Author interview: Peter Marren

Written with Peter Marren’s usual wit and insight, Emperors, Admirals & Chimney Sweepers takes you on a journey back to a time before the arts and science were divided. When entomologists were also poets and painters, and when a gift for vivid language went hand-in-hand with a deep pre-Darwinian fascination for the emerging natural world.

Peter took the time to answer some of our questions about his new book and the origin of butterfly and moth names.

Tell us a little about your background and how you got interested in the etymology of species names?

I’m a natural history writer (in the sense that I’ve written a lot about natural history) with a background in nature conservation in Britain. I’ve loved butterflies and moths since boyhood, and I suppose I must have realised even then that many of them have unusual names. What the hell was an eggar? Or a lutestring? Probably like most people I didn’t think too much about it – weren’t names just labels? – until, out of curiosity, I went into the name of the Red Admiral, Vanessa atalanta, and discovered a real Vanessa and a real Atalanta. And then I realised that even Latin names weren’t randomly chosen but had a particular resonance with that particular species. Names hid a whole new world of allusion, poetry and wordplay. I discovered that those who named our Lepidoptera, in English and Latin, were equally educated in the arts and the sciences. They knew their myths, and they knew about colours and designs, and they were completely fascinated. I feel a strange empathy with that vanished world.

What was the original inspiration behind Emperors, Admirals & Chimney Sweepers?

It started as a kind of sequel to my book Rainbow Dust, about how and why butterflies and moths inspire people. Names were confined to a single chapter in that book, but there was so much more to say, not only about the names themselves but the social ambience that spawned them: the world of Georgian London with its clubs and field excursions, its gorgeous illustrated books and the sense that nature was all the more wonderful for being 1) divinely inspired and 2) almost completely unknown.

The lightbulb moment came when I thought of dealing with names not as an entomologist might do, by families and related groups, but by themes: species named after animals, birds, moods, occupations, jewels and so on, all laid out alphabetically. I loved the fact that certain fine moths were named after weddings, focussing on bridal underwear worn in eighteenth century Sweden!

Emperor, Admiral and Chimney Sweeper are, of course, names of a butterfly and two moths.

If you could name a new species of moth or butterfly, how would you go about it?

Well, it ain’t a blank slate. There are written rules for scientific names and unwritten ones for common names. I’d love to call it Marren’s Glory but it would not be approved. I’d have to stick with the established vocabulary. So if it resembled, say, a wainscot moth, it would continue to be called that, distinguished by whatever word best caught its character. Overlooked Wainscot? Lenitive Wainscot? Look-alike Wainscot?  

What would be your advice for any budding entomologist out there?

There’s more to the natural world than pure science. Keep your eyes, and your mind, open. And enjoy yourself. And don’t say, “Oh that’s a Lenitive Wainscot, a Schedule 7 species graded as Least Concern in the latest IUCN Red List.” Just the name will do.

What is your most memorable butterfly or moth name, and why?

There are lots, but let’s go with the poor little Narrow-bordered Bee Hawk-moth, whose Latin name, tityus, commemorates the most hideous giant in all mythology. The giant’s poor mum exploded at his birth and when full grown his body covered nine acres. What do they have in common? Well, the old name for hawk-moths was Sphinx, and the Sphinx was a monster. Ergo (Linnaeus thought), hawk-moths should be given monstrous names. And the bee hawk accidentally got the worst of them because of its place on the list, wedged between two other appalling creatures.

I quite like Zygaena, the name of the burnet moths which they share with the hammerhead shark. For reasons too convoluted to go into here (but it’s in the book).

Any new books/projects in the pipeline?

I will have to find another project for it’s in the DNA. I suspect it will involve nature and childhood. Trouble is, others are on to it.

Other works by Peter Marren

Peter writes frequently in as ‘Twitcher’ in the British Wildlife column ‘Twitcher in the Swamp’ and has had a string of successful publications including Chasing the Ghost (now in paperback), Rainbow Dust and the first volume in the British Wildlife Collection series. Click here for more books by Peter Marren.

Book of the Week: Peonies of the World, Volume 2: Polymorphism and Diversity

Continuing our selection of the very best titles available through NHBS:

Peonies of the World, Volume 2: Polymorphism and Diversity

Hong De-Yuan

Peonies of the World, Volume 2: Polymorphism and Diversity jacket imageWhat?

Second in a three-volume work dedicated to the genus Paeonia.


The first volume began this series’ focus on a comprehensive taxonomic revision of the genus Paeonia. This second monograph continues the high standard with a look at the rich diversity found in the worldwide population.

Hong De-Yuan’s work exemplifies a conscientiousness in exploring and defining developments in taxonomy of a plant species, taking into account striking morphological variety, and the existence of herbarium specimens not found in nature.

