Ethiopia is in the news today, remembering the famine of 30 years ago. Rather than dwell on the past, I thought I would share this upbeat video from Perennial Plate – celebrating Ethiopia’s food culture:
Ethiopia! from The Perennial Plate on Vimeo.
The description of the video on Vimeo says “We travelled to Ethiopia for two weeks and filmed the making of injera, false banana and coffee as well as everything else we saw. Please watch, enjoy and visit this amazing country!”
For those of you who are intrigued by the ‘false banana’, it’s Ensete ventricosum, also known as the Ethiopian banana, Abyssinian banana, or simply ensete. I found a nice article that explains how this multipurpose plant is turned into different foods – ensete doesn’t produce fruit, but has edible pseudostems (the ‘trunk’ is formed from tightly-packed, overlapping leaf sheaths).
Posted in Blog on Oct 23, 2014 · ∞
Tags: food & ethnobotany.
The Feedback section in the New Scientist last week (9th August 2014) was mostly devoted to the topic of toilet roll – having asked for figures on the annual consumption of this essential commodity, they have been regaled with anecdotes about the size of the army rations thereof, and differences in quality in different countries.
It’s not often that the topic of toilet roll comes up in gardening circles. There is occasional talk, perhaps, of the lack of toilet facilities on allotment sites, or the construction of composting toilets by an enterprising committee.
And, most springs, you can find yourself involved in a discussion on the use of toilet roll inner tubes for sowing individual seeds. They’re good for larger ones, like beans, and can be planted out whole to avoid root disturbance. It’s much easier to get your hands on them these days, as I’m told they’re no longer wanted for craft projects at nurseries and play schools, due to the perceived problem of contamination.
From an ethnobotanical perspective, it might also be interesting to explore the potential plant replacements for the job, should our choice of tissue become unavailable. Mullein frequently gets mentioned as being suitable for this purpose, and PFAF says that Brachyglottis repanda is also known as Bushman’s toilet paper. Knowledge of this kind is worth persuing in advance should you be an outdoorsy kind of person likely to find yourself caught short.
So… toilet roll and gardens. What are your thoughts? Would the truly self-sufficient grow their own toilet paper?
Posted in Blog on Aug 14, 2014 · ∞
I’m not a politician. I’m not a diplomat. I’m not an expert on foreign policy. It’s hard to watch what’s happening in Gaza and the West Bank with any equanimity; over 1300 Palestinians have been killed so far, including 315 children and and 166 women.
I believe that more unites us and divides us, and that’s certainly true of the people in Gaza. They are farmers, gardeners and foragers.
In 2008, a team of ethnobotanists from Palestine published a research paper entitled “Traditional knowledge of wild edible plants used in Palestine (Northern West Bank): a comparative study“. Traditional knowledge is a hot topic in ethnobotany, as our changing lifestyles mean that less and less of it is passed on to each generation. In most places in the world, the traditional uses of plants are being forgotten, and we are becoming more and more reliant on cultivated plants and agriculture.
The team found that, across 15 local communities in Palestine, locals were collecting 100 wild edible plant species, 76 of which were mentioned by 3 or more people. Those plants were distributed across 70 genera and 26 families. The most significant species were:
Some of those won’t be familiar to people outside of the Middle Eastern/ Mediterranean region. Others are. Fenugreek is on that list, as is wild mallow. Of the 100 wild species listed, some require very specific processing to remove toxins. I certainly wouldn’t rush to consume any members of the Arum family, and I’d be wary of consuming Cyclamen bulbs as well. This is where the traditional knowledge, and the Palestinian culture, combine. There are plenty of edible plants of the region that aren’t on the list, and no doubt some that are wouldn’t be considered edible in other places.
The Middle East is one of my areas of interest, because I enjoy the foods of those cultures. The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey has been on my wish list for some time; I bought a copy yesterday when I read that 8 members of author Laila El-Haddad’s family had been killed in one night.
Flipping through it this afternoon, a recipe for chard and lentil stew caught my eye. The book says that “chard is used extensively in southern Palestinian cuisine.” Chard and leaf beet are two of my favourite plants – easy to grow and generous, endlessly versatile in the kitchen. Chard is also an attractive plant, that could just as easily fit in the flower border, with its colourful stems.
“Khobeiza or mallow grows wild all over Palestine”, the books says above a recipe for greens with dumplings. Or there’s purslane stew – known as rilja or baqla, purslane is a “succulent plant found growing through sidewalls and in abandoned lots all around the Mediterranean.”
There are recipes for broad beans, cauliflower, spinach and okra. The gardener in me wants to find a source of the short, stout, red carrots that are a “Middle Eastern variety with a long history”; substituting stumpy orange carrots just wouldn’t be the same.
I’m still waiting to hear when I can move into my new house (and the garden), but I already know there will be Palestinian plants in the garden next year, and Palestinian meals on the table. The Gaza Kitchen looks like a comprehensive guide to Palestinian cuisine, beginning by explaining the spice mixes and condiments, and moving on through salads and mezze, pulses and grains, vegetable stews, meats and seafood, preserves and conserves. Photos throughout give a taste of life in Gaza before the current crisis, as well as sections about farming and foraging there, with profiles of residents and explanations of ingredients and the cuisine itself. I am looking forward to reading it properly, and trying the recipes, but I can already recommend it if you’d like to know the region better through its food. You can also look out for Zaytoun‘s fair trade ingredients from Gaza, including olives and olive oil, za’atar, almonds and dates and cous cous.
There are farmers, gardeners and foragers in Israel, too. Of course there are – there is more that unites us, than divides us.
Posted in Blog on Aug 5, 2014 · ∞
Last modified on Aug 7, 2014
Tags: books & ethnobotany.
Loving this infographic from Chadwicks :)
For those of you without a magnifying glass, this is the link to their sources!
Posted in Blog on Jun 25, 2014 · ∞
Thirty years ago, Ethiopia’s Antsokia Valley was known as the “Valley of Death”. 15-20 people died every day, in the midst of the worst famine the world has ever seen. Ethiopia was in the midst of a drought, and Antsokia was a wasteland.
Today, the picture is much brighter. World Vision’s relief work in the region turned into a long term development effort. They provided local farmers with seeds, tools and livestock. They planted more than 22 million seedlings, may of which were fruit plants. They brought bee hives, training and new infrastructure: flour mills, veterinary clinics, roads and irrigation channels.
Traditional Ethiopian crops including sorghum and teff now grow here once again, but they are mixed with novel crops that bring multiple harvests every year. Mangoes, papayas and oranges hang from the trees, and are joined by bananas, sugar cane, tomatoes and cabbages in the fields. More productive agricultural techniques, such as organic fertilising and crop rotation, mean that over 99% of the children here are now classed as ‘adequately nourished’ by World Health Organization standards. Life here may not be easy, but the people in the Antsokia Valley can live without the feat of hunger.
Elsewhere in Africa, the outlook isn’t as rosy. World Vision’s Grow Hope campaign is bringing orange maize seeds to vulnerable people in Zambia. Although maize (sweetcorn, Zea mays) is a staple food for over a billion people in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, the varieties commonly grown are lacking micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), such as vitamin A, that are vital for health.
But maize is naturally high in genetic diversity, and varieties exist that are high in provitamin A (converted to vitamin A by the body when the maize is eaten). Conventional breeding has created Orange Maize – agricultural varieties that are naturally high in provitamin A.
A field of orange maize. Image credit: HarvestPlus Zambia Country Program
Look out for World Vision’s Grow Hope show gardens this summer – they’ll be at BBC Gardeners’ World Live from 12-15th June and RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show from 8-13th July. (If you’re lucky, you will already have seen their Chelsea show garden!)
And if you register for more information about the Grow Hope campaign, World Vision
will send you a free pack of Calendula (pot marigold) seeds and some freshly ground Ethiopian coffee as a thank you gift. And if you sign up via this special Grow Hope link, you’ll also be entered into a competition to win two tickets to the Hampton Court Flower Show!
