Thursday, 14 April 2011

4 Doctors in a Day

12 April 2011
We had four-days-in-one in Herbology on Tuesday: Ethonomedica morning, Ethnobotany before lunch,  Neutraceutical mid-afternoon and Tibetan Medicine for tea.

North Berwick trains are known to run come snow, fog, rain and Scotch mist, but have difficulty getting there and back on glorious sunny days. So, I was late in arriving for the early morning lecture and felt the hush entering the classroom by then under direction of the redoubtable Anne Barker.

Anne Barker
 Anne is a practising Medical Herbalist and the Regional Co-ordinator for Scotland for the Ethnomedica Project run by the RBGE and Kew Gardens. The project aims to create an archive of ‘Remembered Remedies’ culled from the minds of our oldest (and most knowledgeable?) residents. Anne regularly travels to the northern isles in search of memories (visions of Dumbledore’s wand looming over his Pensive) and carefully captures every word in database-able format.  Fortunately, she is also writing a book which will help to preserve the bright lively narratives that accompany the archivable facts of old ways of treating cuts, boils, ulcers and eye infections.
Bogbean  (Lus-na-Loach)

Critical to her research is discerning what plant a person is talking about in the first place. Many Gaelic plant names are similar, and as every island has its own form of Gaelic, so the written word and English translation are susceptible to mix-up.  Thus Lus-na-Loach (Bogbean) has often been confused with Lus-na-loagh (Golden Saxifrage) which also pretends to be Lus-nan-Loach (Roseroot) in written works. 
Golden Saxifrage (Lus-na-Loagh)

Maybe picture books weren’t such a bad idea… In any case, we learned new applications for Primrose leaves (remarkably good for relieving boils: Apply veiny sides of leaves as a poultice (changed each day) until all pus drained away; then apply soft side of the leaves as a poultice to complete the skin’s healing process.

Roseroot (Lus-nan-laoch)
One of Anne’s rules is to use indigenous species in her berbal remedies, as long as they are not endangered in any way. One of her favourites is Roseroot (Rhodiola rosea or Rhodiola sedum rosea), a Scottish native that also grows across the circumpolar regions (Iceland, Norway, Russia) of the world. A fantastic ‘adaptogen’ it has been known since Viking times as the "herb of champions".  Roseroot works on the mid central nervous system, is neuro-protective, cardiac-protective, improves memory, prevents immune depletion, increases stamina and strengthens resolve – a sort of natural Russian steroid. Australian researchers have gone mad for it too, researched every last element and it is now used by many Herbalsits throughout the world.

Anne Barkler’s recommended reading list:
Memory, Wisdon & Healing, by Gabriel Hatfield, Stroud Publsihin
Adaptogens by David Winston & Stephen Mains
Greenfiles (a subscription based newsletter) by Anne Larvin in Alnwick

Greg Kenicer in the field of the RBGE
Greg Kenicer talked us through the genetic code of Economic Botany and Ethnoflora. Great store is taken in the professional botanists' world of developing databases of information and keeping them safe from predatory hands and minds. The aim is to combat mis-use by mighty pharmaceutical companies (aka Bio-Pirates) who might strip an area of newly discovered plants, hoping that one might possibly contain a  miracle cure for cancer or some other highly lucrative disease. The practice has had a devastating effect on delicate and singular ecologies and has brough little or no reward to the local people. Some countries (like Peru) try to contain ‘plant theft’ and to preserve both the intellectual property and 'genetic reserves' of their land. Others (like Korea) are actively promoting plant piracy as they race to develop new drugs, setting up labs worldwide and razing vulnerable landscapes.

 Intellectual property rights, (whose origins must be with geeky lawyers), has entered the plant kingdom with the emergence of food giants (and even arms dealers) genetically modifying plants to suit their purposes.  Did you know thatTaco Bell (aka Taco Hell) holds a patent for it’s own ‘Starlink’ maize – used, we guess, to make mucho tortillas?, or that M&S holds a trademark for ‘Oakham’ chickens, based on breed and rearing. If you can deal with altering genetic code (easy, says Greg) then all you need to do is register it on GenBank and hope the plant doesn’t mutate en route to the bank.

Greg’s recommended databases:
Economic Botany Data Standards -

Talking to an English Walnut
 Ursula Fearn, Nutritional Therapist met us back in the classroom after lunch with a wonderful array of ‘power foods’ that we could safely eat.  With a BSc in Botany & Zoology, a Masters in Human Ecology, and a 2nd degree in Nutritional Therapy, she has an in-depth knowledge of what’s good for you and took us on a walk through the gardens to see and touch some famous Walnuts.

