Rain starts thoughtful play

IMG_3033There’s nothing doing on the rain soaked allotment at the moment but, or rather so, The Potwell Inn kitchen is a fragrant place  since I started a few small scale experiments on medicinal herbal extractions. My recently acquired teetotal credentials are getting a bit dented by the amount of time I spend in the supermarket searching for extra strong vodka, but it seems easier to get hold of pure alcohol for tinctures in America than it is here, and many of the reference books I’m using come from the US. I content myself with what the experts rather dismissively call ‘the folk method’.

However, buying the ingredients is a whole lot more complicated than clicking on websites. I’ve discovered that very few companies who sell herbal preparations actually have  sustainable re-planting schemes, and it’s difficult to find out who does. The THR certification scheme does no more that tell us that the herb in question has a history of use in the EU. Plantlife have some interesting/scary stuff on their website about the international trade in plant material and its impact on whole species.  Inappropriate harvesting of the whole plant instead of just the leaves or berries, and overharvesting in general have brought some species to endangered status. Arnica montana, American ginseng bearberry and liquorice are all threatened.  Meanwhile, a dispiriting search around the shelves of Holland and Barrett and Boots suggests that the 25% of the UK population which is said to use herbal medicine regularly may be an underestimate. As David Hoffmann rather acidly suggests, the market is nothing more than a means of delivery of green sounding benefits, far from the holistic approach he teaches. Big business is endlessly adaptable to the latest fashion, and it’s always sensible to read the label carefully.  I’ve counted any number of versions that seem cheaper until you notice you need to take four a day instead of the one a day quoted by more expensive products. The principle of extraction here is from your pocket rather than the generosity of the earth.

As for me, my interest in the whole subject is inspired by my interest in wildlife and plants and not at all by any repressed desire to live forever. I read recently about foragers being caught with 45Kg of fungi in one haul, and it would be unsurprising if the same extractive economy didn’t apply to wild flowers and plants here. My single exception perhaps would be couch grass – Elymus repens –  for which our allotment site could sign up an agreement any day! In the summer I harvested some Mugwort, some Ribwort Plantain and a little bit of Pellitory of the Wall, which are all dried and sitting in a cupboard. But I didn’t touch the drift of Betony or the large clump of Dodder and it didn’t even occur to me to harvest any of the Eyebrights.  We make 5 litres of Elderflower cordial for our own use every year and I hardly think that will damage the species.

So what happens when I want to buy some herbs because I’m not prepared to deplete the local wild plants?  Isn’t it possible that I’m simply evading my responsibilities by passing them on to some less scrupulous forager? The answer is we don’t really know and so we’re left in the gulf between scientific medicine which is not nearly as safe as it would like to pretend, dangerous misidentifications (have you tried this lovely soup I made from some white mushrooms I found in a wood?) and potentially damaging thoughtless harvesting. Right outside the window as, I write this, is a clump of Burdock from which I could easily harvest roots, but I don’t because it’s not just about rarity; many plants are specific food plants for insects, moths and butterflies.  pellitory of the wall is much liked by the Red Admiral, and the rarity might not inhere in the plant, but the species it feeds, and if I overharvested the burdock it would deprive the local children of their endless fun throwing the burrs at their friends. We’re all a part of the great scheme of things.

In the seventies one of my prized possessions was a dog-eared copy of the Whole Earth Catalogue on the cover of which (against one of the first pictures of the earth taken from space), were the words

“we can’t put it together, it is together”.

No, we can’t put it together but we can certainly rip it apart – and we’re doing it every minute of every day. I realized while I was reading that I’ve never positively identified vervain, another valuable medicinal herb.  That doesn’t mean to say it’s rare, it’s far more likely that I haven’t noticed it because (thankfully) it doesn’t shout out like a dahlia on steroids.  Now I know that I don’t know it I’ll keep an eye open  – it’s an interesting variant of the tree falling in a deserted forest koan. Without an observer does any plant exist meaningfully within our culture? But when I find it – it’s fairly common according to the local floras – I’ll bow and say hello, take a photo and then ponder whether I have the moral right to gather any.  I think that if I could add a day’s symptomatic ease to my life at the expense of a threatened plant, I’d put up with the symptom and never tell a soul where I found it.

The answer, or at least a part of it, would seem to be on the allotment after all. Some, but by no means all of these plants could be grown on a small plot.  Many more could be grown by farmers taking advantage of a niche market which could follow from our re-evaluation of the place of meat and dairy in our national diet. Some candidates – like liquorice –  are just waiting to be taken up because the cannabis bubble is bound to burst sooner or later. But sustainability needs deep and careful thought, and and a good deal of expertise, alongside the willingness not to exploit a resource – and that’s something that market economics finds it almost impossible to do.

