Last summer my optician used his new-fangled camera to take images of the back of my eyes. He thought he saw, in one, something untoward – a small patch of discoloration. This would not normally be cause for concern, but this particular patch was close to the macula – an area of the eye that determines the accuracy of our vision. It could (but was unlikely to) herald the early onset of Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of visual impairment in the UK.
And so in the autumn I paid a visit to the eye clinic at the John Radcliffe hospital, for further examination. This involved using two medications on my eyes, the end result of which (beyond minor stinging) was highly dilated pupils, an inability to focus and a sensitivity to light.
The drugs used to achieve this have an interesting ethnobotanical history, laid out in a paper called Ophthalmology’s Botanical Heritage (published in the Survey of Ophthalmology in 1992). It says that many of the advances in pharmacology in the 19th century were made by ophthalmologists, eager to explore the autonomic nervous system through its visible effects on the eye.
Atropa belladonna, by Anne Tanne
They discovered that atropine and scopolamine dilate the pupil (an effect called mydriasis) by blocking the action of the pupillary sphincter. Later it was determined that they also cause cyclopegia – paralysis of the ciliary muscle, which causes a lack of accommodation (my inability to focus properly).
The two effects go hand-in-hand and are used during eye examinations because they make it easier to see the retina at the back of the eye. They are caused by plants in the Solanum (nightshade, potato) family, which were well known in Europe.
However, once they had succeeded in dilating the pupil, ophthalmologists wanted the ability to contract it (miosis) – and for that they had to look to plants beyond their experience. The Calabar bean was used as an ordeal bean, used to ‘determine’ the innocence or guilt of people suspected of witchcraft. When applied to the eyes it causes miosis and short-sight (through an effect on the ciliary nerves), caused by the presence of eserine (physostigmine). It was discovered that it also had an effect on intraocular pressure, and hence it was used as a treatment for glaucoma. It was followed by pilocarpine, isolated from a Brazilian plant.
The Calabar Bean, from the Biodiversity Heritage Library
Returning from the ethnobotanical aside, there is no reason for me to be concerned about my eyes. The doctor issued what sounded like a standard set of advice for eye health – wear sunglasses when it’s sunny, don’t smoke, eat leafy vegetables and oily fish. I was intrigued by what’s in leafy vegetables and oily fish that would help, so I did some research.
It turns out that carrots, which are rich in vitamin A, are good for general health but not particularly for preventing AMD. That they will help you see in the dark is wartime propaganda – published partly to avoid the Germans learning that we’d invented radar and could see them coming at night, and partly to encourage the general public to eat their way through a carrot glut and reduce the demand for other foodstuffs. (An enterprising woman even came up with a recipe for carrot fudge.)
Oily fish (such as salmon, mackerel, anchovies, trout, herring and sardines) have higher levels of Omega-3, although it’s also found in other fish.
And it turns out that there are two carotenoids vital for eye health – lutein and zeaxanthin – and they are most abundantly found in dark green leafy veg such as kale, spinach and silver beet. They’re also found, in smaller quantities, in peas, pumpkin, Brussels sprouts (that Christmas dinner will have done wonders for your eye health!), sweetcorn and beans.
Which is good news, because all of those things will happily grow here in the UK. It would be interesting to find out which leafy greens are the best if you’re in other climates. I also came across a very interesting paper from 2005 that looks at the lutein values in nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus), which came to the following conclusion:
“The edible T. majus flower is an excellent source of lutein, the yellow flowers having higher levels than the dark orange flowers. The leaf is a good source of lutein and the provitamin A β-carotene. More studies are warranted to promote the use of these materials as functional food.”
And so it seems that I should be adding nasturtium flowers and leaves to my diet to keep my eyes nice and healthy. The same paper suggests that egg yolks are another good dietary source of lutein, so it might be time to ditch the egg-white omelettes.
So… who’s up for having a salmon omelette with a kale and nasturtium side salad for tea? ;)
Macular Disease Foundation Australia. (2013). Nutrition and Supplements for Macular Degeneration. Available from: http://www.mdfoundation.com.au/page17334.aspx
Niizu, P. Y., & Rodriguez‐Amaya, D. B. (2005). Flowers and leaves of Tropaeolum majus L. as rich sources of lutein. Journal of food science, 70(9), S605-S609.
