Wildflowers Matter: Leif Bersweden Tells Us Why We Shouldn’t Take Them For Granted
Begin to understand the important world of the UK’s wildflowers, how they’re at risk, and what you can do to help them. We speak to author and expert Leif Bersweden.
As we are exploring the theme of conservation in this quarter’s Sea Change, what better way to explore the British landscape than with expert Leif Bersweden.
Leif is an established author of British and Irish botany, with his most recent book titled Where The Wildflowers Grow focusing on his wildflower-identification based journey around the UK within the space of a year.
With the aim to encourage others to appreciate wildflowers as much as he does, he endeavours to make botany more accessible as well as engaging - through mediums like plant identification training courses and his own YouTube channel.
Leif grew up in rural Wiltshire and it is through his own curiosity as a child that his love for nature flourished. When asked about his earliest memories of nature, he recalled his adventures with his dad and their makeshift catching net:
“We used to go out to the field behind the house and sweep it through the long grass in the summer, and collect all sorts of little insects and spiders and things. Then, we’d put them in little tubes to identify and let them back into the garden again.”
He also recalls a fond memory of barn owls:
“I must’ve been seven, or eight years old maybe, and I worked out where they were nesting - which tree they were in. And I used to go and sit 30 metres away and watch them through my binoculars and see these little chicks’ faces staring out of the hole in this tree.”
Studying botany isn't always best for plant lovers
His curiosity around nature grew and developed into his later years, where he went on to study his PhD on ‘Species Integrity and Gene Flow in Anthropomorphic Orchis species’ at Kew Gardens.
While education allowed him to gain a better understanding of plant functions, learning about plants can be inaccessible and detached.
“It made me really appreciate the importance of including emotion when studying nature. I think the world of academia can be, while being important, dry and rational. As important as that is, it is crucial to include the emotion.
“The important thing at the moment is to get people interested, or at least appreciative of the importance of nature, and the only way I think that you can do that is including a sort of empathy with nature.”
Leif is also currently reading Braiding Sweetgrass, a book of essays recommended in our Think Green: 13 Books To Read On Permaculture, which also explores the disconnect between nature and people while learning about botany academically.
“What I’m trying to do now, and what I’m trying to build my career on, is to be that kind of bridge between science and the general public.
To try and get across all the important messages of science and all the important research that is going on in an accessible way - while including all that important level of emotion that gets people excited and enthusiastic about things.”
How we can appreciate wildflowers more
Leif strongly defends wildflowers against the common perception that they are, alongside other plants, boring.
“There are so many of these incredible plants that do all sorts of brilliant things to survive - many of which animals do as well, although they have the added complication of being rooted to the spot.”
In what ways do you think we take wild flowers, and other plants, for granted?
“There’s this assumption in society that plants are boring - and this is generalising massively - because they don't move so therefore we don’t pay them any attention.
“We do take them for granted, because there is so much joy to be found in looking at plants, so much we can learn from them and we tend to just ignore them - and that’s just sad.
“It’s an issue that stems from education and things.”
How do you think children could be inspired by nature?
“Firstly, getting kids outside as much as possible and letting them explore. Again, it goes back to what I was saying earlier: there’s nothing better than being outside, seeing these things for yourself, engaging with them.”
“I very firmly believe that every child is born with an innate interest in the natural world. Give a kid a dandelion clock to blow, or a worm to hold, and they’re just fascinated - before anyone can influence them.”
“It’s so sad to see but as kids grow up, generally any interest is stamped out.”
“Last year I saw a kid pick up a conker, and his mum was like ‘No, don’t do that, it’s dirty.’ It’s things like that that are just awful to see. As soon as you stamp that out, they learn that nature is something dirty and not something to be engaged with.”
“Just getting kids outside, introduce them to a hedgerow and get them to identify all the leaf shapes, and all the plants climbing up the hedgerow - exploring the hedgerow - have a look at all the insects feeding on the flowers.”
“Just look at all this other life that we share the planet with, and see what it’s doing. You can just get lost in these worlds.”
Secondly, bring nature into the classroom:
“It’s actually more subtle, but to put plants in classrooms and get students to look after them.”
“When kids are given the responsibility of looking after another organism, they learn that it’s alive and what it needs to live. Kids learn animals are alive long before they learn plants are alive.”
“In a day and age where people live in cities, in environments that still have nature in them but that nature doesn’t dominate the landscape in the same way that it did in the past.”
Kids learn animals are alive long before they learn plants are alive
Ultimately, by interacting with nature more in person rather than in a book or screen, Leif believes it can encourage more intimate relationships between the individual and nature.