 

“Where’s the evidence – David”

IMG_20191129_105716I should dedicate this posting to Sid Harris, my sociology tutor at tech college, a thousand years ago, who would challenge my sociological flights of fancy with the words – “- that’s all very exciting David, but where’s the evidence?” If there is any way of sending a profound thank-you to the past it would be to Sid for providing me with the alethiometer (great TV adaptation isn’t it?) that all thoroughgoing sceptics need to get through the mire of speculation, quackery and sheer roguery that infests our culture.

But the question has its price – particularly that going after the evidence demands a lot of commitment, blind alleys and reading which, added up, mean you have to live until you’re at least 110 to understand a simple question like ‘why does peeling onions make your eyes water?’ My latest read – yes I get through 3 or 4 books a week – is “Garlic and other Alliums” by Eric Block, and which is a magnificent book that makes me want to cheer and applaud every other paragraph. But understanding the central chapters depends on a familiarity with organic chemistry which I don’t have.  Every opening door leads to another whole corridor.

But today I’ll start with a Guardian article that perfectly demonstrates the thought I’m working on. If you haven’t clicked on the link, the article concerns biochar – a form of charcoal made by burning wood in an atmosphere starved of oxygen – so far so ordinary charcoal – but by doing it in a retort that captures all, or most of the nasties that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere. The hypothesis is that by making huge quantities of this compound and digging it into the earth we would be sequestering carbon in a way similar to, let’s suppose peat bogs or coal reserves. The article goes on to suggest that the biochar might also improve soil fertility and even the health of grazing animals at the same time. It’s a no-brainer, we should all go out and buy it right now save the world in a day. Except for a paragraph towards the end-

While academics and researchers are optimistic about the benefits of biochar, they are not blind to the risks either. “If we’re wrong, and we spread hundreds of thousands of tonnes of charcoal over the UK, we can’t get it back out of the ground. We’ve got to be right. The stakes are really high,” says Udall.

The evidence isn’t there yet.  It might be there in a year or two, if we do the research, but like most breathlessly announced breakthroughs, we need to slow down a bit. I imagine that the article itself will be mentioned many times, used as a sales pitch and generally enter the consciousness of allotmenteers and gardeners all over the world without the small-print warning following it.

When I started to read about the deep ecology movement I was puzzled by the phrase ‘aquarian conspiracy’ which often cropped up.  For me the ‘age of aquarius’ was a song in a musical where some people got their kit off on stage, I couldn’t associate it with the idea of a conspiracy. But what the phrase seems to allude to is the concept of a ‘new age’ in which all of the great challenges facing us are ‘solved’ by the application of new technology.  Apparently this became something of a Silicon Valley mantra. While you might think that making charcoal in a fancy retort is hardly ‘technology” it’s clear that the ideological use that it might be put to  could be a dangerous diversion from the pressing issue of our anthropocentric environmental greed. Soaking up excess carbon is a must, but you need to stop producing it at the same time.  The pressing danger of the ‘aquarian conspiracy’ is that it allows us to carry on polluting in the false belief that there’s always a technology around the corner.  And there’s no evidence for that either!

Evidence based science often clashes with the sales pitch – it’s hardly surprising – and the danger is that we rely so much on the carefully crafted ‘evidence’ produced for us like pre-digested seagull food, because we lack the skills to find out for ourselves. Here’s an interesting quotation from David Hoffmann’s book “Medical Herbalism”

I was asked to present a paper on the topic of “Herbal Alternatives to Prozac”.  This quest to identify a herbal alternative to Prozac is a perfect example of how the real gifts of herbalism can be deflected by underlying assumptions. It would, in fact, be more appropriate to consider the holistic alternatives to the current vogue for psychopharmaceutical solutions.

When judging outcomes in phytotherapy, the quality of an outcome depends on your values. If an RHS judge with a passion for formal gardens was asked to comment on our allotment they might say it’s a mess because it doesn’t meet their criteria (tidiness, straight lines, complete absence of pests and diseases), for “a good allotment”. A good outcome in holistic therapy (or gardening) might be an enhanced sense of wellbeing whereas a medical assessment might depend on a series of abstract measurements. Neither method is more correct than the other, they both try to be rigorous and they each have strengths that we depend upon – and in any case I have to say that being loved cared for and listened to is the best healer and that defies almost all science.

I remember well a ward sister at the General Hospital in Bristol where I was a part time chaplain. When she died in a riding accident, they put a plaque on the wall to commemorate her.  It’s gone now and they’ve turned the hospital into expensive flats – and I’ll  make no further comment on that subject! However Sister Valerie Helps – this is my little personal commemoration – had a gift beyond any scientific exploration.  Post operative patients in severe pain would feel better when she came on to the ward.  She would say -“could you hold on for just another half hour?” when they were calling for morphine, and they discovered that they could. She would challenge the doctors when they were attempting to do something stupid and inspire complete confidence in patients and relatives alike.

