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!


  1. This is an amazing book and excellent value even without the BSBI discount. Could I ask please, in my copy the index on p288 ends at T, the rest is missing. Is this a general printing mistake or a problem with my copy? Many thanks.

    1. Could be that there are simply no entries for U-Z...can you think of any that should be there?


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