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?
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.
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 This immediately put all previous British and Irish orchid guides out of date.
|Mike's 1st field notebook:
11 years old and already
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
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
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: 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.
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.
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.
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!