Packer, M., & Brandt, J. D. (1992). Ophthalmology’s botanical heritage. Survey of ophthalmology, 36(5), 357-365.
Posted in Blog on Jan 11, 2014 · ∞
The weather continues disappointing, but since Christmas I have the solace of repairing to my library, reunited as I am with the bulk of my volumes, although I have not yet space for my whole collection. The esteemed publisher, Timber Press, has sent a copy of their latest publication for my review – Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life – and so I have been following the adventures of that most renowned lady.
The book is written in the modern style, divided into a number of parts. The first recounts the life of Beatrix Potter, which was ordinary only in the sense that it contained the usual measures of restriction and triumph, happiness and grief.
Born into a wealthy family but frustrated in her desire to be a naturalist (merely on account, it seems of her sex), Beatrix Potter turned her considerable illustrative talents down a different path and became the author of the children’s books with which we are familiar. Her animal characters are what we remember best, but they are frequently displayed in gardens and natural settings, in which the plants are accurately rendered.
The proceeds from her literary endeavours financed the purchase of land in her beloved Lake District, and Miss Potter turned her hand to planting gardens, both ornamental and productive. She soon discovered that gardening neighbours can be the most powerful allies in this endeavour, generously offering up cuttings and divisions of plants that grow well in (and sometimes threaten to overwhelm) their own gardens. And though undoubtedly otherwise of good character, Miss Potter was known to succumb to temptation and pilfer plant material when the opportunity arose.
She soon found that her independent income could not keep pace with her gardening endeavours, an unwelcome realisation common to keen gardeners, who discover that “gardening can be described as a hole one digs in the ground into which to shovel funds.” In Miss Potter’s case her desire for gardening provided the motivation to write more books!
Having been treated to a summary of Miss Potter’s (later, more properly, Mrs Heelis’) life, we are guided through a year in her gardens, watching the plants grow and bloom just as she would, seeing moments that she captured in her drawings and paintings. The details we learn here will resonate with the most modern of gardeners; Miss Potter is described as a ‘locavore’, growing her own vegetables, foraging for wild fruits and sourcing other foodstuffs from the local villagers and farmers. This was as much a lifestyle choice for her as it is for us, as she undoubtedly had the funds to import anything she desired from London, and was certainly not averse to bringing in new species of plants.
Miss Potter had some habits that would not chime so well with current thinking, however. She was known to remove wildflowers from the countryside, to plant them in her own garden. And worse still, she planted rhododendrons by the tarns – such meddling with the ecosystem would now be very much frowned upon, although she was merely trying to preserve an environment of which she was very fond.
In the final part of the book we are encouraged to venture out into Miss Potter’s legacy and visit the places in which she lived and the gardens she left behind – not all of which are, as may be expected, located in the Lake District. For an armchair explorer such as myself, a trip to the Scottish highlands may not be on the cards in the foreseeable future, but as the book says,
“The best place to end this tour of Beatrix Potter’s gardens is in your own. Plant a gooseberry, or a foxglove, as she did. Steal ideas, if not plants, from other people.”
To help us in this endeavour, the book is furnished with both a list of the plants that Miss Potter included in her garden, and one of the plants she included in her book. There are notes and suggestions for further reading, and a proper index.
Throughout the book we are delighted by the inclusion of many of Miss Potter’s illustrations, whether they be still life from her gardens or the colourful characters from her books. There are also black and white photographs, taken by Miss Potter or her family, and modern colour plates of her surviving gardens.
As the late, great, Carl Sagan said,
“One glance at a book and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for 1,000 years. To read is to voyage through time.”
Having done so myself, I invite you to open this book, travel back in time and walk for a time in the gardening shoes of Miss Beatrix Potter, a gardener just like you or I.
Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life: The Plants and Places That Inspired the Classic Children’s Tales
by Marta McDowell
Hardback, 339 pages, RRP
Publisher: Timber Press
Disclosure: I was provided with a review copy by the publisher, but my words are my own.
Posted in Blog on Jan 4, 2014 · ∞
Last modified on Jan 4, 2014
Tags: books & adventure.
The curious means of sprouting an avocado stone
As I embark on a wondrous journey through the year of 2014, I find myself without a map or a plan of any kind. I have therefore taken it upon myself to fashion of it a year of every day adventures – travelling wheresoever the winds of curiosity may take me.
