Thursday, 20 January 2011

Honey Farm

Now, between my lunar calendar, biodynamic calendar, Chinese 5 Elements chart, bio-rhythms, meridians and menstrual cycle, I was beginning to feel a wee bit overwhelmed (wee as in the understated, Calvinist, Scottish vernacular). A little light-hearted relief was therefore warmly welcomed in the form of a field trip to the Honey (no, not Funny) Farm!

Our group, reduced by the absence of Catherine, our trusty leader, and Amy (who is making first-class films in another sphere) all met for a pre-trip herbal tea (aka coffee) at the RBGE and then left the classroom behind.  We were greeted by our minibus driver (identity unknown)  who arrived late, accompanied by his daughter who had been beaten up by neighbours - so it was a slightly bewildering drive down the A1, as he careened through traffic, mobile in hand, Radio Forth blasting… perhaps his meridians weren’t aligned either.

An hour later, having missed the turning by 5 miles, a backseat revolt was initiated and we finally repointed ourselves towards our goal: a rambling farm track past barns of double-decker London buses, ancient tractors and rusting trailers to arrive the Chainbridge Honey Farm.

Willie S Robson owner and patron of Chainbridge was raised into a family that has kept bees for over a hundred years, he hums, thinks and works like a bee. His love of his black honeybees (indigenous to Scotland – not foreign imports) is infectious. He is in harmony with his hives; he knows what they know, feels the weather as they do, frets over lost habitats and wards off disease and mites through proper old fashioned bee husbandry.  They appreciate it and return their gratitude by producing 65 tonnes of honey a year.

Frances and Heather, Willie’s daughters, took us through the honey harvesting, cleaning, bottling and labelling process in their shining new Danish steelware facility. Imbued by the scent of honey everywhere, we were more than ready to sample a slice of their wonderful honeycomb fresh from the hive.  Beautiful thick, gooey golden nectar it is too. Fortified, we toured the beeswax and candle making rooms and finally arrived at the heart of the potions and lotions kitchen. Here we found an enlarged version of our own classroom – replete with giant mixers, mashers, strainers, heaters and oils - 60 litres big in this instance. Frances talked through their labelling and explained how the helpful Food Safety agency won’t let them describe any of their products as ‘healing’ or even 'soothing for dry’ skin,

Raw Beeswax
But healing and soothing it is. Honey has antibacterial and antiseptic properties and if applied to a wound will destroy bacteria and encourage the growth of new tissue and skin.  It is also known to have a beneficial effect on the immune system and is an anti-inflammatory. Different honeys have different characteristics such as Manuka honey from New Zealand where honeybees are surrounded by Tea Trees, the oil of which is a renowned antiseptic. Merged with beeswax, oat oil, and delicate scents, honey is also a wonderful treat for the skin.

Beeswax vats
Bee Farm Paparazzi

Sated and sticky, we headed north of the border again - driver calm, radio low, gently pulled by the rising moon back up the coast to home.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Chemical Elements

David Pirie, Medical Herbalist at the Tara Trust in Edinburgh came to the Gardens this week to give us instruction in plant chemistry; specifically the actions of primary and secondary metabolites. In a Socratic tradition our first proposition was to argue the premise of the topic – is it the chemical constituents of plants that are solely responsible for any physiological changes (and by extension, healing) in the body? Or is it the plant’s energy that affects healing? For intstance, South America herbalists match the sound resonance of a plant to a person before prescribing anything…so here we go

It actually all comes down to your gut reaction. Or rather the GIT (gastro intestinal tract) and how the metabolic process transforms foods /herbs in transit through the stomach, liver and bloodstream into the chemical compounds that nourish and heal.  Each plant’s chemical structure has a different action on the body, is released in different ways, works at its own pace and leaves when its ready.

Dr William Withering
with Digitalis
Dr William Withering discovered this in his seminal work with Dropsy patients prescribing the hitherto deadly Foxglove (digitalis). He realised that each patient required not only a different dosage depending on their tolerance but critically that dosages should decrease as heath improved. (The first dose of any toxic plant will make you nauseous – this set the dose for each individual).

Plants contains thousands of chemicals, categorised as metabolites: primary ones necessary for a plant’s survival and propagation; and secondary metabolites which are non-essential but that add a colour, flavour, aesthetic or action that contributes to its overall form. We often use only one part of a plant to deliver a specific healing action, but many herbs are best used holistically, balancing a potentially dangerous or toxic effect of a primary metabolite with a secondary one.  


It is these secondary metabolites that we turn to supply the key active ingredients in the healing process. They can be categorised most broadly as:
  • Acids
  • Alkaloids
  • Carbohydrates
  • Glycosides
  • Isoprenoids & terepenes
  • Phenols
  • Amines
  • Rubber Polymers
  • and so on...
David expounded on these further, breaking down each into its primary action and uses (anti-inflammatory/ antiseptic/ mucillangenous, etc), its relationship with key internal organs, what plant were sources and any potential complications. 

Naturally we wandered in our discussions, pondering how smell might be the most powerful influence on the human brain, what influence emotional memory had and new thinking in psycho-neuro-endo-immunology….

Last session of the day took it all and gave us one last twist – how elements of taste should also be considered in understanding treatments. The Chinese believe that a person’s life energy (Qi) runs along meridians in our body, linking and affecting all our organs. Each organ in turn is associated with an element (Fire, Water, Earth, Air, Metal) a season, an emotive state and a taste (sweet, sour, salty, bitter and pungent). By understanding the relationship of these elements we can adjust the Yin/Yang balance to maintain and obtain optimum health. 
 Diagram of the 5 Elements