Monday, 29 November 2010

Soil Secrets

Poyntzfield Herb Nursery
Our day started with ginger root tea: grated, steeped and infused with honey a revitalizing and warming tonic to counter the crystalline skies outside.  Duncan Ross had joined us, far from his herbal estates on the eastern reaches of the Black Isle to teach us rootimentary (couldn’t resist…) truths about composting and efficient herb growing.

First we enjoyed a virtual trip to his Victorian walled gardens, fortified against the glowering Highland fringe by 12 foot walls, sturdy hedging, poly-tunnels and deep trenches of compost and seaweed. A beautiful mosaic of green, grey beds, Poyntzfield Gardens grows over 450 types of herbs that’s up from the original 70 they started with in the 1970’s and sells throughout  the world. Secret to their success is a triple row of compost bins slowing digesting and decomposing the efforts of last year’s harvest. Wild weeds (herbs?) grip and root to the upper layers exposing an archaeological striation of the midden below.

But the day was too nice to miss so we abandoned our pens and tea and took off to the practical beds of the RBGE’s nursery gardens - there to establish with secateurs, pitchforks and spades our very own patches and prepare the ground for next year’s abundance.  We carefully plucked the seed heads of dried yarrow, fennel and borage,  snapped off the gritty broad bean pods, pulled comfrey and horseradish roots and catapulted heaps of expired herbaceous material onto the Herbology compost heaps. 

Gently turning the soft earth with fingers and forks, we cajoled the last weeds and stones from the summer field left the beds to sleep under a snug blanket of black plastic

Friday, 19 November 2010

Lichens & Fungi

Week 7

Pharmacology 1 – taking us further into the deep realms of science we began to break down the constituent parts of herbal remedies to understand what works where and how. Like the 7 steps to self-enlightenment, 12 to abstinence, 13 stations of the cross there are 14 components that make up a Herbalist’s cabinet of cures:
  1. Acids
  2. Alkaloids - Antraquinines
  3. Bitters
  4. Carbohydrates
  5. Cardioactive glycosides
  6. Coumarins
  7. Cyanogenic glycosides
  8. Flavinoids & antrocyanidins
  9. Glucosilinates
  10. Gums & Mucilaages
  11. Phenols
  12. Saponrins
  13. Tannins & Pseudotannins
  14. Volatile Oils

Louise Olley
Briefly outlining their qualities and uses we identified the plants containing these essential elements and how they worked, but further exploration will take place in 2 weeks. The morning had other delights in store.

Lousie Olley, Lichen Curator of the RBGE arrived with her own special box of tricks – in her case, plastic bags of sticks, twigs and branches covered in a hairy variety of green, yellow and brown lichens. Lichens are the result of symbiotic relationship between fungi and algae – one provides protection and the other nutrition. Rumour has it that the fungi might actually be ‘farming’ the algae for its own gain, but let’s not go there…there’s enough to divert us elsewhere.

Lichens are divided into different types: fruticose, foliose, crustose, and leprose and each clings to life in a unique way. And we in turn use them in a variety of ways: for fibre, fuel, tanning, fermentation, dyeing embalming, poison, perfume, food and of course, medicine. Best known to us all are:
What kind of lichen is it?

  • Icelandic Moss (Cetraria islandica)  - in cough syrups and eye-makeup remover
  • Usnea filipendula  - for wound dressing, uterine complaints and model-making
  • Wolf Lichen (Letharia vulpine) – used to poison wolves in Scandinavia
  • Dictyonema sericeum – a hallucinogen used by native S Americans to curse people.

Useful, I know!

The afternoon we moved up the food chain (well, maybe) to the fungi kingdom. Professor Roy Watling, Maestro Mycologist, took us through a repertoire of helpful, useful and down-right dangerous mushrooms. The uses for fungi and mushrooms are bewildering! Hats, handbags, deodorants, razor sharpeners, elasto-plasts (band-aids to my compatriots), snuff, horse brushes, painter’s tableaus and aphrodisiacs. Fungi (Fomes formentarius) was also used to carry fire – a type of living tinder box – from ancient times and indeed evidence of such was found at Skara Brae on Orkney and on the person of the famous Öitz skeleton, the 5,300 year old man found in the alps.

Professor Watling & his fungi collections
Our final lesson required a tonic – one of our own harvest of Sea Buckthorn gathered from the sandy banks above Gullane bents.

