Tuesday 24 September 2019

BSBI Handbook #19 Gentians of Britain & Ireland: interview with co-author Tim Rich

Tim Rich measuring autumn felwort
Oxwich, 2018
Image: Naomi Rich
There’s a new addition to the series of BSBI Handbooks: Handbook #19 Gentians of Britain and Ireland is due to be published this autumn.

BSBI members will be able to benefit from an exclusive introductory offer of £12.50 (plus P&P) which will save them £5 compared the RRP of £17.50.

There are two co-authors behind this new book: Tim Rich, author or co-editor of many prestigious BSBI publications, such as the Plant Crib and Handbooks on Crucifers, on Whitebeams and on British Northern Hawkweeds; and Andy McVeigh, joint County Recorder for Buckinghamshire. 

I spoke to Tim and asked him to tell us a bit more about Gentians of Britain and Ireland.

Derek Hill with trumpet
gentians, 2008
LM: Tim, the new book is 180 pages long and covers 18 species and four hybrids in the Gentian family (Gentianaceae). When did you and Andy start working on the book?

TR:  The idea for a BSBI gentian identification Handbook came to me when Derek Hill showed me the trumpet gentian Gentiana acaulis on the North Downs in 2008 – it had been wrongly identified as G. clusii - and I thought the gentian would make a stunning book cover; if you have a cover you need a book to go inside! 

With the ups and downs of life, nothing further happened until I was snowed in by the Beast-from-the-East in February 2018 – to my surprise the draft was completed 10 days later. 

That sounds a little glib, but the draft was built on the pioneering work of Noel Pritchard on Gentianella and Frances Ubsdell on Centaurium and integrated the additional published and unpublished work we’d done with so many other collaborators over the last 26 years. We took another year to finish it off together, Andy being very good at sorting out my inconsistencies!

Andy measuring dune gentians
at Pembrey, 2003
LM: Could you give us an example please of one of the species you cover and what we can expect to find out from the new Handbook about its identification, distribution and current status?

TR: The two main changes are in Centaurium where the intermediate centaury C. intermedium is now accepted as a species as demonstrated by Ubsdell in the 1970s, and in the Gentianella amarella group. 

As an example of the latter, whilst looking at the wider European context of Gentianella uliginosa, our studies with Gerrard Oostermeijer and co-workers showed that the British plants previously referred to G. uliginosa are in fact a new endemic Dune gentian G. amarella subsp. occidentalis. This is an annual, with few internodes and out-curved, unequal sepal lobes, restricted to dune slacks in Wales and England. 

Surveys by Lyn Evans in 2019 (too late for the Handbook) are showing it is now only present in worryingly small quantities.

Coastal grasslands at Farr, Bettyhill, Sutherland
LM: 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?

TR: The wonderful coastal grasslands of Sutherland makes your heart soar with sheer joy at the sight of sheets and sheets of field gentian Gentianella campestris and northern felwort Gentianella amarella subsp. septentrionalis amongst the other treasures. 

Who needs tropical rain forest? 

LM: How about herbaria – did you also look at herbarium specimens?

Specimen of Willow gentian
Gentiana asclepiadea
Natural History Museum, London
TR: We’ve been measuring material and compiling data from herbaria since 1993 – so far I think we have used material from at least 36 herbaria in Britain, Ireland and Europe. 

These specimens were essential to help assess the variation within species and their distributions. 

One lesson learnt was that measurements of herbarium material do not match measurements of fresh material, due to shrinkage. 

LM: Illustrations are an important part of any BSBI Handbook and I see that Gentians of Britain and Ireland is illustrated in full colour throughout. Who provided the drawings and photographs?

TR: No point in having a gentian Handbook without colour!  Andy and I have taken the bulk of the photographs ourselves, but we have also used some lovely ones from other people such as the spring gentian Gentiana verna cover photo by Jonathan Mullard. 

Seaside centaury Centaurium littorale
There is a lovely painting of marsh gentian Gentiana pneumonanthe by Pat Donovan which she did for me as a memory of Ashdown Forest. The line drawings are mine – functional and accurate but not beautiful. 

LM: Ooh I think you're being a bit hard on yourself there Tim! Example on the left so people can make up their own minds... And I imagine there are BSBI distribution maps for each species?

TR: There are pre/post 1987 maps indicating the general distributions but these will shortly be superseded by the Atlas 2020 maps. With hindsight, the size of the maps in the handbook is probably too small to read!

LM: Tim, thank you very much for talking to us about the forthcoming Handbook. We’d like to congratulate you and Andy for all the hard work that have gone into this new title. Can’t wait to see the book once it’s published!

Visitors to this year’s BSBI Exhibition Meeting at the Natural History Museum on 23rd November have a huge treat in store – we’ll be launching the book there with a presentation from Tim, which builds on the very popular talk about British and Irish gentians that he gave at the 2018 BSBI Recorders’ Conference.

So now you'll want to hear how to get hold of a copy of the new Handbook!

If you are a BSBI member, there is a flyer tucked inside the September issue of BSBI News which is winging its way to you as we speak. It explains how BSBI members can benefit from our exclusive offer and save £5 compared to the RRP. You can either order your copy by post before the end of November or else click here to land on the members-only area of the BSBI website (you'll need to have your password to hand – email me if you’ve forgotten it – don’t forget to include your membership number).

If you are not a BSBI member, you have two options: you will be able to buy the book from Summerfield Books and other natural history book-sellers as of 1st December. Or 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's a secure payment option, 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 Gentians of Britain and Ireland runs until the end of November. And of course if you join BSBI after 1st October, you get three "free" months and then your subscription starts "properly" in January 2020 and runs until the end of 2020. Over the next few days, we will also be telling you about the other BSBI titles due for publication this autumn and about the savings on offer to BSBI members. Watch this space! 

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