Chasing the Ghost: my search for all the wild flowers of Britain

Published on 17 January 2019 in Book reviews

By Peter Marren

Square Peg, 2018; hbk, 310pp; line-drawings; ISBN 978-1-910931-11-0

£16.99 buy it from the BB Bookshop

This engaging book tells the story of the author’s summer-long quest to track down the last 50 plants to have eluded him in a lifetime of botanising. It is broken down into short chapters describing the hunt for each of the species in turn.

As an ornithologist, I’ll grudgingly admit that botanising comes across rather well in this book. There is, of course, the listing element and with rather more species to go at than is true for birds. The botanical community seems unfailingly friendly and helpful judging by the support he receives throughout his travels. And, excepting the occasional rogue deer or slug (or rock fall), you can be fairly sure a plant will still be where it is supposed to be when you arrive, though that doesn’t always guarantee success. Plant ‘twitching’ seems to have a gentle pace to it and it comes across as rather more considered and, dare I say it, more intelligent than some aspects of birding. There is time to linger and fully appreciate what is in front of you. And an appreciation of plants leads to an understanding of the habitats they are part of, a connection that isn’t always so readily apparent when chasing after rare birds.  

I read this book in part because I aspire to get better with wild plants, though the realistic limit of my ambition is to get to know the main families and the more obvious or interesting species. I hadn’t heard of many of the plants in this book and yet it didn’t matter. The rare species are compared and contrasted with their more common relatives and you get a real feel for how different types of wild flower make their living, and the increasing challenges they face. The writing is of the highest quality with an enviable light touch and a stoic humour that helps see him through a few scrapes and some unexpectedly poignant moments as the quest nears its conclusion.  

Ian Carter