Eyes Wide Shut - A Botanical Awakening

I wrote the following blog for the BSBI (Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland) who published it on their News and Views web page at http://bsbipublicity.blogspot.co.uk/
The three parts can be found by scrolling down the right side of the page and looking in November 2017 blogs.

I have decided to publish this again on my own blog web site, so as to reach a few more people including those who may not have heard of the BSBI. I have included a few different photographs and expanded a little on the txt, so it is a bit different from the original. I hope it inspires you.

Eyes Wide Shut – A Botanical Awakening by David Steere

I am at the ripe old age of 57, yet just 4 years ago I didn't know a Coltsfoot from a Dandelion. I regularly post wildflower photographs on Twitter under the name @Barbus59 and also help others to identify their own finds. As such, many assume I am a trained botanist or some kind of expert. This is far from the truth! As such, I have been asked to tell you how I became interested in botany and give an account as to how I expanded my knowledge from nothing to a reasonable level within a few years.

It all started when I began to take country walks with my partner, for the sole purpose of exercise. Like most people I saw everything, yet in reality noticed nothing. I would recount having a lovely walk in woods and seeing some views but little else. The botany bug rather predictably all began with a wild orchid.

While on a Spring walk through a woodland path one day, I noticed a group of purple flowers looking majestic in the sunlight. I stopped and took a few moments to admire them and wondered what on earth they could be. As I looked around I also noticed some clusters of small yellow flowers on stalks with big green crinkled leaves (read on if you can't guess this species and see above photo) and it was then that I had the realisation that I was now in my mid fifties and I had no idea what any of the wildflowers around me actually were, so I determined to find out.

The purple flowers were of course, the beautiful blooms of the Early Purple Orchid and the yellow flowers those of the Cowslip, though it took some time to work that out. I bought my first wildflower book called The Pocket Guide to Wild Flowers by Peter Moore (£9.99 by Bounty Books). It was this little book that finally opened my eyes to how many wildflowers there were and I determined to find and identify as many as I could. As I found species over the course of that year, I would put a tick in the book – rather like an adult version of an I-Spy book!

A couple of weeks later, by chance, I found another iconic wildflower, one that has drawn many people into botany over the years, the humble, but stunning Bee Orchid. It was a single flowering spike on sandy soil by a lake and I was entranced by it. I had never seen anything like it and was very excited about finding it. I had a small compact camera with me and took some poor photographs of it. It was the disappointing photos that also led me into botanical photography. 

Here's the actual photo of my first ever Bee Orchid that I had seen. 


I can't imagine going out into nature now without my camera with me, a much more advanced Canon 700D DSLR with a 100mm macro lens being the norm. Below is another Bee Orchid and shows what can be achieved with the right equipment, a bit of patience and by taking lots of photos to get one looking just right.

It's a big improvement on my early photographic attempts at wildflowers.

 Soon after finding my first Bee Orchid, I also found a white sad looking tulip growing in a chalk woodland that intrigued me. I didn't photograph it as I thought someone had planted it there. I later found out it was a White Helleborine! 

The more I looked now, the more I really did see and I realised that I knew very little about plants and at that time their flowers.

I amassed lots of old wildflower books from charity shops and wildlife reserve shops and realised my first little book was rather limited and the colour drawings of wildflowers were often inaccurate or vague. As these books were inspiring but rather useless at field identifications I turned my research to the internet. Here I found a wealth of information and web sites, the two most influential to me being www.birdforum.net which had a wildflower and UK orchid forum and http://www.ukwildflowers.com which lists most wildflowers found in the UK. I also bought a copy of Harrap's Wildflowers which had fantastic colour photos of most species with a good description of how to identify it. I followed this up with Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland by Blamey, Fitter and Fitter which had additional detail, but importantly, covered many alien species commonly found in the wild.

 Field and Sea Bindweeds can look very similar and can be found in the same places together. The only visible difference being found in the leaves.

The books I mentioned above were essential to me in telling plant species like this apart.

Oh, it's Field Bindweed by the way!

Being fascinated by the orchids I had already found, I did lots of online research and resolved to find more Kent orchids, so in 2014 I set off to several well known sites and in a few short visits I found all the major species found in Kent, including Man, Lady, Greater Butterfly, Early and Late Spider, Monkey and many more. 

It was an amazing time of discovery and wonder. I had no idea my own countryside had such stunning gems within it waiting to be found. 

In 2015 I set out to find orchids off of nature reserves and my star find was previously unrecorded Lady Orchids, possibly never seen before by botanists.

This was one of the three Lady Orchid I found in a small wood with a clearing caused by the Electricity people cutting back the shrubs under a line of pylons.

British and Irish orchids are amazing, yet I couldn't fail to notice other species along the way, from Eyebrights to Yellow-wort, Poppies to assorted Toadflax and so my interests considerably broadened. I started photogrpahing and logging all wildflowers I could identify. I wanted to find the wonderful flowers shown in Harrap's book for myself. 

One big tip I realised early on was that taking some photos of a plant's flowers is often insufficient to identify the plant in front of you. I quickly learned to take detailed photos of every bit of any plant I couldn't identify, including the underside of leaves and if possible even the type of hairs on the leaves. I still do that today which is invariably sufficient to gain a firm identification from Twitter botanists or my County Recorder.

"Eyelash" hairs on Redshank

In 2015 I joined the Kent Botanical Recording Group which is free to join. I was welcomed from the start and enjoyed attending their field trips, where in a few hours with local experts I learned more than I could have done in a year of solo trips. They took time to explain the differences in species and what to look for. In addition to that, they put out a newsletter and Kent Botany each year with a wealth of information within them. I would highly recommend you join your local county group (see http://bsbi.org/ click on your county from the map shown).

