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Bringing The Book of Wild Flowers to life

Posted on 07 Mar 2024

Wild flowers are some of the most beautiful and distinctive features of the British landscape, yet are easily overlooked. We asked the creators of 'The Book of Wild Flowers' how they approached writing about an unassuming and familiar gem: the dandelion.

© Angie Lewin. Island Summer. Screenprint, 2014. Wild carrot, devil’s-bit scabious and knapweed.

Printmaker Angie Lewin on capturing the essence of the dandelion

In a photograph of myself as a toddler, I’m sitting contentedly in a grassy field surrounded by daisies and buttercups. Memories of making daisy chains and blowing the downy parachutes from a dandelion ‘clock’ evoke the summer days of my childhood.

There’s a simplicity to the familiar egg yolk yellow of a dandelion flower and its deeply jagged leaves. However, once I began making sketches of this seemingly insignificant, possibly unglamorous, plant, it became an absorbing subject for my linocuts and wood engravings. There is a fascinating structure to the soft spherical seedhead formed from radiating parachutes of filaments, each of which will hold aloft a seed. The flower petals, with their flat, toothed tips, overlap to create a pattern, perfect to be cut with a gouge or engraving tool.

I don’t aim for botanical accuracy in my work but try to capture the essence of a plant. I often simplify whilst drawing out those elements that most define it for me. I am instinctively drawn to plants that thrive in adversity, whether thrift growing on an exposed rock on a Scottish beach or a dandelion valiantly emerging from a crack in a city pavement. This vital, colourful determination is so uplifting.

Writer Christopher Stocks on uncovering new surprises about a familiar plant

It’s easy to write about rare plants, but far more difficult to write about common ones like dandelions, which everyone knows and most people regard as a weed. They’ve been written about so often already that it would be easy to simply repeat some of the many stories that have been told about them before – such as the derivation of their name from the French ‘lion’s teeth’, for example, or the fact that you can use their leaves in a salad, or that their roots were dried and used as a (not terribly convincing) substitute for instant coffee during the Second World War.

What I enjoy most about writing is not the act of writing itself but the research that goes into it. I love discovering new facts and tracking down obscure books and academic papers, and it transpires that even dandelions have something surprising about them. They might all look the same, but there may actually be hundreds of different species or ‘microspecies’ in Britain – so many, in fact, that they challenge our whole conception of what a species is. It’s discoveries like these that makes being a writer worthwhile.

Dandelion: Taraxacum spp., extracted from The Book of Wild Flowers

At a certain point each spring, the eggy yellow of dandelions can be the commonest flowers of all. I’ve seen country hedge banks so thickly covered with them that the entire roadside shines gold. They are, of course, a garden weed, popping up apparently overnight in neglected corners, and they don’t seem to be especially welcome even among those who plant ‘wild flower’ meadows, but they’re an important source of nectar for many insects, while their seeds are eaten by birds and their leaves by rabbits and pigeons.

Dandelions are great survivors. Individual plants can live for well over ten years, and send down a tap root up to two metres long, which makes them well nigh impossible to dig up. Break the root off and they can regenerate, sending up new plants to replace the lost crown. Each plant can produce an average of around 3,000 seeds, most of which don’t require pollination to be fertile, and are ready to start growing in little more than a week.

Although they’re one of the few flowers that almost everyone can identify, dandelions are actually one of the most puzzling plants on the planet. They may be instantly identifiable by the most amateur gardener, but these apparently simple flowers are actually anything but. For, while they might look the same to you and me, there isn’t just one kind of dandelion; there are around 230 superficially similar-looking yet genetically distinct ‘microspecies’ in Britain alone, and it’s quite possible to discover eighty to a hundred different types in a single locality, assuming you know what you’re looking for.

Even the Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland admits that, along with hawkweeds and brambles, dandelions are ‘the most challenging genus British and Irish botanists encounter’. Perhaps these intriguing plants offer a good illustration of why, at least sometimes, ignorance can be bliss.

Discover the book

The Book of Wild Flowers

Reflections on Favourite Plants Angie Lewin, Christopher Stocks