Lets do the science – masses of it – and be prepared to learn from it, even if it means changing some of our assumptions.  But for science and healing to work together they each need to broaden their underlying assumptions.  For science there’s the need to try to describe and quantify a broader range of outcomes which will have to include wellbeing and other ‘subjective’ states.  For herbalism, gardening and the whackier reaches of human culture we need to accept that not every hand-me-down remedy is necessarily, a priori, better.  I remember my mother talking about the lives saved when sulfonamides were first used during the 2nd world war.  They’ve been superseded now, for the most part, but in their day they were lifesavers. To go back to biochar, it may be a part of the answer to the climate catastrophe but in ethics they always say “you can’t make an ought into an is” and that’s not just a lesson for ethicists but for all of us.

Got anything for cold feet?

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Plantago major

IMG_20191126_141144All this rain! On the other hand, my incarceration in the flat has given me time to catch up with some reading, and I’ve immersed myself in David Hoffmann’s “Herbal Medicine”.  Slowly, slowly the pieces of the jigsaw are falling into place and the inter-relatedness of all things is showing itself wherever I look. In some ways I’m a million miles behind, especially when it comes to the complex decisions that phytotherapists need to make. But in other ways I feel pretty confident – the field botany, the Latin names and even the knowledge of where to look for plants have all been easy to adapt. In fact the extension into a related field of study has served to make plants even more interesting. The knowledge that a plant can function as so much more than a tick in a flora, but be a visual delight, a sign of the underlying soil conditions, a signal of ecological health or sickness, of ancient human habitation or recent of soil disturbance, not to mention its history, the literary references to it, its use as a food, flavouring and medicine.  It’s lovely that we can grow some of these herbs on the allotment, and it’s especially lovely that some of the plants with the most potent applications to human health are the least showy; often regarded as weeds. The capacity of plants to synthesise complex molecules from very simple ones is a miracle, and I’ve discovered the oral and worldwide cultural history that sustains herbal medicine goes back thousands of years, and which must make it one of the longest ever citizen science experiments.

I’ve also decided that rather than try to engulf the whole subject like a basking shark, it makes more sense to investigate plants as I find them, and possible uses as I need them myself. That way I don’t have to develop a fizzing brain and the certainty of my inadequacies through limited experience.

I’ve done a few of my own experiments, by gathering, drying and storing a few very easy ones and I’m pleased that the specimens I dried have kept their colour and survived for just under five months in a dark cupboard without any apparent loss of quality.  I’ve even tried a few completely safe things on myself – all this is beginning to look like a CV but really it’s not  – I’m just sharing how exhilarating it is to be so immersed. One highlight yesterday was to order up three herbs from a supplier to test on myself.

The Potwell Inn allotment is turning out to be a laboratory in which the plants do all the work and, at best, we’re the cleaners and porters who help out. Not only are we not the experts in all this, but it transpires that the plants don’t much need an expert.  As allotmenteers we provide room service for the plants, a bit of weeding and feeding here and there and perhaps a bit of pillow plumping while they get on with doing remarkable things.

It hasn’t all been a trip down the primrose path, though. While I was confined to the flat I got on with a few more computer moving jobs and while I was setting up a redirect on one of my old email accounts, I inadvertently created a logical argument that repeatedly copied copies of copies of emails back to their original senders, and one poor friend received 135 of his own emails before I noticed something wrong and pulled the plug. So If you happen to be one of the afflicted ones, please accept my apologies. As one of the victims said – ‘what is it about old people and technology?’ – I hope we’re still friends!

IMG_6262Then yesterday evening we went off to the AGM of the allotment society. The business part of the meeting was chaired with great efficiency so it was over in 3/4 hour and then after the inevitable tea and cake we had a talk given by Rob Solari from the Isle of Wight Garlic Farm. Talks can be anything from lethally sleep inducing to full-on loin girders.  Rob’s talk fell into the second category and in about an hour we realized how much we still have to learn about growing garlic. So much so that we were planning to change our whole approach by the time we got back home and by this morning we’d got a much clearer idea of what we would try to do this coming season.

What was also fascinating was some of the biochemistry of the health benefits of garlic.  Raw is better than cooked, for instance, although that’s intuitively true.  But I hadn’t known how much better it is to crush rather than chop the garlic.  I didn’t know that an infusion of elephant garlic leaves can deter slugs, or how to grow truly giant bulbs over two seasons, or that garlic shouldn’t be grown with peas, beans, asparagus, sage or parsley – hmmm – a bit of plant moving called for there; or that  hardneck scapes taste lovely. Isn’t it terrific to listen to someone who really knows their subject.  I was so inspired  I googled up a scientific monograph on garlic and bought it online. Luckily Rob has a stall at the Christmas Market here and we can buy the bulbs we now know we need to plant.