Yesterday I partook of a most sumptuous fruit, an avocado from the New World. Pear-shaped, it is no pear – its skin takes on the feel almost of leather, and its ripe flesh is so smooth as to be scooped out with a spoon. To make of it a confection would need the addition of sugar; even when most fully mature the fruit is not sweet, and makes a most excellent addition to a sallet.
Once consumed, the flesh reveals a central stone, much like the dark brown egg of a mysterious songbird. To germinate this seed in our climes requires a most curious technique. Washed clean, the stone is stuck with wooden toothpicks and suspended so that it is half in, and half out of clean water. Kept where it may see the sun, but protected from the frosts without, it may sprout, although how long it takes to do so is unclear. I have treated my stone thus, and await its transformation.
Whilst the fruit of the avocado is a delicacy in its own right, I have found tales that the leaves of the plant may be used as a spice, with a flavour not dissimilar to anise. Whilst I would try this for myself, my avocado is not the right sort, being a Hass brought here from Chile. For the spice I require leaves from an avocado tree grown in the sun-kissed lands of Mexico.
I have therefore ordered the same from a merchant that, whilst previously unknown to me, seems to be of sound reputation. They will bring to me a package of botanical treasures from Mexico, as their offerings included other sundry items that caught my fancy. Alas, their catalogue also includes items I dare not try – hot chilli peppers that would light a fire in my belly so great that it would be days before I were fit to raise my pen again. What is the nature of the Mexican culture, so far distant, that it is fuelled by such a fiery cuisine?
Posted in Blog on Jan 2, 2014 · ∞
Last modified on Jan 11, 2014
Tags: adventure & spices.
When I first became a freelance writer, I started to drown in scraps of paper. Loose leaves from pads, sticky notes, brochures and leaflets scattered everywhere. Finding anything became a nightmare, and so I developed the discipline of recording everything in a bound notebook – I called it my Brain. I had a new one every year. The contents was a hotch-potch of idle thoughts, to do lists, research and outlines for articles and show notes for the podcast. If I wanted to, I could go back and flip through everything for inspiration, or to relocate an idea.
I still scribble ideas down, but these days I file them away in Evernote, and in the two years since I’ve had it, I have become an Evernote evangelist. When I mention it to people, they ask what it is, and the simple answer is that Evernote is a database. It lives in the Cloud, and you can access your data via the website, via free software downloaded onto your computer (Mac or PC), or via one of their mobile apps. Everything is branded with the jaunty elephant logo – because elephants never forget, I assume.
That’s a pretty factual description of Evernote, though, and it doesn’t sound at all exciting. The key is that Evernote is what you make of it – you can store pretty much anything in there, and fine tune it to meet your needs. Evernote is based on Notebooks, which can be local or synchronised, so that you can access them on all of your devices, which is pretty handy if you work in more than one location. You begin with a default Notebook, and build from there. I have been doing a little bit of rearranging over the last couple of weeks, and at the moment I have 42. The contents range from book ideas to research notes, to recipes, important bits of information that are handy to have around, and the index to my library of books and a separate one for To Do lists and things that need to be done.
You can share Notebooks, if you want, either publicly or with other Evernote users. Shopping lists with loved ones, project notes with co-workers. A list of places to go, or the family recipe book. I now have two Evernote accounts, one personal and one for work – my To Do list Notebook is shared between the two.
One of the nicest features is that you can clip things from the web (just the URL, selected text, an article or the whole web page, via the Evernote Web Clipper), and preserve them in all their glory in Evernote. Pictures, recipes, interesting articles you want to read later, anything you want. You could sync your Evernote before you left home, and read through everything on the train to work.
You can tag every note, with as many tags as you wish. You can annotate, and highlight. You can type in your own notes, and the mobile app lets you upload photos directly. This year I will be experimenting with one of the Moleskine Evernote journals, which is specially designed so that you write on a page, tag it with stickers and then upload a photograph into Evernote. Whether it’s the best of analogue-meets-digital, or a gimmick I won’t really make use of, remains to be seen. [Evernote Moleskines come with a code for Evernote Premium, which makes them better value than they might initially appear.]
Of course, storing all this information is only of use if you can get your hands on it later, and this is where Evernote really comes into its own, because it has a really good search function. You can search through all of the notes, in a specific notebook, or for a specific tag. You can display all of the notes with a given tag. You can link one note to another, and upload PDF files, although they only become full-text searchable if you upgrade from the free version to Evernote Premium [Premium users also get 1 Gb of uploads a month, and a larger maximum note size (100 Mb)]. You can scan documents in – really useful if you’d like a digital repository of all your scraps of paper. Are you one of those people who cuts bits out of magazines to read later?