Buck Up! - Honey Tonic

1.      Heat several cups of Sea Buckthorn berries over a medium heat, mashing with the back of a spoon until you have a thick orange pulp.
2.      Strain through a sieve and return to the pan. 
3.      Add a cinnamon stick and honey to taste and melt together.
4.      Strain into bottles. Stores in the fridge for about 1 month

A herbalist version of Sunny Delight: no E colours, but loaded with vitamins C and A.
Tonic makers

Weekend Rambles

November 2010

Shoreline Apple Tree
Catching up on my long over due homework (sorry, Catherine!), I went off to capture what I could of a late autumn harvest of berries in and along the East Lothian coast

Sea Buckthorn along North Berwick Golf Course
Sea Buckthorn abounds – it scrambles, twists and twines into a Sleeping Beauty fortress along the ancient sandy dunes from Gullane to North Berwick and beyond (to Russia, I believe). Brilliant orange berries cluster in huge abundance in the joints and branches of the extremities of the silvery bushes. A forager’s trove– if armed with impenetrable gloves, long-sleeved coat, thick boots and very sharp secateurs.  The trick is to snip and freeze the berry-clad twigs and thorns intact – the berries will snap off easily once frozen solid.

Sea Buckthorn harvest

Along the country roads are farm lanes lined by hedgerows bursting with hawthorn and autumn berries.  But with few lay-bys (pullouts) it can be tricky to stop to gather – and if there are any sloes in the area, you run the risk of social ostracisation if pillaging someone else’s patch….  So I returned to the fringes of the NB golf course and found a solitary weather-worn patch of berries, on a gnarled bush thick, rich and plentiful.  Nearby was a stand of young Dog rose – covered in luscious ripe hips which fell neatly into my basket.
Do I have to de-seed these??

Haddington Herbals
A sojourn inland to the county town brought me to the new Haddington Herbals – a lovely old/new shop located at the end of the High Street. Filled with natural remedies, cures, cosmetics and lotions displayed in the antique cabinets lovingly restored. They also sell mixing oils, dried herbs, and essential oils for us DIY enthusiasts.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Green Pharmacy

Week 6

What fun we had today!  No, very serious stuff, but fun too…

Today marked our first attempt at true making herbal remedies – the beginnings of our own green pharmacy. Admittedly we started with the very simplest form: the art of mixing and matching 3 ingredients to create an ointment, salve or balm.

Catherine’s table was laden with objects fit for purpose: a 1940’s camp stove, electric ring, glass percolator, bain-marie, sieves, jugs, spatulas and the all-important pestle and mortar - mortar deriving from the Latin mortarium, meaning "receptacle for pounding” and pestle from pestillum, meaning "pounder" – the ancient symbols of the Apothecary.

On the far side of the table were the ‘green’ ingredients, or in this case the dirty ingredients; knarly, mud-caked roots of Alkanet and Comfrey plants, recently tugged from their earthly abode.

Before wipping out our pen knives and graters, we learnt the basics of plant identity for the Boraginaceae family. These are ‘Vulnary’ herbs – used to help wounds heal, many with antiseptic and anti inflammatory properties too. All are mucilaginous (look it up) and occlusive which allows them to impart their therapeutic properties to the integument… But, there are a lot of plants out there masquerading as Alkanets so good to be vigilant, and watch out for these close family friends:
  1. English or Green Alkanet – Pentaglottis sempervierns
  2. False Alkanet  - Anchuse Barrelieri
  3. Bastard Alkanet – Lithospermum arvense
  4. Or these downright imposters:
    • Viper’s Bugloss – Echium vulgare
    • Forget-Me-Not – Myosotis sps
Because what you want is this - Alkanna Tinctura – True Alkanet although we will let Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) and Borage (Borage officinalis) join the inner circle of friends.

Back to work.  We washed, scrapped, dug, chopped and grated our way through the root piles and then put our precious scrapings into jars and filled them with oil. Oils are a whole other subject which we just touched on (but will no doubt go back to). 

Our choice was of Sweet Almond oil, Calendula oil, Olive oil or Rose Hip oil to steep our roots in – each providing a different result. Following the ‘quick’ preparation method, instead of leaving our jars on a sunny window sill for 3 weeks (a bit hard to find in Scotland in November…) we are heating them through in a bain-marie.  20 mins later we removed the herbal element, drained the oil into clean jars and added the ointment maker – beeswax (at this point the oil is a liniment).

We were treated to the opportunity to extract pure beeswax from the comb. Melted and re-melted, skimmed and scraped, this proved to be a beautiful, pliable substance of wonderful fragrance and texture.

So, beeswax went into the jars (2-3 tsps per half a honey jar) and was allowed to melt slowly whilst we selected our essences. The choice was extravagant; from lavender and rose to juniper, black pepper and some venomous smelling others. Our olfactory senses were overwhelmed and an element of risk and chaos ensued. But once added to the cooled mixtures, everything settled down and slowly cooled into soft yellowy green ointments. A triumph all round!
Our last lesson of the day was in making a Marshmallow Root & Hawthorn Berry fruit leather, a mellifluous concoction of marshmallow root water, berries, cinnamon, sugar and lime juice cooked, whizzed and now hopefully drying to a chewy treat in Catherine’s oven…Yumm.