All this leaves me with a bridge to cross, because I have a visceral dislike of raw garlic – and I’m not the only one; one of our allotmenteering neighbours spent the whole talk with a giant handkerchief pressed to her nose. But the health benefits are so well established it would be marvellous if I could develop a taste for it.  RS Thomas used to eat bulbs of the stuff, but then not many people wanted to talk to him, with or without garlic breath. I used to work with twin brothers, welders, who would eat raw onions with a penknife as if they were apples, but I’m not sure I could stop myself from gagging.  However, the experiment must be done! I’ll say the missionary’s prayer ‘ “Lord, if I get it down will you keep it down?” and my new life will begin – or not as the case may be. But I had a quick look at one scientific paper earlier on, and I read a section from James Wong’s book “How to eat better” and all is not lost because there are workarounds that I can experiment with.

And just to finish, we were given some black garlic to try and it’s beyond delicious.  It’s ‘fermented’ at 60C for a month at high relative humidity and it emerges as a sweet black mildly garlic flavoured paste.  You could eat it with a teaspoon it’s so good.

 

 

 

 

First proper frost of the season

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I love to wake up like we did today and see white frost on the green outside, but this morning it was especially good to see the excited loop drawn on the grass by a dog released from its lead. Who says a line can’t express joy! It’s no less pleasurable to be prepared for frost, and I say so having not been up to the allotment to look for myself. “Possibly” says my inner pessimist – ” all your seedlings are dead”. “Oh do go away”, I think, “and bother someone else”.

We’ve fleeced and cloched all the vulnerable plants, and garlic especially is supposed to positively relish a few days of hard frost – so bring it on, I think.  On the other hand it’s worth wondering what the balance of good practice might be in relation to sheeting, IMG_20191109_151823fleecing and mulching. Creating a warm dry environment under black plastic sheets is a great help to slugs as well as more friendly pests – (just peel the sheet back and look for yourself), so maybe we should be encouraging foxes (on our plot they don’t need much encouragement), badgers who love a fat slug, and hedgehogs as well as toads who equally don’t mind if they do. Oh and don’t forget the birds. I know that those who sell garden supplies would have us think that only an architect designed and artisan produced bee hotel will be suitable, but insects prefer to choose their own overwintering spots.  Every year at this time we have an invasion of ladybirds who creep into the flat and take up their winter quarters in the corners of our ceilings.  I took this photograph in the hall, ten minutes ago.  I suppose we could  spray them with insecticide, but in the spring we’ll be hoping for them to arrive as the aphids get going.  I prefer to see our guests as free biological control breeding colonies.  I’m not so keen on the frass, but that comes off with a wipe anyway.

A bit of botanical history

In a quick update on my Tutsan research, I checked back on the transcribed edition of Culpeper’s Herbal and found that in the 1649 edition the plant was indeed described as ‘Tustan’, but Culpeper wrote that it was no longer much used. It doesn’t seem to appear at all in Gerard a century earlier.  There’s a clue in the indispensible “Englishman’s Flora” when Grigson states that Tutsan had been mistaken in a medieval herbal for another herb altogether, mentioned by Pliny. He goes on to say that by Gerard’s time the misidentification had been corrected and this must have led to its decline, although Culpeper still lists a number of uses. But the 1649 edition is also full of typos – there are dozens if not hundreds listed at the end of the Project Gutenberg edition so perhaps it was a Friday afternoon in November when a short sighted printer with no botanical knowledge at all dropped two pieces of moveable type into the wrong place in a frame and no-one noticed. Why am I so interested in this? Well I spent half my life grappling with understanding and interpreting ancient texts, and old habits die hard.

Some tougher stuff on herbal medicine

And while I’m on the subject of honest errors, I notice in the newspapers another routine round of attacks by conventional medicine on the dangers of herbal medicines.  Let’s be clear, I’m not a gimlet eyed anti vaxxer and I have more reasons than most to be grateful for modern drugs – I take four different drugs every day and without them there’s a signficant chance I’d be in much poorer health than I am.  I have my annual flu jab and so it goes on.  So thank you to the NHS, I’m a fan.  But in his day, Culpeper battled with the Royal College of Surgeons – he wrote this in 1649 as he translated the (Latin) Pharmacoepia Londinensis into the English common tongue, facing the same challenged as did Myles Coverdale and many others in translating the Bible (in 1535) so that any ploughboy might read it.

” The liberty of our Common Wealth   …… is most infringed by three sorts of men, Priests, Physitians, Lawyers”.

Well he would say that wouldn’t he? – he fought with Cromwell in the English Civil War and was a thoroughgoing Puritan radical. He got a serious chest wound which may have been a subsidiary cause of his death from TB at the age of only 39. He could see that many poor people simply couldn’t afford to pay for credentialed physicians and so he gave them what they needed – reliable access to self care. He was always careful to note where a misidentification could be dangerous, and there’s no sense of anything but close observation and attention to detail in his book – but it was a book written in the 17th century translating another put together in the 16th from manuscripts that went back to the first century and using experience gathered from Egyptian, Roman and Greek sources. It can’t be understood without serious study: which is a long way of saying that attacks on herbal medicine that come from a simple 21st century superficial reading of ancient texts suffer from exactly the same flaws as do the attacks by anti-vaxxers on modern scientific medicine – they’re often fuelled and inflamed by a complete failure to understand what the other is really doing.

Undoubtedly herbal medicine can be dangerous and can cause unexpected interactions with conventional medicines. Undoubtedly we could do with better training and more regulation of expensive raw materials, bearing in mind that fake Viagra and illegal steroids are hardly ‘better’ than fake Ginseng or any other herb. Conventional medicine too has its downside.  I found some research by the Universities of Sheffield, York and Manchester published on 23rd February 2018 on the subject of prescription errors: it found that in the UK there were:

  • 237 million medication errors each year
  • An estimated 712 deaths
  • Were a contributory factor to between 17,000 and 22,000 deaths
  • Cost £98.5 million per year to remedy

I tried to find equivalent data for herbal and oriental medicines but it seems that there is very little detailed research and a lot of untested anecdotal evidence floating around. Could this be a clash of ideologies just like the battles of the 16th and 17th centuries? The only way to find out is to do the comparative research on a level playing field. How many times have I heard it said that “there’s no evidence” that a certain treatment works when the reason there is no evidence is because no-one had ever done any research to find any. That’s a politicians trick!

Meanwhile I’ll continue to pick my sceptical way between the opposing sides and use the best informed opinions when it comes to choosing the right therapy. A few weeks ago we had a meal with a GP and a cancer specialist consultant.  I asked in all innocence (ho ho) whether their patients ever asked them about complementary therapies. “All the time” was the response and the conversation was immediately doused with a bucketful of cold silence.

Please don’t try this at home

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The brain of sparrows being eaten, provokes lust exceedingly

I mentioned a couple of days ago that I’d got hold of a rather disappointing edition of Culpeper’s Herbal.  It wasn’t an absolute stinker, but it had been heavily edited with much of the archaic language translated rather than transcribed, and it was missing hundreds of pages of the kind that I quoted above. It wasn’t that I was particularly searching for aphrodisiacs (well I would say that, I suppose), but that I stumbled on it when a chapter entitled “parts of living things and excrements” caught my eye as I scrolled through.  The edition, by the way, is an online transcription as part of the Gutenberg Project – free and massively useful.

The thing is, Culpeper can only be understood within its own context, and without that – the astrology, the doctrine of signatures, the battles he was having with the authorities – it boils down to a very strange mixture of bad ideas like eating sparrows’ brains.  But within the pages there’s the beginnnings of a revolution.  Just as Luther’s translation of the Bible changed the churches for ever, so the translation of these remedies into the common tongue changed the course of medicine and probably changed the distribution and cultivation of wildflowers for ever. Imagine any cottage garden and it’s a fair bet that some at least of the plants will be the distant offspring of medicinal herbs, and I think I read somewhere recently that something like 40% of our current prescription drugs are derived from plant material. Yet another reason for fighting against unnecessary extinctions, and remember that not all useful drug yielding plants are found in the Amazon rain forest – some are undoubtedly living outside our front doors – if we could but see them.

Plants are wonderful synthesisers of compounds utterly beyond the reach of science, and the clues as to where to look won’t be found within the pages of a translation forged in the culture of the 21st century, but with a sympathetic reading of the way things seemed to the apothecaries of the past within their own culture and at that time. Sadly, for all its great strengths, science tends to lack humility in the face of very old ideas.

Anyway, enough of that. Tonight promises a hard frost and so this afternoon we were up at the allotment with fleece and cloches to protect our vulnerable plants.

As promised – borlotti beans

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Two days ago I was in the throes of changing my mobile and I wrote that I’d rather be talking about borlotti beans than grappling with passwords and strange operating systems. Then of course it all miraculouly worked and I was so pleased we went out on a photo tour of Bath to test the camera which – I have to say – is extremely clever but a bit baffling a times.

So here, as promised, are the borlotti beans and I think they’re very beautiful.  We’re saving half of them for next year’s seed (they’re open pollinated) just to see how they do. I’m not entirely sure how this could be of any great interest to anyone else, but after decades of listening to other peoples’ stories, I know how fascinating the everyday details of another life can be, and one thing I am completely sure of is that I’m no expert and I’d hate for anyone to take me as an authority on any of the things I write about.

Life is a project and every project contains within it the possibility of failure.

That sounds like a chunk of management speak, I know, but a life without any egg on your face is a dull prospect, and if I sow seeds at the wrong time, or misread a recipe then at least I share my idiocy free of charge and without leading a whole country into bankruptcy.

At this moment, however, I am beguiled by plans for next season. In my typically freely associating way (it’s a useful skill and it helps to have some psychoanalytic experiences) I move like a small stream from yesterday’s joy at finding some lungwort, seeing our Sweet Cicily in flower, to thinking about the Mugwort I’ve got stored in a cupboard next to the Christmas cake.  From there it’s an effortless step to my growing collection of herbals and thence (you know where this is going to go) to a flourishing physic garden  growing somewhere in a corner of my mind.

When I went to theological college there was a fellow student who had experienced a profound religious conversion on the toilet. I have found that the minute detals of conversion experiences tend to figure largely in what’s known in the trade as “testimony”. Anyway, there was more to follow because he also felt compelled to tell us that he had been “deeply involved” with morris dancing which he now understood as being inspired by magic and other devilish practices. Although I found the story hilariously funny at the time, I confess that my own secret policeman is inclined to whisper sweet ‘nothing doings’ in my ear when I stray from the scientific uplands of proper field botany or allotmenteering to the dangerous underground of traditional herbal medicine. “call it a project” I say to myself and feel better at once.

The ‘nature of things’, seen purely from a scientific perspective seems to me to be a rather ‘thin’ reductive description. ‘Lungwort – Pulmonaria officinalis – is a member of the borage family and used to be thought useful in the treatment of lung diseases’  – so says the dictionary, and it’s true but hardly gathers together the rich strands of usage and history, the religious background, the ‘common sense’ of the day and all the multitude of factors that contribute to the ‘thick’ description of Lungwort, and which transform it from a relic of the ignorance of the past, into a portal through which I can access the past, listen in to its gossip, share its hopes, fears and preoccupations.  And so when I walk to a patch of vegetation on the edge of the canal, I greet so much more than just another plant I can name. It becomes the key to thousands of years of communal wisdom, and I learn something about my own fugitive existence on the earth.

There you go – a bit of free association can lead you into all sorts of trouble.  Still, I saw the other day, in one of my books, that a cup of mugwort tea at bedtime can bestow ‘lucid dreams’.  That would make a nice change and I might give it a go one of these days! Meanwhile the physic garden hovers discreetly at the back of my mind except that almost everything I’d put in it is freely available on the paths and in the parks of Bath  – if only I knew what all these plants looked like. Now that looks like a proper project.

 

Meanwhile, back at the Potwell Inn.

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Twenty years ago I’d have thought this was an unholy mess – purple sprouting broccoli, sweetcorn, courgette and nasturtium all growing through each other in a kind of uncontrolled wilderness.  Today? – well, today it seems the most natural thing in the world. Here are some more glimpses of the allotment, photographed today –

This year we made the policy decision to sow companion plants out of curiosity mainly – would they help?  Would they reduce pest attacks? blah blah blah …… what we realized in the end is that our plants are happier, much happier,  and the whole allotment looks more like a work of art and less like a military display. We’ve had blackfly but it was quickly wiped out by a large population of voracious ladybird larvae.  We’ve seen a few asparagus beetle larvae but, by and large, they haven’t damaged the plants. Cabbage White butterflies haven’t penetrated the brassica netting, flea beetle had a brief munch at the radishes but were not really a problem.  We can only compare our own allotment with the immediate neighbours, and it seems clear that stress – be it through weather or lack of nutrients – seems to weaken plants and so (surprise surprise) the strongest and least stressed plants don’t get attacked.  As for birds, we combined netting the most vulnerable plants like brassicas and the Apiaceae , with providing access to the ones that love to eat grubs slugs and snails and – later in the season – seeds. Because we’ve scattered so many pollinator attractors around the plot, the increase in yield makes up for the extra pests. Tagetes, Nasturtium  and Calendula function as repellants and diversions, beer traps get the slugs the birds and (hopefully hedgehogs) miss, and there are many other speculative flowers spread around the beds.

You can either treat growing food in an allotment as a battle or a party.  Our gamble seems to suggest that nature prefers a party.