The upshot of all this is that this year I won’t be having a paper Brain. I’m keeping a journal in my Evernote Moleskine instead, and keeping all my ephemera neatly tucked away in Evernote. if you’d like to try it, you can use Evernote for free, including free downloads of the software – you just need to sign up via the Evernote website. If you do do via that link, you’ll also get a month’s free Evernote Premium; I’ll get some referral points I can use to extend my subscription.
I used to get told off at school, fairly often, for having my head in the clouds. It’s nice to know, so many years later, that I can be more productive by keeping my Brain in the Cloud ;)
If you’re already an Evernote fan, do let me know in the comments how you use yours, or share your best Evernote tip with everyone!
Posted in Blog on Jan 2, 2014 · ∞
Last modified on Jan 1, 2014
Hoeing squashes with a bone hoe
The Plant Nutter’s (Virtual) Book Club is all about searching out and reading interesting plant books. It’s a kind of bibliotherapy for the plant-loving bibliophiles of the world, weary of heart as they wade through the often underwhelming weight of newly published gardening books.
To start us off I have chosen a widely available classic, Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden (check out the sourcing suggestions if you need to get your hands on a copy).
Maxi’diwiac (Buffalo Bird Woman) of the Hidatsa tribe lived on a reservation in North Dakota in the late 19th/ early 20th century. She maintained the traditional skills, including gardening, and recounted them to Gilbert Wilson, who published the account as his PhD thesis (“Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians: An Indian Interpretation” by Gilbert Livingstone Wilson, Ph.D. (1868-1930) Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota (Studies in the Social Sciences, #9), 1917. Ph. D. Thesis.) in 1917. It was later republished as the Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden, the book we are going to read together.
You can use this post to record your thoughts about the book as you read; I’ll put up a discussion post on 15th February so that we can have a proper natter, although you will have to provide your own biscuits.
In the meantime, you can also leave a comment on this post to suggest the next title, to read in March. We’ll have a vote on the suggestions in February, and I’ll confirm the next title when I start the discussion on this one. My suggestion for our second book would be a new one – Stephen Barstow’s Around the World in 80 Plants, which is due to be published in the UK on 7th March 2014. It will be available in the US from Chelsea Green, but not immediately – so you may prefer to choose something else for March and come back to Stephen’s book when more of us can get our hands on a copy.
We could also continue our way through classic books available online – there are plenty. The Moss Grower’s Handbook handbook has been on my list for a while, and might be fun.
Anyway, feel free to make your own suggestions in the comments (or you can email me) and we’ll have the vote next month.
I’ll be quiet now, so you can read :)
Posted in Blog on Jan 1, 2014 · ∞
Last modified on Dec 30, 2013
There’s been some discussion lately about whether gardening books are boring, or not. I tend towards the ‘they’re boring’ side – I’ve been reading them (and gardening) for enough years to have moved beyond the How To manuals and the books of hints and tips, and I could never stand the compendiums of gardening ‘lore’. It’s rare that a gardening book catches my eye these days. Whilst I’m sure there’s plenty of exciting new stuff going on in the world of horticulture, it doesn’t seem to filter down far enough to be included in gardening books, which have a tendency to churn out the same things ad nauseam.
Plant books, though, they’re a different matter. Books about plants, about people growing plants, using plants and even just about the plants themselves, can be utterly fascinating, and aren’t in short supply.
Hence my idea for a virtual book club – the Plant Nutter’s (virtual) book club. I’m planning on reading one book every other month, and hoping that you’ll join me so that we can have a discussion about it as we go along. I envisage a mixture of new books, classics that might already be on your shelf (or available in the library) and have either never been read or are worth re-visiting, and freely available ebooks from the internet. So there’s a good variety of stuff and you’re not committed to buying a new book every couple of months. Anyone can make a suggestion for a title, and then we can have a vote.
So that we can start reading on 1st January, I have picked the first title, a classic that’s available online, as an ebook and as a paperback: Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden. I’ll add some sourcing suggestions at the bottom of this post; feel free to add any others (legal!) in the comments. I don’t think it will be available in many (UK) libraries, but apart from that it’s easy enough to get your hands on a copy and I think it should prove an interesting read.
