Category Archives: Book Reviews

Chasing the Ghost – My Search For All the Wildflowers of Britain by Peter Marren

Dear Readers, on a day when I would normally be knocking up a Wednesday Weed, I thought it might be fun to think about the plants that you would never normally come across in a quick march around your local green space. Who among us is regularly falling over Spiked Rampion (Phyteuma spicatum) for example? Who has ever seen Whorled Solomon’s-seal (Polygonatum verticillatum)? And has anybody ever seen ‘The Ghost’ of the title, the Ghost Orchid (Epigogium aphyllum)? Well, Peter Marren’s book ‘Chasing the Ghost‘ enables you to follow him as he attempts to find 50 plants that he’s never seen before.

Photo One By BerndH - Picture taken by BerndH, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34052

Ghost Orchids (Epipogium aphyllum) (Photo One)

When I read the title of the book, I thought that Marren was going to be starting from scratch in his hunt for plant species, but fortunately (because otherwise the book would be the size of a small drinks cabinet) he has already seen most of the commoner species. He looked through his much-thumbed volume ‘The Concise British Flora’ and found that there were exactly fifty species unticked. However, there were difficulties afoot:

A few are plants that flower erratically, while others are found only in remote corners of Britain, and some bloom underwater….More problematic was that some of them flowered at the same time at opposite ends of Britain. ….over the whole enterprise hung the spectre of Epipogium, the Ghost Orchid- a plant almost as unattainable as the Holy Grail. Unless someone found it during the year, which, on recent form, seemed unlikely, it was a built-in guarantee of almost certain failure’. 

Goodness, how I love a quest! I am reminded of the travel and nature writer Peter Mathiesson, with his attempt to see a snow leopard (which I heartily recommend if you’ve never read it). But how much danger could there be in a search for some wild flowers? Well, quite a lot as it happens. Marren isn’t getting any younger, he has health problems which become more apparent as he gets continually rained upon and knocked over, and some of these plants grow in precipitous spots. Here he is looking for Norwegian Mugwort (Artemisia norvegica) on ‘a high, bare ridge, Cul Mor, Scottish Highlands’ for example: he has just identified the plant when:

Then there was the most almighty bang, followed by a flash. The storm had arrived. In terror, I splashed back up the slope as fast as my clunky boots could carry me. The right thing to do was to find shelter well below the rocks on the ridgeline and wait out the storm. But both sides plunged down steeply, and my only thought was to get off the hill as quickly as possible. Another flash burst over Cul Mor, a blast of white light, mighty close, horribly assertive. I swear I I smelt electricity. If I live, I thought, I might find this quite funny – the terrified fleeing figure with the thunder god hurling bolts at him’.

Photo Two By pellaea - https://www.flickr.com/photos/7147684@N03/3818561218/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17279237

Norwegian mugwort (Artemisia norvegica) (Photo Two)

Not all rare plants are in such inhospitable spots however. Take the Childing Pink (Petrorhagia nanteulii) which grows behind a pub in Sussex:

When I pulled up at the forecourt they were rolling beer kegs from the back of a lorry, with metallic rattles and clangs. Behind the clubhouse is a narrow backwater with a few moored boats. Across the narrow inlet lies a desolation of dredgers and warehouses: VW Heritage, Travis Perkins, Screwfix(‘Open 7 days!’). The only beauty lay at my feet, in the patch of a tiny flower growing in bare sand’.

Photo Three By Javier martin - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6523906

Childing Pink (Petrorhagia nanteulii) (Photo Three)

And then there’s the Fen Ragwort (Senecio paludosus), which grows to 7 feet tall, and is now known only from a ‘ditch on the busy road from Ely to Newmarket….the ragwort’s ditch regularly fills with rubbish: in 2001 four sackfuls were removed in one day, along with ‘a road sign, three drums of lubricant and a traffic cone‘. This plant was declared extinct in 1857, but suddenly reappeared when its ditch was dug in 1968, having lain dormant in the soil for all that time. Some seedlings have been replanted in Woodwalton Fen, where maybe, one day, it will start to proliferate.

Photo Four byAlgirdas at the Lithuanian language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons

Fen Ragwort (Senecio paludosus) (Photo Four)

In some ways, this is a perfect lockdown book, though it did make me yearn for the days when I could jump onto a train and head off in pursuit of some natural wonder or another. It also made me nostalgic for being able to meet up with friends and head off on an adventure – everywhere that Marren goes, he is helped in his search by fellow botanists, friends, conservationists and sometimes complete strangers. There is a kind of comradeship in being an enthusiast – when other people write you off as an eccentric for standing in the cold and rain with binoculars or a hand lens, there is, if we are lucky, someone who understands and will wait around with you. I grew very fond of Marren – if you read the book, you will see that some of his life experiences overlap with mine, and there is a kind of fellowship in suffering, too. He is good company – he wears his extensive knowledge and experience lightly, and he has an irrepressible sense of humour, invaluable when you’re up to your personal parts in bogwater.

I heartily recommend this book. I will certainly be looking at the author’s back catalogue – he has written Rainbow Dust, about our love affair with butterflies, and a guide to Fungi which is extremely readable. If only there were more hours in the day for all the things I want to read!

Photo Credits

Photo One By BerndH – Picture taken by BerndH, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34052

Photo Two By pellaea – https://www.flickr.com/photos/7147684@N03/3818561218/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17279237

Photo Three By pellaea – https://www.flickr.com/photos/7147684@N03/3818561218/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17279237

Photo Four by Algirdas at the Lithuanian language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons