Mark talks to me about writing his first non-academic book, where to start with improving my identification skills and the importance of giving plants a rub and a sniff

I really enjoyed Murder Most Florid, your book about forensic botany. How was it writing your first non-academic book?

It was initially quite daunting, the idea of writing something like that. I’d been musing about doing some form of creative writing for years, not specifically around forensics and I was incredibly lucky to be approached out of the blue by my publishing house. While I really enjoyed writing it, I had good days and bad days like any writer. Some days three or four thousand words would fly off my fingertips and other days I’d think, oh no I can’t do this, but overall it has been a relatively easy process. Being a scientist I’d have liked to have more time to do background research on some of the things I was talking about, but it’s a balancing act.

Presumably it was quite a challenge because of the sensitivities of what you were writing about?  

I was constantly fretting about going too far in connecting information that may make [an unpublished forensic case] identifiable or causing upset to my peers in the field. That anxiety was probably the worst bit. The publishers were incredibly good in respecting this issue, but frankly some people just love the salacious stuff, so the hardest thing was ensuring I got the balance right. 

Are you a reader of nature writing yourself?

Not so much because I spend so much time keeping on top of my own life, managing my allotment and managing my own business now that I work for myself. I have a stack of books waiting on the shelf. I’m very interested in 17th and 18th century botany in Britain and Northern Europe, and have several books on horticulture and botanical science waiting to be read at the moment. As a scientist, I do find myself rolling my eyes and tutting sometimes about the way other people communicate about things relating to the natural world

Over the next year I’m going to immerse myself in improving my botanical identification skills. In your book you talk about your early interest in botany, and I just wondered how you went about acquiring your knowledge and what advice you’d give me?

In many ways I probably did things back to front. I grew up in a small rural community and whilst my family supported my passion and enthusiasm, I taught myself from the age of five or six up until my early 20s. In hindsight that inhibited my skills and development because one of the best things anybody can do is go out with other people to look for plants. I always tell people to join their local natural history society and their local botany group. It is so important in helping develop your acuity and experience and the pleasure of it will help you over the lumpy bumpy bits when it’s challenging.

I read voraciously as a kid. I was reading Strasburger’s Textbook on Botany, a famous early botanical text, when I was about 10 years old. Intuitively, I gravitated towards taxonomy and systematics, stuff which is primarily and essentially what I do to this day. 

So it sounds like you took a reasonably structured approach to learning? 

I think some aspects were innately structural because of my developing interest in plant biodiversity, taxonomy and systematics. But I also tell people I’m teaching to spend time just looking at plants as I did as a kid. That’s how you get to understand plant structure and pick up their subtleties. Human beings tend to record the macro features of an object incredibly efficiently and then we miss everything else. In particular the senses of touch and smell are massively helpful in understanding what a plant is and its character and identity. Even plants which don’t have strong distinctive odours may have a smell that relates to their family – for example plants in the tomato, daisy and cabbage families. I tell beginners to give the plant a rub and sniff because even if you don’t know its identity you’ll record that smell in your memory bank. 

I think you need the combination of formalised [botany] learning, which tragically is getting harder and harder to get in this country, with the experiential thing of mooching around and looking at plants with other people. Learning how to use a hand lens properly too can open your perspective and looking at hairs and curly bits on fruit is an engaging experience.

I expect a big challenge for me will be starting off with autumn and winter and in the context of Coronavirus. What would you do?

As you live in South London, the first thing I would say is to visit the South London Botanical Institute as it has marvellous literature resources. 

One of the good things about living in London is, because of the heat island effect in Inner London, a lot of the weedy things are still functioning [in winter] and start re-functioning very early in spring. It will be the same if you nip out to the south coast. But the reality is the opportunity for easy plant identification will be reduced by the absence of flowers and fruits in a few months time.

There are two things which I know I’m particularly weak on, plant families and the names of plant parts for using keys. I thought I could work on those over winter?

Yes, though keying out plants to families is super challenging. I’d also reverse it and pick a plant you already know, say Groundsel, find a botany book that you’re comfortable with, go straight to the Senecio genus key and use it to identify the plant. The benefit of this is you’ll start to learn the language by applying it to a plant you understand. Try it with Francis Rose (The Wildflower Key) and then Stace (New Flora of the British Isles). That will help you understand the different terminology and plurality of the way the people describe things. Stace’s keys tend to rely heavily on quite precise measurements, which can be incredibly difficult in the field, whereas Francis Rose’s keys are more intuitive and field oriented. 

I’d also strongly suggest asking for the Kew publication Plants of the World by Mark Chase, Maarten Christenhusz and Mike Fay for Christmas. It’s beautifully illustrated and a superb summary of vascular plant diversity around the world. It’s written in plain English with lots of really good information on ethnobotany. I would recommend it or anybody who’s really into plants and botany.

If anything, COVID may be a bigger inhibitor than the seasons. As soon as the London Natural History Society’s field trips kick off again, you need to get out there with the botany section and also the ecology and entomology section, as many of the people in there are pretty savvy when it comes to plants. London is handy in that we can normally go and find stuff to look at most times of the year. 

You are very lucky that you have the South London Botanical Institute nearby. Once you’ve been trained how to use herbarium specimens properly you ideally need to be able to look at them with hand lenses. They are a good proxy in the absence of the real thing and once you’ve got over seeing them as scorched dead things.

If you are on Twitter, then I’d also recommend you follow botanist Sophie Leguil (More than Weeds) and Wildflower Hour.

Thank you so much Mark for all this great advice, and thanks for agreeing to be one of my informal mentors for this year of botanical learning.

Illustration copyright Quadrille Publishing. Murder Most Florid by Dr Mark A. Spencer (Quadrille, £16.99)