1st Jan – I’ll put a post up with the book details, so everyone has a place to comment as they read along and also to suggest titles for next book.
1st Feb – vote on title for next book, confirmed by 15th.
15 Feb – a blog post opens discussion on Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden and confirms the next title.
1st Mar – new book post goes up.
1st Apr – vote on title for next book, confirmed by 15th.
15th Apr – book post opens discussion and confirms next title
1st May – new book post goes up.
1st June – vote on title for next book, confirmed by 15th.
15th June – book post opens discussion and confirms next title
1st July – new book post goes up.
1st Aug – vote on title for next book, confirmed by 15th.
15 Aug – book post opens discussion and confirms next title
1st Sep – new book post goes up.
1st Oct – vote on title for next book, confirmed by 15th.
15th Oct – book post opens discussion and confirms next title
1st Nov – new book post goes up.
1st Dec – vote on title for next book, confirmed by 15th.
15th Dec – book post opens discussion and confirms next title
There’s no need to announce your intention to take part (although you can if you want to) or to read every book – drop in as and when you feel like it. And the nice thing about it being a virtual book club is that it’s never your turn to bring the nibbles! For now, all you need to do is get your hands on a copy of Buffalo Bird Woman’s garden, and kick back until it’s time to start reading on January 1st.
In general, it’s worth checking at the library and asking friends if they have a copy they can lend. Secondhand books are available from lots of places, including Abebooks and GreenMetropolis.
If I come across any good book-related offers than I will try and post them on my offers and coupons page alongside the gardening ones.
For Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden specifically, you can read online at:
http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/buffalo/garden/garden.html. Carl Legge has very kindly converted this version into a single PDF file, which you can download.
The various chapters are available to download as PDF files from:
The book is in print, in a paperback edition. Try Amazon UK, Amazon.com, the Book Depository or your favourite online retailer. You also have time to order it through your local independent book store. ISBN 0873512197, published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press.
The book is also available for Kindle (and if you have a tablet or a smartphone there’s also a Kindle app): Amazon UK and Amazon.com.
Posted in Blog on Dec 24, 2013 · ∞
Last modified on Dec 30, 2013
I have been blogging the more interesting parts of my MSc Ethnobotany dissertation. You can find the background, and a link to download the whole dissertation as a PDF file, here.
Are novelty, curiosity and the expression of individuality the driving motivations for any hobby in a post-modernist world? In fact, the motivations of contemporary gardeners seeking out novel crops are not so different from those of the past. When Alexander sent plant specimens home to Theophrastus, he was curious and seeking knowledge. There are political motivations at work today as well, with some gardeners trying to avoid the products of industrial agriculture, and the agrochemical companies who supply both agrochemicals and the seeds of homogenized plant varieties. Food security issues have never entirely disappeared – despite increasing prosperity, gardeners now are concerned about where their food comes from, how supplies will be affected by climate change and by the need to use their gardens to conserve and enhance biodiversity. Some are still motivated by economic factors, either directly saving money or gaining access to produce that is ‘unbuyable’ at their socioeconomic level (nothing being ‘unbuyable’ if you have unlimited funds).
The transfer of biocultural knowledge has been crucial to the adoption of novel crops throughout history, whether it was Roman and Islamic conquerors bringing new crops, the Spanish extracting the method of growing ginger, or slaves bringing their skills with them from their homelands. Globalization and social media (people interacting with online information, rather than being passive consumers) have removed the necessity for migration, or close human contact, to allow the transfer of knowledge and germplasm. We can now learn from the experiences of strangers on the opposite side of the world. The internet is playing an important role in providing gardeners with biocultural information about novel crops, which aren’t well-documented in the British gardening literature. However, a certain spirit of experimentation is needed, as biocultural information can’t simply be picked up and put down in another place – it has to be moulded into local knowledge of soil and climate, and a new crop has to find a place in our food ways. Gardeners are using social media to share and engage, and this is likely to increase as the more digitally-literate younger generations become the gardening ‘elders’, and pass on their knowledge that way.
It’s worth remembering that the adoption of a novel crop isn’t a one-off occurrence. Food ways change, and crops that were once familiar have fallen from favour. Wong reminds us that the Chilean guava (Ugni molinae) was a favourite in Victorian times, but few gardeners would recognize it now. Carl Legge’s smallage patch is currently an oddity, but could once again become popular if the tide of factors that influence both our food and crop choices once again turns in its favour.