Back in the classroom (aka kitchen) we talked this way and that (no notes taken, sadly) around the tables about the real cause of heart disease (inflammation, not cholesterol), humoral medicines, her top 10 foods, ancient Orcadian barley and the short /long carbon chains that make up Omega 3,6 an 9, etc... At the same time we chopped, mashed and then whizzed into a hummus like paste the following super-foods:
Walnut & Pomegranate Paste

A Georgian Recipe for Walnut & Pomegranate Paste 
¾ cup walnuts (only nut that is the source of Omega 3)
5 cloves garlic (good for cleansing your blood
¼ tsp tumeric (anti-inflammatory)
2 tsps coriander seeds (carmitive and digestive aid)
¼ cup fresh coriander leaves (vitamin C & anti-oxidant)
¼ cup pomegranate juice (excellent anti-oxidant)
2 tsps red wine vinegar (lowers blood pressure)

Good on toast, particularly Ursulas’ home baked Walnut and Brown Ale bread. 

Ursula's recommended reading is the following (click on title for external link):
Cardiovascular Disease: Diet, Nutrition & Emerging Risk Factors 
Cancer Active Centre:
Dr Paul Clay's Books

Dr Dhonden of the Tara Trust
 Refreshed and reinvigorated, we greeted Dr Dhonden, a Tibetan Doctor based at the Tara Trust in Edinburgh.  Dr Dhonden brought with him 6 of the most common herbs used in traditional Tibetan medicine for us to learn about:
Green Cardamon pods and seeds

Elettaria Cardamomum - Green Cardamon
Crocus Sativus  & Crocus Tintnctorius – Crocus and Safflower
Pegacophyton scapifloum – Himalayan Scape Flower
Rhodiola Crenulata - a variety of Roseroot
Rheum spiciform royle – Himalyan Spikend Rhubarb
Vladmiria souleri - not sure

Most were dried and powdered, and we tasted each in turn.  Typically, traditional Tibetan medicine is taken by applying a single or mixture of powder to thettongue and then drinking a glass of water, although the herb can be mixed with water first. In fact though traditional Tibetan medicine, when practised here in the UK it is not ‘traditional’ at all as no animal elements can be used (normally 5%).  In his beautiful book - pictures of all the Tibetan medicine ingredients – was an exotic array of flowers, roots, leaves, rocks, minerals, birds, monkeys, spiders, beetles, flies and dung….
Dr Dhonden's Book of Tibetan Medicinal things
 It’s very hard to explain, but seemed clear to understand at the time, that a Tibetan doctor's diagnosis relies equally on one’s humours (wind, fire, earth, water, and space), the patient's astrological chart, the time of year and patient's pulse.  A good doctor can feel the state of your internal organs by pressing three fingers along various places of your pulse.
Himalayan fields
Herbs (making up the other 95%) are gathered in the wild – cultivation virtually unknown – as the belief is that only when a plant is collected from a natural environment, where it lives in harmonious balance with the altitude, soil, temperature, water level and other plants, will it give  its full potency.  Even then it must be harvested only at a certain time of year and only for a specified number of days, according to its purpose and efficacy.  Plants taken from Tibet and planted here at the RBGE astound Dr Dhondon – they are generally too big, overly fleshy (surprised?) and have ‘lost their power’. But more sadly, native wild plants in Tibet are being stripped to extinction by unscrupulous traders who do not follow the law - a moral crime in more ways than one.

Ready for Easter!
So with our heads full of new knowledge, our bags full of soap and Ursula's parting gifts of Lovage plants,  we set sail for a long Easter break.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Herbs of the Highlands & Islands

22 February 2011

Duncan Ross came down from his walled herb garden at Poyntzfield to lead us through a exploration of the native plants and herbs grown, collected and used in the Scottish Highlands & Islands.

Indigenous cultures have always used herbs that are either on their doorstep, along the shores or deep in woodlands to create medicines, cures and preventatives.  The Highlands embody that practice and have developed a rich cornucopia of herbs and herbal lore that has been passed down the ages to our generation, primarily through an oral tradition. However, works such as Martin Martin’s “Description of the Western Isle of Scotland” (1703) and Alexander Carmichael’s volumes of “Carmina Gadelic” contain refereneces to both medicinal and culinary use of wild herbs. More recent research and work has seen the publication of works such as Healing Threads, by Mary Beith (Polygon, 1995), The Scots Herbal, by Tess Darwin (Mercat Press, 1996), and Flora Celtica by Bridgewater & Milligan (Birlinn, 2004).  The National Library of Scotland also holds a huge repository of books and archives, from individual Herbals, to snippets noted down by travellers, doctors and cooks alike such as Scotland’s first printed recipe book, “Mrs. McLintock’s Receipts for Cookery and Pastry-Work” (1736).

The Gaelic herbal tradition was one of primarily of prevention as much as cure, and there are numerous references to herbs that will fortify and strengthen the system as well as those to adress ailments, injuries and illness. The herbs and formulations vary from south to north based on local habitats, resources and cultural traditions, but there are a surprising number used across the country and even those that are similar to Scandinavian herbal medicines.  Mediterranean plants were brought in, and of course doctors were sent to the Continent for training from the early 12th century, but  more interesting still is the fact that certain Scottish indigenous species, such as Roseroot (Rhodiola rosea) were collected, sold and venerated by Greeks and Arabs from ancient times.  A testament to the trading and selling acumen of the ancient Scots, I'd vouch.

Duncan’s own nursery grows over 100 native and naturalised herbs, all listed by their Latin name, common English name and Gaelic name.  This helps to identify plants across different landscapes and cultures and to understand what they were traditionally used for, what they looked like, or where they were found. Some key Gaelic indicators are:

Slan = health
Slainte math = good health
Lus = plant

We looked at:

Baldmoney (Meum anthamanticum) = Muilceann (scented head)
A herbaceous perennial Found in the central Highlands and south-western areas in old undisturbed pastures and wayside habitats. It was primarily used in a culinary sense before the introduction of Mediterranean herbs to spice up Scottish food.

Bearberry (Arctostaphyllos uva-ursi) = Grainnseag (grain like berry)
 An evergreen perennial growing in dry stony places at high altitude, it is tough enough to withstand severe weather conditions and be happy – a true Scot!. The berry is actually not very pleasant, having a dry mealy flavour, but the leaves were used (by Native Americans at least) to treat urinary infections – a tradition that has since passed into European lore.

Blaeberry/ Bilberry / Whortleberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) = Braoileag (berry)
Native to Britain this berry prefers acidic upland moors and open woodlands. Highly concentrated in vitamin C, it can help to reduce blood sugar levels, relieve stomach problems, clear throat and mouth infections and improve eyesight. Traditionally the purple berries were also used to dye wool and of course make delicious pies.The French make a ‘sirop’ from the berries (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic) and in Provence add this to local Cotes du Rhone to make a ‘Miru” – delicious!

Bogbean/ March Trefoil (Menyanthes trifolata) = Tri Bhilean (three-leaved)
I guess we know it has three leaves…Bogbean grows in the calm, clear water – usually lochs. It is an excellent bitter tonic that improves digestion, purifies the blood and fights sinusitis, eczema and arthritis.  It was also used in the past to flavour beer and to make ‘herbal’ cigarettes….hmmm.

Lesser Burdock (Arctium minus) = Bramasag (burr-head)
As the Gaelic says, this biennial plant releases burrs which attach themselves to clothing (and dogs), and were the inspiration for Velcro. It is used in both western and oriental medicine with the roots/seed used as a detoxicant to help reduce infections and address skin problems. It is also combined with Dandelion to create a traditional soft drink. The root oil extract is good for improving hair and scalp. Increasingly burdock is grown as a root vegetable in western USA due to influence of Asian (primarily Japanese) tradition.

Cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus) = Oidhreag “beauty and elegance”
A native of the Scottish Highlands, Cloudberry grows at altitude, literally thriving in the clouds above the tree-line. It loves the moist, peaty soils and can survive the harsh sub-arctic conditions (and very little sunshine) very well. A small creeping herbaceous perennial, it likes to grow in and around heater and sphagnum moss.. The fruit looks like a raspberry, but is vaired in colour from red to orange and cream.  It is often made into a jelly – a great favourite of Scandinavians (and Canadians too)

Bog Myrtle/ Sweet Gale (Myrica gale) = Rideag
A deciduous shrub native to northern Europe, Scotland and Ireland that grows happily in  moist/damp acidic soil.  Bog Myrtle has been used for centuries to deter insects (you can wear it behind your ears to fight midges), added to bedding, placed amongst linen and as an old fashioned ‘strewing herb’. It has also been used to flavour beer and to dye fabric. The seeds are highly aromatic, oily and contain a wax traditionally used in Highland candles. The scent however is soporific and, when combined with lavender and hops, will surely send you straight to sleep.

Common Centaury (Centaurium erythraea) Ceud-bhileach (hundred leaves)
Common grassland flowering biennial that is found throughout Britain. The whole plant is harvested just at point of flowering and then used fresh or dried to create a bitter tonic as a tea or in a tincture. Traditionally used to stimulate the appetite and digestion, it also helps to clean related organs. It was also added to whiskey on Uist  - to make a “wee tincture” no doubt!

Cranberry (Vaccinium oxyciccus) = Muileag (frog berry)
This is the European cranberry, as opposed to the American cranberry,  a small evergreen creeping shrub that likes the company of moist sphagnum bogs in upland areas. The fruit has traditionally been made into jams and jellies, but is also good for treating urinary tract infections and tastes good in soft drinks.