Posted in Blog on Jun 10, 2014 · ∞
Last modified on Jun 10, 2014
Tags: competitions & ethnobotany.
Those of you who were keeping up with my virtual book tour for Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs can’t have failed to notice that I’m sporting a jaunty pith helmet in my author photos. I chose it because it is part of the quintessential wardrobe of the stereotypical ‘gentleman explorer’ of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. No self-respecting plant hunter would have ventured to the tropics without one. Although they have now gone out of fashion, I can confirm that they make great sun hats – shielding your eyes and keeping the sun off your head. They are light-weight and breathable. At least I now have something to wear to fancy dress parties and steampunk conventions.
But why is it called a pith helmet? Probably the first thing that springs to mind when you think of pith (if, indeed, you ever do) is the bitter white stuff you find between the juicy segments of citrus fruits. That’s actually their mesocarp (or albedo), a pale and spongy inner layer of the rind. It contains chemicals that are good for combating bruising, if you can choke it down. It’s interesting to note that the Buddha’s Hand citrus (Citrus medica var. sarcodactyl) consists only of pith covered in a highly-scented rind.
Botanically speaking, real pith is spongy parenchyma cells, used for the storage and transport of nutrients. In eudicots (plants whose seedlings have two leaves), pith is found in the centre of the stem. In monocots (plants like onions, with one-leaved seedlings) the pith extends into flowering stems and roots. In both cases it is encircled by the rings of xylem (which transports water) and phloem (which transports nutrients). Aren’t plant vascular systems fun?
Pith helmets (AKA topees) were originally made with pith, from an Indian swap plant called Sola (Aeschynomene aspera and some similar species). They were sometimes referred to as solar topees, and the ‘solar’ comes from Sola, rather than their sun-protection function.
It was around 1870 when the pith helmet became popular with military personnel in Europe’s tropical colonies. Although they have been particularly associated with the British and French empires, they were used by all of the European colonial powers of the time. They were adopted as civilian headgear, for both men and women, in the 1940s. Latterly they tended to be made from cork, which is more durable.
My pith helmet (which I bought, naturally, from Amazon – the department store home of the odd and unusual) is made from genuine pith, from trees in northern Vietnam. Apparently the Vietnamese learned the art of making pith helmets a hundred years ago, during the French occupation. It’s amazing that there’s still enough demand to keep them in business….
The Sola has edible flowers, and its tender leaves are used as a vegetable. Its pith has also been cut into small pieces, strung together to make ‘ear ornaments’. Or turned into dyed beads and made into garlands for decorating religious statues and newly-wed couples. The white, spongy “wood” can also be used for paper, fibre, artwork, handicrafts and artificial flowers.
It’s not the only plant with useful pith. That of the sago palm, processed to remove toxins, is an important food source in Melanesia and Micronesia (in the Pacific Ocean). And the scourge of all children subjected to school dinners, although personally I quite like it ;)
Posted in Blog on May 17, 2014 · ∞
Tags: books & ethnobotany.
Coconut: Nose to Tail from The Perennial Plate on Vimeo.
In Sri Lanka, the coconut is, in a sense, a source of life. Not only it is the main ingredient in most Sri Lankan dishes, but it also plays a major role in many non-culinary parts of every day life. Without the coconut, things in Sri Lanka would be very different. Filmmakers spent the day with a family of 8 on their modest coconut plantation outside of Negombo, to see what the coconut has to offer.
Posted in Blog on Apr 17, 2014 · ∞
Last modified on Apr 14, 2014
Welcome to the March edition of the Berry-go-round, a blog carnival devoted to all that’s wonderful and intriguing about Earth’s flora. This month I set a theme of “Unusual Edible Plants”, and bloggers from far and wide duly rose to the challenge.