An oft-repeated piece of advice for homegardeners is to “grow what you eat” , but what we eat, and hence what we grow in our homegardens, is influenced by a complex web of political, economic, social and cultural factors. For a new crop to become popular in homegardens, gardeners need to master two domains of knowledge – how to grow a species, and how to make use of it in the kitchen. Increasingly in the 21st century, that means mastering a third – the information skills needed to research and share information online.
I am grateful for the assistance of a long list of people, many of whom are the anonymous respondents to my online surveys. My thanks go to Carl and Debs Legge in Bryn Ffynnon, and to Anne Marie Owens, Anna Greenland and Ken Harris at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, for arranging and participating in my case studies.
At the University of Kent, my supervisor Dr Raj Puri shared his wisdom throughout, from research design right through to the writing of this dissertation. Réka Komaromi and Professor Roy Ellen provided additional welcome insights, whilst Nicola Kerry-Yoxall and Chris Williams supplied invaluable administrative assistance.
Beyond Kent I offer my thanks to Mark Nesbitt at RGB Kew and Dr Simon Platten, both staunch advocates of ethnobotany and always willing to lend a hand to the non-stop parade of new recruits to this discipline. Eve Emswhiller’s encyclopedic knowledge of the published literature on Oxalis tuberosa provided an indispensable signpost along my journey, and Professor Helen Leach was kind enough to respond to the curiosity of an unknown grad student.
The generosity of friends must also be acknowledged. Susanne Masters made herself available for discussions with tea that helped my project take shape in the early stages, and Ryan Doughty made his unlimited internet access available whenever it was needed.
Finally, there is the inestimable Dr Owen Smith, without whom I would never have gone down this path, and who has been a source of unending support throughout. He is also the original source for much of the unusual germplasm circulating throughout the UK, and his tireless work in researching the benefits of novel crops deserves to be much more widely trumpeted.
Cooper, E. (2009). The Alternative Kitchen Garden: An A-Z. East Meon: Permanent Publications.
Wong, J. (2012). James Wong’s Homegrown Revolution. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Posted in Blog on Dec 20, 2013 · ∞
Last modified on Dec 11, 2013
I am blogging the more interesting parts of my MSc Ethnobotany dissertation. You can find the background, and a link to download the whole dissertation as a PDF file, here.
Why do gardeners chose to grow, or not grow, novel crops?
“I don’t really know how to grow anything except very easy things like tomatoes and sunflowers and runner beans” is representative of the respondents who felt they didn’t have enough experience to try growing anything unusual.
Typical responses concerned with edibility included:
“I wouldn’t grow anything I hadn’t tried before incase [sic] I didn’t like it- it would be a waste of time putting a lot of effort in growing something that wouldn’t get eaten.”
“I have never had a chance to sample more novel crops, and probably would not grow something I had never eaten”.
(Carl Legge made a similar point about novel crops being unavailable to try before you grow them, although in his case it wasn’t a barrier to attempting their cultivation.)
Some respondents implied that whilst they themselves would be happy to grow novel crops and try them, “nobody else in the family would eat them”.
Increasing prosperity in the UK has removed the economic necessity of maintaining a homegarden, and the motivations for doing so are now either recreational or aspirational. This new-found freedom from economic restraints allows horticultural curiosity to flourish and provides an environment in which biological diversity is not only maintained, but increased. Whilst it was beyond the scope of this research to enquire why gardeners choose to maintain a homegarden, the motivations given for growing novel crops are telling, with 54% of respondents listing either curiosity, interest, experimentation or some other expression of a desire for novelty. One respondent summed it up neatly when they said “I like experimenting and value diversity.”
Nazarea also observed that homegardeners who save seed do so to maintain their own ‘collection’ of biodiversity, often showing an attraction not only to traditional crops and varieties, but to “the interesting and the odd”.
Respondents also mentioned concerns about the environment – climate change and biodiversity – and the importance of resilience in the homegarden (which comes from having a variety of crops, so that one crop failure isn’t disastrous). There were also mentions of dietary variety and the desire for new food experiences, and these reasons given for growing novel crops reminds us that the ultimate reason for maintaining a homegarden is to grow food, and I believe my results agree with Debs Legge’s assessment that to successfully grow and use a novel crop you need a gardener and a cook – even if they’re embodied in one person. The desire to both grow and use these crops has to be present, as well as the skills to do so, otherwise people either buy their exotic ingredients from commercial sources (rather than growing) or grow familiar vegetables. There’s two domains of knowledge here, and curiosity has to be present in both of them.
