James Lowen 

Every blue moonday, a field guide comes along that blows your mind. The Collins guide did it for birds of the Western Palearctic. Paul Waring, Martin Townsend and Richard Lewington did it with their guide to larger moths of Britain and Ireland (now on its third edition). Rob Hume et al. did it with their photographic guide to Britain's Birds. Sophie Lake and Durwyn Liley did it with Britain’s Habitats, an eye-opening, enriching perspective on codifying the natural world. And the publisher of the latter two books - Princeton University Press’s WILDGuides imprint - has done it again with Sean Cole and Mike Waller’s Britain's Orchids. Indeed, this book may well be the pick of the bunch - perhaps the most startling and richest identification guide I have ever come across.

Before I explain why, a quick, early confession for the sake of transparency. I know both authors personally and made a fleeting contribution to their early thinking - sufficient to garner mention in the acknowledgments. But none of that colours my judgement: I am friends with a fair few other field-guide authors but always regard their works with impartiality. In the case of Britain’s Orchids, my insight into the book's approach actually made things tougher for the authors, because it set my expectations sky-high. And still they have been exceeded. 

Unlike the authors, I don’t know a vast amount about orchids, but - like many, many others - have nevertheless long suffered from orchidelirium, journeying around Britain in search of these bewitching plants - most recently seeing Irish Ladies-Tresses in July. When I next do so again, I shall be far better informed than previously. Pretty much every single page in this remarkable book has taught me something new. And much of it, for many people, will present new ways of thinking about, searching for and looking at orchids.

A section on orchid habitats gets you thinking in terms of landscapes - and demands simultaneously flicking through of the revamped, second edition of Lake and Liley’s Britain’s Habitats. Some sixty-five photos depicting orchids in their habitats help refine the search image. And this helps throughout the year: orchids are no longer just for spring and summer. Instead, a summary of the annual growth cycle of all orchids in the British Isles opens my eyes to searching for orchids at times when they are not flowering (whether in leaf or in seed). This is complemented by an outstanding, ground-breaking section on identifying orchids in leaf, and - in the individual species accounts - images of orchids in seed. And the authors demonstrate admirable courage (and sense!) in rationalising the confusing array of supposed orchid varieties, including in Bee Orchid.

Concise, incisive species accounts combine artwork and photographs beautifully. Some genera receive red-carpet treatment: Epipactis helleborines, for example, are treated to an updated taxonomy, an illustrated essay on differing pollination strategies, close-up ID tips (perhaps the equivalent of wing formulae in birds), and a double-page spread on variation in form and colour of flowers. The unpicking of species boundaries (and associated identification conundrum) in the spotted and marsh orchids is jaw-dropping, and an exhaustive section on hybrid orchids inspiring for those of us who are enchanted by such cheeky diversity. Every single time I pick up this book, I gawp and I learn. Field guide of the year, without question. And quite possibly field guide of the decade too. 


Britain's Orchids

Sean Cole and Mike Waller.

Princeton WILDGuides, 2020.