Wednesday 30 May 2018

BSBI Eyebright Handbook: interview with author Chris Metherell

Chris leading an eyebright workshop
 at BSBI Recorders' Conference 2016
Image: S. Townsend
They say that good things come to those who wait: after six years the publication of BSBI Handbook #18 Eyebrights of Britain and Ireland is only a few weeks away. I caught up with lead author Chris Metherell - no easy feat as Chris is also BSBI President and an incredibly busy man! I'm very grateful to Chris for agreeing to answer a few questions about the new  Handbook so we can all get a glimpse into some of the work that went on behind the scenes to bring this latest BSBI publication to press.

LM: So Chris, the Eyebright Handbook is finally almost here – can you remind us when you started working on it?

CM: "I think I first put this forward to BSBI Publications Committee in early 2012. At that stage I was intending to merely be the facilitator! But it didn't quite work out like that and I ended up writing the words (and becoming BSBI's Eyebright expert referee en passant) and Fred Rumsey (Natural History Museum) did the illustrations".

Euphrasia salisburgensis
Image courtesy of John Crellin/ Floral Images
LM: You’ve visited a lot of locations during the research phase – including many herbaria across Britain and Ireland. Are there any that stand out in your memory? 

CM: "Fred and I visited many corners of the UK and Ireland while working on this handbook, although I was the only one lucky enough to get to Shetland! Four days spent on Foula was pretty exceptional, dodging the bonxies being the main hazard, apart from a force eight gale. 

"Sunny days with Fred and our guide Helena Crouch [County Recorder for Somerset] on the north coast of Cornwall were pretty good too. In fact almost everywhere we went the sun came out, even on Lewis looking at Euphrasia campbelliae. Much of the fieldwork was funded by grants from BSBI Science and Research Committee. We wouldn't have managed it otherwise".

Chris and Helena looking at
eyebrights in the West Country
Image: F Rumsey
LM: You’ve also led a lot of workshops at conferences and training events in herbaria – I guess the feedback you got from fellow botanists proved really valuable here?

CM: "Yes, early on we decided to run workshops in order to drum up support and also to test the keys and descriptions. We'd taken the unusual step of asking County Recorders what they wanted from the Handbook and the feedback was very useful. So we just expanded on that theme. 

"The late Eric Meek was particularly helpful but perhaps it's invidious to pick out any one person. All the attendees contributed to the process. I think I must have rewritten the keys scores of times. It was the suggestion of having regional keys which really made a difference. But I can't now remember whose suggestion it was!"

LM: Did you find visits to herbaria very helpful while researching the Handbook?

Chris working in the herbarium at Univ. Reading
Image: A. Culham
CM: "Without herbaria to consult, the process would have been impossible. Of course there's no substitute for field work but we couldn't go everywhere and herbaria are so useful for capturing the degree of variation in the species because one can look at hundreds of specimens for a particular plant. And I did! 

"And having written the species descriptions, these were tested in herbaria to check that they allowed for that variation appropriately. My main base was E [the herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh] whose staff  were extremely helpful in obtaining specimens from other herbaria for me to work on and I must single out RNG [the herbarium at University of Reading] for their encouragement. The fact that I'm a Reading graduate has nothing to do with it! One of the highlights was finding a lost type specimen at SLBI [the herbarium at the South London Botanical Institute] on my first trip there". 

LM: Illustrations are an important part of any BSBI Handbook – who provided the line drawings and the photographs?

Euphrasia tetraquetra
Image courtesy of John Crellin/ Floral Images
CM: "Fred Rumsey did the drawings and was the main photographer on our field trips but Helena Crouch, John Crossley, Alex Twyford, Nick Sturt, Jenny Seawright, John O'Reilly and Jeremy Roberts all provided images".

LM: I hear that there will be a launch event for the Handbook – can you give us details please? Where is it being held and when, who can attend and how do we book for the event?

CM: "We are having a launch at the Natural History Museum on Monday 18th June. I'll be able to give News & Views readers full details in the next day or two".

LM: Ooh thanks for the scoop Mr. President! In the meantime, I guess the priority is to let people know how they will be able to get hold of a copy:

Chris with a herbarium sheet of
pressed, mounted specimens of -
you guessed it - eyebrights!
Image: L. Marsh
  • BSBI members can take advantage of the members-only special offer and pre-order their copy now at a discounted price (saving themselves £5.50). If you're a BSBI member, just head over to the members-only area of the BSI website and have your password ready. If you've forgotten your password, email and we'll be able to help you.
  • Non-members will be able to buy a copy later in June from Summerfield Books and other natural history book-sellers, although they won't benefit from the full discount. 
So, huge thanks to Chris and Fred for putting this new BSBI Handbook together. Watch this space for details of the launch, which will be covered on these pages for anyone who can't attend in person. We’ll also keep you all posted on initial sales, how the Handbook is received and whether it outsells the previous BSBI Handbook on Violas

You can find a list of all the BSBI Handbooks on the BSBI Publications page, where there are links to information about each title on the Summerfield Books website.

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