Like many a boy of my generation growing up I was a spotter.
Living, as I did, in a town where the railway was ever-present, the whistles audible pretty much round the clock and an oily-sooty sweetness everywhere in the atmosphere on still, damp days, I was a trainspotter well before anoraks were known, let alone the pejorative term ‘anorak’.
I think it was 1946 when I made the most important discovery of my life to that date – a paper-back book published by the London, Midland and Scottish Railway … the LMS … listing the numbers of every engine in the company’s inventory. I treasured that book for years before foolishly discarding it during a house move, an action I very much regret now. But returning to the years of my adolescence, I recall the thrill of acquiring the very first edition of Ian Allan’s wonderful abc of British Railways Locomotives which was, of course, a list of the numbers of engines in the newly-nationalised railway industry, together with concise details of every class of locomotive in service. (It was only in recent years that I have been struck by the curious decision to call a list of numbers an ‘abc’.)
This liking for lists has remained with me throughout my life; and so my interest was aroused when I learned of a project imaginatively entitled the Plant List, which describes itself as “providing a catalogue of plant names organised to show which names are accepted and which are considered synonyms.” Managed by Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), which “provides a global voice for all botanic gardens, championing and celebrating their inspiring work,” as well as being “the world’s largest plant conservation network,” Plant List gives the serious horticulturist access to the only global database of living plant, seed and tissue collections. This database contains, at the time of writing, 1,335,949 collection records, representing 487,612 taxa … units used in the science of biological classification, or taxonomy … at 1,141 contributing institutions around the world, identifying the locations of threatened, rare, medicinal and other plant species in living collections and encouraging individuals and organisations to connect with living collections to aid conservation, education and research efforts. That’s quite a list!
So what can one do with this tool? I wrote recently about a plant commonly called bleeding heart, which rejoices in the botanical name Lamprocapnos spectabilis. I can learn, among many other things, that this plant is seen as an alien species in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden, somewhat to my surprise for, as I wrote in my piece about bleeding heart, Kenneth Cox and Raoul Curtis-Machen write, in their splendid book Garden Plants for Scotland, first published by Frances Lincoln Ltd. in 2008, that, ‘these very tough deciduous woodlanders from North America are ideally suited to Scottish gardens.’ Much more importantly, although Lamprocapnos spectabilis is not a threatened plant, I can learn of the frightening rate at which biodiversity is being lost as changes in society and the increasing pace of development mean that the scale of these impacts has grown rapidly. And I can learn more of the value of biodiversity … the full complexity and variety of life in all its myriad forms … and of the efforts being made to conserve the tens of thousands of plant species being threatened with extinction worldwide as a direct or indirect result of human activities.
I also learn that, as part of this drive to protect some of the threatened plants in the Plant List, the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh … that jewel on our doorstep … has been awarded £200 000 by the People’s Postcode Lottery in February 2016 to fund a project to save Tanzanian forests. Yes, there’s a lot to be learned from a fascination with lists!