Thursday 17 February 2022

Interview with Mark Lynes, author of BSBI Handbook #24: Alchemilla

There’s a new addition to the series of BSBI Handbooks: we are delighted to announce that Alchemilla: Lady’s-mantles of Britain and Ireland is due to be published in April. BSBI members will be able to benefit from an exclusive introductory offer of £12.50 (excl. P&P) which will save them £7.50 compared the RRP of £20.

I spoke to Mark Lynes, the author of the new Handbook, to find out what made him decide to devote years of his life to the study of Lady’s-mantles. Mark also provided all the images which illustrate this interview.

LM: Mark, before we start talking about the new Handbook, could you tell us a bit more about yourself please, and how you got started as a botanist?

ML: Well, I’m a Chartered Legal Executive by profession, practising as a conveyancing lawyer, for many years based in Doncaster, more recently in Lincoln. I’ve been interested in natural history for as long as I can remember. Whilst still at school, Brian Eversham (now CEO of the Wildlife Trust for Beds., Cambs. & Northants.) and I carried out a detailed botanical survey of a local peat moor, which is still talked about to this day. I was even a member of BSBI back in the day. Subsequently I was ‘lost’ to birding for around two decades, twitching in particular – charging up and down the country chasing rare birds. It was not until the early 2000’s that I finally came to my senses and took up serious botany once more.

Alchemilla glaucescens

LM: Well I’m glad you saw the light and came back to botany, Mark! But then what drew you to Lady’s-mantles as a genus? Many of us – especially if we are gardeners – will have an idea of what a Lady’s-mantle looks like but may not realise that there are many different species.

ML: Well, the obvious thing for a lapsed (bird) twitcher, is to immediately dive into rare plant twitching! Soon enough I came upon Alchemilla. Seeing that there were only 12 native taxa, I thought ‘well, how hard can it be?’ and was soon up in Teesdale, where I quickly discovered ‘very hard indeed’. This would have been around 2005 and I came home from my day out with a multitude of specimens and photographs, absolutely none of which I could identify. This seemed like a challenge and – as I am nothing if not obstinate – I immediately set about teaching myself to speak Alchemilla.

Mark Lynes in 'twitcher'
mode with binoculars
LM: Oh dear, I’m afraid I laughed out loud at that ‘how hard can it be’! We’ve all done it though, started on a new group of plants and then realised the enormity of the challenge ahead – especially challenging if there isn’t a BSBI Handbook to help us along the way. So, what exactly made you decide to take the leap from being an Alchemillaphile to taking on the mantle (see what I did there?) of being a Handbook author? Did you put yourself forward or were you press-ganged by BSBI staffers?

ML: By 2012 I had somehow come to the attention of Kevin Walker, BSBI’s Head of Science, and a meeting was suggested. We met at Doncaster railway station in early 2012, where Kevin was on a brief stopover, changing trains en route back from a school reunion do of some sort. Here, I’m afraid to say my ego rather got the better of me and when Kevin suggested I might like to ‘do the handbook’, I jumped at the chance. The fact he also dangled the prospect of a small financial grant which would enable me to go to Scandinavia to study Alchemilla was a ‘Brucie bonus’ (younger readers might need to Google that saying).

Alchemilla wichurae - close-up of the flowers

LM: Er, you had ‘somehow come to the attention of…’? Our Head of Science is not easily impressed so you must have built up quite a reputation by that point! So, tell me a bit more about the Handbook – I know that it’s around 220 pages long, and covers 20 taxa. How many are native and how many alien?

ML: Yes, the Handbook covers 20 taxa in detail – 15 native and five alien – four of which I recently described. An appendix includes details of a further nine taxa which either might conceivably be found in Britain and/ or Ireland or are otherwise relevant in some way.

LM: And descriptions of those four new taxa were published in British & Irish Botany, BSBI’s in-house scientific journal. The first, Alchemilla sciura, is here, published in 2019, and the other three species, all from northern Britain, are here, published in 2021. When did you start working on the book?

Alchemilla glabra

ML: The work really started with the BSBI-funded visit to Sweden and Norway in June/July 2012, so – and as I say in the book – it has been a long time in gestation. The actual writing process began on the 2nd of January 2016 and for this and the following two winters, I barely left the house. Pressure of work and the desire to remain married meant I could only realistically work at weekends. Summers were taken up with fieldwork, collecting and photographing Alchemilla from across Britain and Scandinavia.

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 conservation status?

Creag na caillich

ML: Each of the 20 species covered in detail is lavishly illustrated with numerous colour photographs illustrating all of the key features, including leaf teeth and hypanthia, for example. Many species have additional plates devoted to images of individual leaves, illustrating both the variation within the species concerned and identification criteria. Each species account begins with details of the ecology, distribution and conservation status of the species account, most of which were prepared by Kevin Walker. For some species – for example A. sciura – I have been able to update what we know of the distribution of the plant, based on fieldwork conducted as recently as summer 2021. The identification of each species is covered in great detail also, yet is written in a relaxed, and so hopefully accessible, style

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?

