Ribbon Tree, by Mark Turner
Today is world AIDS day, an opportunity for us to unite in the fight against HIV, to show our support for people living with HIV and to commemorate people who have died. The event has been running every year since 1988.
I came across the image above on Flickr, and it made me wonder why we adorn trees in this way. We have Christmas trees and yule logs, wishing trees and prayer trees – obviously there’s something universal in the human psyche that finds trees moving or meaningful, long-lived or even eternal.
Wishing trees are very interesting. People spontaneously begin to hammer coins into the bark of fallen trees, as a wish – usually for health. The belief is that hammering in the coin removes disease; anyone who subsequently removes the coin would bring the disease on themself. It happens all around the UK and there’s some lovely pictures of these coin trees on the Daily Mail website (sorry!).
The Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney has a wishing tree, and special instructions on how to use it make a wish, which involves being “as quiet as a tawny frogmouth” at one stage.
Wishing trees are sometimes associated with clootie wells (spelling is region-dependent), again with a reference to the removal of disease. There may be parallels with wassailing, a winter tradition of toasting apple orchards, and apparently in America (and other places) there is a tradition of tossing shoes into trees.
I prefer Tibetan/ Buddhist prayer flags myself, sometimes strung between trees and far more attractive fluttering around in the breeze than an old boot (you can also make your own prayer flag tree from a branch). Hindu mythology also has a wishing tree – the banyan.
I tucked a wish, written onto a paper leaf, into a wishing tree display at the Natural History Museum earlier this year, in their extinction exhibit. Of course none of this explains why we do it….
How about you, have you used a wishing tree?
Posted in Blog on Dec 1, 2013 · ∞
Last modified on Nov 30, 2013
Tags: ethnobotany & events.
Friday 22nd November 2013 was the day of my graduation, which was held in Canterbury Cathedral. As you can see, my parents are very proud.
I am now officially an ethnobotanist. Ethnobotany is the study of how people make use of plants. It’s a multidisciplinary subject, encompassing aspects of botany, anthropology, chemistry, forestry and agriculture, horticulture, medicine, geography, conservation, history…. It’s hard to find relevant books in the library, they could be anywhere!
Economic botany is the same subject. Which term you use depends a bit on where you are in the world, but there are also some historical connotations to both that some people dislike. Britain has a long history of economic botany, but as it is tied up with our colonial past and our exploitation of other people’s natural resources, the term is a little out of favour here at the moment. There’s also plenty of anti-commercial feeling that objects to the use of ‘economic’ for natural resources, as to some people it smacks of commercialization (and, again, exploitation).
Ethnobotany can also be problematic, as it has its roots in the study of what anthropologists refer to as ‘other’ – people who aren’t like us. The use of plants by tribal and “primitive” groups. We understand now that “primitive” is not an appropriate word to describe people whose lifestyles are very different from our own and don’t rely on modern technology.
My personal preference is to think of its more as a difference in focus. For me, economic botany is about the what and the how of plant use, whereas ethnobotany looks at the who and the why.
These are both valuable areas of study, but my interest lies in the concrete facts of which plants are edible or otherwise useful, and how that can be done. I prefer to think of the ‘economic’ in economic botany in its original sense, the idea of how people make their living from plants – household economy rather than commercial economy.
I like this quote from Wickens (1990:24), in which he reminds us that the small and local are just as important as the large and global, and that economic botany is as much a science for the future as it is a a study of the past:
“No use is regarded as too insignificant that it should remain unrecorded, for economic botany is never static. Some uses may be superseded by synthetics; others may lie dormant for want of the appropriate technology for their development, or a better economic climate. Still other uses have yet to be identified; the economic botanist must always be alert for new alternatives.”
My certificate may say ‘ethnobotany’, but I’m an economic botanist at heart :)
Wickens, G.E. (1990). What is economic botany?
Economic botany, 44(1), 12-28.
Posted in Blog on Nov 27, 2013 · ∞
Last modified on Nov 26, 2013
Tags: events & ethnobotany.
Today is Remembrance Sunday, when we honour our war dead. It is held on the Sunday closest to 11th November, the anniversary of the end of hostilities in World War 1 in 1918.
