Leif's Wildflower Journey

Leif Beresweden, Springwatch's resident botanist on wildflowers, Wigtown and why plants matter.

7 August 2023
Leif bersweden is hugging a tree and smiling.

When did you start writing?

I've been writing most of my life. I spent most of my childhood obsessed with nature. When I got home, at the end of the day, I would consolidate my memories of the exciting encounters with nature by writing about them. I have notebooks going back years, like diaries or a nature journal. I used to give typed up versions to my parents for Christmas.

Then when I was 19 I travelled around Britain and Ireland to try and find all 52 species of wild orchid in one summer. I wrote a book which got published as The Orchid Hunter. And now there’s Where the Wildflowers Grow which I’ll be talking about at Wigtown.

Tell us a little about Where the Wildflowers Grow

I realised that a lot of initial interest in botany coming through social media or public talks didn’t stand much of a chance when the next step was the identification guides, all full of jargon, Latin names and an overwhelming number of species.

I thought that a lot of people would go to these and think “Nah, I can't handle it”. So I wanted to write a book that acted as a gateway into the world of British and Irish plants. Something that would engage people's emotions.

For me a huge part of looking at nature is the joy and the excitement that I feel. That’s before we get to any of the cool science stuff.

So I went on a year-long adventure around the country, in all seasons and habitats, literally starting on 1 January, and working through to New Year's Eve.

And along the way, I met with people who had connections to their local flora, went plant hunting with them and chatted to them about why they like looking for wildflowers. So I got a real range of perspectives.

Why are people often more interested in animals and birds than plants?

We grow up learning that plants are boring – perhaps because they don’t move much. In school I remember biology teachers saying to the class “I know you don't like it, but to do the animals we have to cover the plants”. But this just acts as a barrier to us learning about all the amazing things plants do and all the incredible stories they have to tell.

We're taught that plants are passive. We never question what plants can do.

So what do you say to enthuse people out about plants?

I just try and tell their stories. Just here in Britain and Ireland we have plants that generate heat, eat animals, and that mimic insects to get pollinated - like exploiting the sexual desire of male bees and all sorts of weird and wacky things.

Plants are just as alive, crafty, devious and determined as animals. They do all the same things though they move at a different pace – the drama is there.

What are a couple of your favourite British plants?

One is called water soldier. It grows in shallow water - ponds and lakes. It has spiky leaves, like a pineapple, and these have air pockets that allow it to float, with its roots dangling down to the bottom. In summer it produces three-petalled white flowers to get pollinated. But winter ice could really damage it. So once its pollinated the leaves die back allowing it to sink. It bides its time until spring and then it grows new leaves, these turn light into food and that generates oxygen, allowing it to float to the surface again.

Then there’s the sundew which eats animals. So it's got these spoon-shaped leaves covered in red tentacles. Each tentacle has a little globule of sticky liquid at the tip. When insects land they get stuck and struggle. That movement tells the plant where they are and it rolls the leaf up round them, releases digestive enzymes and breaks them down into fly soup which it then absorbs to fuel its own growth.

Are you worried about the loss of biodiversity in Britain?

Over the last 25 years I have read and had a lot of conversations about nature. In everything I've read, and every conversation I’ve had, issues like climate change, overgrazing, habitat loss and the application of herbicides and fertilisers have come up.

I thought I had a fairly good understanding of how bad the situation is for nature. But when I did the plant tour for the book I spent a year looking at the countryside and was shocked. Everywhere I went, Cornwall to Shetland, I saw utter ecological devastation. I had no idea how bad it was until I’d seen it for myself.

It's a depressing thing to hear. But it's a very important thing to hear. Because if we're living under the impression that it’s not that bad because we're saving the red kites and the swifts then that is not OK. There are small success stories here and there. But until we start treating the whole landscape as a place for nature, and incorporating nature into our way of living, nature will lose and we will lose as well.

What can reverse the decline?

Society can't continue in the way it's going. Nature isn't going to benefit from our current model of living. As an individual if you just talk to people, particularly friends and family who don't think about nature a lot, it can make a difference.

On the macro level, 70% of the UK is farmed. So it's the biggest thing which impacts on nature. I'm not a farmer, I don't know what it's like trying to grow food for a living so there are struggles I don't face and don't know about. But I've been looking at nature my entire life and know what healthy ecosystems look like. I know my plants and looking at most farmland I can see it is not very healthy when it comes to nature.

I'm currently researching and talking to farmers about how we can bring wild plants back into farmland. From what I have heard, it’s entirely possible to produce enough food while being nature friendly. But it needs societal change, to switch from a profit-making mindset to a looking-after-our-community's mindset.

Tell us about your Spring Watch involvement

Yes, I was the what they called their resident botanist for the series earlier this year. They got in touch and said the appetite for botany and wild plants had been growing, so they wanted to include some more.

I tried to bring the excitement I feel about plants, even everyday ones like daisies, foxgloves and forget-me-nots, to life. They do amazing things, but we walk past them. And when I talk to people about them, they're like “Whoa, I had no idea they did that”.

It makes me think it's not the plants that are boring it's the way we teach people about them.