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!

Monday, 28 September 2020

BSBI News: September issue published

Well it's been five months since the spring issue of BSBI News was published and for many of us, it has felt like a very long time! As the autumn issue drops into BSBI members' letterboxes this week, it certainly feels good to find out what fellow botanists have been up to during this strangest of summers. 

Considering all the restrictions, it's amazing that this latest issue is just as jam-packed as usual with botanical delights!

BSBI News #145 rises to the challenge of providing lots of articles to interest British and Irish botanists whether they are just starting out looking at wild flowers or they are more experienced and looking for something challenging to sink their teeth into. 

In the former camp, there is a four-page article by Andrew Branson, former editor of BSBI News, considering which field guide to buy. Andrew weighs up the pros and cons of seven books currently in print.  

London-rocket, photographed
in London by Mark Spencer

If you are considering buying a new field guide, either for yourself or as a gift, Andrew's review could help you decide which book is right for you and which would become a costly mistake, destined simply to take up shelf space.

There is also a progress report about the Botanical Society of Scotland's Urban Flora Project and this issue's 'Introducing my vice-county' account is by Mark Spencer who looks at the plants and habitats of Middlesex, including some London specialities

Mark's writing is always great fun to read, as anyone who has picked up a copy of his book 'Murder Most Florid' can confirm. 

His account of his vice-county includes such delights as a rare orchid found growing behind a bus shelter, the plants flourishing on a site which will be familiar to fans of classic Ealing comedies, an insight into which species were growing on Hampstead Heath in the C17th and a recent rare find in the grounds of Buckingham Palace!   

Bee Orchid
Image: John Norton

In the latter camp, the more challenging articles, we have a ten-page feature by national orchid expert Prof Richard Bateman in which he guides us through the impact of 30 years of DNA studies on orchid taxonomy and attempts to bust six persistent myths in molecular systematics. 

It's not exactly light reading but Prof Bateman is not just a lab-based boffin, he's also a field botanist so is ideally placed to bridge these two worlds. Check out the Prof's orchid-hunting adventures on a tandem

Several of the articles in this issue reflect how our plants are responding to a changing environment, whether we're looking at links between the distribution of Betony in Scotland and the impact of climate change, or considering if Chaffweed should be considered a halophyte, one of the suite of plants that turns up on road verges and are linked to "salting" in winter. There's also a report about a large colony of Chickweed-wintergreen, an arctic-alpine species, on a site just a few miles from Sheffield city centre. 

Chickweed-wintergreen near Sheffield
Image: Kenneth Balkow

For the horticulturists among us, there are articles on Autumn Crocuses, on naturalised glasshouse weeds, and there's the latest report about Plant Alert, the citizen science project that aims to get gardeners looking out for signs of invasiveness in ornamental plants before they "jump the garden fence" and become problematic. 

Kimnach Stonecrop naturalised on a wall in Hastings
Image: Jacqueline Rose

I haven't even mentioned the eight book reviews, the seven pages summarising recent interesting plant finds and events across Britain and Ireland, the seven pages giving the latest news about the adventives and alien plants that have turned up on these shores in recent months... oh and what about the flyers tucked inside this latest issue, giving details of how to book for some of our autumn events? They are taking place virtually this year so no travelling involved and they are free to attend and open to everyone. More info about these events later this week: watch this space!

For now, a quick reminder that if you are a BSBI member, your 84-page print copy of BSBI News will be with you any day and you can also view an electronic version online via the password-protected members-only area on our website (email me if you've forgotten your password). 

If you are not yet a BSBI member, don't worry - we have a couple of treats in the pipeline for you, including our autumn special offer which opens on 1st October, so again: watch this space!

Thursday, 24 September 2020

May blossom: in September?

Invertebrate surveyor Steve contacted us this week to say "while conducting a scoping survey for invertebrates near Milton in Cambridgeshire yesterday, I came across flowering hawthorn in a hedgerow. It also had berries. I've never seen this phenomenon before: it's crazy!" 

We agreed - hawthorn Crataegus monogyna (and Midland Hawthorn C. laevigata) are also known collectively as May blossom, because that's when they usually flower - they aren't  known as September blossom! But Steve's photos (on right and below left) clearly show both flowers and fruits on the same tree.

We often hear reports these days of plants blooming at unexpected times - our annual New Year Plant Hunt is testament to that. Sometimes we're looking at species known to have a second flowering, e.g. Common Dog-violets bloom in spring, around the Spring Equinox, but they often bloom again in September. 

Hawthorns are a different matter though. We've had occasional reports in recent years of autumn-blooming hawthorns, but very few. So, is this a rare occurrence? Is it linked to climate change? Or is this a phenomenon that occurs regularly in the autumn and it's just that few of us have noticed it before? Or if we did notice it, we didn't tell anyone?

Let us know if you're spotting hawthorn blooming this month, or if you have noticed any other examples of unseasonal blooming. And if you're out surveying for invertebrates, birds, mammals, fungi... don't forget to take a good look at any plants you see on your travels - and vice versa: botanists who spot unusual fauna will find the relevant recording societies keen to hear from them. Check out this list of recording schemes and record what you find!

Tuesday, 22 September 2020

Orchid Summer Revisited

You may have already read the wonderful book Orchid Summer by Shetland-based author Jon Dunn which was published in 2018. I invited Jon to the BSBI Annual Exhibition Meeting that year to tell us more and sign copies of his book but unfortunately we had inadvertently scheduled our event for the same day as Jon's birthday so alas he wasn't able to join us. 

