Books: Woodland Wild Flowers by Waterman

From Living Woods issue 60

Ecologists ROY AND KATHRYN NELSON assess a richly illustrated guide to woodland wild flowers

Alan Waterman
Merlin Unwin Books
256 pages
ISBN: 978-1-913159-25-2

The challenge that woodland wild flowers pose to the observer is that there is an abundance of different species. So, the identification of these woodland plants can be confusing and challenging due to similarities of their shape, size and colour. They can grow in specific locations, with some being plentiful whilst others are rare. Although we may be lucky enough to discover them, we often do not have the skills to identify them. This is a great pity, for many of them are extraordinarily beautiful and are part of our natural heritage. Woodland Wild Flowers by Alan Waterman assists in the identification of these unique plants. The book is richly illustrated with a range of photographs of 170 species.

The flower descriptors in the book are seasonally organized to help the casual plant hunter throughout the year. Although the book is not a comprehensive list of all the plants that may be encountered, it does describe many that grow in woodland settings. These are described with informative background details along with their accompanying photographs. The book is relatively large, so it is not pocket friendly and therefore does not lend itself to being a field guide.

The short summaries on the woodland flowers sometimes, but not always feature the plant’s ecosystem. A more detailed indication of the flower’s associated tree cover and geographical distribution would be helpful. This additional information perhaps could have been more fully explored. Unfortunately, some of the photographs do not show the plants in their natural woodland settings. Also, the information at the back of the book on subjects such as hedges, soil, pollen analysis, and how to age trees is interesting but appears to lack coherence with the rest of the book.

The non-native plants have been described similarly to the native species. Although they are often naturalized in woodlands and regularly found, Alan Waterman does not fully indicate that they are changing the ecology of the woods. The native species are part of the complex ecosystem, whereas the ‘exotics’ have the potential to disrupt this delicately balanced food web. Nevertheless, this is a useful book which gives the flower hunter an insight into the diversity of our natural environment and it encourages an appreciation of the rich biome of our wonderful woodlands.

A former teacher, enthusiastic and award-winning blogger and keen ecologist, Alan Waterman has merged his skills and experience to produce his first book, Woodland Wild Flowers.

Why did you decide to write the book?
I’m a keen photographer and can see no point in simply photographing things just for the sake of it. Years ago, long before the advent of the internet, we lived in Spain and I really enjoyed photographing the local flora and fauna. I made a scrapbook of my prints, which are a little discoloured now, but that’s where it began. I want people to see my work, and these days blogging makes it easy. Family and friends have been really encouraging.

I was a biology teacher and for many years ran a field studies centre in Norfolk for A-Level pupils. The ecology element of school curricula is often overlooked and our courses, which we ran in a converted pub on the banks of the Great Ouse, fulfilled a real need. The urge to impart information never really goes away.

Your book began life as a record of flora in your woodland. Tells us about your wood
Catbrook Wood is a six-acre plot within a larger plantation called Ninewells Wood in south Wales and we purchased it in 2013. It was a mixture of mature Corsican pine and native species, but it quickly became clear that the pine was suffering from Red Needle Blight (Dothistroma Needle Blight, or DNB), so, having taken professional advice, we arranged to have it felled. From the start I made careful records of the species of trees, plants and animals that were in both Catbrook and the wider area of Ninewells Wood. We went on to replant the wood with oak, beech and hazel, most grown from seeds collected no more than 10 miles from the wood. Silver birch naturally regenerated, we made paths and have really increased the biodiversity of the whole area. Any wild flowers were either already there and lying dormant in the soil or they were brought in naturally on the wind or the fur of a visiting fox. I started to record the wild flowers that popped up: rose bay willow herb, foxglove, heather, ragged robin and many others.

I extended my recording to cover woodland wild flowers growing in neighbouring woods along the Wye Valley and in the Forest of Dean and devoted a section of this blog to the flowers, calling it ‘Woodland wild flowers of the Wye Valley’. As the area includes 80% of all the species in the UK, it was not a huge jump to embark on a book that covered wild flowers for the whole of the UK.

How did you get your work published?
I was encouraged by folks saying how interesting they found some of the stuff I was writing and was really pleased to win an award from for my blog. The wild flower blog was a more ambitious project as it included other stuff apart from just the flowers, such as information about the evolution of plants, the woodland environment, and the age of trees. I began to fill in the gaps in my photographic collection to include the missing 20% of woodland plants.

I was lucky to find the specialist publishers Merlin Unwin and sent them a sample in December 2018. Months went by and they asked for some more photographs. As it turned out, my photos of the rare plants were not too bad and what needed improving was the more common plants as I had rather overlooked them. Of course, Covid was no barrier to this, as those commonly occurring plants were all growing fairly close to home.

Eventually, once the contents were finalised, we signed a contract in autumn 2020 and the book was published in May.