The red poppy (Papaver rhoeas, the field poppy) has become the symbol of remembrance, as great swathes flowered in the disturbed earth of battlefields across Belgium, France and Gallipoli in the spring of 1915 and every spring throughout the war.
Every year in the UK, the poppy appeal raises money for the Royal British Legion, helping them to support those who have served, or are serving, in the armed forces, and their dependents. You can donate to the poppy appeal online.
2014 is the 100th anniversary of the start of World War 1, and there will be various events next year to mark it. Some are being funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, but the Royal British Legion’s 2014 Real Poppy project, which aims to plant millions of commemorative poppies, was not. It has been rescued by B&Q, who will be selling Flanders poppy seeds, with a donation made to the Royal British Legion for each packet sold.
If you wanted to get involved in the project and sow your own Flanders poppies to bloom next spring, you could also buy them elsewhere and make your own donation to the Real Poppy project. Other seed suppliers include:
The field poppy’s ephemeral flowers are completely at odds with its survival nature – as evidenced by the churning of the battlefields, it can lie dormant under the soil for many years before germinating once it is brought back up to the light. A single sowing may well be enough to give you a lifetime of poppies! Should you not wish them to self-seed you will either have to be brutal with the dead-heading, or collect the seed for culinary use – it can be added to breads and cakes. PFAF lists other uses for the plant, but does not that it contains some potentially toxic alkaloids, so some caution is advised (the seeds are safe).
Posted in Blog on Nov 10, 2013 · ∞
Tags: events & flowers.
Whilst I was a student I, like many others, had no money. I managed to fit in enough paid writing work to keep the wolf from the door, and that was about it. Fortunately things are a little different now, and to celebrate the arrival of my first pay cheque in forever, I splashed out on a treat – tickets to “An Evening with Ray Mears” in Malvern.
I’ve always enjoyed watching Ray Mears when he’s been on the telly, although the only series I went out of my way to watch was the wonderful Wild Food. Ryan feels the same way, but I knew that it would be something we would both enjoy.
And so, last Saturday, we paid a visit to my parents in Malvern, and in the evening we popped along to the Forum theatre.
The thing I like about Ray Mears is that he seems like a no-nonsense kind of guy. He knows what he’s talking about. If I were to be lost in the Arctic I would rather be lost with him than some of the other tv presenters who claim to be experts on ‘survival skills’. The canoe you can see on the stage was made in the UK from birch bark imported from the boreal forest of Canada. It was made, under the supervision of a canoe-making expert, by inexperienced volunteers. Isn’t it beautiful?
Ray talked for an hour and a half before the intermission, about life in the boreal forest. He had a beautiful slideshow, with some videos and some music, but he was the main draw. He has spent his life walking the walk, talking to native peoples all over the world and learning their stories and their way of life. His knowledge is encyclopedic, and yet he makes it both accessible and entertaining.
I loved the section on the correct way to approach an encounter with a bear. Don’t stare, it’s a sign of aggression. Apparently it’s difficult not to do though, as bears have surprisingly beautiful eyes. Turn your back and edge away. If things go sideways, spray it in the face with pepper spray. Use your pepper spray correctly – it is not a bear repellent (indeed, as it is made from a food product, it could attract bears!), it is only for use in close encounters.
This black bear is a young male, in his first season without his mum. He’s fishing for salmon. You probably can’t see in my photo, but the riverbank is littered with salmon – he’s pulling out more than he can eat. This apparently wasteful behaviour is a key part of the ecosystem, though. Canadian scientists have discovered that the nutrients that soak into the riverbank from the decaying salmon are vital to the whole system.
Other memorable moments include the one where Ray explained that it’s the female reindeer that keep their antlers. After the rut the males lose theirs, so that they are a more attractive target to wolves than the pregnant females. So all those Christmas photos of ‘Rudolf’ are almost certainly of ‘Rudolfa’.
And there’s a wrong way to strike matches. Particularly when you’re cold, which is when it’s most important to get it right. So make sure you know the difference before heading out to the Arctic.
The second half of the show was more about the importance of conservation, both of environments and the indigenous knowledge on how to live in them. There was footage from Namibia, and Australia. All in all, we thoroughly enjoyed our evening with Ray Mears, and are now big fans. The good news is that he’s got a a new book out – his autobiography, My Outdoor Life.