Books to buy: The Herbal Medicine Makers Manual - a Home Manual by James Green - (a Californian working in San Diego and Sonoma, or so Google tells me…)

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Physic Garden Delights

Week 5

The day dawned bright and blustery after stormy winter night. Wading through great drifts of russet, ochre and yellow leaves collecting in every corner, I rumbled down the hill to the welcoming gates of the RBGE.

Great treats awaited in the form of our official RBGE Student t-shirts, sweatshirts and boots. Suitably attired we sat down to a quick lesson from Catherine on the history of Physic Gardens in ancient through to Medieval times.  As they were essential to maintaining the health and well-being of any community, strict laws were laid down governing their layout, design and planting schemes. Indeed even kings got involved starting with Charlemagne, who in 800 a.d. issued an proclamation to every abbey and monastery in his realm listing the plants that should be held within their walls, separated by place and purpose: vegetables by the kitchen doors, the physic garden within the cloisters at the heart of the abbey, with fruit and nut orchards to spread and cover the cemeteries.

A few hundred years later, not much had changed except that the lists had been extended to include Mediterranean, African and even North American species and now science was getting involved.  In 1683 in Edinburgh, James Sutherland published his Hortus Medicus Edinburgensis – or ‘A Catalogue of the Plants in the Physical Garden at Edinburgh’, a comprehensive listing in both Latin and English of the plants collected and planted at the original gardens.  Pre-Linnaeus and just before John Culpepper, the tiny tome lists 1000’s of plants by their then known genus, species and common name following the rules laid down by Messrs John Gerard and John Parkinson.

Oh what a garden it must have been!  We found the following:
Sea Mugwort
Dragon’s Wort
Stinky beans
Aloe Vera

Pondering the wealth of previous generations, we left the warmth of the Library and headed off to see what still remained. Sadly the demonstration Herb Garden, flushed with ripe seed heads last week, had been seared to the ground. So we wrested a few pods from the reluctant Belladonna, snipped some Elderberries and a scoured up handfuls of Agapanthus and brought them back to the lab for an enjoyable hour of discussion and dissection.

In the afternoon we re-visited the practical beds of last year’s course to collect some more seeds and this time found a great harvest of

Marjoram Officinalis
Calendula Officinalis
Borage(white and blue)
Milk Thistle

Running from the sudden rains we carried our horde deep into the Potting Sheds, a massive warehouse located the end of a pot-holed lane off Arboretum Row.  Great sacks of compost, mountains of boots, bins of forks, spades and shovels all flourish here.  Deep in the heart of this elemental space we were treated to a professional seed sorting and planting session and set to filling, sowing, sieving and tamping trays with our new harvest. Next year’s crop to come.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Garden Design

Week 4

Last week we were led through the maze of garden design theory and practice by Garden Designer, Diane Pyper.

We considered articulation of space, understanding of form (both in layout and in plant shapes), sense of movement and creating an ambiance as elemental constituents of good garden design.  Formality, informality, symmetric and asymmetric design, use and purpose all joined in as major contributors; with location, soil, sunlight and surrounds completing the pieces of the puzzle.

Our practical application of this new knowledge is to be put to use in re-designing an existing space to become a new RBGE’s ‘Physic Garden’. This will be created within the demonstration gardens on the north side of the giant Beech hedge between two opposing walls: a long straight yew hedge and a holly hedge with a noticeable ‘pregnant’ bulge. Laid out between them at present is the long bed of an original ‘Herb Garden’ with two smaller rectangular beds opposite. Planted in the 1960’s, little design has been applied to the space or the planting, so we started by completing a survey as to what was still standing.

As imagined, a war between the herbs had ensued in the intervening years, with a number of ‘thrivers’ evident (lemon balm, mint and tarragon) and a handful of survivors; St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) and Burdock. Quite a few from the original list seemed to have been overwhelmed (or whacked) leaving little or no trace of their existence but notable by their absence.

Ensconced across the grassy path in their own corner, a coven of poisonous plants Deadly Nightshade (Atropa Belladonna), Datura and Chinese Rhubarb (Rheum Palmatum) were doing exceeding well – a multi-tiered bed of fragrant sweet peas notwithstanding. A lone yew still stands sentinel over the last bed filled mostly with Floxglove (Digitalis purpurea) and a profusion of Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis). We pondered the decision making of the original designer – to give a display of culinary herbs?  To warn parents of the evil nature of others? Or a simple sampler of ‘garden herbs’ then available?

Our day finished with a demonstration by Diane of the process of thinking, drawing, reviewing and finalising a garden design plan.  Far removed from the verdant outdoors, this involves a full packet of coloured marking pens, rolls of tracing paper, compasses, stencils and an inmate ability to draw. Each one of us must produce a (viable) design by end of November – let the competition begin!