In recent months, however, people have been revisiting the book, or discovering it for the first time, so I asked Jon to write something about Orchid Summer for News & Views readers. 

Here's what he sent me:

"You don’t need me to tell you now, as we stare down the grim barrel of an unfolding autumn and winter ahead, that the spring and summer of 2020 marked the first half of the very strangest, most appalling of years. The sheer numbers of those tragically stolen from us speak volumes about the realities of living in the midst of a global pandemic.

"It feels, then, almost sacrilegious to look back at the year thus far and complain about the day to day impacts on one’s botanising. Yet that is just as much a truth of recent months as the British Government’s bald statistics. For many of us, getting outside and looking for plants is, in normal circumstances, something we have long taken for granted. For weeks this year, in the height of lockdown, that was stolen entirely from us. Our brief forays from home were limited to gathering the bare essentials of daily life and, even as lockdown eased a little, our windows of daily exercise kept us near to home.

"That had a silver lining – many of us found enormous pleasure in looking more closely than perhaps we had hitherto at the wildlife that was to be found on our doorsteps. I know I did – it’s with a certain rueful embarrassment that I must confess to having somehow overlooked for the past 20 years what appears to be Shetland’s largest colony of Lesser Twayblade (image on left) just five minutes brisk walk from my back door! That mild embarrassment was, of course, countered by the sheer joy of discovering first one, then dozens, and then many hundreds of flowering and non-flowering plants.

Early Spider Orchid:
un-named variation
spotted by Jon

"That joy was being mirrored nationwide – social media connected us, and the Twitter accounts of BSBI and Wild Flower Hour buzzed daily with happy news of new plant after new plant that had, hitherto, gone unnoticed in our collective midst. If I wasn’t enjoying the plants I found for myself, I was getting a lot of vicarious pleasure from the discoveries of others.

"Stuck at home, shielding and unable to travel for work, I found myself with unexpected time on my hands. This wasn’t all bad – I had time to devote to finishing the manuscript of my next book, the successor to Orchid Summer; but I also had time to read for pleasure, to escape both the horrors of a global pandemic and our politicians found wanting, and the unfolding grim news of fresh insults visited upon our planet’s environment.

"There has been a trend in nature writing, in recent years, for books that explore the author’s relationship with the natural world and its power to help the narrator to deal with an aspect of their personal life they have found challenging. Bereavement, alcoholism, mental health, sexuality, chronic illness… and more besides. I’ve found that absolutely wonderful – the redemptive or healing power of the natural world is being recognised and championed, and that’s vital and important.

Lady's Slipper Orchid

"However, those haven’t been the sorts of books I’ve been reading of late. I was looking for nature writing that transported me, to a place, a time, a moment that was other than now. If I couldn’t travel more than a few miles from home, I’d let the books on my shelves carry me away instead. Most of all, I wanted to read books that were predominantly joyful as well as thoughtful. I dived into old favourites, books by the likes of Annie Dillard, Roger Deakin, Kenn Kaufman and Robert Michael Pyle.

"The past few months, then, have been a time of reading, of writing, and of occasionally successful local plant-hunting. They’ve also been studded with unexpected, out of the blue emails from people who have read Orchid Summer as a little escapism of their own, and have taken a moment to write to tell me they’ve enjoyed it, that it’s touched them in some way.

"I really can’t articulate just how touched and happy those unexpected emails have made me – I think, though it was not a conscious decision, that when I sat down and began to write Orchid Summer, I set out to write the sort of book I would enjoy reading. I didn’t know if other people would enjoy it too… but I’m delighted to hear that people have, that there is still an appetite for a good-hearted nature narrative that’s celebrating something – in this case the native wild orchids of Britain and Ireland, the places in which they are to be found, and the extraordinary stories of the people past and present who have fallen under the spell of plants and places alike. 

Northern Marsh x Frog Orchid

"I never quite knew who would crop up next in the orchids’ world – from Charles Darwin to Roald Dahl, Pliny the Elder to Emmeline Pankhurst, and many more besides, their stories were as colourful as the flowers themselves.

"Researching and writing Orchid Summer was some of the best fun of my life – uncovering those stories, drawing them together and blending them with my personal adventures as I looked for orchids around the British Isles… it was the very best of times. I hoped that joy would be reflected in the pages of the finished book.

"Still, I’m not sure if reading one’s own book is quite the done thing! I haven’t read Orchid Summer cover to cover since I finished the final polishes and tweaks of the editorial process some three years ago – and I now have a list of new nature writing I’m looking forward to reading for the first time...

"Having said that, with the country standing on the brink of another lockdown, and a long haul through the uncertain months of the autumn, winter and early spring ahead of us before the orchids start flowering again in the wild, I hope a few more folk will pick up a copy of my first book, and enjoy a virtual orchid summer from the comfort of an armchair at home.

"Stay safe, everyone". 

If those beautifully written words from Jon are your first introduction to his writing, then do consider treating yourself to a copy of Orchid Summer, and if you are already a fan, watch this space - I've already asked him to come back and tell us more about his next book once it approaches publication. Meanwhile, you can follow Jon on Twitter here, enjoy his photographs on this page (they are all his!) and check out our orchid ID page for more orchid-related content to keep you going until next year's orchid rosettes start to appear.