Tamarisk Tree, by Robert Wallace, on Flickr
Gravity’s Rainbow took the opportunity to bring our attention to a post from the archives. Invasive species – making the best of a bad situation raises an important issue. What do we do about introduced species that turn out to be invasive in their new environment? Control of these species is often a costly, and largely impossible, task. Perhaps putting them to good use would be a better use of our resources?
Licorice seedlings, from tangent ramblings
The licorice seedlings Jeanette from tangent ramblings is growing with Aspirations of a licorice harvest are unlikely to cause any weed problems – the roots will be far too tasty to leave in the ground. And what is Jeanette planning on doing with the resulting bounty? Brewing licorice beer!
Coast Live Oak, by Eric Hunt, on Flickr
If brewing your own licorice beer from scratch sounds like hard work, then you’re going to be exhausted just reading about how to make acorn atole, over at In the Company of Plants and Rocks. The title spells it out: Acorn atole – not a convenience food. But acorn flour was a staple food of Native Americans in California, when they had no option but to grind, leech and bake their acorn harvest by hand. The result was a highly nutritious, and long-storing food. These days it’s only made for special occasions, even though modern technology makes the process much easier.
Ackee fruit by Loren Sztajer (CC BY-ND 2.0)
It’s the presence of tannins that makes the process of processing acorns so laborious. The ackee fruit brings food preparation to a whole new level – as Nature’s Poisons points out, ackee fruit are both deadly and delicious. A native of West Africa, ackee was brought to the Caribbean in the 18th century, and now forms one half of Jamaica’s famous ackee and saltfish dish.
Only the fleshy arilli are eaten, with the rest of the fruit discarded. Even then, you’re not entirely safe – the flesh is poisonous unless completely ripe, and the US bans importation of fresh ackee in the hope of avoiding poisoning cases.
Nutmeg, by Carmen Eisbär, on Flickr
You may be wondering why people go to such lengths to eat potentially poisonous foods, but in all likelihood you have one or two kicking around in your kitchen at home. Compound Interest has done a lovely article on the hallucinogen in your kitchen – the chemistry of nutmeg this month. Although nutmeg does get some attention as a possible “legal high”, ingesting more than a couple of muffin’s worth in one go is probably a bad idea, and Compound Interest tells us why.
Andean Roots, from Radix
As this month’s Berry-go-round has largely been a round-up of the time consuming and terrifying aspects of unusual plants, I’m going to end on a happier note :)
The wondrous Radix blog, home of the internet’s resident expert on all aspects of edible buried treasure, has recently celebrated its fifth birthday. As a special treat for us, Rhizowen wrote up a summary of everything his root crop research and ruminations have produced so far, in Radix: Alive at Five. Oca, mauka, ulluco and ahipa are just some of the unusual underground edibles he covers.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this month’s round-up of planty goodness. Keep an eye on the Berry-go-round blog to find out where we’re headed next month :)
Posted in Blog on Mar 31, 2014 · ∞
Tags: ethnobotany & unusual.
Towards the end of last month, citizen science made the news when the findings of the Conker Tree Science Project were published (e.g. by BBC News). The project used reports from the public to track the spread and establishment of the horse chestnut leaf miner across the UK (pretty much everywhere south of Newcastle). The findings have been published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, as befits proper science (as The Success of the Horse-Chestnut Leaf-Miner, Cameraria ohridella, in the UK Revealed with Hypothesis-Led Citizen Science).
The growth of social media and the development of internet tools to handle these kinds of projects means that there are now more options for the citizen scientist than ever before, and the properly-published results show that citizen scientists are making a real contribution. So if you’d like to try your hand, here are some of the projects you might like to get involved with:
The Harlequin Ladybird Survey is tracking the spread of another invasive pest, one that has the potential to out-compete our native ladybird species.
OPAL is the Open Air Laboratories Network, which aims to “create and inspire a new generation of nature-lovers by getting people to explore, study, enjoy and protect their local environment”. Their website shows that they have quite a few surveys open at the moment, including tree health, biodiversity and soil and earthworms.