Crowberry (Empetrum nigrum) = Dearcan feannaig (crow’s berry)
A common, native evergreen shrub found growing along the sea, by sand dunes, and rocky places, but also upland places of acidic soil. It has ben used as a food source in northern climes for centuries as the berries are prolific a thirst quenching drink that is high in vitamin C and good for keeping coughs and colds at bay.

Wild garlic (Allium ursinum) = Creamh (chew)
Quite a common herbaceous perennial that grows in shaded, moist woodlands throughout Europe. Known since Stone Age times for its health giving and medicinal properties, it comes to life at the very beginning of Spring when all fresh greens are welcomed and relished and much needed.

Hart’s Tongue (Asplenium scolopendirum) = Greamh mac feidh (wild boars’ plant)
This was known as” one of the five great capillary herbs” from ancient Greek times when it was used as an astringent to treat dysentery and diarrhoea.  In the Highlands the leaves were used in ointments for burns and scalds, in more recent times it is combined with Golden Seal to treat diabetes. It is very scarce in the wild and harvesting is restricted.

Wild Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum) = Cas-fa-chrann (twisted around tree)
A beloved flowering vine, indigenous to Britain, that thrives in hedgerows across the land. Wreaths of honeysuckle, rowan and ivy were hung over doors to mark special occasions and the sweet juice that can be sucked from the base of the flower on a warm summer’s day is a reminder of childhood pleasures.

Juniper (Juniperus communis) = Aiteal (to pierce)
Juniper trees are native to the north of Scotland where they used to be very widespread – less so now due loss of natural habitats, but sill often found in ancient gardens and estates.  The berries have been used medicinally and as culinary ‘spice’ from pre-historic times. They are used to flavour drinks, cheese pates, and burning the wood and branches acts as a purifier.  The oil is used in modern day aromatherapy as a detoxifier and rejuvenator for rheumatism, arthritis and skin disorders

Wild Marjoram /Scots Oregano (Origanum vulgare)= Lus-Marsalaidh
The wild marjoram that grows in Scotland is part of a large genus of many species that have been used for millennia for food, aroma and medicine.  Originally a native of the Mediterranean, it grows happily up to the north of Scotland besides rivers, on well drained soils and in sunny sites. The flavour is different to those growing in southern climes, but still just as delicious.  Leaves are used fresh in all sorts of cooking, flowers used as garnish and when dried as a tea. The oil is used in aromatherapy for muscular aches and pains, sprains, rheumatism and stress.

Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) = Crios Chuchulainn (Chuchulinn’s belt)
A native plant known since ancient times as a cure fro relieving headaches and for calming nerves – aspirin was derived from the salicylic acid it produces. It was also used traditionally to flavour Mead, and the leaf and flowers can be used on external sores and ulcers.

Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)  = Groban or Liath lus (grey plant)
This is commonly found in the lowlands of Britain, often in wayside places.  It has been used over centuries to help keep away disease and for repelling insects.  It was a sacred Druidical herb and has a reputation for promoting psychic ability – place it under your pillow to have sweet dreams.

Oyster Plant (Mertensia maritime)
This lovely shingle loving, foreshore plant grows naturally on the north and west coasts of Scotland and along the facing shores of Northern Ireland and Cumbria. It has succulent green leaves that add an oyster flavour to salad.

Roseroot (Rhodiola rosea) = Lus nan laoch (plant of the Hero or Champion)
Growing high on the sea cliffs of northern and western Scotland, it is also found from Iceland to Scandinavia and Siberia where is originally is from. The medicinal effects from the root (fresh or dried) are used to increase mental and physical endurance, increase resistance to altitude, reduce depression anaemia and infections.

Sea Holly (Eryngium maritimum) = Cuillion-traghad (seashore holly)
Growing along the sand dues of the west coast of Scotland, this small thistle-like pernniel has blue shiny leaves and powder blue flowers in late summer. Traditionally it was candied, but today is used to combat cystitis and urethritis.

Self-heal (Prunella vulgaris) = Slan lus (healing plant)
This well know wild flower has been used by herbalist forever.  In the Hebrides the leaves were blended into an ointment with Golden Rod and butter to help heal wounds. The leaves were used on their own to treat mouth ulcers and sore throats, and a bruised leaf will help stem the flow of blood if cut or bruised. The Chinese use it for fevers, headaches, high blood pressure and liver problems.

Tormentil (Potentilla erecta or tormentilla) = Braonan fruich (earth nut of the heather)
A common ‘root’ herb of the Highlands, Britain and Europe, the plant is a herbaceous perennial with small buttercup-like flowers, found growing happily amongst the heather.  The root is red-brown and is very astringent.  It can be used fresh as a decoction, or dried and powdered to make an internal remedy for diarrhoea and other alimentary problems. It helps to prevent gum disease, sore throats, sore lips, and mouth ulcers.

