Vickery’s Folk Flora by Roy Vickery

5 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

The convention of naming species was invented by the Swedish botanist, zoologist, taxonomist, and physician Carl Linnaeus. He developed the formalised binomial nomenclature, the modern system of naming organisms. The system called plant taxonomy is a way of identifying and classifying the plants of the world. You need to have a good grasp of Latin, but the advantage is that you can tell someone else that exact plant that you saw on your walk.

It is a little bit elitist, having this knowledge sets apart those who have an almost academic way of finding species from those that just want to know the name of a particular plant that caught their eye. Thankfully people have been making their own names up to describe the plants that they see on a day to day basis. These common names have been known to the people of this country for hundreds of years in some cases. Thankfully this habit has not stopped. Vickery’s Folk Flora tells us what people have called these plants in the past, but more importantly, it shows that people are still naming the plants in their locality. Plant folklore in the British Isles is flourishing and adapting today.

The book is arranged in alphabetical order by their common names, and each entry has the Latin name (no getting away from it, sorry) a brief description of the plant concerned, details on the folklore, beliefs and traditional uses of the plant and how people have used them and other anecdotal details that Vickery thinks might be of interest. Also are included are all the local names for that particular plant that he could find. Some of these lists are fascinating, for example, the plant goosegrass, or as my wife called it, cleavers is a sticky stemmed plant. I remember I used to attach to the back of other children when they weren’t looking. This has around 90 other very local names, from sticky balls in Somerset to cleggers in Yorkshire and goose-cleaver in Lanarkshire

Looking through these common names is endlessly fascinating. I like the way that similar common names do not respect country boundaries. You can see the way that the name changes subtly as you move across the landscape and also when it has a very specific name used nowhere else in certain areas. It is startling how many different names there are in a single county for example Bull’s eyes, Crazy betty and Livers are all the same common name for the same plant, Marsh Marigold, in the county of Dorset and there are countless other examples of this.

It is quite the reference book that Vickery has compiled here. It is a good companion volume to Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica. It took me ages to read it all, so daunting is its size and I read it the wrong way, ploughing through from front to back. This is a book to be dipped into and savoured rather than devoured in vast gulps. But I am glad I did get through it in the end as it is magnificent and should be on any natural history bookshelf.

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  1. Liz Dexter

    This sounds fascinating and I’m pleased to hear people are still inventing plant names!

    • Paul

      It was, Liz. It is good to hear that as that means that people are interacting with the natural world in some way

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