17. Holly

 In the animal kingdom, with few exceptions, men are show-offs. Take the golden pheasant. A male looks like this:

Whereas a female looks like this: Read More

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16. Potato

Consider the potato.

Consider a plant with 5,000 varieties, of which most of us know perhaps five.

Consider a member of the highly poisonous nightshade family, that is itself full of deadly solanine – except for in its swollen, starchy tubers, which are entirely harmless (and rather tasty). Read More

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15. Japanese maple

Some people want to watch the world burn, and I am one of them.

My family home has an open fireplace. We don’t use it often – only between Christmas and New Year, really. We have central heating, so it serves no practical function. As anyone who has ever used one knows, a fireplace is a hopelessly inefficient way to heat a room. But they sure are magical. Read More

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13. Crocus

To say I’m not good at making decisions is to say Antarctica is a bit far away. No one can vacillate quite like me. I fill shopping carts then abandon them. I treat small, innocuous choices – what kind of dessert I want, which birthday card I should buy – like other people treat choosing where to live, or who to marry. Read More

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12. London plane

What is a tree worth? There are a million ways to answer this question.

A biologist might answer in terms of biodiversity. Of ecosystem value. The number of insect species a tree supports is one way of measuring this, because insects are fundamental to the health of our ecosystems. On this basis, oak trees are worth a lot: they support nearly 300 insect species in the UK. By contrast, acacias support precisely one species (a moth); London planes support none at all. The main reason for this disparity is that oaks are native to Britain, and acacias and planes aren’t. They are important to some insects – just not the ones that live here. Read More

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11. Common puffball

Mushrooms aren’t plants. The internet is full of pedants, so let me address this taxonomic sin immediately: I shouldn’t really include mushrooms in this blog.

But I want to. And this is my blog. So nur. Read More

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10. Welwitschia

The loneliest plant in the world is called Welwitschia mirabilis, or tree tumbo, or simply welwitschia. It grows in the middle of the Namib desert, miles from almost any other living thing, where the temperatures regularly exceed 45ºC, and the annual recorded rainfall is often zero. A good part of its range, in Angola, is surrounded by land mines, so no one ever visits. Read More

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9. Himalayan balsam

My earliest memory is of crawling through a tunnel inside a glacier in Chamonix, and finding, to my delight, a giant ice bear at the end of it. Actually, I don’t know if this is my earliest memory. It earns the title because it happened on holiday, so I can fix it to a particular place and time. By contrast, my first encounter with Himalayan balsam happened somewhere, at some point. The edges of this memory are fuzzier – but that doesn’t make the memory itself any less magical. Read More

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8. Horse chestnut

All hail conker season! The season when friends become enemies, children become alchemists, and ordinary tree seeds become deadly weapons.

Maybe it was different for you, but in my school, conkers were the great unifier. Sure, there were other things – marbles, Pogs, the introduction of the Sony PlayStation 2 – that brought us together. But, perhaps because of the limited window of opportunity and annual recurrence, conkers were special. Read More

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