Common Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) = Lus nan tri bhilean (three-leaved plant)
Growing predominately in marshlands or on waysides verges, Valerian is a herbaceous perennial of the Highlands, Britain and north west Europe. It has divided leaves and profuse pink-white flowers that hoverflies love. The roots are used in herbalists’ medicine as a calming agent for nerves, stress, headaches and insomnia, but its use should be carefully monitored and measured

Vetch / Wild Liquorice (Lathyrus monanaus/linifolius) = Carmeal (dig-enjoy)
A Scots Highland herb, Bitter, Mountain or Tuberous Vetch has been in regular use in the past and is now enjoying something of a renaissance. It was used in Roman times and in the late Mideval period – the dried root being roasted for its mild liquorice flavour to create a drink or keep the appetite satisfied on long journies. It was also used to flavour whiskey and it has stimulating properties.

Both Kew Gardens and the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh are engaged in a project to preserve the herbal heritage of Scotland by honouring and remembering the knowledge and wisdom of the previous generations.  We have embarked upon a task to collect stories, knowledge and skills from the older generation in order to retain and re-lean these things. This is an ongoing project across all the gardens  - form more information or to contribute to the knolwedge base, contact Kew Gardens.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Himalayan Herbs

15th March 2011

 We spent a lovely rainy day, tucked into our classroom/lab/kitchen with Duncan Ross recounting about his adventures in the Himalayas, trekking and herb hunting.  He’s written an account of his time there in a publication ‘In search of Jatamansi’ which you can order from Poyntzyfield Nursery.

His story relates his quest for the elusive and increasingly rare Himalayan medicinal plant, Jatamansi – a plant that has been used and venerated for over four millennia in Tibeten and Indian medicine (Ayurvedic). It was also used in the Middle East (known as Nard) and is mentioned in the Bible (John 12,3) as the oil that Mary anointed the feet of Jesus with at the Last Supper. It appears too in the Song of Solomon and was reputedly use by the Mugal Empresses Nur Jahan. Unsurprisingly it is only one of many (in fact 15,000) plants and spices used in traditional medicine there.

The Himalayas have been a haven for souls seeking God and for plant hunters seeking knowledge and some seeking riches - a tradition that still continues.  Scots were some of the earliest European plant hunters who explored these regions and collected both new species and reports of their medicinal use. The geography of the Himilayas is surprising similar to Scotland, particularly the Highlands, and so we have been able to grow and cultivate Himalayan species with some success.  Many of the most valued plants grow in the high rocky, ericaceous soil of the sub-alpine areas. Amongst those we considered were:

Jatamansi (Nardostachys grandiflora or Nardostachys jatamansi) – in addition to its use as a highly valued essential oil, the roots are used to make cardiac and respiratory stimulants for treating palpitations and bronchial problems. It is also used in small doses for its action as a depressant on the central nervous system. A tincture or decoction of the dried roots is given for colic and flatulence (with added camphor and cinnamon) and it is used by Indian women as a highly aromatic hair tonic and darkener. Jatamansi has antibacterial and antifungal properties and is renown for its harmonising effect on metabolism

Valerian jatamansi – is of a similar size and has a similiar root aroma to Nardostachys grandifloria, but it grows in woodlands and pine forests by streams.  Its roots are traditionally dried and made into incense and it is used as a sedative to reduce stress and induce sleep.

Himalayan Mandrake (Podophyllum hexandrum/emodi) is one of the very scarce wild plants that is rapidly disappearing due to over harvestation in the Himalayas. It has a reputation as an anticarcenogenic, but can be highly dangerous to use without medical supervision It produces a great mass of roots which are dried and used as a powder for treating worts.  It is a excoratic – a herbal element that can burn tissue

Ashwaghanda  - Indian Ginseng -(Withania sominifera)  is one of the most important Ayurvedic medicinal herbs that grows at a lower altitude in the Himalayas. It is sometimes know as Winter Cherry in Europe as when grown free of frost the flowers fruit into small plum size shiny orange-red berries. An excellent ‘Adaptogen’, it can be used in a tonic it helps the body to gain resilience and balance. The leaves can be gathered fresh and made into a poultice to reduce swellings, burns and stings or when the root is harvested in autumn it is dried to treat a number of aliments including insomnia, infertility, impotence, rheumatic conditions. It is now being researched as an anti-tumour and HIV remedy.

Kutki (Picrorhiza kurroa, also P.scrophulariflora) – is again an increasing rare plant and now on the endangered species list. It can be cultivated in Scotland quite easily and will thrive without too much attention. The leaves can be picked and used fresh as an appetitive stimulant and to ward off winter fevers, enhance liver function, repel intestinal worms and the rhizome dried and used in preparations.