Alchemilla neomanifesta
ML: Well I absolutely love Grass Wood in the Yorkshire Dales. I’m not normally a ‘woody’ person, but there’s just something about the place that makes it very special. I suppose the fact it holds five native species of Alchemilla, including the recently described A. falsadenta, helps. If only there weren’t so many ticks there now. In Scotland, I have a thing about Creag na Caillich in Ben Lawers NNR. It’s somewhere I can imagine finding just about anything Alchemilla-wise – and of course is home to another of my recently described species A. neomanifesta. A visit in the company of Sarah Watts, then of NTS Scotland, will live long in the memory, not least for the fact that we broke a tyre on the NTS 4x4 on the way back to the road. So, if ever you need a tyre changing on a Toyota Hilux, I’m yer man!

Herbarium sheet of A. glabra
collected by Margaret Bradshaw

LM: Thanks Mark, I’ll let you know if I’m ever in that situation! But as well as field visits, did you visit many herbaria to look at specimens? Are herbarium specimens particularly useful when it comes to Alchemilla identification?

ML: Herbarium specimens are extremely useful in the identification of Alchemilla and the book would have been impossible without access to them. Things which are not apparent in the field, tend to reveal themselves when subjected to a 10x hand lens or similarly low-powered microscope. That said, I physically visited only two herbaria, the one at Cambridge University and one in Umeå University, Sweden. However, I did spend three days solid in the latter, working until midnight on occasion, before going out collecting Alchemilla the same night. For the majority of my specimen research, I relied on material I collected, or which was sent to me by various BSBI members and County Recorders, together with gifts of specimens and some use of herbarium loans.

Specimen of A. glomerulans
sent to Mark for determination 

LM: Sounds as though you got a lot of feedback from BSBI County Recorders, our expert referees and many of our “ordinary members” who go out plant recording. Is there anyone in particular whose help you would like to acknowledge?

ML: Over the years I have received innumerable specimens sent to me my BSBI members and County Recorders from across Britain and Ireland, such that they are far too numerous to mention individually. One who does particularly stand out, however, is Paul Smith, the County Recorder for the Outer Hebrides (VC110). I receive a package from Paul most years and always look forward to it as I am seeing material from far-flung locations I have never visited, and in many cases probably never will. One constant throughout work on the Handbook has of course been my fellow Alchemilla referee, Dr Margaret Bradshaw. In the early days – before work on the book commenced or was even mooted - I attended a couple of her Alchemilla workshops held in Teesdale. Until encountering Margaret, I was essentially self-taught in the ways of Alchemilla. Her knowledge of the Alchemilla species of these islands is unrivalled and I have tapped into it on every available opportunity. She’s always been very generous with her knowledge and, more recently with literature and specimens, some going back to the 1940’s. Within the last couple of weeks, I went up to see her at her home in Teesdale and came home with boxes – literally – full of papers and documents. My visit also gave me an excuse to go and see the Red-flanked Bluetail which is wintering along the river near Wynch Bridge (Kevin Walker will be impressed, even if nobody else is…)

Margaret Bradshaw's stomping ground
 in Teesdale

LM: Hmm once a twitcher, always a twitcher…. But back to the plants! Tell me about the illustrations: they are always an important part of any BSBI Handbook – so, what can we expect here – photographs? Drawings? Diagrams? And are there distribution maps?

ML: Photographs, yes. Lots and lots of photographs, over 200 in all, showing just about every conceivably useful identification feature, or simply being very nice to look at. Whilst photos do much of the heavy lifting, they are ably supported by ‘hair diagrams’ for each species, these illustrating typical maxima and minima hair distribution on the leaves and stem/inflorescence of each species

Mark's Alchemilla collection
LM: Finally: all BSBI Handbook authors benefit from an editor to help them through the process towards publication. Who was your editor?

ML: There are two things which have – finally – made the book happen. The first is my taking early retirement from work, thus finally freeing up the time required to put the thing together. The second and equally important factor, has been my editor, Jeremy Roberts. I’ve known Jeremy for a number of years now and, for me, he was a natural choice as editor. What I did not fully appreciate when I asked him, was just how pivotal he would be to the whole process. Not only has he wrangled my text into something readable, he is also responsible for the aforementioned hair diagrams, together with all the other drawings and diagrams within the book. Without Jeremy’s input, the book would not have been anywhere near as good as it hopefully is. I owe him a huge vote of thanks.

A. glomerulans

LM: Well said, three cheers for Jeremy! Thanks for talking to us about the new Handbook Mark, the 24th in BSBI’s series of Handbooks for difficult plant groups. Alchemilla: Lady’s-mantles of Britain and Ireland has been a long time coming but it looks as though it will be well worth the wait – many thanks to you and Jeremy for all your hard work and thank you for talking to me today. Before you go, may I issue an invitation to you please? Might you think of leading an Alchemilla workshop at some point, so we can all road-test the new Handbook?

ML:  Yes, I am hoping to organise an Alchemilla workshop at some point once the book is out of the way, although it may be next year now, so watch this space!

A. filicaulis var. vestita 

LM: Thanks Mark! Now, readers will want to know how to get hold of a copy of the new Handbook.

If you are a BSBI member, there is a flyer tucked inside the January issue of BSBI News which you should have received by now. It explains how BSBI members can benefit from our exclusive offer and save £7.50 compared to the RRP of £20. You can either order your copy by post before the end of March or else you can pay by PayPal – just 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 – and 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 later this spring. Or why not join BSBI and enjoy all the benefits of membership, including this special offer? It has never been quicker and easier to become a BSBI member and start getting involved

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