Where the Wildflowers Grow

Book Review: Where the Wildflowers Grow by Leif Bersweden

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Botanist Leif Bersweden has been passionate about plants since childhood. However, he has become increasingly aware that more and more of us suffer from what could be called ‘plant blindness’. This means that even though plants are vital components of ecosystems and are all around us, many people ignore them, failing to appreciate just how much they do for us and the world around us. Bersweden wants to change this. So, in Where the Wildflowers Grow, he sets out on a yearlong quest around Britain and Ireland. The aim is to highlight our botanical wonders and meet like-minded souls along the way. 

The Great Disconnect

During his teenage years, Bersweden became aware that most of his peers had little or no interest in the plants he was increasingly passionate about. And this lack of interest wasn’t unique to fellow teens. A major cause of this disinterest is undoubtedly a growing disconnect from nature generally. At one time, most people would have had a close relationship with the natural world. Not only would they have grown their own food, but the majority of people would have lived in rural settings, surrounded by plants. Different plants’ appearance and disappearance also helped them mark the changing seasons. As of 2019, however, 82.9% of England’s population lived in urban areas. Before agricultural intensification, there was also a far greater range of species in more places. Once herbicides, fertilisers and removal of field margins and hedgerows became the norm, this changed dramatically. Habitat loss to development has had a similar effect.

Thrift where the wildflowers grow
Thrift, which features in the book, grows around our coasts in a burst of pink each year

This disconnect means that even though our towns and cities do have a surprising number of plants, many people simply don’t see them. In addition, in an age of information overload and social media, plants seem too static and boring for many people to get enthused about. Many assume they have one-dimensional, dull lives. This makes it difficult to inspire the same sort of reaction to plants as, say, a blue whale or a panda. Plants have incredible lives, however. They can be sneaky, clever, tenacious and fascinating, as well as incredibly beautiful. One of Bersweden’s main aims with this book is to show this. He does this by not only sharing his encounters with plants from throughout the year, but also asking the people he meets to explain why they love them too.

Oysterplant is just one of a multitude of incredible plants Bersweden meets

The Wonder of Wildflowers

And boy, do we meet some incredible plants. Some of these are ones we’re all reasonably familiar with, such as Primroses and Bluebells. There are beautiful nuggets to learn about even these common species, however. For example, I learnt that Primroses have two different types of flowers, pin- and thrum-eyed, to help them avoid self-pollination. In fact, Bersweden reveals that this is just one of numerous ways that plants deal with the complicated business of reproducing, bearing in mind they have to negotiate this without moving. My favourite tactic is almost certainly that of Common Cow-wheat. This pinewood species’ seeds produce an oil that is extremely attractive to wood ants. They helpfully take the seeds into their nests to feed on the oil, but then leave the seed remains inside. Here, the ant poo nutrients and warmth of the nest help the seeds germinate.

The book contains some fascinating insights into even our commoner plants, such as the Primrose

Many of the equally incredible adaptations we see help plants survive in extreme environments. This includes the various carnivorous plants, the butterworts, bladderworts and sundews, that Bersweden encounters. All of these plants grow in places where finding enough nutrients from the ground is tricky so supplement their diets by catching invertebrates. Living in Shetland, the stars of the show for me, though, were those plants eking out a living on the thin, nutrient-poor lunar landscape of the Keen of Hamar on Unst. Of these, Edmonston’s Chickweed (otherwise known as Shetland Mouse-ear) grows nowhere else in the world.

Edmonston's Chickweed Where the Wildflowers grow
Edmonston’s Chickweed, or Shetland Mouse-ear, grows only at the Keen of Hamar on Unst

Vanishing Worlds

Each of Bersweden’s destinations is characterised by a particular habitat type. From the Bluebell woods of the South Downs to the limestone pavements of Cumbria, each has its own unique character and plant species. The book makes clear that, for a pair of small island nations, Britain and Ireland are fortunate to have a huge variety of habitat types. Some are semi-natural, like our arable fields and meadows. Here, plants have adapted over millennia to take advantage of man’s switch to settled agriculture. Other habitats are remnants of landscapes from before we started altering them. These include pockets of Scots Pine forest in the Scottish Highlands and the temperate rainforests of Britain and Ireland’s western fringes.

Poppies were once a common sight in arable fields

Sadly, one of the prevailing themes of the book is the terrifying loss or fragmentation of so many of these delicate habitats. Our bogs have been drained, afforested and overgrazed. Our temperate rainforests likewise subjected to millions of nibbling sheep and deer. Meanwhile, groundwater abstraction has upset the delicate balance between acidic rainwater and alkali groundwater in our fens. And our semi-natural arable fields and meadows have homogenised or disappeared as farming has intensified.

Fir clubmoss where the wildflowers grow
As our climate warms, will we lose our upland plants, such as the Fir Clubmoss?

Climate change is also playing its part. As temperatures rise, plants from lower altitudes can climb our mountains, forcing out specialist alpine species. As we lose all these habitats, we lose the specialist plants living in them and then the wide variety of organisms that rely on them in turn. On a more human level, we also lose the rich vein of cultural connections we have with plants, from the ways they heralded the changing seasons to different folk names and old remedies.

Some plants, such as the Bluebell, still provoke a strong emotional response

A Passion for Plants

One cause for hope, though, is the passion of those Bersweden meets on his travels. All are fighting plants’ corner in some way. This might be on a very local level, such as paediatric nurse Donna Rainey, working to bring her meadows back to historic levels of diversity in Northern Ireland. Others are working at landscape level, such as the team under Lee Schofield at RSPB Haweswater in the Lake District. Others are science communicators, such as Sophie Pavelle, brilliant at inspiring us to connect with nature. If we are to halt the loss of so many of our plants, though, more of us need to appreciate just how much plants do for us and the ecosystems around them. We need to really see them and connect with them emotionally.

Yellow rattle
Bersweden calls Yellow Rattle the ‘meadow maker’ for the way it helps boost diversity

So, how do we get people to do this? Communicating just how incredible plants are is key and this wonderful book achieves this in spades. The phrase ‘infectious enthusiasm’ has become a bit of a cliché. But there really is no other way to describe Bersweden’s love of plants. Whether he says a slope is ‘buttered with Cowslips’ or compares holding a Greater Bladderwort to opening the most amazing Christmas present, you never doubt how strongly Bersweden connects to and loves plants.

Cowslips where the wildflowers grow
Bersweden memorably describes a slope as ‘buttered with Cowslips’

The result is writing that is full of information, but never dry or difficult to get through. At times, it almost felt like being on his journey with him, excited about what he would find in each locality. If getting more people to care about plants is in the hands of communicators like Bersweden, there surely is hope. In fact, the only problem with this book is that the sense of wonder comes across so well, I am now impatient to get out and see all these incredible plants myself!

Field gentian
Field Gentians are a declining species

Further Reading

Leif Bersweden has set up an accompanying website, full of links to useful resources and organisations such as Plantlife and the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI). There are also photographs of every species encountered on his trip. Find it here.

Bersweden’s previous book details his teenage attempt to find all of Britain and Ireland’s native orchids within one growing season. Once again, the writing showcases Bersweden’s infectious enthusiasm and you will be willing him on with every page.

For a different take on a similar quest, try Jon Dunn’s Orchid Summer. Serendipitously, photographer and wildlife guide Dunn is also Bersweden’s guide to the Keen of Hamar on Unst, Shetland in Where the Wildlflowers Grow.

For those wanting to improve their botanising, this guide is comprehensive and beautifully illustrated.

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