Saturday, 9 July 2011

The Final

5th July 2011

I have long anticipated and feared this day; in practical terms for the volume of work that needed to be finished, assembled and presented, but more poignantly for it signalling the end of the course. 

Catherine Conway-Payne
Tuesdays have become a sacred day; one in which I happily rose from deep slumber and bounded out the door with great sense of excitement. The joy of learning, the glowing faces of friends, the slow, yet fulsome pace of the day followed by a happy exhaustion tinged sense of wonder at what we had learned in those few short hours. Thank you, Catherine!

But finals first:

Table dressing
We tumbled into the classroom with great boxes and backpacks of work containing our herbal journals, herbarium specimens, bottles and jars of potions, flowers, tablecloths and sweets. 

The cakes came out first; a beautiful ginger-carrot cake from Ally, a lemon-thyme cake from me, pain de raisin patisseries magically appeared and then Christa pulled a tub of Lavender & Honey Ice Cream with Chocolate Mint Leaves from her sleeve. Wow! Well we were ready to die and go to heaven when Mattie arrived with a basket of wild alpine strawberries and Margaret cracked open a bottle of her wedding champagne.  This is how finals are done in Herbology!

David Pirie inspecting Ally's Herb Garden
David Pirie arrived and after tasting the ‘herbals’ accompanying us up to our nursery beds to give us his view of our work.  His knowledge is extensive and all of us learnt more of the potency, preparation and possibilities of our herbal beds than we thought we knew.

RBGE Canteen
A 'last supper 'in the canteen set us up for the afternoon’s assessment.

 I went first (D again) and delighted in showing off my seaweeds (they were still intact!). 

Margaret's Physic Garden Design
Margaret followed with an amazing arrangement of beautiful soaps, creams, tonics and (Gold Star Winner!) Sea Buckthorn Gin – so we all had a taste of that.

Christa's floriferous display
Christa was next with her teas, bees and flowers – a brilliant array of bright books; her herbal journal and pharmacopeia filled with pictures of flowers and fairies. Her herbarium specimens looked as if they were dancing too.

Ally's home crafts
Ally bowled us over with her amazing handiwork in embroidery, sewing and book making.  Her journal was a rich cornucopia of drawings, notes, photos and images of her year in and beyond Herbology.  Her pharmacopoeia a fantastic exposition of ‘how to’ make the remedies we had studied all year. – a best-seller for sure.

Amy put down her camera and tucked into the assessments with a little blast of her elegant Viola Sleepy Syrup – a joyous colour of spring and intoxicating taste.  She’s got the smarts and will be re-taking a large part of the course next year… are we all envious or what?!

Assessing Sophie's tinctures
Sophie finished the round with a bright calendula display around all her written work, her award winning ‘Ode to Spring’ soap and a live presentation of her blog.  Her research and understanding of the technical, scientific, nutritional and therapeutic properties of the plants we have studied is phenomenal – I will learn as much again reading through that.

Herbologists' group assessment
And finally, we tidied and made great plans to meet up, and as the party drew to a close we cracked one more bottle open, this time the Botanist Gin, tossed Spring Blast ice cubes into it and topped with sparkling tonic. 

A farewell drink to our happy hours in Herbology….

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Adventures in Seaweeds

Having failed to start a proper regime in sourcing, pressing, drying and mounting Herbarium specimens (5% of our overall grade), I took a calculated risk and went to sea.
Encouraged that no Herbology student had done any before (great, no comparisons) and that both the products and processes were within reach, I set off to capture our underwater garden. 

But how? The Herbarium staff recommended floating seaweed in the bathtub and then lifting them out onto a bit of muslin cloth. Having only seen Victorian collages of floriforous concoctions, that didn’t seem too easy. Ally came to my rescue with a link to the Cryptogamic Botany Company who had a 7 page manual on ‘How to’.

The process is simple (relatively):

1.     Collect seaweed at low tide from pools, sand, stones or rocky shore. Keep in separate plastic bags of sea water (soon abandoned for 1 large bucket) and take note of where it was growing, holdfast, location and date, etc

2.     Collect additional bottles of seawater for cleaning and processing

3.     Wash a large 3” deep tray (type used for old-fashioned photography developing) and fill with about ¼ inch filtered sea water

4.     Soak your Herbarium paper face down and then turn right side up in tray, so only just covered in nanometre of water

5.     Clean seaweed specimen of all sand, grit, snails, other seaweeds and gunge and lay on paper.

6. Using tweezers, toothpicks, paintbrushes, fingers and gravity, arrange specimen to best advantage, removing stray and overlapping bits.