Himalayan Barberry (Berberis asiatica) is a shrub found throughout many northern temperate countries and in the Himalayas is used in food, medicine and as a dye plant. The berries can be made into jelly, or dried and added to rice to give it a sweet/sour flavour.  The roots contain antibacterial properties and are used in a decoction to control diarrhoea, fevers, liver disorders and as a general detoxicant.  It is also used to create a yellow dye.

Himalayan Burdock - Kuth or Costus (Sassurea costus) is one of those plants getting rarer to find in the wild too.  It is listed under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). Used for millenia in both Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, the roots have numerous purposes  for example as a laxative, digestive and carminative. It can help to purify the system and clear away skin problems.  The essential oil is used in perfumes and food.

As noted, many of the above plants (and numerous others) which have been traditionally harvested from the wild are now over-harvested and indeed endangered.  There are thankfully, initiatives in both Tibet and India to change the collecting habits of local people and to curtail commercial harvesters. This takes the form of small-holdings high in the sub-alpine regions growing these species for companies like Pukka Herbs that sell them commercially, worldwide.

After lunch we went out to inspect our demonstration-herb-beds-to-be (in the rain). We uncovered our plots, got ahold of some hoes and made an attempt to organise them into some sort of shape.  We also had a moment to dig in some of the exotic specimens delivered by Duncan from his nursery.

Later in the afternoon, settled with a ginger root tea to warm us up, we watched The Blue Poppy – Preserving Tibet, a film about traditional Tibetan doctors and efforts being taken to cultivate native herbs and plants in a sustainable way. 

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Soap Making

On 8th March, Jim Caurnie of The Caurnie Soaperie in Kirkintilloch joined us to induct us into the art of fine soap making. Caurnie Soaps use a traditional cold process technique to produce ‘the best possible, organic, Scottish soap’ that has been selling worldwide since 1922.
Jim Caurnie

Jim brought with him some beautiful soap samples:

Nettle which is particularly good for eczema and psoriasis,
Aloe Vera & Scots Oats for delicate skins,
Peppermint for increasing memory and keeping you wide awake,
Bog Myrtle for acne and its anti-bacterial/ antiseptic nature,
Lavender for its sleep inducing properties,
Basil & Rosemary for clarity of mind,
Heather for its calming, cleansing ways.

The ‘cold process' creates a solid soap that matures (hardens) as it ages so lasting longer.  This is in contra-distinction to ‘melt & pour’ type of soaps made by Lush, (whom we are led to believe is an uber-organic-high integrity company), but essentially their method is a good way of making money as the soap melts away so quickly that it soon needs replacing. The cold process is has enhanced credentials in that it requires no added chemicals or petro chemicals to produce and can be used by people with multiple chemical allergies safely. 
Caurnie Soaps

We soon digressed (who, us?) and got into a discussion about nettles and their neglected therapeutic properties. Jim’s a big fan and waxed lyrically on the particular merits of nettles in helping to control skin condidtions, such as exzema and psoriasis. Nettles are also be used as a rubefacient, to draw blood away from joints and skin thus relieving the pain of arthritis and rheumatism. An old Italian tradition is to flay the skin around the affected joint with freshly cut nettles until the stinging is unbearable – but as the stinging dies away, so does the pain at least for a few weeks… A milder form of treatment can be had by gathering  young leaves in spring and then freezing them for future use or making a tincture.

Okay, back to the soap making process. Historically there are two methods: the cold process which keeps all the oily parts in the soap, producing a more natural and moisturising bar; and the ‘boiling process’ where heat separates glycerine out of the fat – this was popular historically as it allowed the use of ‘stinky’ oils (e.g. whale oil). The basic chemistry is:

Vegetable oil + NaOH (Sodium Hydroxide) + Water
in an exothermic process to separate fatty acid from the glycerine
Soap Scientists

The afternoon was spent concoctiong our own soaps in a spirit of competition – we all wanted to win the box of beautiful soaps Jim had brought down. So lines were drawn, Sophie and I teamed up, and the race began...
Just at 'trace' stage
How to make a Castile soap

200gms coconut oil
800 gms olive oil
137 gms lye (NaOH)
375gms water
30 mls of essential oil

Melt the coconut oil if solid and mix with olive oil in large plastic container. Very carefully pour the lye into water (and not vice versa!) and mix with a metal spoon. Mix is very caustic, fatal if swallowed and it will burn the skin – wash immediately with vinegar if it does.

