Sparroworks Reviews #1 – Orchids

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Sparroworks Reviews #1 – Orchids

Books you might enjoy

People who read this journal have an interest in gardens and wildlife and things that grow and make the world a better place. Knowledge is power, as the saying goes, and whether or not you want to be powerful there is a fair chance you will find some of the things I read as fascinating as I do. Earlier this year on another website (www.greenbirding.ca) I shared some observations on a couple of books I had enjoyed. The post received good feedback and now, as summer ends, I am going to experiment with an occasional series of personal reviews and recommendations of “nature” books I happen across that you might enjoy also.

I will begin with the original review from that other journal:


Orchid Summer: In Search of the Wildest Flowers of the British Isles

Written by Jon Dunn and published in early March 2018 (Pub. Bloomsbury).

Flowers demand illustrations and sadly this book is mostly text (but see link at the foot of this page). It is, though, more than just a dry account of finding wild flowers; it bubbles over with terrific writing and fascinating information about people and places. I simply loved reading it. Not a book for kids, unless they are preternaturally wise, but one for adults who could do with a bit of uplift and hope. Although written in Britain I think the underlying information and spirit is universal.

Jon Dunn is a good and engaging writer on natural history. He grew up in the south west of England but today is based in Shetland. He leads tours around the world and writes books such as definitive guides to Britains Mammals and a specific one about Sea Mammals.

We are used to birders doing Big Days and Big Years in which they attempt to see as many species as possible in a given time or place.  This follows in the tradition but does it for botany. In 2016 Dunn set out to attempt to see every one of the species of naturally flowering orchids to, theoretically, be seen in the United Kingdom. This is the sort of challenge much beloved of birders but I cannot think of ever encountering the urge in botanists, a generally more retiring group of enthusiasts.

The taxonomy of orchids is complex. There are some 51 species in Britain … or is it 52 or 54 or 58? It all depends on what you mean by “species” and who is counting … to say nothing of the fact that some orchid genera are promiscuous hybridisers, to put it mildly. Wildly complex … and quite fascinating. The publishers blurb says that the book is “Capturing the intoxicating beauty of these rare and charismatic flowers, Orchid Summer is also an exploration of their history, their champions, their place in our landscape and the threats they face. Combining infectious enthusiasm and a painterly eye with a deep knowledge that comes from a lifetime’s passionate devotion to their study, Dunn sweeps us up on his adventure, one from which it is impossible not to emerge enchanted and enriched.”

Suffice it to say that by driving and flying from one end of the country to the other, from sea cliffs in Cornwall to East Anglian Fens, Yorkshire Dales, playing fields in the poorer parts of Glasgow and remote Scottish islands he managed to see all but one species by the end of the year. As he did so he encountered botanists who are to the flowers of their interest perhaps more focussed than some of the hardest of hard bird “twitchers”. All of them with interesting tales to tell and hidden gems of flowers to share.

Historic accounts of fields and forest floors ablaze with hundreds, thousands of orchids in centuries past are a sad reminder of what has been lost … and not only in Britain. For the author to have to rely for modern sightings of some of these species on hushed phone calls from “those in the know” announcing the brief flowering of one or two specimens only is a sad reflection on the world we live in. Flowers that were once common, or at least relatively so, are now so uncommon that their very existence has to be guarded in secrecy. In Yorkshire for many years there was a genuine “secret society” that guarded the existence of the very last examples of one species of orchid in the country … well, Yorkshire is funny like that; as I should know.

Searching for one particularly rare orchid took the author to the Hebridean island of Rhum – and gave him an excellent excuse for a short digression summarising the infamous pre-war Hislop-Harrison botanical fraud wherein an important botanist, an academic of some renown, “planted” rare alpine plants on the mountains of Rhum and then “discovered” them again. It’s a fascinating tale (and has a long book about it all if you wish to know more). The Cambridge classicist and amateur botanist who uncovered the fraud, John Raven, appears three times in this book in connection with unusual orchids – and was a member of that secret Yorkshire orchid group.

An enthrallingly interesting book with some excellent word pictures of places and plants … treat yourselves to a copy. It’s widely available in print but also as an ebook from Kindle and Kobo etc.


Next book … probably all about bumble bees and conservation. 



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2018-09-07T14:25:36+00:00Friday, September 7, 2018|

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