As soon as we got back from Cornwall we unloaded the bags, had a cup of tea and went straight out to the allotment.  Our youngest son had watered while we were away and everything looked – cheerful! – we were particularly pleased to see that the tomatoes that had had a pretty bad start in life, were going tremendously well and had their first trusses in flower.  Madame had simply hacked off the straggly tops of a number of bush tomatoes and they too had thrown out side shoots and they too were going well. And so within twenty minutes we’d gathered potatoes, carrots and peas and set off back home.

The peas deserve a paragraph all to themselves. We’ve grown three varieties this year – we overwintered Douce Provence and then sowed Alderman and Kelveden Wonder in the spring.  The Douce Provence were early and perfectly good; the Kelvedon Wonder aren’t quite ready yet but last night we harvested some of the Alderman.  This is a heritage variety and really does better on beansticks as it will grow to over 5 feet. The favour of the Alderman was soooooo good – I don’t think I’ve ever tasted a better fresh pea.  If you’re used to the frozen ones then you would probably think this is a different vegetable in a blind tasting. The pods were long and full of larger peas that were so sweet and tender they only really needed steaming for about a minute. Bliss! – and there are still many more to eat. Our food culture insists that it’s best to have our favourites available the year round (at hideous cost to the environment), but the allotment suggests that the greatest pleasures are the seasonal ones, the asparagus, the new potatoes, the apple off the tree and, of course the peas and beans and all the rest. The fact that it’s a fugitive pleasure seems to make it all the more intense – every dish is a holiday romance on a plate!

Back home then to deal with the Mugwort and the Pellitory of the Wall I’d gathered as medicinal herbs in Cornwall. It seemed to me that the best way to deal with them, given that I know next-to-nothing about how to use them, is to dry them and store them until I am a lot better informed.  Even drying them turned ut to be something of a challenge, and much weariness of the eyes later I decided to dry them at 45C in the oven overnight.  I would be able to see from the results whether they had lost their colour  from overheating.  And so they spent the night in the oven and emerged more or less unscathed at lunchtime today.

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But during our morning session at the allotment today, Madame discovered a pretty well perfect specimen of Greater Plantain in the hotbed and that too will be added to the household pharmacopeia via the oven (and a great deal more study). Needless to say I shall be careful in my consumption of these remedies and not let the gathering of herbs exceed my botanical knowledge.

And so, without wanting to bang on about it too much, the natural world, upon which we rely absolutely, is abundant, glorious and healing.  Shame you couldn’t possibly say that about our politicians.  Were it not for the fact that I’m firmly attached to democracy I might go with the graffiti I saw years ago on a wall –

Don’t vote, it only encourages them!

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Potwell Inn – the return!

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Sadly our week in Cornwall is almost over. We’ve walked somewhere in the region of thirty miles, identified no end of new plants (to us) including one (subject to the opinion of the County Recorder) that isn’t on the vice-county list. I’ve slept with a bunch of Mugwort next to my nose, in pursuit of lucid dreams – I certainly slept well, but I would need to talk to my analyst about their lucidity.

We’ve found moths, butterflies and birds that we’d not seen before and I managed to keep the blog going without an internet connection at the price of my entire data allowance. Life is good then.

I mentioned the multi sensory nature of field botany previously, but didn’t really explain what I meant by it.

The visual is obviously top of the list because we normally see things before we do anything else. Colours draw our attention as does anything unusually tall.

But touch too is diagnostic- today I was distinguishing between three kinds of Cleavers – Goose Grass or whatever. Proper Cleavers has rough stalks whereas the other two didn’t. Of the others, one was white flowered and the other yellow flowered, so that’s probably Hedge Bedstraw and Lady’s Bedstraw respectively. Square stalks too can point you in the right direction.

Smell – well try Hedge Woundwort for starters. Hemlock has a ‘mousy’ smell, dill, fennel, Ground Ivy, Mint, Elderflower- and many more – all easily identifiable when you crush the leaves or flowers in your fingers and smell them.

Taste – well yes – I’ll often taste things as long as I’m quite sure they’re not poisonous. It’s not always pleasant but you can often place a plant in the right family by taste.

Finally there’s sound. Try Yellow Rattle, for instance. OK after that I’m a bit stumped for sound, but you get my point I hope, identifying plants means pressing all the senses into service.

Why is this important? Well it seems to me we’re in a race to preserve not just rare species but the ordinary everyday ones as well, and unless we can know and name them they’ll slip away and we’ll lose a great chunk of our culture. As Robert Macfarlane argues, if we lose the names, the words, the properties, we lose bits of ourselves and we are impoverished.

