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A very personal guide to SOME of the wild flowers of Great Britain
on 25 October 2011
This is a sumptuous Bloomsbury volume, weighty, luxurious and with a bright green cloth spine which clashes brilliantly with the bright pink endpapers inside. It's printed on thick paper and has gorgeous photos by Jonathan Buckland. But is it a good book about wild flowers?
It certainly seems somewhat undecided about what kind of book it actually IS. It's not a flora, that should be made clear from the start. By that, I mean, it's not a plant identification book. It's arranged by habitats, yes, such as Woods, Coast and Meadow, but each plant gets only a single photo (in most cases) and that won't be adequate to give you a concrete ID. (And some have very pretty photos that I wouldn't recognise the plant from! For example Cuckoo Flower, which in my experience is a bigger bloom.)
It's also not a botany book, and nor is it a gardening book, or a natural history book exactly. And it's not very comprehensive - most wild flower books include well over a thousand species, sometimes up to 1500, and this has only five hundred. AND some of those are grasses, which wouldn't appear in a normal flora...
This book's actual strengths take time to sink in, and time to grow on the reader. Sarah Raven is one of our best gardening writers, and she grew up botanising with her dad. In a way, this is a very personal (and possibly slightly self-indulgent?) book where she wanders around giving us her own personal take on the wild flowers she sees as she travels. And it's slowly, surprisingly, very seductive. Especially if you already know a little about wild flowers, and want to turn the pages, seeing old favourites, learning a few new things about each, drinking in the gorgeous pictures, noting in particular a bit of the very good ecological detail about what each flower generally grows with. There are lots of entries on non-native things which now grow in the wild in the UK, too, which I rather enjoy: it's an inclusive definition of 'wild'.
I think the whole book could lose, without any trouble, the rather un-useful botanical descriptions, which will be really hard to use without illustrations, and distribution and habitat notes. But the writing by Raven herself, when she gets going, is delicious. Pasqueflowers 'scatter themselves over chalky pastures, lying there like beautiful girls at the end of the dance". Ahh!
DON'T buy this book for anyone who is a novice and wants to identify wild flowers. Buy it instead as a sumptuous and beautiful gift for someone who already loves the subject. I don't know why I like this book so much really, but I do. You just want to keep reading, keep turning the pages, and keep thinking about the spring and summer to come.