Posted in Blog on Nov 6, 2013 · ∞
Last modified on Nov 14, 2013
Over the Bank Holiday weekend, I took a day off from working on my dissertation to visit the Uffington White Horse Show with some friends. It’s a large event, with a display of static steam engines and fairground rides, displays of traditional fencing (the kind with swords, not fence posts) and a large display area. There was a daredevil leaping over things (and on to the top of his lorry) on a motorbike, but to my mind the highlight of the day were the two Chariots of Fire displays. Chariots of Fire are the display team for a charity in Scotland who offer pony and chariot rides to children with special needs.
Amanda Saville heads up the team, and has gone from dressage events to jumping carriages!
Which doesn’t look very comfortable at all – she has to wear a safety belt to keep her from flying our of the carriage.
Some of the ponies have been rescued, and nursed back to health and trained up to perform in the display. None of them are forced to do anything they don’t want to to; on the day this pony decided he’d rather not be in the ring:
A runaway pony surrounded by a crowd can’t be a stress-free situation, but Amanda let him have his head and steered him out of the ring, and quickly moved on to the next part of the display.
Ponies aren’t the only animals they use to pull the carriages. This sheep is one of a pair, but his partner wasn’t up to pulling a carriage that day, so he was driving solo:
They also have a lovely donkey with the biggest ears, but sadly I didn’t get a photo of her.
The grand finale is where the Chariots of Fire display team get their name – their stunt pony takes the carriage over jumps and through rings of fire. He doesn’t seem to mind a bit. Their ultimate spectacle was new this year – behold the Bridge of Fire!
The display team were on hand to damp down the flames and make sure the pony and Amanda were both safe – the welfare of the animals is her primary concern. She also manages to keep up a running commentary, despite the bumps, so if you get a chance to see Chariots of Fire on one of their tours then I can heartily recommend it.
Another highlight of the show was a WW2 fly past, with a Spitfire, a Hurricane and a Lancaster bomber. Sadly I didn’t have my zoom lens, so I didn’t get any photos of those, but they were very impressive! Someone had also brought along one of the engines that is used in the Lancaster bomber (it has four, iirc) on a trailer, and fired it up at intervals. The sound is makes is unmistakeable, and the wind behind it is immense. It was a fun thing to watch.
Of course, none of this has anything to do with plants and gardening, but there was a garden centre stall by the exit, and as it happened I had just realised I needed autumn-planting onions sets and garlic bulbs to plant on the allotment. And so I came home with Shakespeare onion sets, Golden Gourmet shallots and one bulb each of three different garlic varieties:
I used to grow Thermidrome in the garden, and it’s a reliable and tasty variety with white bulbs and cloves.
I think this one is a misspelling of ‘Germidour’. Although it says it has pure white skin, my bulb (and plenty of the others) has a purple tinge to it.
Casablanca is a bit of a mystery, there doesn’t seem to be much available information on it, so we will have to wait and see how it turns out.
I had intended to get two soft-necked varieties and one hard-necked one, but once I got home I worked out that these are all soft-necked, which isn’t surprising as that’s the standard in the UK. I do like to see those scapes swirling out, though, and a friend has offered to send me a clove or two come planting time, so there will be four varieties of garlic on the allotment this year. Oh, and I ordered an elephant garlic bulb, but that doesn’t count – it’s an overgrown leek ;)
Posted in Blog on Sep 10, 2013 · ∞
Tags: events & veg.
A couple of days ago I watched a webinar with Rosalind Creasy talking about Edible Landscaping: The New American Garden. It was part of the 2013 webinar series from Seed Savers Exchange, most of which are archived on the website (although this particular one won’t be).
Reusing an old washing machine drum for a mint plant is practical and resourceful recycling, but it’s not edible landscaping
Creasy is the author of several books on edible landscaping, themed around different collections of plants – I have several of them myself. She is fighting against a system of zoning in America that frequently makes it illegal for people to grow edible plants in their front yards, although what you do out of sight round the back is up to you.