“Again, they’re an external thing looking in. You need to, to properly appreciate it, there’s nothing like getting out into the garden, or field, or woods - even just having a look at the wall in your local town.”
How wildflowers are threatened
Leif elaborates that we have a societal fascination with ‘tidiness’, that damages not only people’s relationship with wild flowers and the natural environment, but also physically damages the plant life.
“Big factors are overgrazing by deer and sheep. We have ten times as many deer as we would have naturally in this country, and we have so many sheep.
The problem with those two is that they eat very selectively, because they have small mouths, so they pick out all the really palatable things which tend to be the wildflowers, and then leave very tough things.
“So in the uplands, for example, you end up with these environments, these mountainous hillsides, which tend to be just one or two species - very, very specious poor - when they should naturally have all sorts of things growing there. And, of course, the more different species of plants you have, the more the different species of everything else you have.”
“Also applications of herbicides and fertilisers. So in an arable setting, in the crop fields you’re killing off all the arable plants that have made the environment their home. So you just get these monocultures with basically nothing else growing.”
“Arable weeds are annual plants. They go through their entire lifecycle in one year: so they germinate, flower, set seeds, spread their seeds, and then die. So if they come up, they flower, and then get killed off by herbicide, they then don’t have a chance to replace themselves in the seed bank.
“So those natural populations get whittled down and die out because more herbicide is added to the soil. But these issues with herbicides and fertilisers extend beyond arable land. Again with climate change, we are getting more storm weather - any kind of heavy rain will wash fertilisers off the land.
“So the surrounding land will get enriched in high nutrients. It sounds counterintuitive, but high nutrient levels in the soil is actually really bad for plant diversity because there are only a few species that are really, really good at gobbling up all the nutrients from the soil. So they just really quickly take all of the nutrients out of the soil, grow really big, outcompete everything else, and you just get these environments where there are lots of nettles, thistles, and big grasses.”
How do you think climate change will affect our landscapes?
“So, climate change is already here. I noticed it particularly in a few different places on my trip. The first was in the grasslands on the heath of the New Forest. They’re dry places anyway, the lowland heath, and I was looking at field gentians which are small purple-flowered plants and they really like growing in this heathland environment. They really like the New Forest, there’s lots of populations there, but they are declining.
“Whenever there’s a year with a heatwave in the summer, they don’t produce any flowers. It looks like as temperatures rise over the coming years, we’re going to see a reduction in the field gentian populations - this extends to other populations as well.
“Natural selection doesn't have the benefit of foresight - we know the change is coming but they don’t. So the difficulty in trying to conserve plants like that is they want to do one thing, but you know that climate change is going to change things - or it is changing things.
“So, you want to look after the habitats so that it benefits them in the future, but actually in the present it doesn’t do that much for them. So it’s this constant battle between trying to protect plants knowing what’s coming, and trying to do the best for them.”
“Our mountains are home to this group of plants called the arctic alpines, which grow traditionally mostly either in the Arctic or in the European mountain ranges.”
“Occasionally in the middle, like in Scotland’s mountains, you get these plants as well. By definition, they like cold places so they live high up on the mountains where it’s colder, and as the climate warms they are migrating up the mountains to try and keep that band of cold that they like. Of course, a mountain stops at some point.”
“The climate is only going to get warmer faster, so I’m expecting an acceleration in the decline of these things.”
“They don’t deserve this: as individual species, you know, I think all species matter ultimately. But, they can also do so much for us in terms of inspiring - they’re these beautiful, rare plants - and they can inspire a passion for nature, and if we lose them we lose ways to engage people.”
“There’s nothing quite like seeing someone’s nature-joy, when they find something really rare or something they wanted to see for ages.”
What challenges do conservationists face?
“There are lots of different problems in the world. The thing that springs to mind here is when I went to a place called Catfield Fen in Norfolk.
“Water was being drawn from the table to be spread across crop fields in Norfolk. And this was drying the fen out, which was massively starting to reduce biodiversity there.
“But it’s this difficult situation where you’ve got these farmers who need to irrigate their crops, you’ve got other people’s livelihoods, and you’re trying to, as a conservationist, protect this precious bit of nature. And that’s one of the best sites in Norfolk for wildlife.”
“I find it really difficult when trying to talk about road verges and ‘weeds in the street’, because we have this tidy mentality, where everything has to be nicely mown, and neat and tidy, with no weeds or anything like that - which is completely bizarre to me. I don’t understand why people don’t like more colour in the world, and life, and all these wonderful things.
“It’s tricky facing that mentality as a conservationist as it is constant, and it’s a massive uphill battle. That’s particularly a problem nowadays, as gardens and streets and road verges are becoming these incredibly important habitats with pockets of biodiversity. Now that a lot of the countryside is being ploughed up and destroyed, these places are now so important as little refuges for nature.”
