areas we visited was Northern Ireland last spring where we encountered some incredible landscapes and stunning orchid populations that are well off the beaten track from places like the Burren in County Clare. Our most exciting day was on the hunt for Dense-flowered Orchid Neotinea maculata at one of its two Northern Irish locations. 

We arrived at the farm gate, not knowing what to expect but after about 20 minutes of waiting, a tractor pulled up and a man jumped out. We explained our presence to the bemused man who, it turned out, was the brother of the farmer. He got on the phone and before long we were following a tractor up a long winding track up to the head of the rocky limestone valley with jaw-dropping vistas across County Fermanagh. “I love it up here” he said and as we made our way through the grassland, we came across huge stands of giant Early-purple Orchids Orchis mascula and more Dense-flowered orchids than either of us have ever seen, clinging to the steep slopes – 108 spikes in total! 

Fly Orchid
Ophrys insectifera


Needless to say, it was a Guinness or three to celebrate back in Donegal that night… 

LM: Wow, that sounds like an amazing day! I’m just looking at the photo on page 37 of the book, of Sean photographing one of those Dense-flowered Orchids, alongside orchid expert Rich Mielcarek examining one of his beloved Broad-leaved Helleborine x Violet Helleborine hybrids near his home in Somerset. The photographs in the book are fabulous but they are not just pretty pictures, they have obviously been carefully selected to show the diagnostic characters for each taxon. 

MW: That’s right, each was carefully selected and let me tell you, this was perhaps the most challenging aspect of the whole book! Between us, Sean and I have well over 10,000 images but picking the perfect example that we both agreed on was quite tough at times, leading to a few heated debates! In the end, I think the selection we have is perfect and a nice balance between both mine and his. 

Where we had gaps, we were able to call on the help of many kind photographers, for very specific images of flower details and orchids in specific contexts. A special thanks to all who contributed and particularly to our good friends Jeff Hodgson, John Devries and Jim Langiewicz who provided the greatest number of top-class images! 

Greater Butterfly Orchid Platanthera chlorantha

LM: Well, three cheers for all those friends who contributed. But alongside photographs, botanical illustrations are an important part of any plant identification book and there are some fabulous ones in the book, which is illustrated in full colour throughout. Who provided those stunning drawings? 

MW: One of the finest botanical and all-round wildlife artists in the UK right now provided the artwork – Sarah Stribbling. Aren’t they amazing?! We couldn’t believe our eyes when she produced the first one, the Fly Orchid full plant piece. Her attention to detail on the leaves and the subtle precision of the colour and flower details is something I’ve never seen before and certainly not in coloured pencils! Not only this but she was extremely patient as we constantly changed our minds when providing images for her to work from. She is an absolute star and we can’t thank her enough! 

Example of Sarah Stribbling's
 work in Britain's Orchids

The reason we were so keen for artwork over photos alone was because it allowed us to isolate the orchid from the background and remove the lighting effects of different cameras which can express colours incorrectly – particularly at the blue/purple end of the spectrum. It also allowed us to create the ‘as close to perfect’ example of each species using multiple images for reference. As many will know, no two orchids look the same so generating the most typical example of each species was extremely important. But perhaps more than that, they elevate the book to a completely different dimension, providing a visual appeal and that all important ‘wow factor’. 

All of Sarah’s artwork, including several pieces which aren’t featured in the book, are available to purchase. Contact Sarah via her personal email address to inquire or visit her website.   

LM: Ooh I'm making a note of her website so I can browse later! Rob Still from WILDGuides has a wonderful reputation as a first-rate designer and I think we can see why: the book looks amazing! I guess it was really enjoyable for you and Sean working with such a consummate professional? 

MW: I think it goes without saying that Mr. Still is a real-life wizard…. His attention to detail and ability to visualise effective ways to display complex information is truly amazing. For sure there were some clashes of opinion at times but we were always in awe of his dedication to achieving, in his own words, “a 5-star book”. Without his extensive experience and skill, it would’ve been completely impossible. For Rob we offer a particularly heartfelt thank you for making our vision a reality. 