I’ve always thought that edible plants are beautiful, and I can’t understand why people prefer ornamentals, but as Creasy says, it’s not the plant, it’s what you do with it. I loved my garden, but even I have to admit that it never reached an aesthetic standard that would satisfy the style police. However, the idea behind edible landscaping is that it’s perfectly possible to have your garden, and eat it.
Creasy redesigns her front yard every year, to showcase what it’s possible to do with edible plants, and she’s never had any complaints from the neighbours. You can see examples of her work on her website, www.rosalindcreasy.com.
Here in the UK we don’t have the same kinds of restrictions, and you can grow whatever you like in your front garden, and as long as you keep it in good order you’re unlikely to fall foul of your neighbours. But there’s a long tradition of hiding the veg patch as far away from the house as possible, and the prevailing trend of ‘allotment chic’ doesn’t really help our case in this regard.
If we want growing your own to go up in the world, we need to start thinking in terms of something a little more stylish.
Vestra Wealth’s Jardin du Gourmet at RHS Hampton Court (Photo courtesy of the RHS)
We may not all be able to find room for Vestra Wealth’s stunning watercress rill, which spills over into a sunken seating area, but – according to Creasy – we should all be spending a little time thinking about the juxtaposition of line, texture and colour. And remember that you need flowers in a healthy vegetable patch – to bring in beneficial insects – so they should feature as part of your design.
I’m sure there are plenty of examples of stunning edible landscaping in the UK that you can visit if you’re need of inspiration. One that springs to mind is the Biodynamic Garden at Ryton, where each part of the design represents a part of the biodynamic ethos:
The big garden shows are getting a bit better at this, so they’re worth a visit as well if you’re in the planning stages.
I’m hoping that I can incorporate some of these ideas in my next garden (wherever it is in relation to the house!). As garden design isn’t really my thing, I will have to employ the services of a company that provides bespoke garden features, but in the meantime, I can dream :) I’d like a rain garden that feeds into a pond, among other things.
Have you got an edible landscape you’d like to show off? Or have you spotted something at one of the RHS shows that you’d love to be able to add to your garden? Let me know in the comments, and leave a link to the photos if they’re online!
Posted in Blog on Jul 25, 2013 · ∞
Last modified on Aug 15, 2013
Tags: gardens & events.
I met the Duke of Edinburgh a few years ago. Shame I was stuck in front of a computer at the time, and not somewhere more exciting like the Chelsea Flower Show. Meeting human royalty might be a rare occurrence for most people, but you can surround yourself with royal plants and get that regal feeling every time you step into the garden. To illustrate my point, let me share with you an old joke….
Once upon a time there was a family of very well-bred Jersey Royal potatoes, with three daughters of marriageable age. The father sent each of his daughters out in turn to find herself a suitable husband….
The eldest daughter was gone for a number of weeks, and came home to happily announce her engagement to a Kind Edward. Her father was thrilled.
The second daughter then went on the hunt, and several weeks later was fêted grandly when she brought home the Duke of York.
The youngest daughter was gone for a matter of days, having already chosen her beau. But there was trouble when she brought him home to receive her father’s approval, as she had decided to marry John Innverdale*.
“You can’t marry him!”, her father yelled. “He’s a common tater!”
So you can certainly grow your own royalty in the potato patch – there’s also British Queen, and Caesar if you’re feeling a bit more historical. There’s also a variety of papyrus called Cyperus papyrus King Tut, which is another useful plant.
Good King Henry, in flower
There’s more coinage in the ornamental side of the garden, though, with roses particularly well-favoured with royal names. Prince William has a red hybrid tea rose called ‘Royal William’; his mum had several pink roses named after her, including the ‘Princess Diana Rose’. There’s also a pink floribunda ‘Queen Elizabeth’ and a salmon pink ‘Duchess of Cornwall’ rose. William and Catherine had a shrub rose named after them in time for the Chelsea flower show in 2011; they also have a sweet pea.
Diana, Princess of Wales, and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge also share the honour of having had orchid varieties named after them in Singapore, although sadly Diana died before she was able to visit her namesake.
King stropharia mushrooms
If you have a favourite royal, then the chances are you can find a plant for your garden that has been named after them. There’s regal alstromerias, clematis, delphiniums, lobelia, narcissus and rhododendrons. What do you think will be the first species named to celebrate the birth of Baby Cambridge?
