Over the last few months, I’ve been talking to a number of botanists about how to become a better one over a year starting September 2020. As well as being incredibly generous with their time, the one thing they’re all pretty much agreed on is that you learn best out in the field with other botanists. During winter that’s usually more of a challenge and with the pandemic restrictions it’s now a real problem. While I’ve become a member of a number of botany related organisations (1), they’ve all suspended field meetings for the time being, with the exception of the South London Botanical Institute who are still running socially-distanced plant walks when lockdown easing allows.

So I asked the botanists what they would do if they were me to make the most of these exceptional circumstances. Not surprisingly they’ve come up with lots of different but not mutually exclusive ideas including:

  • learn key characteristics of relevant plant families
  • learn botanical vocab for using identification keys
  • learn from identification book illustrations
  • join botanical societies and Facebook groups and read the newsletters and field reports
  • follow #wildflowerhour on Twitter
  • visit habitats at different times of year and keep working on identification, checking with online botanists when I get stuck
  • make use of online learning

As a person who loves a chart and an ex-teacher, I’ve put all these together into a learning plan and I’m having a lovely time. I’m swapping flashcards one minute with my fourteen year old (she’s learning physics, I’m doing plant families), then I’m off on a botanical expedition to the Thames estuary before signing on for a video on sedge identification.

As I’m trying to learn as much as I can in a year, I need my learning to be as efficient as possible. To help with that I’ve been drawing on the current thinking about effective learning in Benedict Carey’s 2015 book How we Learn: Throw out the rule book and unlock your brain’s potential. It’s mind-blowing to find out that being asked a question about something you haven’t learnt yet helps you learn it in the future.

I’ve also narrowed down a number of botany themes which I’m particularly interested in researching and writing about, namely urban weeds, grasses and grasslands, wetlands/aquatics and coastal plants. These all seem particularly relevant given I live in the south east and within easy reach of the coast.

To justify the working time I’m spending on this learning, I’m using it as material for pitching and nature and environment writing.

(1) I’ve joined the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (£35), London Natural History Society (£20), South London Botanical Institute (£18), Wildflower Society (£10), Sussex Botanical Recording Society (£8), Surrey Botanical Society (£5) and the Kent Botanical Recording Group (free) so £96 in total which I will claim as expenses against my (currently miniscule) writing earnings.