Designer soap
Sir the both mixtures together and whizz with a hand mixer until it reaches the ‘trace stage’ (when the mixer head leaves a trace of its trail). This took us about 15- 20 minutes. Quickly add essential oil and mix thoroughly.  Pour into a soap ‘cast’ and press any herbs or flowers onto the top layer. Leave to set at least one week, but probably longer (close to 5).  Sophie and I made the following:
Ode to Spring & France et Ecosse

France et Ecosse’ - Lavender oil with dried Lavender and Heather flowers
Ode to Spring’ - Lavender oil with tincture of Chickweed & Oats topped with winter flowers

Our competition tried Lavender oil with:
a tincture of Calendula Flowers
a topping of  Bladderwrack
a topping of Pine needles, Witch Hazel blossoms, Bog Myrtle & Lavender

The Soap Making Competitors

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Biodiversity & Conservation

I’m working a bit backwards here, catching up on some days missing from the blogr

22 March 2011
Greg Kenicer was back with us today to talk about conservation, ecology and biodiversity. The RBGE is world-famous for its biodiversity programmes, as epitomised in the new John Hope Gateway Centre at the West Gates of the Edinburgh gardens.  The four national gardens within Scotland work closely with research institutes across the globe and are involved in major projects addressing conservation and biodiversity.

We started with the good old ‘food chain’: 
  • Primary Producers (plants) at the bottom,
  • Primary Consumers (those who eat plants) in the middle,
  • Decomposers (worms, bacteria, fungi) at the top.

Of course, they are all linked circuitously as well.

Biodiversity: is one of the buzz words of this decade and often goes hand-in-hand with climate change (it was Acid Rain in my day).  It relates primarily to measurement of the number of species living in one specific area (1 unit =1species). Key projects at the RBGE include ‘inventory work’ which measures the number of different species in one area and ‘monographic work’ which looks at a group of plants and measures how many different species exist within that group. Most projects seeking to attract funding will have a ‘biodiversity’ element to them, which helps to inform which conservation programmes are undertaken. The choice might relate to areas under threat from natural or man-mande causes, new or unexplored regions, plant species necessary for survival or economic stability and/or edemism (where species exist only in one small area, like Scotland).
Biodiversity Hotspots - courtesy of UC Berkeley 

Conservation: is intimately linked to biodiversity as scientists must look at ways of preserving and conserving it. The key methods are:

In-situ - where you take the fight to the place it happens, e.g by fencing off or preserving (through national parks) areas of land to consever and perhaps re-seatablish species.

Ex-situ – where plant collections are taken to ‘safe sites’, perhaps around the world (and in many cases, very secretive) so that stocks are established and new nursery populations grown.  This acts to ensure the saviour a species, but also allows re-introduction at a later date or in a different place.

Inter-situ – is a combination of both: conserving or re-establishing a natural habitat and then re-introducing species from safe site collections.

Genetic conservation – is a scientific study primarily of crop and rare plants. Using DNA to trace the genetic ‘roots’ of a plant helps to understand natural and manmade genetic variations. The aim is to help develop new plants that are more tolerant to climate change, mass-production, disease, and evolving production methods. A sort of reverse GM, but also engaged with GM too.

 Having had enough of indoors and slide shows when the sun was shining, we decided to go on a walk-about - quite one of the most wonderful aspects of taking a course in the Botanics. Greg took us through the magical hot houses growing all species of begonias (the largest collection in the world) and Monkey Puzzle trees of New Caledonia, followed by the deserts of North America, the temperate zones of Africa, and tropics of Southeast Asia. We then had a quick walk through a secret garden of New Zealand plants and finished in the orchid houses. 

Friday, 1 April 2011

Seashore Solutions

 29 March 2011
Catherine with Elspeth & Jim Gibb
We had a marvellous day today with Elspeth and Jim Gibb of Seaweed Organics ( This is one I had been looking forward to all term, being a seashore sort of person myself.
Boxes of seaweed
Catherine began the day off by bringing out a great box of all sorts of seaweeds (dried!) gathered from as far north as Skye down to the rocky shores of Wales.  We had great hairy bundles of a ‘sea maiden’s hair’, egg- wrack (with egg-like buoyancy bubbles), Bladderwrack, Dulse, Lava (made into lava bread in Wales), Carragheen (or Hebridean Moss) and Agar Agar (translucent strands of wrapping ribbon fibre).

Scotland is home to over 28 varieties of seaweeds categorised into four types:
  • Chlorophyceae (greens)
  • Phaeophyceae (browns)
  • Rhodophyceae (reds)
  • Cyanophceae (blues)

Sea Maiden's Hair, Bladderwrack & other seaweeds

Virtually all are edible (although perhaps not necessarily tasty) and all have immensely beneficial properties when taken internally or applied externally. They are a rich source of vitamins, minerals and trace elements (minerals) which promote nutrient balance as well as general health and well-being. Each species has an optimum time when its vitamin content is at its highest and many are only exposed at low tides. Jim and Elspeth harvest fresh seaweed primarily from the waters between Mull and Jura and from the coastline of North Uist. They take only the living ends of the seaweed, which happens to be the oldest part as the youngest cells grow from the base, near the holdfast. We looked at the most often used:

Ulva lactuca (Sea Lettuce), a bright green, almost paper thin seaweed which is gathered at Easter time from shallow, sandy bays . It is an excellent source of salt (naturally) and of vitamins A, B and C. Traditionally it was used as a poultice to help heal scar tissue, but also is eaten both raw and cooked in Scotland and is now known to reduce cholesterol.