‘Crown Prince’ squash
Which royal figures are you hob-knobbing with in your garden, or down on the allotment?
*I used to love telling this joke when I was a kid, but back then Des Lynam played the starring role. I have updated it to feature John Innverdale as he’s not quite as ancient and also because – following his sexist comments about the female Wimbledon champion – he certainly deserves to be someone’s punchline. If you don’t find this joke funny, it might be because you need to brush up on your British Potato Varieties
. Or possibly you’re just not familiar with British sports commentators.
Posted in Blog on Jul 23, 2013 · ∞
Big Joe, the University of Birmingham’s famous clock tower, was striking 9am when I arrived for the GIY UK launch event on Saturday morning, but I prefer to believe it was chiming to celebrate the return of a world famous alumna ;)
Sadly my arrival was not fêted with an honour guard, so I had to make my way up from the car park to the conference venue on my own – a task made much easier when I realised that they’d divided the campus into colour-coded zones in the years since my graduation.
Arriving at the right place, there was time to briefly peruse the display stands (companies such as Franchi Seeds and the Secret Seed Society had come along, together with event sponsors Carbon Gold, and the team from Birmingham’s Urban Veg project).
Then we were all rapt with attention as we learned about GIY, an emerging network of people who grow some of their own food that began in Ireland and is spreading throughout the world.
L-R: GIY founder Michael Kelly, Mark Diacono, Alys Fowler, Rachel de Thample and Maddy Harland
Founder Michael Kelly shared with us his GIY (Grow It Yourself) ephiphany, standing in a supermarket and wondering why he had to buy garlic from China when it grows just fine in Ireland. He planted his own cloves, without a shred of gardening experience, and was amazed with his first harvest. The GIY organisation put down its first roots in that moment, and is driven by Michael’s belief in the importance of a concept he calls food empathy:
“Food empathy – a deeper understanding of food, where it comes from, how it is produced, and the time and effort required. An understanding of seasonality and the lifecycle of ‘growth-decay-groth’ which is so central to life on this plant.”
Three keynote speakers followed. Alys Fowler talked about the generational gap in gardening knowledge, and the importance of “turning around and telling someone else” when you learn something new, an idea that’s alive and well among gardening bloggers and blog readers!
Craig Sams from Carbon Gold explained that a vegetable gardener with a hoe is 120 times more energy efficient than an organic farmer, and 240 times more energy efficient than a conventional farmer – something we will all need to bear in mind as the era of cheap oil comes to an end.
And Mark Diacono spoke about the ‘new edible garden’, where people throw out the traditional crop rotation and stop growing turnips because “that’s what everyone grows”, and instead devotes their garden space to thing they enjoy eating, plants that have the power to transform meals, delicate crops and expensive luxuries, and the things you just can’t buy. His advice is to make your kitchen garden a place that you’re happy to spend time when you’re not gardening, so that it’s not just about work.
After lunch the conference broke up into four different streams, which posed a dilemma for every delegate as it involved the desire to be in more than one place at a time. The first sessions were a talk on creative urban gardening by Rachel de Thample, tips on growing with kids by Amy Cooper from the Secret Seeds Society, a slideshow of inspiring allotments by Lia Leendertz and a run-down on how to grow as much food on a balcony as you can on an allotment by Mr Vertical Veg himself, Mark Ridsdill Smith.
I had a great time meeting people I know online in the flesh, and I’ll blog more about the afternoon sessions later in the week, but in the meantime have a look at the GIY website – you might like to sign up for their free weekly newsletters and to access the forum. If you’re inspired to start your own local GIY group, you can do that too, or think about affiliating an existing gardening group with GIY. And you can also support GIY by joining as an individual member, or by helping to spread the word about the organisation.
The next GIY meet-up is in Ireland in September; the UK event was such a success that they’re already planning next year’s! Keep an eye on the website, or follow @GIYIntl on Twitter if you want to join in.