How do the motivations of UK homegardeners for growing novel crops compare with the reasons that new crops have been adopted in the past?
Food fashions come and go. Many of Britain’s favourite dishes are now of ethnic origin, and Mitchell attributes this change at least partly to changing attitudes towards what constitutes ‘dinner’. Leach’s study of the history of coriander (Coriandrum sativum) use in Europe tells us that it was a common herb and spice in Medieval times, but fell out of favour as cooking styles changed. The name ‘coriander’ rapidly became associated with an unfortunate etymology that suggested it shares an aroma with bed bugs, and remained unpopular until after the Second World War. Leach attributes its rehabilitation to two factors – a post-modernist lack of prejudice against traditional foods that has led to ethnic cuisines becoming more popular, and contact with cultures that use different common names for coriander, allowing people to experience the herb without the negative associations.
As well as changing fashions, the history of novel crop adoptions shows us examples of economic reasons for changing crop patterns and agricultural practices. Changes in social structure, and personal choices of social identity mean that traditional food ways jostle with the desire for novelty, and food choices have been (and still are) one way of expressing socioeconomic status. Some cultures have expressed the desire to explore and to learn and experience new things; others have developed prejudices against the foreign and unfamiliar and stuck to their traditional food ways – even when migrants are living far from their homeland. And the dividing line between food and medicine is not clear cut, meaning that any crop with medicinal benefits may be rapidly adopted into traditional diets.
Contemporary homegardeners in the UK may choose to grow medicinal plants, but is their interest in novel food crops that was examined here. They are not migrants, or conquerors, but they share some of the economic and social motivations for exploring new species that we can see in the past. The desire to explore and learn is just as important a motivation now as it was then, but their concern for the environmental impact of food production, and their distrust of industrialized agriculture are expressions of our current, unique, sociopolitical situation.
Leach, H. (2001). Rehabilitating the “Stinking Herbe”: A Case Study of Culinary Prejudice. Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, 1(2), 10-15.
Mitchell, J. (2006). Food acceptance and acculturation. Journal of Foodservice, 17(2), 77-83.
Nazarea, V.D. (2005). Heirloom Seeds and Their Keepers. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press.
Platten, S. (2012). Plant Exchange and Social Performance: Implications for Knowledge Transfer in British Allotments. [Unpublished ms. supplied by Ellen, R. with the permission of the author: 13 March 2013].
Posted in Blog on Dec 19, 2013 · ∞
Last modified on Dec 11, 2013
I am blogging the more interesting parts of my MSc Ethnobotany dissertation. You can find the background, and a link to download the whole dissertation as a PDF file, here.
How are digitally-literate gardeners using the internet to share the information they have found, or created, on these crops?
In terms of sharing, the differences between the two case studies are interesting. Debs Legge does most of the gardening, whilst Carl Legge does the bulk of the cooking and the online research. They’re both involved with social media and sharing germplasm and biocultural information. Le Manoir has a team of gardeners, some of whom research, and are responsible for growing, novel crops. Some of them talk about their work on Twitter, but it’s not the all-consuming passion that you see in ‘amateur’ gardeners, and although they are happy to share knowledge and germplasm, you have to ask. They’re not sharing their knowledge in any more formal and accessible way online, possibly because it’s a hard-won work skill rather than an interesting hobby. It’s also possible that they spend less time online as theirs is an outdoor activity rather than office-based, and as employees they may be conscious of being thought to be wasting time on social media.
23 (48%) respondents said that they used the internet in some form to share biocultural information. Blogging was the most popular way to do so, which is not surprising as it allows the use of long-form prose and photographs. Social media was also popular, with 13 respondents using it – eight of whom use Twitter, two use Facebook and one mentioned Pinterest. Three respondents mentioned using online forums.
Four informants reported that they didn’t have enough experience with the crop(s) to share information. Of those, one had passed on some oca tubers to friends to try out. This falls outside the results that Ellen and Platten collected, which show that in general on allotments germplasm and biocultural knowledge flow from experienced gardeners to plot newcomers, with the ability to produce a surplus of suitable germplasm an indicator of horticultural skill and thus status. In this particular case, the gardener in question had produced “the tiniest of harvests”, but had managed to eat some tubers, save some for replanting, and give some away.