- Read more about this in our feature Nature Is A Human Right: Resistance Is Fertile
Wildflowers Grow - the book
Leif discusses Where the Wildflowers Grow: My Botanical Journey Through Britain and Ireland, where he explores household names of the plant world, like bluebells and daisies, but also the wacky and wonderful plants that no one seems to know about…
How would you describe your book?
“The book is narrative nonfiction, and it’s aimed at the general public. I would absolutely love it if people who aren’t really interested in nature would read it, it would be brilliant; but I think my biggest target audience is people who are already interested in nature, love animals, but kind of dismiss the plants and don’t really think much of them.”
“I feel like those who love animals, butterflies, whatever it may be, would also love plants if there was just the right way in.”
“I’ve been a botanist for as long as I remember. I was very lucky because when I was growing up, I was just very obsessed. So, I was very happy to dive in at the deep end and start learning Latin names and little details of how to tell them apart from one another.
But I think that acts as a barrier to a lot of people. There’s not much in between just surface level, ‘I’m thinking about taking an interest’, and then the first step is straight into field guides. I suspect we lose quite a lot of people at that stage.”
“So what I wanted to do was to write a book that summarised, or encapsulated, a year of British and Irish botany.”
“What I did was I went on a series of adventures throughout 2021, on my bike. I botanised and plant-hunted all throughout the year, through all the seasons.”
“While visiting all these different habitats, finding the plants which define the habitats because I wanted to make it as accessible as possible. There are rare things in there, but it’s mainly just the common stuff which you’ll find in the habitats you go to.”
“All along the way, I met with people who have some kind of connection to their local flora, and went plant-hunting with them and chatted to them about why they liked hunting for wildflowers.”
“Really capturing the joy, positivity, and emotion that you can experience from just being outside looking at wildflowers. And trying to sort of capture our contemporary relationship with British and Irish wild plants - and what intertwined our lives with theirs in the first place.”
Of course, Leif’s book is all about encouraging everyone to experience and appreciate wildflowers. Here are some of his recommendations on what to look out for and where to go.
What’s the easiest ‘root’ into nature?
“At the end of the day, the best thing to do is to just go and look at it. We rush through our lives, and we’re so busy all the time (myself included), and sometimes we forget to just stop, slow down, and just look at things - look at life living.
My favourite thing to do is to find a meadow, or a mossy wall, and just sit in front of it and watch life do its thing. You just get lost in other worlds that we’re completely unaware of in our day-to-day lives, just going along beside us.”
What 3 places in the UK would you recommend for people to visit, and in what season?
Micheldever Woods, Hampshire (Spring)
"It’s this amazing wood, where the beech trees grow at least 20 metres into the sky before they start branching out, so you’ve got these very tall trees and very little growing underneath them (in terms of shrubs) - and then just bluebells.”
“With the sunlight coming through the fresh and new green leaves, and you’ve just got that sea of purple underneath.
Ben Lawers National Nature Reserve, Perthshire (Summer)
It is one of the best places for mountain wildflowers in the country. It has Scotland’s tenth highest mountain, one of their Munros.
It has this weird geography where at the top of the mountain they’ve got this layer of micashist, which is very calcareous. This combination of calcium in the rock and the altitude is perfect for all sorts of rare mountain plants.
When you get to the top, you’re in the cloud - unless it's a sunny day, obviously - and you’ve got all these colourful wildflowers growing around on the rocks.
You get saxifrages, and you get forget-me-nots. I had this amazing encounter with alpine forget-me-nots up there. It’s one of the only places in the country where they grow - and they’re declining because of climate change. It’s one of those flowers that I’ve always wanted to see, so when I found it, it really was the most exciting thing.
Hardcastle Crags, Yorkshire (Autumn)
You can’t really beat an autumn woodland. It’s like this rocky valley, but woodland. It's a place I visited a lot in my teenage years.
It’s just stunning; the combination of the river at the bottom of the valley, steep sides, lots of mossy rocks everywhere, and then this incredible woodland which is all red and orange in October. It’s just magical.
What three wildflowers should we look out for this summer?
Urban environments, Leif recommends the ivy-leaved toadflax:
"If you live in a city, or a town, or any kind of built up environment that has walls or pavements, or even potentially your doorstep, you will find a plant called ivy-leaved toadflax.
It has these small, ivy-shaped leaves which are kind of the size of a five pence piece, and then these purple and red flowers. They look a bit like snapdragons.
When they flower, they lean towards the light and away from the wall and they stick out their necks as it were, so that they can’t be missed by the pollinators.