Who on earth would actually want to be the last person to see a Barn Owl flying silently, low along a hedge in the twilight? How could you teach Hopkins’ poem ‘Windhover’ to children who had never seen a kestrel? and how ‘Kes’ for that matter. How the novels of Henry Williamson – notwithstanding his abhorrent political views? How Ezra Pound to anyone who has never seen an olive tree (same reservations!).

How Elgar to someone who never heard a lark sing? Now I’m getting emotional!

The New Testament word for “daily bread” is untranslatable because it doesn’t occur anywhere else but I’d argue that ‘epiousios’ means more than bread, however San Francisco and right-on sourdough! Perhaps it means something more like the everyday, around and about us things that give us meaning, nourish us culturally not just by maintaining our body. The plants, the birds, fishes, animals and the weather sustain us in ways we can barely understand. That’s it! end of lecture and back up the M5 to see the allotment in the morning.

 

 

Furbelow Mugwort and Pellitory.

 

One of the best ‘Old School’ solicitors in the country.

– in my inflamed imagination, but in reality just three bits of the day joined up because I love the names so much. Furbelows is a species of seaweed, mugwort I’ll come to in a minute and Pellitory of the wall because I only I/D’d it yesterday and today it was everywhere down the green lane from Gerrans though the Rosteague Estate.

 

The first photo shows it doing what it’s meant to do according to its name – grow on a wall – but the second photo shows enough of it growing below the wall to provide for the urinary problems of a small village – it is, you see, a medicinal herb, which is a good thing because it would never live by its looks.

 

So for the first time in my life I gathered a very small quantity of the herb to take home and turn into a healing tea. Then, seeing myself as something of a Gandalf I went mad and gathered a bunch of Mugwort as well. If things go on as they are, hedgerow medicine may be the only show in town if you can’t afford private care.

I had privately determined to try these nostrums first on myself, but Madame has been incredibly supportive. We are surrounded not simply by abstract beauty – whatever that might be – but by meaning. Intensively farmed food has lost much of its nutritional value over the past decades, and yet we are surrounded (where it still survives) by the means of alleviating those deficiencies.

It seems to me that knowing, naming and understanding plants and the natural world is the first step to embracing a new and less exploitative way of living. Today I identified a red bartsia plant. It was there all the time but until I knew it’s name it didn’t exist for me.

As we walked up the lane after an hour on the beach (where I photographed the furbelows – blown onshore by last week’s fierce storm winds) – I was gathering some seeds from alexanders, cow parsley, and hogweed, I’ll post the macro photos when we get back, and I was struck by how little I’d seen before I started to look. They are all absolutely beautiful and absolutely different. To walk down the lane between, say, February and July, you might think nothing had changed and yet even during that brief period three different species had grown, flowered and died. The hedgerow is a highly dynamic and ever changing theatre, free to all. There’s only one word for it and that’s Glory.

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From left to right – Cow Parsley, Hogweed and Alexanders
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This is a hoverfly of the genus Syrphus but without a microscope it’s hard to tell which species.

 

 

So did we? Or didn’t we?

There are two very different ways of going out after plants. The first is to go for a wander and stop whenever you see something you don’t recognise. The second is to go out after one or two specific plants, which is a strategy that often results in disappointment.

This week has been a sort of field trip in search of medicinal herbs, and so that narrows the field down quite a bit. The Holy Grail – well, that’s overstating it a bit – but the plant I most wanted to find was Stachys officinalis – Betony. It’s a close relative of the Woundworts. Its cousins, Hedge Woundwort and Marsh Woundwort both grow around here. The problem is that the Vice County list doesn’t show Betony as growing in this part of Cornwall, although the floras aren’t nearly so certain it’s not here.

But before we get to that, I have to say that Madame has the most remarkable gift of pointing out promising plants. So today we walked the length of Porth Creek down to the ferry and then back via Bohortha accompanied for part of the way by quite the noisiest couple of walkers we’ve heard in years. They were so noisy I thought they were at least two families with children following us, but no- they were just two women with a lot to catch up on. Generally we walk in silence, for no other reason than the fact that we’re usually immersed in our own thoughts. On the way we found wild strawberries, pale flax which looked wonderful in profusion in a meadow, common mallow (a medicinal herb), sheepsbit, rest-harrow and loads of nipplewort and – of course- all the Stachys I wasn’t looking for. Then just as we were about finished Madame pointed to the one I was looking for down towards the cliff top. img_5629It was much shorter than I had imagined, but the upper leaves were unmistakable. But was it the real deal? – there’s a hybrid but without Stace (the bible) I can’t be sure. Then, just to cap a lovely walk we spotted pellitory of the wall hiding behind a gatepost. That’s another two medicinal biggies and then at the last moment a Silver Y moth on the roadside.

How does a respectable sceptic find a word for blessed except – we’ll – blessed?

And so some photos  – now edited after arriving home