By Richard Mabey, published by Sinclair Stephenson at £30. Hardback, c500pp. ISBN: 1-85619-3772. (Reviewed by Gordon the Toad)
Here is a feast for you! A story of plants reaching from ancient horsetails (use them for scrubbing pots and suits of armour) through ferns ("Dead bracken, shoved up the chimney and ignited, sets light to the soot and saves bothering with sweeps") and conifers, onto flowering plants and ending among the orchids (some juicy morsels: Military orchids were once known as Soldiers' Cullions - and you will have to go and work out what that means!). This is not another "how to identify flowers" book, nor is it yet another herbal/magical herbal/plants for incense and healing book. Flora Britannica is more extensive and personal than any of these and perhaps more special. The text is shaped around the where and when of different plants - where they grow, when they flower, their history in this land, but it grows outwards from there.
There are wonderful extracts from the work of early naturalists - Gerard's Soldiers' Cullions for example - and reports of historical uses of plants. In compiling the Flora, Mabey however turned to a modern population and invited contributions from anyone about plants they knew, used, loved or hated and out of these responses come the most exciting aspects of the book. Touching weed and rarity alike, there is a huge range of material here: local names, older uses, modern uses, new games, anecdotes of childhood delights and adult pleasures. Evidence of a healthy and evolving relationship between ourselves and the plants around us.
It makes fascinating reading and the gaps are almost as intriguing as the entries. There is little of magic here: little of the sacred in the modern entries. The enchantment is more reflective - looking back at earlier times. The faeries seem to have withdrawn as well. Bluebell woods are places of pleasure: the faerie risks of walking among bluebells, or of straying into a cut oak grove, seem to have faded. There are exceptions of course, and the section on the hawthorn is especially interesting. Respect there is, however, both for the majesty and presence of trees like yews and for the delicacy and beauty of smaller flowers.
Expensive but every substantial - nearly 500 large and colourful pages and an invaluable addition to your bookshelf. Shop around if you want to get a copy: I got mine at a discount through a magazine and I have seen it down to £20 in some big bookshops.