I came across botanist ‘Dr M.’ online and have been making good use of his fantastic botany teaching materials for a while now.  It was great to catch up last week with Jonathan Mitchley himself, Associate Professor in Field Botany at Reading University. We talked about botany education, learning tips, plant identification apps and the Botanical University Contest which he co-founded with Dr John Warren (University of Aberystwyth).

Amanda: Thank you so much for finding time to talk to me, particularly as I expect you are incredibly busy with your students.

Jonathan: Things are a bit insane at the moment as we move to a mix of online and face to face teaching. I’m trying to arrange a COVID-safe coach trip for next week which would be great as the students have had no practical work for this whole term. They are doing what they can on their own but it’s difficult.

How did you become interested in botany?

At secondary school we had a young plant scientist for a biology teacher which was great and started my interest. I remember finding harebells on the farm we used to go to every summer and I did quite a bit of work at the local nature reserve when I was in secondary school. Studying botany was the only thing I wanted to do at university – I remember my mum worrying whether I’d get a job afterwards. I studied botany at Bangor and then did a PhD at Cambridge with Peter Grubb. After a couple of postdoctoral research placements, one at Utrecht in the Netherlands and one at Lancaster on maritime cliff vegetation, I got my first job at Wye College teaching ecology but focusing on plant ecology .

After Wye College was wound down [it was taken over by Imperial College], I moved to a new job at Reading where I was able to really develop my botany teaching. The interview itself included an exercise a bit like a FISC [Field Identification Skills Certificate] with a load of plants laid out in a lab for us to identify, and I really enjoyed that. Eight or nine years ago we started a new Masters here at Reading on species identification of plants and animals with the option of doing a placement with an ecological consultancy.  I run that Masters and teach the field botany elements of it.

Is the MSc course in species identification you run unique among UK universities in its amount of field botany?

It’s an interesting question about the whole business of particular plant degrees, because as I say, I did a degree in botany, originally, and you can’t get a degree called that now. It’s still around – there are fifteen universities teaching some botany plus Kew Gardens and the Eden Project – but there has been a decline without doubt. I think more plant-based stuff needs to be taught at universities

School teacher trainees are very important. We have an Institute of Education in Reading, and I talk on occasions to the biology teacher trainees. There is interest in plants but these days there are quite a lot of medics going into teaching biology, not usually botanists, so there’s some fear at the school level about teaching plant science.  And I think if you’re frightened of something, you’re probably not going to teach it very well. Unless the teacher is as enthusiastic about the plants as the animals, the students won’t be either. This is where the pipeline starts if we are to produce scientists that understand or at least appreciate plants.  And plants are so important for solving many of the problems we have: climate change, farming, desertification, deforestation, species extinction, flooding.

The BBC has a role too. I just watched the first part of the new Attenborough programme on colour where plants barely featured apart from butterflies and bees visiting flowers. Presumably the producers decided they couldn’t possibly do a programme about plants. But why do we have to have animals and plants separate? Why can’t we have documentaries that cover both? It’s just a shame because of the many millions of people who watch these. When I’ve asked school kids what their favourite plant is, it’s always the venus flytrap.

What advice would you give me for learning botany, particularly during Covid restrictions? Other botanists I’ve talked to have recommended learning identification glossaries, practicing identification from photographs, street botany and getting to grips with plant families. I’ve been using Harrap’s photographic guide and Rose and Stace for keys.

I’d recommend getting to know Poland and Clement’s Vegetative Key to the British Flora. It’s a bit of a Marmite book and some of my students never get on with it. But being able to go to Section F and find all the aquatics in one place, without having to work out their families, is really useful. The glossary will be quite different to the ones you’re using but it does include grasses and sedges too.  Once things come into flower then use flowering keys as well. The keys in Rose are particularly good and use Stace too. I get my students to use the family key in Stace.

I ask my MSc students to write their own key for common families. I do that with the teacher trainees as well. I give them a pile of plants, or a virtual pile of plants, to work on. Through writing keys you actually learn a lot of stuff, because it makes you really look at them. Keeping a notebook is good too, sticking things as you go along. The different things my students make to help them with identification, which I see when we are in the classroom together, really fascinate me.

I’d definitely use the Twitter community too. I posted a photo to get an id of an ash twig recently. One thing that I’m struggling with at the moment, is the rise of the online identification [apps] and I feel like a bit of a Luddite. I am changing my view though as all of my students use Google image search I’m sure. Have you come across PlantNet?

Yes but I haven’t used them. Perhaps I’m a Luddite too. I can see if you come to identify a plant with no knowledge of plant families or any idea of what group it belongs to they could be useful.  I’ve come to the conclusion over the last six months of learning botany that it would be better for me to spend time learning to recognise, for example, that a plant is a stitchwort and then use my keys to work out which stitchwort it is. Using an app like PlantNet would feel like it was negating what I was trying to achieve.

I think it really is helpful to be able to know what family something is and work from that. I looked at the PlantNet video recently. They are all botanists, it’s a citizen science project, and if it means more people appreciate plants that’s great. It might free up time for people to learn about plants rather than just putting a name to them for the sake of it, because what is the point of that. 

I came across the Botanical University Challenge for the first time this year and really enjoyed watching it last week (17th February). How did it start?

John Warren [from Aberystwyth University] and I had the idea a few years ago and the first one took place at Kew Gardens in 2016.  There were five teams that time. The second one was in 2019 at Reading and the third at Liverpool in 2020. We ran these ones using the University Challenge model with all the teams in one place and a starting gun.

Obviously this year was quite different but I think it went very well online. There were a few technical things which didn’t quite work but we had more teams (seventeen) than we could ever get in one place. The peak number of viewers was about 300 compared with the live version in Liverpool where we had no more than 100 in the audience. So we’re currently thinking about next year and wondering if we should have the first rounds online and then the final live. Even for the final we might have to have some teams on video if they’re coming from opposite ends of the country.  With online there’s even a possibility it could become international too.

I see it as a way of promoting or championing plants first and foremost, and it has to be fun – I wouldn’t want it to become too serious. I’m hoping even teams that got knocked out early on still enjoyed it.

Thank you so much, it’s been a pleasure talking to you.