7.     Pull paper from tray (seaweed should stay put by osmotic force)  and drain water at shallow angle

8.     Place on pile of dry newspaper, make any final tweaks to arrangement, cover with muslin cloth, more newsprint and press down to remove as much water as possible.

9.     Place paper with muslin still on it in your press with new blotting paper and newsprint to absorb residual water.

10.   Cover press with stones/ irons/ heavy objects found in greenhouse and leave to dry 2 hours.  Change newsprint again, then leave to dry for 2-3 days for thin seaweeds, a week or more for thick ones.

The joy was that all of that is transcendental…

The problem came when trying to identify them…. whoops (add to number 1 on list above, ‘ only collect seaweed that you can reasonably identify’.  I read and re-read every page of Hamlyn’s Guide to Seasides and Shallow Waters (thanks for that, Greg) and then started on the internet.  There are lots of sites and lots of experts out there, but sometimes they don’t confer, so a seaweed identified as Rhodomenia psuedopalmata on one site is listed as Rhodomela lacinata on another and Palmaria palmata on another.  And do you know how many Polysiphonias there are???

I headed back to the RBGE and the voices of reality.  Deep in the caverns of the Herbarium, I delved out the ancient tomes of collectors of days gone by. Here there is a plethora of specimens (in varying states) from England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland and within the latter from Dunbar to South Ronalsdsay, Orkney.  Collections from the 1820’s were some of the best, but how charming to find ones collected by Roy Watling (now Professor of Mycology). Even within the hallowed halls of the RBGE there was some dissent on identifications,  but I put it down to evoloution and several trips later, I took the plunge and started labeling.  

And here they are!

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Assessment Madness!

Fear and trembling was the order of the morning – two final assessments today!

When I arrived at 8.50 am, garden fork in hand to weed the herbal beds into shape, Amy was already there praying to her lawn shears.  Divesting my Sherpa backpack of its organic mulch (aka seaweed – rinsed and dried following the strict biodynamic/organic/maniac gardener technique) I could see that others had been there before me. 

Immaculate gardens frothing with flowers, bees and neatly raked soil surrounded my bulging bed. Sophie had a beautiful arrangement of French pansies and marigolds held in a centrifugal force against the wild nature of her fennels and dills. 

Margaret had contrived to get every herb to blossom on the day – even the Echinacea!- labelling each with not only plant name, but the body organ it worked on. 

Ally’s elegant woven willow fencing curved round her perfecti-lienar arrangement of classical herbs.

  Chrsta’s garden of teas and bees was bursting with bright blue borage flowers, her towering burdock and lots of bees! 

 Amy’s checkerboard of nervices and sedatives was being overrun by grass she and I were left to hack, pull and tweeze our green pathways into submission and hope for the best. The preparation hour loomed….

 Back in the classroom we were surprised (no, make that delighted) to learn that Catherine had opened the day for us to prepare our herbal remedies in a peaceful and therapeutic manner. Stress out, calm in!  We promptly spread ourselves and accoutrements across the tables and set to. Margaret was already whisking up a mellifluous Calendula cream, a glowing, golden yellow nectar in a jar, whilst Ally concocted tinctures from freshly collected flowers.

 Christa brewed and stewed her various teas and then laid out a cocktail party of glasses, umbrellas, mints and borage-laced ice cubes. 

 Amy mashed and pounded her oats into a fine, creamy milk and then mixed them with tiny sweet violets to make one of her three insomnia cures. 

 I drenched carrageen in spring water, infused sea buckthorn berries and soaked Calendula flowers in almond oil. Whisking and stirring I aimed to bring the whole together into a soothing cream for dry, eczema prone skin.  By lunch I was still standing with my whisk – a granular, globular pool of soupy lotion in my bowl.  Fortunately, I had brought one in I made the night before J

 Assessment 1 - Catherine returned at 2pm and we presented our day’s work to her. As ever, she was more gracious than surely could be expected given our dismal self-flagellating assessment of our efforts. But she cheered us up and we all left feeling that perhaps we had scraped through on a lucky break.

 Assessment 2 - Up to the plots where Leigh, the RBGE’s Director of Education, came to scrutinize us, our horticultural knowledge and personal decisions in devising and laying out our beds.  I went first (by default only as a D) and expounded happily on my choices and successes. 

