Book Review: Gardening: Wild Flowers

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Gardening Wild Flowers
Sarah Raven (Bloomsbury, £50, *£40)

Good books on the British flora generally fall into one of two categories: readily portable field guides, and larger books of drawings ideal for double-checking in the evening. This book is neither. It is big, heavy and 2in thick, and will fit into no glovebox known to me. Do not think, however, that this rules out its utility.

The whole volume radiates knowledge built up over years of determined fieldwork, knowledge of a kind that will surely satisfy instinctive cynics. Covering everything from the mountain pansies of Upper Teesdale to the navelwort of Cornish hedges, the book carries the authentic stamp of personal experience tempered by expert understanding and, most elusively, the unmistak-able thrill of discovery.

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Sarah Raven chooses to organise the content not by botanical family, but by habitat, so that we begin with woodland flowers and progress through hedgerows, meadows and so forth to the coast. This is an excellent method, and makes the volume of real use.

However, there is more than mere usefulness here. The descriptions combine the truth of observation it is, indeed, the case that the glorious scent of the sweet violet can only be appreciated by lying down and placing your nose immediately above it-with the kind of energetic, spontaneous prose that strikes a chord with the fellow enthusiast. A flush of wood anemone, for instance, reminds the author of ‘a group of five-year-old girls in their tutus, going off to their first ballet lesson’, and ‘If wild flowers had a beauty parade, honeysuckle would win Miss British Isles’.

Refreshingly, the author is also unafraid to include such controversial incomers as giant hogweed and Spanish bluebell, according them their worth as established features of the countryside, without failing to note their unwelcome qualities. And who else would recommend dock for flower arranging?
Jonathan Buckley’s excellent photographs strike a desirable balance between close-up detail and the wider context. There are several complementary indices at the back. All in all, this is a successful attempt to produce a book on a tricky subject that answers the age-old demand for things that are both useful and beautiful.