Mick Crawley, my botany guru, talks to me about how he learnt botany and his advice on becoming a better botanist

How did you get your botanical expertise?

As a child in rural Northumberland in the fifties I had gardening parents and roamed around the countryside with a group of like-minded boys botanizing and bird-nesting, which is frowned upon these days, but both were an integral part of learning about the countryside. Botany teachers at school and university made a really big effort to put me off. I found academic botany incredibly off-putting, it was so boring, it really was, it took boredom to new depths. 

Was that because the people who were teaching you didn’t really get how to enthuse other people?

Well, we didn’t do any fieldwork. It was all laboratory and microscope work which was dire. Then at university I started taking ecology more seriously and realised that as someone said ‘ecology is scientifc natural history’ [‘Ecology is a new name for a very old subject. It simply means scientific natural history.’ Charles Elton] and I think that’s absolutely right. All the ecologists I really admire were both theoreticians and naturalists so I began a really big effort to become competent. I started with grasslands, which I think is a very good place to start because they are traditionally regarded as difficult. If you can master all the grasses – and grasses are very easy – then it’s a big boost to the prospect that with a certain amount of application you can become competent more broadly.

I went to Silwood Park, Ascot [part of Imperial College, University of London] to do my PhD and it was a great place to be a student because it was surrounded by parkland. I felt like I was the only person who had been botanizing there – it wasn’t true of course because it was full of entomologists and they tend to know their host plants. The entomologists who were interested in herbivorous insects were superb at teaching me botany because they gave me wonderful tips which generally aren’t in any of the botany books.  These were proper ‘jizz’ things like noticing a general impression of shape.  Learning the jizz of plants is a good way of beginning, it’s not particularly scientific but it helps you put the scientific things you find in a [wildflower identification] key in context.

I was then lucky to get a job in Bradford teaching on a brand new ecology course. Basically I could design the course how I wanted, there were few constraints. So I set up an ecology course that had huge quantities of fieldwork in every year. That meant I was taking field trips to really nice places because I chose the destination. I was teaching people how to know, love and identify plants with total immersion in the intricacies of how you combine picture book teaching with an enthusiasm for using proper taxonomic keys. So to do that they had to learn the language of keys – what a calyx is and what stamens are. They could then go through a key and identify a plant with a very high level of precision very quickly compared to their colleagues who were thumbing backwards and forwards through pictures of yellow flowers. I think the breakthrough point is when you become comfortable with using a key in the field.

I taught in Bradford for five years before going back to Silwood Park to teach. At Silwood I started a natural history club with the PhD students who didn’t have any experience but wanted to get some. Every Wednesday afternoon we just disappeared in the minibus somewhere – like Kent to look at the orchids or whatever. That lasted quite a long time until I became too busy to continue with trips.

So you’re suggesting that grasslands and grasses are a good place to start. I picked up on Twitter that people find grasses difficult…

I tried to put that right two years ago. If you go back to April 2018 you’ll see a Twitter feed in which I introduced people to grasses, sedges and rushes by habitat and time of year so in any one week they’d only need to learn two or three. By the end I did have a following and essentially they’d gone from nowhere to knowing all of the common ones.

I can still remember some of the things you taught me twenty years ago to identify grasses. Is there any other advice you’d give to help me become a competent botanist? 

Jizz is very important.  

Is that because if you recognise the jizz of a plant you’re already narrowing it down? And you know it’s chalk grassland, it has this shape, it can only be two or three species. Is that right?

Yes. If you can get the jizz of the plant’s family that’s fantastically useful. The irony of keys is the higher the taxonomic level, working up from species to genus to family, the harder the key because the words used are more technical. At the species level you are looking to see if it’s hairy or not so it’s fantastically easy once you know the genus to work out the species. Some families are confusing, for example scabious looks a bit like a dandelion because it has a compound flower but it’s relatively easy to teach people the jizz of a daisy or the jizz of a grass to distinguish it from a sedge. The other thing which is good for identifying families is horticultural knowledge.

That gives me lots of ideas of how to start. So you’re saying I need to really work on families.

Yes that’s a great help, and finding like-minded people to enjoy the field work with. If you learn some plants along the way, it’s a bonus. That’s better than being too hard on yourself and making the learning of the thing a mission in itself. It has to be fun.

If I was going to try and demonstrate the impact of all these things on my learning over time, do you have any suggestions of what I can do?

There are objective botany tests to test your learning, like the Field Identification Skills Certificate sponsored by the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland. You could take one at intervals through your study to check your learning.

That’s great, thanks so much for your advice.