LEIF Bersweden’s love affair with orchids began at Figsbury Ring when he was just seven-years-old.

‘I became distracted by something and bent down to take a closer look,’ he later wrote: ‘My life would never be the same.’ The flower that Leif found, the Bee Orchid, was to inspire a lifelong passion. Now in his mid-twenties, Leif has just published his first book, The Orchid Hunter, which tells the story of a summer spent trying to track down each of the fifty-two species of orchid native to the British Isles. It’s a fascinating account – part nature book, part travelogue – that takes the reader on a remarkable botanical journey.

Although Leif’s quest takes him to every corner of the British Isles, this is also a book with a strong local flavour.

Leif grew up in Winterslow and went to school there and at Bishop Wordsworth’s. The chalk downlands around Salisbury, which Leif knows well, are rich in some of these remarkable flower species, thanks to the landscape’s particular properties.

One of these species is the Burnt Orchid, Wiltshire’s county flower: so-called because the white flowers and red buds give it a scorched look.

In the book, Leif describes trying and failing to find them at Martin Down, before sneaking away from his mother’s fiftieth birthday party to spot them at a nature reserve near Coombe Bissett.

The orchid that Leif first found as a child, the Bee Orchid, crops up in the book in a more surprising location – the grounds of Salisbury District Hospital. So-called because the colours of the flower resemble, well, a bee, Leif explained how a tip-off led to his discovery of a small crop nestled incongruously between two car parks.

Although the orchid might seem as though it is an exotic plant from overseas, in fact the British countryside was for many years ablaze with these different varieties. Then came the Victorian era, and a craze for the plant known as ‘orchidelirium’. As well as botanists travelling abroad to discover new species, native orchids were picked by collectors at levels that decimated their numbers.

Some of the orchid species are now down to such small numbers that their locations are kept a closely guarded secret. Leif describes visiting the Yorkshire Dales to find the last truly wild Lady’s Slipper: when he found it, a warden appeared as if out of nowhere, stopping him from taking photos. In the Cotswold hills, the Red Helleborine is kept in an enclosure behind a wire fence, like an exhibit in a botanical zoo.

There is a fifty-third species of native orchid that Leif didn’t include in his search. The Ghost Orchid is well named: just five centimetres tall and a pale creamy brown, it grows in the dead leaf litter of beech woods. If searching for a brown flower on a sea of brown wasn’t enough – a sort of botanical Where’s Wally – the plant can go several decades without being spotted. Having not been seen since 1987 it was declared extinct in 2005, only to be rediscovered in 2009. Despite teams of botanists searching for eight hours a day throughout the summer in the hope of spotting one, it hasn’t been seen again since.

The Ghost Orchid is far from the only orchid to be endangered. Almost half of our native orchids are classified as Red List species, meaning they are threatened in the UK. Last week, Salisbury-based conservation charity Plantlife was one of seven wildlife charities to launch Back From The Brink – an ambitious project to save 20 species threatened with extinction and help another 118 under threat. One of the main species they are hoping to save is the Lesser Butterfly Orchid. One hopes that such projects are successful and that these remarkable flowers survive for future generations of Leif Berswedens to discover and enjoy.

Leif Bersweden will be appearing at Waterstones, Salisbury today from 6-8pm.