As soon as pollination has occurred, there’s a change of chemistry in the plant which makes the flower move away from the light. So, it bends back towards the wall, towards a crack or crevice, the darkest place it can, where it matures, produces seeds, and those seeds drop into those cracks.
So over time, the plant's offspring will move up the wall."
Grassy areas, Leif recommends common bird's foot trefoil:
“They start off as bright red buds that look a little bit like small, red bananas, and they open up, going orange as they open, and end up bright yellow.
“This is a really, really, really important plant as it supports 160 different invertebrate species that have evolved with it over millions of years.
“You’re very likely to have it on a lawn, or a local road verge, wherever they will most likely be nearby.”
“They’re really beautiful, creating carpets of yellow, as well as being so important for wildlife.”
“It’s got lots of local names all around the country, but my two favourites are ‘eggs and bacon’, which is a name given to it because of the red buds which are meant to be the bacon, and the yellow flowers which look like egg yolks.
“But then my favourite name for it is ‘granny’s toenails’ - which is so good - because their seed pods are all long and wrinkly, and look like really long toenails. Which is really gross, but I love it - I love that someone came up with that name.”
Freshwater areas, Leif recommends water-crowfoots:
“They are aquatic buttercups. So they grow in rivers, streams, ponds, lakes, any kind of water body really.”
“They have buttercup flowers basically, so five petals that stick up out of the water, but only the base of the petals are yellow while the rest of them are white. They are a sign of healthy water.”
“They have two different leaf types. So, they’ll have underwater leaves which are really fine, and thread-like, and they have these surface leaves that are almost like lily pads - they sit on the surface, small, green leaves that are flat.”
“What [the stream water-crowfoot] does is it can alternate the ratio of these two leaf types: when it’s in a fast-flowing stream, it tends to predominantly have the long underwater streamer leaves as the surface ones are more likely to get damaged.”
Understand that they too are living, breathing creatures. They fight battles, compete for food, and interact with each other, as animals do
Leif gives us his recommendations as to where we can go to learn more, and about some exciting projects for the future.
Who should we follow on social media?
Donna Rainey - @donnarainey4 on Twitter
“She inherited this field which is her dad’s, when her dad died, which had been covered in chemicals for forty years, used to create silage for livestock. So it was basically just one species of rye grass growing in this field.
“And she took the field and within a few years, she had managed it as a wildflower meadow. So what she does is she lets it grow throughout the summer, cuts it in August through to September time, removes all the grass cuttings, and does a little bit of grazing through the winter to let it grow again in the summer.
“And by removing all the cuttings, and getting all the animals to eat things over winter, it reduces the nutrient levels in the soil and encourages biodiversity.
“She’s showing how people can turn very down - trodden environments into these beautiful paradises in a short period of time - because all of what she’s doing can be translated into your own garden.”
Lee Schofield - @leeinthelakes on Twitter
“In the Lake District there was Lee Schofield who is part of the RSPB team at Haweswater near Penrith, and what they’re doing is they are transforming the land into a farmed landscape that is beneficial to nature. So they show that it is economically sustainable to farm the land, in a farming sense, while also protecting nature on it and letting nature thrive in that land.
“Doing all this amazing stuff for nature, while at the same time showing that you can make money.”
Dominic Price - @speciesrecovery on Twitter
“Director of the species recovery trust, which is a small charity based in Salisbury and they are doing wonderful things looking after the rarest, most at risk plants and animals in England and Wales.
“Things that grow or live one and two locations, generally, that are really at the brink of extinction in this country, and they are just trying to get those populations back to a point where they’re a lot more stable, where they can look after themselves, and so they aren’t forgotten about.”
What is your message for the people reading this?
“My main message is that we have this unbelievable diversity of plants growing wild in this country, and they're taken for granted because people often don’t know about them or switch off when people start to talk about plants - because they don’t move very quickly or whatever. But if you stop and look, and begin to learn about the incredible things that plants do, facing all the same problems animals face with the added complication of being rooted to the spot - it’s just fantastic.
“It just gives me so much joy. I know it give others joy because I’ve introduced other people to plants and you just see the amazement on their faces when they learn that ‘this plant does this thing to survive’, or that ‘this one travels through an entire woodland throughout the course of a year’, or ‘eats insects’ or ‘generates heat’ or ‘mind controls ants’. Plants do all these things.”
“Think about plants in the same way you do animals. Understand that they too are living, breathing creatures. They fight battles, compete for food, and interact with each other, as animals do. Yeah, they might do it a bit slower, but they still do all these things.
“If you can: don’t take plants for granted, give them a chance as they can really surprise you.”
So let’s all take a second, notice and appreciate the plants that make up our landscape that much more beautiful and brilliant.
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