British Wildlife 34.6 May 2023

Book review: One Thousand Shades of Green: A Year in Search of Britain’s Wild Plants

View this book on the NHBS website

Full disclosure here. I am the author of a similar book to this one, about plant-hunting within a single calendar year, and called Chasing the Ghost. More recently, Leif Bersweden wrote Where the Wild Flowers Grow, another personal botanical journey through Britain. Still, there is room in the meadow for more flowers yet, and it is good to know that at least one TV presenter loves the vegetable kingdom, even though we so rarely see British wild flowers on our screens (even David Attenborough’s occasional botanical forays were mostly tropical). Years ago, David Pearman and I were joined on a plant hunt in Dorset by a young Mike Dilger, who seemed keen on flowers even then. He is a wildlife presenter on the One Show and also does short films for Saving the Earth. I can confirm that he is a proper all-round naturalist (and probably reads British Wildlife). I should also perhaps add that I had nothing to do with his new book.

One Thousand Shades of Green is about a self-appointed challenge, made during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, to try to find a thousand different wild flowers inside a year. One of the symptoms of lockdown was to focus one’s eyes on home ground, and that is where he starts, in the Chew Valley in Somerset, in January, where his first plant was the humble Common Groundsel. His last, eight months later, and also in Somerset, was the rare Goldilocks Aster, on a limestone cliff near Weston-super-Mare. I shall not include the Latin names of plants here as Dilger does not either (though they are all included in a gazetteer at the end).

In between, we follow him, month by month, through a botanical odyssey that takes him from the Lizard, in Cornwall, to the north coast of Scotland, via such floral honeypots as the Avon Gorge (Bristol Rock-cress, Honewort), the Breck (Spanish Catchfly, Fine-leaved Sandwort), Ranscombe Farm in Kent (Pheasant’s-eye, Ground Pine, Interrupted Brome), Upper Teesdale (Spring Gentian, Alpine Bartsia), and on to the Highlands (One-flowered Wintergreen, Boreal Fleabane, and even the newly discovered Nordic Moonwort). Modest about his botanical skills, Dilger learns as he goes along, with the help of friends, county botanists and reserve wardens. He even tramps all the way up Cul Mor, a hill that nearly killed me once, to find Norwegian Mugwort.

The style throughout is upbeat, cheery and chatty, and paying proper respect to the stars of the show, the plants. Each species, and its setting, are described nicely, with digressions into a little light botany: the bulbils of Coralwort, the ‘sirenic’ charms of the bug-mimicking Fly Orchid, or the sex-bypassing ways of Goldilocks Buttercup. There is quite a bit about the contortions that plant photography gets you into, including a troupe of schoolgirls who assumed that Dilger was dead. There is lots of travel detail, and non-botanical incidents where our hero is flummoxed by impenetrable thickets, or yelled at for trespassing, or forced to clamber over barbed wire. His family (already celebrated in another book) come into the story, including his seven-year-old son Zachary and three-year-old border collie, Bramble. One appreciates anew the niceness of fellow botanists, the resilience of wild flowers, and the extraordinary variety nestling within our relatively small island. Despite the blurb, there is not much about conservation, although there is a sense that some of our flowers are up against it.

One is hardly surprised that, by the end, Dilger has become a ‘hunched figure with eyes glued to the gutters and verges’. ‘Thank goodness for that’, breathes his wife when he finally, after a lengthy scramble, hits the thousandth plant. Some of us might have enjoyed a streak more acidity to balance the honey, and seasoned plant-hunters may not find much that is new (but since there are so few of us, that hardly matters). All the same, Mike Dilger is an amiable and enthusiastic companion, describing the pleasures and pitfalls of flower-finding with a smile, a presenter who loves his subject and longs to tell you all about it. Our wild flowers need all the friends they can get, and I hope this book will bring them to the kind of wider audience that, it seems, only media celebs can deliver.

Reviewed by Peter Marren
When the Kite Builds: Why and How we Restored Red Kites across Britain
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