The Zooniverse is a big citizen science site with lots of projects. They started out with Galaxy Zoo, using pictures from the Hubble Telescope to investigate how galaxies form. They’ve added in several more astronomy projects, including looking at solar flares and exploring Mars’ weather, but they’ve expanded into other areas of science as well. You could look through historic ship’s logs, to find information that can be used to develop climate models, or classify NOAA’s more modern data on tropical cyclones. Study the lives of the ancient Greeks, or annotate and tag soldiers’ diaries from the first world war.
For the citizen naturalist, Zooniverse has options to listen to whales communicating, classify the Serengeti animals photographed by camera traps or explore the ocean floor. There are museum samples that need transcribing for historical biodiversity data – including herbarium samples in Notes from Nature.
That’s not the only option if you like looking through old herbarium records – Herbarium@Home could use your help with that as well.
Green-fingered gardeners can take part in Garden Organic’s Members Experiments (although there’s a clue in the name – you do have to be a GO member). There’s usually several to choose from each year. Previous ones that I know about include growing chickpeas, mango ginger and soy beans here in the UK, and finding out which flowers attract beneficial insects into the garden.
There are bound to be more projects that I don’t know about, and I’m sure there are some great local efforts as well – if you’re involved in a citizen science project then do let me know in the comments. Whether you get involved because it’s a cause you want to support, or because you have some spare time to donate, or because you just #lovescience and want to be a part of it, there’s plenty to choose from, and citizen science can be really rewarding!
Posted in Blog on Feb 14, 2014 · ∞
Last modified on Apr 29, 2014
Tags: science & ethnobotany.
This is the second half of an essay I wrote for my Masters degree in ethnobotany. You can find part one here.
Why do people use herbal aphrodisiacs?
Given that Western medicine does not regard aphrodisiac plants as effective, why do people continue to use them? Kilham states that accounts of the effects of aphrodisiac plants have been passed down through generations, and across cultural borders. With no motivation to pass on misinformation in the long-term, he believes that people are merely passing on information that will help others – i.e. that people pass on information about aphrodisiac plants purely because they have found those plants to be effective.
de Albuquerque puts forward a diversification hypothesis that ‘exotic’ plants are added to traditional pharmacopeia because they contain bioactive secondary metabolites that are missing from local flora – i.e. that these plants are used to treat diseases because they are effective in doing so.
Access to Western medicine is not widespread – the World Health Organisation estimates that 80% of people in developing countries depend on traditional medicines for their primary health care. This can be due to prohibitive cost or a lack of Western medical facilities; there may also be local beliefs that herbal medicines are safer than Western medicines.
Even amongst populations that have access to Western medicines, it is rare for a patient to seek help for erectile dysfunction – Nehra estimates that only 10% seek treatment, and that the reasons for this involve an acceptance that sexual function diminishes with age, but that there are also issues with the complex nature of sexuality, taboos and cultural restrictions.
Aphrodisiacs in a cultural context
It is impossible to deny that there is a strong cultural aspect to aphrodisiac use. For example, those familiar with Western cultures will no doubt have been regaled with anecdotes of sexual conquests and even conception facilitated by the consumption of alcohol. Alcohol could therefore be considered to be an aphrodisiac, although its nature as a sedative means that its main action is probably to reduce inhibitions. Indeed, over-consumption makes it an anaphrodisiac, reducing potency (a well-known fact immortalised in British English by the use of the phrase ‘Brewer’s Droop’).
Research suggests that the belief that alcohol has aphrodisiac effects persists, despite scientific evidence to the contrary, and that this belief is due to the psychosocial effects of learned cognitive expectations and social meanings.
Thus it is possible that the cultural aspects of aphrodisiac use follow a similar pattern to that observed in psychoactive drug use by Becker. Becker’s observation was that drug users have to go through three stages – learning the techniques (preparation, application, etc.), learning to perceive the effects of the drugs and then learning to enjoy those effects. Outside a culture (or subsculture) where the (initially unpleasant) effects of the drugs are considered to be pleasurable, psychoactive drug use is shunned.
