There are glorious quests that change the course of history and there are personal ones that change one’s perspective.

Chasing the Ghost falls firmly in the second category. Peter Marren, a botanist and researcher, set out on what began as the search for all of Britain’s wildflowers in one year. Wisdom and the realization that one couldn’t possibly cover each and every one, specially given that most bloom at around the same time – but at vastly spread-out spots  – he whittled the list down to 50.

What I found fascinating is that many of the garden flowers we now take for granted have rare relatives, some on the list of wild flowers that are endangered. These include the pasqueflower, Jacob’s Ladder, Star-of-Bethlehem, Solomon’s seal, lungwort, rock crescent and Tasteless Water-pepper, (it’s version in my garden has no less an intriguing name – persicaria bistarta or snake root), all of which are favourites in my garden.

It’s a marvellous record of which plant he found where, with a very generous acknowledgment of who helped him find it. Not just in name and date, but with a little back-story about the person. For botanists, as he points put, are generous by nature and eager to share their knowledge.

He succeeded in finding all but a very few but because these included the one he wanted most of all, the elusive Ghost Orchid, he concludes, “so I failed”. But by the end of the year, he was looking at things differently.

Maybe I will see all the wild flowers before I die, or there again maybe not. But in future I will go at my own pace. I will take my time. If I ever do see a Ghost, it will be a new experience, not a codicil to a failed quest.

About plants and the people who love them, and partly autobiographical, the book is also about the environment, about what we are doing to natural habitats, and about how we view life. It is a reminder that to engage with wild flowers all we need to do is look around us and enjoy what we see.

They have wonderful names and intriguing back-stories and, unlike garden flowers, they don’t cost anything (seeing beauty in a weed can change your life – and the way you garden).

While I can claim some knowledge of plants and their names, I have to confess that I don’t know my trees.

In fact, where trees are concerned, I am much like my neighbour who was once asked what that shrub in front of their home was called. “Um...bush?” he ventured, before calling me over to help identify the euonymus.

Oh, I know the maples and the silver birches, and take immense joy in the budding of crabapples, but the rest? I clump them under coniferous or evergreens and vow to get to know them better. Only, I never seem to get around to doing so and had to take an arborist’s help to identify the tree in our backyard when we moved some years ago. It was a linden, I learned, and looked up some of its very interesting history. But that remained the extent of my knowledge.

And so when I see a book  described as The Definitive Guide to Britain’s 100 Best Trees, I have to get my paws on it.


It’s the only guide you will need to help you identify our most popular trees as you wander through the beautiful woodlands and gardens of Britain, says the blurb on the jacket. I read it and sigh, as I’m not likely going to be doing any wandering in Britain’s woodlands any time soon. However, since we share many trees, I find the bite-sized descriptions and tips on how to identify trees a valuable source of information.

The trees will soon be budding in our neck of the woods and I am looking forward to getting to know firs and cedars, larks and spruce on a first name basis.

• Chasing the Ghost by Peter Marren, Square Peg, $35.99

• Westonbirt Arboretum’s Tree Spotter’s Guide by Dan Crowley, Ebury Press, $18.99

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