 However, I was soon drawn up short and asked to explain why I had created a garden of familiar herbs and not extended myself (good question). Also, Leigh wanted to know where had I gone wrong and how would I do it differently? And finally what score out of 10 would I give myself? Crikey! The sun beating on my brain, I acknowledge that I had a lot to learn (obviously), should have stretched my plant choice further and that my personal rating of 9 was just plain Bolshy…..

The others fared much the same fate, sweaty palms and nervous twitches emerging just at the wrong moment. But in the end, once again we parted  consoled that Catherine was the final arbitrator and that our efforts to create our own little herbal Chelsea gardens were in fact  not a bad start after all.

Monday, 27 June 2011

James Wow-ng!

Our celebrity guest this week was Grow Your Own Drugs star (and Chelsea Gold Medal winner) James Wong.

Now don't get the impression that we have a celebrity guest every week (although,  I wouldn't be surprised if some of our lecturers were closet B-listers...) but this was a very special visit. James flew up specifically just for the day, braving Edinburgh's finest display of summer weather (torrential rain and freezing temperatures) to give us a talk on the latest and greatest herbs he's encountered and to share his knowledge with us in making potions, lotions, concoctions and brews (stay with me!).

But first we initiated him into the ways of Herbology.  Catherine had collected some beautiful Sambucus negra ‘Black Lace’ and so off we set on making trays of Elderflower & Hibiscus Turkish Delight.
James grew up in Malaysia where there are no boundaries between the concepts of food, medicine and therapeutic and even cosmetic preparations – all are done for the good of the body and health of the individual. He trained as Ethnobotantist focusing on how medicinal plants were used by different cultures across the world. Surprisingly he found that many of our familiar friends have traveled far and in the wake of European colonisation established residency in ancient traditions. So for example, in Ecuador, shamans who look and practice in a seemingly unique and indigenous way are actually using the same herbs we use: dandelions, nettles, daisies and hedgerow plants.

Catherine Conway-Payne & James Wong

His research, both independent and in tandem with Kew Garden experts, continues to embrace a global exchange of knowledge and he actively advocates changing what we grow in our gardens. In fact by introducing foreign plants we can reap benefits of not only health but of wealth too. A few topping his list:

Actinidia arguta 
Replace Gooseberries with Kiwis. Not your run of the mill kiwi (Actinidia deliciosa), but the smaller  Actinidia arguta (one of 96 other kinds of known Kiwis). It is a prized ornamental shrub and yields small strwabery size fruits. Older Japanese tradition considers them a poor man's food, but they are hugely antioxidant and can be used to counteract stomach upset and have excellent exfoliant properties for skin.

Wasabi japonica
Grow Wasabi not Cabbages. Wasabi naturally grows on chalky soil, in cold, freezing, wet conditions - an environment most definitely found here.  The peas, plants and stems are all good for you and sell for an enormous amount (stems = £10 each) in world markets, but can hardly been bought for love or money in the UK. Covent Garden would sing if you arrived with a basket of these.

Stevia rebaudiana
Ditch the Mint and plant Stevia.  Stevia 30 times sweeter than sugar – a fact not gone unnoticed by Japanese diet soft drink producers who use it instead of Nutrasweet (now in liquidation as a result in New Zealand and Australia).  Stevia is also anti-bacterial and -even better- good for your teeth! At the moment it is illegal to grow or sell in the UK/EU but that all changes in a month or two…

Crocus sativus
Cultivate Crocus instead of Onions. These beautiful Fall croci yield Saffron in the form of their stigmas – more valuable ounce for ounce than gold. Saffron used to be widely grown in Britain (Saffron Walden, Saffron Hill, etc).  Added to a Martini it releases a natural mood enhancer and in Turkey is used for erectile dysfunction...a real party animal.

Acmella oleracea
Plant borders with Sizhuan Buttons not Daisies. The tiny yellow button flowers of the Acmella oleracea contain alkylamides which are immune enhancers, anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial. They also explode in your mouth like natural space dust or pop rocks. Applied in formulations to your skin they act as a natural Botox relaxing the facial muscles and in fact are used in products such as Tri-Aktiline, sold over the counter at Boots.

James Wong making Lemon Balm Cordial
We used the afternoon to show off our herbal beds to James despite the torrential downpour (sorry, guys....). James was entirely diplomatic about it and soaked and sodden as the rest of us....  However we redeemed our character by whipping up a Lemon Balm cordial and passing round the Elderflower Delight.

Herbologist paparazzi encountering Elderflower Delight
We even made a brief appearance in the Twittersphere...and the recipe can be found on James' website.

Thank you for a