LM: Well said! And of course there are BSBI distribution maps for each species, provided by BSBI Head of Science Kevin Walker. 


MW: Yes indeed! With most orchids’ distributions rapidly changing for various reasons, its vital that we were able to deploy the full force of the mighty BSBI Distribution Database, containing the most up-to-date records available. The gatekeeper of this giant drove of data is, of course, the BSBI’s Head of Science, Kevin Walker, and so his involvement in advising on the data and mapping was essential and to Kevin we offer a special thanks for his guidance and support. 

Similarly, we’d like to thank all the BSBI County Recorders who have indirectly helped us with records over the years – particularly Tony Mundell, Robin Walls, Mark Spencer, Prof. Ian Truman, Sarah Whild, Paul Green and, particularly for me in Aberystwyth, Arthur Chater

LM: Ah Kevin and our wonderful County Recorders are always really helpful and supportive! And I think you get a lot of support in a more literal sense from your partner Sophie, as the photo on the right shows: Sophie helping you photograph a Monkey Orchid in Bulgaria.

MW: Ah yes – my number one fan! My girlfriend Sophie Binder has been amazingly patient and immensely supportive throughout the full four years we’ve been working on this book - both mentally and sometimes even physically! Anyone who is willing to join me looking for Bog Orchids whilst nursing a rough hangover must be a keeper, right? She’s an absolute star and I’m so lucky to have her. 

LM: Aw that’s so sweet! Apart from your number one fan, I’m guessing that you and Sean also got a lot of feedback from many of our “ordinary members” who go out orchid-spotting? 

MW: We’ve had some truly incredible, kind messages from many of our ‘orchid friends’ which really means a lot because, of course, it’s these people whose blessing is important to us. If they’re happy, we’re happy! But we’ve also had lots of lovely messages from all sorts of people on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook which has been totally unexpected – even getting some amazing coverage by Chris Packham (screenshot below) who seems to really like the book! The praise has really blown us away actually, and, not being the limelight-craving types, we’ve found it difficult at times to accept it all! That said, it’s all been incredibly heartening to hear that the book has been received so well. We just hope that it fulfils its primary goal of helping anyone and everyone in the identification of our orchids. 


LM: Mike, thank you very much for talking to us about Britain’s Orchids. We’d like to congratulate you and Sean for all the years of hard work that have gone into this new book which is sure to become a firm favourite on botanical bookshelves. 

Visitors to this year’s BSBI Exhibition Meeting have a huge treat in store – Mike and Sean will be presenting a poster and giving a presentation about the book. They will also be available to answer all your orchid-related questions. And meanwhile, Mike has put together a list of other orchid ID books that you might want to take a look at: you can find Mike’s list on our orchid ID webpage. 

Sword-leaved Helleborine
Cephalanthera longifolia
So now you just need to know how to get hold of a copy of Britain’s Orchids! If you are a BSBI member, you can benefit from an exclusive offer and pay only £14, saving £6 compared the RRP of £20. You will also enjoy free shipping. Head over to the password-protected members-only area of the BSBI website to find out how to claim your special offer. You'll need to have your password to hand – email me if you’ve forgotten it and don’t forget to include either your membership number or your postcode. 

If you are not a BSBI member, you have two options: you can, if you wish, buy the book from Summerfield Books and other natural history book-sellers. But why not join BSBI and enjoy all the benefits of membership, including this special offer? Take a look at this page which lists all the benefits of BSBI membership and there are various secure payment options, making it very quick and easy for you to become a BSBI member and start getting involved

October really is the ideal month in which to join BSBI if you haven't already! The special offer on Britain’s Orchids runs right through October and on until the BSBI Exhibition Meeting on 21st November. And of course, if you join BSBI after 1st October, you get three "free" months and then your subscription starts in January and runs until the end of 2021. Over the next few days, we will be telling you more about why there has never been a better time to join BSBI: watch this space!