Roy Vickery talks to me about working in the Natural History Museum herbarium, plant folklore and his advice on learning to identify local flora    

How did you become a botanist?

One of my first plant memories was collecting Herb Robert, or Fox Geranium as it’s also called, bringing it indoors and putting it in a jam jar but being disappointed because the petals dropped so quickly. I must have been about four.

My mother was very interested in wild flowers, and collected things like Corncockles and Cornflowers which you don’t really see wild today. And her mother before her had a great interest in garden flowers. My mother had a book in which she ticked wildflowers off which unfortunately I’ve lost trace of at the moment but it would be interesting to see what she recorded in West Dorset in the 1920s and early 1930s. I grew up on the Dorset, Devon and Somerset border. Both grandparents were farmers and we lived in a farm cottage in the middle of a field. There wasn’t much to do and there were very few other children to play with in our social group so I spent most of my time walking round the local fields and woodlands being interested in flowers. 

When I went to primary school we had competitions on who could collect the most wildflowers which I always won mainly because I knew more about flowers than the person judging it. At grammar school my first biology teacher was quite good but the second one was hopeless. She knew the theory but wasn’t able to identify much at all. Every year we went on a field trip to Woodbury Common [in East Devon] and her comment was “Vickery is always lucky and finds the interesting things”. I was probably the only one who knew what plants were and the only one who took the field trip seriously anyway. 

I left school at eighteen with biology A level and worked at a local butter factory for a few months which I quite enjoyed. People there weren’t ambitious and just got on with life whereas in academic life people are always trying to seem cleverer than they are. The factory work was hard and long hours, so I wrote to places associated with natural history. The Natural History Museum was the one place which replied and I was invited to an interview. This was 1965 when things were expanding. In a fortnight I had moved to London and was working at the Museum. 

What was your first job at the Natural History Museum?

I was a scientific assistant which was like doing an apprenticeship. I didn’t really mean to stay in London but then you know what London’s like, no-one really means to stay there. I started as a scientific assistant in the lichen section. Lichens are a good thing to start working on because most people know even less about them than you so you don’t need to know a great deal to impress people. I worked in that section for about seven years. My boss was really the only professional lichenologist in the British Isles so anyone collecting lichens sent them to him for identification and Brits collecting overseas sent them too so we were really overwhelmed. A job came up in the General Herbarium which was the collection of flowering plants from outside Europe so I moved there as a scientific officer, a promotion, and I stayed in the General Herbarium for the rest of my career at the museum. Eventually I was in charge of the curation of all the flowering plants which was roughly three and a half million specimens. I always explain to people that my knowledge is spread very thinly over the widest area you could get and I don’t know a great deal about anything in particular. When specimens arrived I would identify plants to family level at least – sometimes I’d get the genus or even occasionally the species –  and then I’d file them and someone with greater knowledge would identify them. I retired in 2007 and I still go back to the museum once a week as a scientific associate to work on lichens as there is still a huge backlog.

While you were working at the museum, did you go on botanizing trips? 

While the Museum obviously does lots of trips, I didn’t do much field work apart from local ones to Mull and to Wicken Fen.  However I did go to Nepal in the early seventies as a junior person in a museum team and I went to Costa Rica a decade later in the early eighties because at that time the Museum was collaboratively producing a Flora Mesoamerica. To a certain extent the plants of the world were flying into me, although it’s nice to see them live. 

And what about botanizing locally?

Since 2005 I’ve been obsessed by the flora of Tooting Common. I live near it and I go on it every day to see what’s there and I’ve got a list of about 640 species of flowering plants. I’m really connecting more with the native flora although there are lots of non-native things on Tooting Common as well. During lockdown I’ve been putting a plant a day on the Friends of Tooting Common website which seems to be appreciated. It gives me an incentive to go out and when I write things up I learn bits as I go along. 

How did you get involved with South London Botanical Institute (which is where I know you from)?

I gave a talk at the South London Botanical Institute (SLBI) many years ago when I moved to the general herbarium. My boss there was a great authority on Hypericum (the St John’s Worts) and he was due to give a talk on modern advances on plant taxonomy but was ill so he asked me to stand in. I didn’t know anything about that subject so I gave a talk about plants in legends which must have been a bit of a shock for the people who turned up. I didn’t go back for around 30 years when my assistant at the museum became the warden there and she asked me to give a talk. The thing which really hooked me was Irene Palmer who was to become President. I went to Irene Palmer’s lecture about Kent nature reserves and it was so brilliant, the photos and her enthusiasm, and I became a member of the Council, then the Chairman for ten years and then President when Irene retired.

My big interest beyond scientific botany is the folklore of plants. I realised that there wasn’t really anywhere to go to get decent information so I started collecting it. In the early eighties I was the secretary of the Folklore Society and we decided to run a project to get more people engaged so did a survey of plants which people considered to be unlucky. I ran this for two and half years and a tremendous amount of information came in. That hooked me on collecting plant folklore and I’ve been collecting it ever since.  As I see it, plant folklore is a way of getting people into plants, beyond how many petals or sepals a flower has. It’s one of the things which drives me to lead walks because I always hope I’m going to get some feedback from the audience which I usually do. 

For the last ten years the SLBI has been surveying the plants in St Leonard’s churchyard [in Streatham]. We go once or twice a year and record what’s growing there – it’s not a very spectacular site but we record changes. It doesn’t change a great deal but that’s interesting in itself. I’m very keen to get these kinds of things going again.

I’m trying to widen and deepen my botanical identification skills to become competent at identifying plants in this area. If you were going to do this how would you go about it?

I think I’d just wander around with my eyes open and avoid the obvious places – you need to get off the beaten track. That’s one of the few good things in a way about the current situation. There have been thousands of people walking on Tooting Common so I didn’t keep to the normal paths and found plants which I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. Pavements are great for finding plants too.

I think it’s great that you’re concentrating on this area as one of the things I’ve tried to do in SLBI is encourage more interest in local flora and not always have pretty pictures of plants in Madagascar but get people to appreciate what is growing locally. There are fantastic plants locally – you don’t need to go to exotic places to see great plants. So I’d wander around and write it up on your blog. 

You’ve talked before about your herbarium experience helping you be good at identifying plant families. Do you see that as being an important thing to start with to give the learning structure?

Yes, particularly when you look at things on pavements which can come from almost anywhere as they won’t necessarily be in the books. The Facebook page Wildflowers of Britain and Ireland is useful too as it’s mainly people who want things identified. Members are mostly very patient and if someone gets an identification wrong it’s usually corrected tactfully. I do think people do overuse “it’s good for bees” and get too excited about Common Ragwort and Hogweed being poisonous and soon it will be Indian Balsam season.  They do get carried away with orchids too.  For a herbarium botanist, squashed orchids aren’t very attractive at all!