The result of decades of extensive study in the field, work which was funded by the National Geographic Society, Peonies of the World, Volume 2: Polymorphism and Diversity, is illustrated with 356 colour photos of peonies in their natural context.

This is a very attractive quality monograph and an essential for botanists and horticulturists.


Hong De-Yuan is Professor of the State Key Laboratory of Systematic and Evolutionary Botany at the Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing. He is also Chair of the Life Science Division at the National Natural Science Foundation of China and Dean of the School of Life Science, Zhejiang University.

Available Now from NHBS

NHBS On The Road – a conference update

This autumn NHBS has set up shop at various meetings and conferences across the UK.

Anneli and Karen were presenting some of our latest books and field kit at the Butterfly Conservation Meeting at Cheltenham Race Course last Saturday, whilst Anneli will be at the BTO Annual Conference in early December. We always love the chance to meet customers old and new in person, so please do come and say hello if you see us!

Anneli also attended the Sherborn Meeting at the Natural History Museum in London two weeks ago. The meeting commemorated the 150th anniversary of Charles Davies Sherborn’s birth with extremely stimulating talks on the current state and future of taxonomy. The book Priority! The Dating of Scientific Names in Ornithology was launched at this meeting.

Earlier this month, Nigel and Steaphan went up to the IEEM autumn conference in Liverpool, the BCT National Bat Conference in September, and the Scottish Bat Workers Conference in Sterling last weekend. Bat workers and ecologists are agreed that the new edition of John Altringham’s Bats is a must – read an interview with John here.

What Reviewers are Saying about The Vegetative Key to the British Flora

A sampling of the great reviews for The Vegetative Key to the British Flora: A New Approach to Plant Identification by John Poland and Eric Clement:

Here is a significant addition to flora-making literature. It would behoove botanists in areas other than the U.K. to check out Poland & Clement. I can see myself using this work to identify various weeds in California as 17.4% of its flora of 5,867 species is alien. Now I have another dilemma. Do I file Poland & Clement with my California floras or my British-European ones? Maybe I should just get a second copy.

– Rudolf Schmid, TAXON, August 2009

Due to the novel structure of the keys, it is possible to identify a plant in three turns of a page and in under 60 seconds!….A must-have standard text for all ecologists conducting any type of vegetation survey, including Phase 1 and assessing sites for UK BAP habitats.

– Clare O’Reilly, IEEM In Practice

This book sets out to help the enthusiast identify all native plants and even some alien species on vegetative characteristics alone. … Strongly recommended for the keen amateur and professional.

– Chris Bisson, Eden Project Plant Records Manager, on

174837[2]NHBS Environment Bookstore is pleased to be the distributor for The Vegetative Key.

What do you think of the Vegetative Key? Add your personal review as a comment on the Hoopoe.

Lichens & Bryophytes: New Titles at NHBS

Some great new lichen and bryophyte titles are now on the shelves at NHBS, including the greatly expanded and revised new edition of The Lichens of Great Britain and Ireland – the key reference for the identification of lichens in the British Isles.

Lichens of Great Britain and IrelandThe first edition of The Lichen Flora of Great Britain and Ireland was an outstanding achievement for British Lichenology – a pioneering work and the first of its type in Europe. This much enlarged revision reflects the considerable accumulation of new information that has occurred since the publication of the first edition and is symptomatic of the enormous advances in lichen taxonomy over the last two decades.

This book is undoubtedly the standard work for the identification of lichens in Great Britain and Ireland and will be indispensable to all serious students of British, Irish and overseas lichenology and other biologists working in related fields of ecology, pollution, chemical and environmental studies.

Order your copy of The Lichens of Great Britain and Ireland today!

Other new lichens and bryophytes titles include Introduction to Bryophytes and Bryophyte Biology.

Browse other recent Lichens & Bryophytes titles

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New at NHBS: Plant Taxonomy

175898We’re pleased to announce the arrival of Plant Taxonomy: The Systematic Evaluation of Comparative Data by Todd Stuessy – Professor and Chair of the Department of Systematic and Evolutionary Botany at the University of Vienna, Austria. He also serves as the Secretary-General of the International Association for Plant Taxonomy.

The field of plant taxonomy has transformed rapidly over the past fifteen years, especially with regard to improvements in cladistic analysis and the use of new molecular data. The second edition of this popular resource reflects these far-reaching and dramatic changes by adding more than 3,000 new references and figures. Synthesizing current research and trends, this book now provides the most up-to-date overview of plant taxonomy in relation to monographic, biodiversity, and evolutionary studies, and continues to be an essential resource for students and scholars.

Order your copy of Plant Taxonomy today!

Browse more new botanical and taxonomy titles

Browse Botany and Zoology

Check out the great savings on botanical titles – up to 60% off – in our annual Backlist Bargains sale. (Sale ends 31 March 2009.)