Imagine how great I felt to find one of my photos was chosen for the front cover of Kent Botany 2015. It wasn't even of a flower. I had wanted to ID this plant and sent off photos to the County Recorder who was suitably impressed to use it here. Great stuff!

One thing that did baffle me on the field trips was the habit of everyone talking about plants using their scientific names and I frequently had to ask what plant or flower they were talking about. Feeling a bit embarrased about it, I decided I would try to learn them as well and here's how I managed to remember seemingly impossible names, such as tripleurospermum inodorum and Helminthotheca echioides! 

This is Anacamptis morio, it took a while to remember it from its common name of the Green-winged Orchid

Papaver rhoeas - Common Poppy, a plant most people get to see all around the UK, though usually not in these numbers!

I became a BSBI member and started recording for the BSBI 2020 atlas.
To do this I could only record species whose identity I was 100% sure of. I then entered my finds into a spreadsheet, but you have to use the scientific names to do so. As such, after repeatedly typing in common plants the names stuck in my memory. Another tip is to mentally say the scientific name to yourself each time you notice it. Just walking down an urban street, I'm muttering to myself “ Stellaria media, Euphorbia peplus, Conyza canadensis” etc etc. I now find I sometimes struggle to remember a plant's common name!

That same year I added Francis Rose's Wildflower Key book to my collection and attempted to use keys for the first time. The keys were simple enough, but the botanical terms used may as well have been in a foreign language. Strange new words such as “cunate, acuminate, crenate, denticular, capitula” and so on were used and I had no idea what they meant. I think it's about now that most people think its all too much and give up. However, I did my homework and some more internet research and tried to memorise as many of those terms as I could. A pet hate of mine with keys is when you have to look up a word in the glossary which then uses other words you also need to look up in the glossary!

Regular recording has advanced my knowledge by leaps and bounds and now in 2017, I can routinely identify and record around 100 species or more per monad from wildflowers to trees and the occassional fern, grass, rush or sedge. I hope to double number that in a couple of years!

I also found alien species in the wild, sometimes a first for that Vice County, such as this Pick a Back plant (Tolmiea menziesii) found in newly coppiced woodland, nowhere near habittion. A first find for VC16 West Kent.

Becoming aware of the Kent Rare Plant Register gave me a new impetus to my recording as I wanted to locate, photograph and record all the species I could find on it as well as the common species. 

Some are still relatively common such as Wild Strawberry, Field Scabious and Harebells, but others still elude me, with Pheasant's Eye being a dream find I've yet to discover in the wild, only having seen it growing at Wakehurst (Millenium Seedbank project).
Most counties have a rare plant register, though Geoffrey Kitchener (Joint Kent County Recorder) has done an impressive job detailing those in Kent, see http://bsbi.org/kent

Early in 2017 I added Stace Vol.3 and recently Poland's vegetative key to my book collection. My old tatty copy of Harrap's is still used almost daily, but there are copied pages from Stace sellotaped into it to expand descriptions. The key to using keys is understanding the terminology and unfortunately, constant practice is the only way to do it, for me anyway.

So, that is my story of how for most of my 57 years on this planet, I walked around with my eyes wide shut. I saw everything, yet really I saw nothing. I now look at nature in a new light with each wildflower being an amazing gift, each rare habitat a jewel in the otherwise desert like arable wasteland and urbanisation of Kent. Add in all the other wildlife that I also see and photograph and my journey into botany has incredibly enriched my life. I now see that a Dandelion really is as beautiful as a Lady Orchid and it's now very easy for me to distinguish between a Tussilago and a Taraxacum and so much more.

As time went by I joined various other organisations such as local wildlife trusts and of course Plantlife to give something back and help the wildflowers that now bring me so much pleasure. I even use my knowledge of rare plants (and other wildlife) to object to planning applications in sensitive areas with reasoned argument – I do my bit!

Orobanche crenata (Bean Broomrape, an alien arable species) 

The upside of this awakening is my desire to communicate this to others and hopefully inspire them to also open their eyes and appreciate the wildlife around them. This is why I routinely photograph common, often mundane species and post them on Twitter. Species that anyone can find just on a walk to the shops, or those they may find in their lawn if they refrain from mowing for even a short while. They all have their own special beauty but are often overlooked by all.

Senecio jacobaea - Common Ragwort, can be found almost anywhere in the UK, even in pavement cracks!

The more people who care about nature the better the prospects for wildlife and for the long term protection of habitats. So go on a walk, take the children or grandchildren and start an interest by showing them what things are, how they work, how their seeds disperse and so on. Youngsters soak up knowledge, hopefully to be inspired to be the next generation of botanists, conservationists and naturalists. Spread the word!

Here's my Grand Daughter admiring a Sussex Lizard Orchid. I can guarantee she is the only child in her entire school to not only see one, but can also name it, along with common species such as Red Dead-nettle and so on.

Get the kids off their devices and out and about, they love it and soak up knowledge like a sponge soaks up water.

Thanks also to my partner for initially inspiring me to get out there and who nurtured my early enthusiasm. She often accompanies me on recording trips and finds records in her own right as well as spotting things my ageing eyes miss, thank you Elizabeth.


Thank you too for taking the time to read this and for Louise Marsh of the BSBI for requesting my account of my own personal botanical discovery. Writing this has rekindled my soul as the memories of an eventful few years come flooding back.

David Steere


Popular posts from this blog

May 2021 Botanical Finds from Kent

Autumn 2021 - Botanical Finds from Kent

The Amazing Early Spider Orchids of Samphire Hoe & Much More, Kent - 15/04/17