Tuesday, 10 November 2020

Book Review - Britain's Orchids WILDGUIDES

The WILDGuides series is making a habit of creating exceptional field guides covering all aspects of the natural world and the publishers generally don’t rest on their laurels, updating and improving their guides at regular intervals. My latest acquisition, ‘Britain’s Orchids – A field guide to the orchids of Great Britain and Ireland is a leap forward from earlier books on the subject and it is now over 15 years since the first edition, so much has changed. Orchids are probably the most beguiling family of British wildflowers and the mission statement from authors Sean Cole and Mike Waller to develop the most beautiful and comprehensive field guide on the subject has clearly been achieved!

The 288 pages are packed with information covering the identification of all 51 native species plus hybrids and variants. Taxonomy and distribution maps have been brought up to date and the guide features 98 outstanding watercolour plates plus 1200 stunning photographs. The introductory sections define exactly what an orchid is, the taxonomy, habitats and tips on finding orchids. A step by step guide to their identification is coupled with caveats and their differentiation from similar looking non-orchid plants or orchid hybrids. Annotated photographs detail the parts of an orchid flower and illustrate some of their clever pollination strategies.

Did you know just how long orchids can live? Lady’s Slipper for example is known to live for some eighty years! Ten pages are devoted to habitats and photographs illustrate just how diverse these are including classic locations, road verges and urban environments. If like myself you are inspired by this book and plan to search for hardy orchids both locally and elsewhere, the ‘year planner’ on pages 38/39 coupled with species distribution maps will help you on your way. The colour coded annual growth cycle chart denotes the various stages of growth for each species and will help you to be out searching at the correct time.

The identification of each orchid covers all stages of development and starts with the first emerging leaves a ghostly 20p coin is a reference for scale in each of the images. Four pages of colour plates show the detail emerging flower buds, for most species and this is repeated with images in the species accounts.

Paving the way for identification strategies, two complimentary approaches are introduced. The first uses ‘form and colour’ which will often lead immediately to success. Where the identity is inconclusive, a second detailed section uses lip characters as a further means of reaching a safe identification? I cannot pretend that a firm identification is easy for some species! In addition, hybrids or forms can cause confusion but the text points you in the right direction. 

The next two thirds of the book from page 101 onwards are devoted to the species accounts and as ever using the excellent the WILDGuides ‘style’. Each species has a double page spread, well laid out and crammed full of detail and information. English name / Scientific names are both given with the former taking precedence and catching the eye as you flick through pages. The first species listed is the iconic Lady’s-slipper (Cypripedium calceolus). Reduced to a single native site back in the 1930’s, it is now successfully re-established at 11 sites across its former range. The Ghost Orchid (Epipogium aphyllum) perhaps the most sought after species for orchid hunters, a ‘Holy Grail’ rarity, is perhaps the most unlikely of species to encounter but the images will provide an aide memoire, in your dreams!

The species are arranged in sections organised by genus with an overview spread preceding them. Identification isn’t always easy and for some genera (eg Fragrant Orchids) it may not always be possible to identify every individual specimen. Some highly variable species readily hybridise resulting in a bewildering range of intermediate features. Nevertheless, for typical examples the text / images steer you in the correct direction by noting specific features of the the flowers.  Common and Heath Spotted-orchids, are a good example, the distinctions between which can be seen in the example page below.

Following the species accounts, a section of 25 pages considers orchid hybrids which will be of interest to the more experienced orchid hunters. I must admit there were some amazing and simply breathtaking images to behold. The images are cleverly arranged in threes with the particular  hybrid sandwiched between both parents. A final section highlights the current threats from habitat destruction and change plus the inevitable climate breakdown. There will be winners and losers due the latter and we may see some species from Europe colonising or becoming more widely spread in the south of the UK? Finally, the index is well laid out and quite complex with a range of colour keys for various sections, if you are familiar with English names, the inside of the rear flip cover has a ‘short index’, quite useful as a rapid navigation aid.
Published by Princeton University Press on 29th September 2020, the target price of £20 is currently still discounted and with some shopping around, you can purchase a copy for just less than £15. This is quite amazing for such a well reseached, complete field guide which merits a place on the bookshelf of all serious natural history enthusiasts. This book will reveal invaluable tips to successful identification of hardy orchid species and give enormous help in understanding them better whilst searching for them. Happy hunting!!