Spanish Fly (Cantharides or Cantharidin) is an aphrodisiac produced from dried beetles. It irritates the urogenital tract and causes a rush of blood to the genitals. Although this last effect may be the one hoped for, Spanish Fly is a poison and its side effects include burning of the throat, genitourinary infections and even death. It is hard to see how first-time users would perceive it as effective and pleasurable, and hence continue to use it, without the kind of cultural expectations that Becker describes.
The prescription and application of aphrodisiacs may also be ritualised, as part of a larger medical tradition in which ritual is as important a part of a cure as the plants themselves. Herbal remedies (like pharmaceutical drugs) require culture-specific processing. Their effectiveness may depend on the timing of plant collecting activities, processing and spells and charms. These cultural aspects shape medical practice. For example, there is widespread mention throughout historical records and folklore of aphrodisiacs being used to promote fertility, especially during wedding rituals.
A natural drive
Sexual activity is a normal part of the human experience, and Steels notes that sexual satisfaction is associated with a higher quality of life. As well as providing pleasure, it can bolster self-esteem, foster intimacy and reduce stress. However, there are numerous factors that can affect libido, including psychological issues, physiological problems and medications.
Beyond these effects on the obvious stages of sexual function, there is evidence to show that modern life is affecting fertility, with sperm counts declining over the last fifty years and causing a corresponding rise in male infertility. A problem with an aspect of sexual ability has an array of personal, social and biological consequences. Sexual problems can lead to misery and silent suffering, problematic interpersonal relationships and even divorce.
Even Western medicine is beginning to consider these wider aspects when looking at the treatment of sexual problems – as McKay notes, there is a move towards a more holistic view of male sexual well-being that is reminiscent of the holistic style of treatments more familiar in traditional medical systems.
Aphrodisiacs have been used for millennia, to enhance sexual pleasure and potency or fertility. Over time, substances believed to have aphrodisiac effects have appeared in and disappeared from medical systems as understandings about the body and the nature of disease have changed. (Few people now, for example, would consider taking Radithor – a pharmaceutical aphrodisiac based on Radium and reported to have caused at least one death from radiation poisoning!)
The Western medical system has scientific rules on when aphrodisiac substances (and all other medications) can be claimed to be effective, which rely on empirical evidence gained through an application of the scientific method. However, the modernist paradigm and its promotion of scientism has led to traditional medical systems and their long use of aphrodisiac plants being dismissed or denied.
Sexual satisfaction (and, when culturally appropriate, fertility) are an important part of the human experience and it is therefore understandable that humans throughout history have sought remedies that will help them to respond to their natural urges and bolster their self-esteem in societies that place a high value on potency and fertility.
By looking at aphrodisiacs in their cultural context, I have shown that their use has effects beyond the mere physical and bioactive, and that their continued use in itself is proof of their effectiveness in this wider sense. Aphrodisiacs clearly answer a larger cultural need, and in this sense they are effective; for the Western medical system to disparage them on the basis of a very narrow scientific viewpoint is a relic of the modernist paradigm and its refusal to accept the value of traditional knowledge without it first being ‘validated’ by clinical evidence.
What does it mean to say that an aphrodisiac is effective? It means that, when taken in the right cultural context, a substance produces the expected physical or emotional effect – whether via a recognisable bioactive compound or a more general improvement that allows an individual to achieve sexual satisfaction and the corresponding positive change to their well-being.
Adams, S. (2013) Brewer’s droop’ can hang around for months [Online]. The Telegraph. Available from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/9812293/Brewers-droop-can-hang-around-for-months.html [Accessed 3rd February 2012].
Becker, H. S. (1953). Becoming a marihuana user. American Journal of Sociology, 59(3): 235-242.
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McKay, D. (2004). Nutrients and botanicals for erectile dysfunction: examining the evidence. Alternative medicine review: a journal of clinical therapeutic, 9(1): 4-16.
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Posted in Blog on Feb 13, 2014 · ∞
Last modified on Feb 7, 2014
Tags: ethnobotany & aphrodisiac.