Posted in Blog on Jul 22, 2013 · ∞
Yesterday, 135,000 people rocked up at the Glastonbury Festival, to spend the next five days listening to lots of loud music and generally having a wonderful time. I’m not going (I have never been), but I’m not jealous because – you know what? Going to Glastonbury sounds exactly like having an allotment to me, and I’ve got one of those.
- For starters, Glastonbury is all about the mud. Mud, mud, glorious mud. If it rains enough, people will be mud surfing. I can do that, on the plot, if I pull a few more weeds up. It even has a nice slope I can slide down.
- It’s the mud, of course, that made posh wellies fashionable. I have distinctly un-posh wellies, but at least I have somewhere to wear them, on my muddy allotment. No point in buying an outfit that’s not going to get worn….
- Loads and loads of people missed out on Glastonbury tickets, because the event was over-subscribed and the tickets sold out in an hour and forty minutes. And lots of people are on waiting lists, waiting to get their hands on an allotment.
- Glastonbury has a Peace Garden. My allotment is a peaceful garden. It’s all about getting in touch with Mother Nature, and having somewhere to chillax.
- There’s no Wi Fi. In the normal run of things, you can’t expect a field (or an allotment) to have any internet access. They’ve solved that for Glastonbury this year, by turning Michael Evis’ eco-friendly tractor into a 4G hotspot. They can drop that off at the allotment when they’re done with it, it will come in handy.
- A power supply would be a useful thing to have on the allotment, as well. Michael Evis has installed a mass of solar panels on his cow shed. I might get a shed next year, but the nearest I’m likely to get to solar power is one of those little fountains….
- More importantly, wherever there are people, there’s the perennial problem of where to pee. Not on the land, apparently. And it appears that Glastonbury last year was cancelled because the Olympics caused a shortage of portaloos. Allotment owners are lucky if their site has a composting toilet; most would be happy with a private corner and a watering can….
- And the water supply is a problem. If there’s no shed to fit a downpipe to, it’s hard to fill your butt. When people have to be able to drink the water, you’re in to plasson water pipe territory. 10,000 metres of drinking water hose is needed for the festival. Me, I have a trough and a watering can (but no private corners).
- Paths have to be maintained. That might mean mowing the edges of your allotment. At Glastonbury, they have six miles of temporary walkway.
- Badgers aren’t welcome. On allotments, they rampage through the crops and trough all the sweetcorn. Michael Evis is supporting the badger cull because he’s on the side of the cows. I’m on the side of the badgers, but then I haven’t planted any sweetcorn this year.
- Gazebos aren’t welcome either. It’s hard to pin them down on an allotment, they cast shadows and one gusty day and they’ll be on someone else’s plot. It’s the same problem at Glastonbury – people leave them behind and they become someone else’s problem.
- People leave tents behind, too, but they can be recycled into resuable gift wrap. Most people won’t find a tent on their allotment, but allotmenteers are the Wombles of modern world, making good use of anything they do find.
So there you go – that’s 12 reasons why the Glastonbury Festival is exactly the same as an allotment. How about you? Have you discovered the perfect way to have the Glastonbury experience at home, in your garden, or on your allotment? It can involve pie, that’s fine. Pie is good ;)
Posted in Blog on Jun 27, 2013 · ∞
I realised the other day that I never got around to posting anything after my visit to the Edible Garden Show in March, which is a shame because it was a fun and interesting day. I have notes, and hopefully I will get a chance to write about the highlights before next year’s event comes around ;)
This is Alys Fowler, in full flood – talking about edible flowers and herbs for salads; she had a second talk later on about growing fruit on a garden scale. Alys is joining the team for the launch of GIY (Grow It Yourself) UK – their inaugural event is being held at my old stamping ground, the University of Birmingham, on Saturday 20th July, and I’m hoping to be able to go along.
Alys is being joined by Mark Diacono, Rachel de Thample, Michael Michaud, Dr. David Shaw, Lia Leendertz and Mark Ridsill Smith – all people I am looking forward to meeting.
Tickets are priced at £25 for the all day event, with discounts if you by more than one (£40 for 2, £90 for 5). The event is being held in association with Carbon Gold, who make the peat-free biochar composts and soil improvers.
Let me know if you’re thinking of heading to Brum for GIY UK :)
Posted in Blog on Jun 23, 2013 · ∞