Ascophyllum nodosum (Knotted Wrack) is a very commonly found brown seaweed that can be harvested all year round. It is rich in iodine, calcium, potassium and has oils with high concentrate of vitamin B12. It also has macronutrients including nitrogen, sulphur and phosphorus) with micronutrients (manganese, copper, iron, zinc) all of this is close to our own body’s mineral balance, so this is hugely useful seaweed. It is made into a powdered form (dried and whizzed) and used as a bath soak or in body creams. Extracts act as a natural sunscreen and it promotes tissue repair. It is produced as a food condiment and salt replacement by Seagreens.

Laminaria digitata (Kelp) is a brown seaweed growing in tall, dense forests (think of Monterey aquarium) and is usually only seen at very low tides. It creates a sort of wonderful underwater garden for all sorts of sea life.  Fronds are rich in a natural version of sodium glutamate and it is high in iron and iodine. The stalks however are used more commonly as the key ingredient to help to smooth and cool the skin.  Granules of the dried stalks may also  used as a gentle skin exfoliate.  (I also recall that the stalks were burnt to create a natural lye for soap making on Orkney…)

Carrageen in water
Chrondus crispus (Carragheen) is a Rhodophylaceae and displays a beautiful range of iridescent reds, pinks and purples in its natural habitat of the inner tidal range.  It is best harvested at the end of summer when it is full of the natural gels that are so good for the skin. It has antibacterial proerties, is rich in carbohydrates and acts as a natural emulsifier in making creams.  It has been used for centuries as a thickening agent in milk puddings and blanc manges, but needs a good dose of sweetness to make it palatable. It even has an E-number( E407 or E407b).

Palmaria palmata (Dulse) is an elusive pink, nearly transparent, seaweed that grows and is harvested year round. It lives in deeper water by attaching itself to tall kelp stems and can survive harsh ocean conditions. Dulse provides an excellent source of vitamins A and C as well as protein and fat.  It is used to increase cellular activity and improve skin elasticity in creams and lotions.  On the domestic front it is often fried up with bacon or put in soups and stews as flavouring.

As you can see, the therapeutic benefits of seaweed are immense. Having the great absorbent qualities that allow it to absorb minerals and micronutrients from the sea and other organisms, in turn it acts as a natural detoxifier, absorbing toxins from the body, when taken internally or externally.  It can even remove radiation from the body (take note Japan) as its cellular structure is similar to that of human plasma. It has been used for centuries to ease joints, improve circulation, moisturise skin and detoxify the system, and we in Britain are considered crazy by many of our island neighbours that we no longer use it as much as before.

Elspeth Gibb
The afternoon was spent working with Gill in our magical kitchen mode (i.e. everything out: portable electric hobs, bainmaires, measuring jugs, whisks, bowls, strainers, thermometers, scales, jars, spoons, labels, cameras and mugs of tea) to make a seaweed face cream and hand cream.  

Carrageen Face Cream

Carrageen Jelly
I was on the Face Cream Team and we started by gently heating a handful of Carrageen in water – bringing it just to the boil and then simmering until became a gelatinous goo which was then sieved and measured to 30 gms.

To this we added
350gms spring water
10gms glycerine
20gms emulsifier
60 drops perservative

Catherine supervising Sara and Ally
In a separate bowl we combined:
5gms Sunflower oil
10gms Safflower oil (thistle oil)
20gms Jojoba oil
10gms cetearyl alcohol
12.5gms VE emulsifier (vegetable derivative)

To make we heated each bowl up in the bain marie to over 75 degrees. Maintaining the heat in each we poured the oil based ingredients into the water based ingredients slowly, in a steady stream whisking gently and efficiently (so as not to add bubbles of air).  We continued whisking for about 15- 20 minutes and then let the cream cool to 40 degrees, whereupon we added:
7.5gms of Evening Primrose oil
12 drops of Essence of Orange oil

Et voila!
Seaside creams

Carrageen hand and face creams

Recommended reading:

Seaweed, A User's Guide by Sonia Surey-Gent
Seaweed and Eat It! by Fiona Houston & Xa Milne
Britain's Wild Harvest, by Hew Prendergast& Helen Sanderson