Ellen and Platten found that, on allotments, newcomers frequently remarked on the generosity of more experienced gardeners in sharing germplasm without asking for anything in return. They surmised that the experienced gardeners were passing on the benefits that they themselves had received when they were newcomers, and that there was no need for short-term equivalence, as is normally expected with gifts. They also noted that this difference was often not clear to newcomers; my respondent having received tubers as a gift the previous year, they may have felt an obligation to pass on the gift they had been unable to reciprocate.
From where do gardeners source their germplasm for novel crops?
Ellen and Platten found that allotment gardeners acquired germplasm from plants they had grown themselves, from friends and neighbours, and at seed-swapping events, although the majority was purchased from commercial suppliers. My respondents report using the same sources, and the bulk of their germplasm was (at least in the first instance) purchased commercially. Ellen and Platten also mention instances of theft or ‘tolerated taking’ of germplasm, but this did not come up in my results. This may be an omission on the part of my respondents, but it is also likely that theft of novel crop germplasm is rare, as the number of gardeners who would recognise the plants and understand how to propagate and cultivate them is small. Another small-volume source of germplasm encountered by Ellen and Platten is replanting or saving seed from supermarket produce, and one of my respondents recorded saving seeds from two peppers in this manner (see Appendix B in the PDF file).
It is interesting that the number of respondents who used home-saved germplasm this year (25%) is much higher than the number of respondents who have saved germplasm for next year (8%). It is not clear whether this is a real difference, or whether some respondents simply didn’t consider saving seed or tubers to be a ‘use’. It is hard to estimate the percentage of UK gardeners who save germplasm for replanting, as it is an informal economic activity. However, Ellen and Platten found that on one particular allotment site in Kent, 84% of germplasm was bought from commercial sources, and seed saving accounted for just 3%. If that situation is representative of the UK as a whole, then a step on the road to adoption for any novel crop would have to involve a move beyond the seed-sharing informal economy to higher levels of commercial availability.
Ellen, R. and Platten, S.J. (2011). The social life of seeds: The role of networks of relationships in the dispersal and cultural selection of plant germplasm. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 17, 563-584.
Osterrieder, A. (2013). The value and use of social media as communication tool in the plant sciences. Plant Methods 9(1), 26-32.
Posted in Blog on Dec 18, 2013 · ∞
Last modified on Dec 11, 2013
I am blogging the more interesting parts of my MSc Ethnobotany dissertation. I’m skipping over presenting the results of my two online surveys in detail. They’re in the PDF version, should you want to read them.
We live in a different world to that in which the historical adoptions of novel crops occurred. Seed production is commercialized, germplasm is treated as a commodity, and UK gardeners can get their hands on most things, despite increasing regulation. Our post-modern world is moving towards cultural relativism, where all cultures are held to be worthy of respect, and traditional knowledge and practice are no longer disparaged, although they are not yet held to be on an equal footing with scientific knowledge.
Yet the historical context of novel crop adoption is still relevant, as it gives us evidence of state interests in agriculture and horticulture, which are inescapable – tax breaks mould commercialized agriculture, and gardeners are subject to the same legal restrictions as farmers (e.g. the CDB and CITES, phytosanitary controls on germplasm imports and the EU seed laws).
The results of my survey confirm that the ‘novel crop’ domain is ill-defined. Question 13 of survey 1b asked respondents to list the other novel or unusual crops they grow or have grown. Their answers (listed in full in Appendix B in the PDF file) contained examples of all the ‘novel’ attributes defined: using horseradish as a perennial broccoli is a new use for an exsiting crop; skirret and rampion are reintroductions of traditional crops; yacon, mashua and ulluco are all introductions, and buckshorn plantain is an example of domestication. Respondents also listed new varieties of commonplace crops (e.g. purple carrots and yellow mangetout). (Survey 1a was aimed at gardeners who choose not to grow novel crops, survey 1b at those who grow oca and/or achocha.)
Do digitally-literate gardeners rely on internet sources for the cultural information they need to grow novel crops?
Almost 35 million adults (73%) use the internet every day in the UK, and with 92% of survey 1b respondents reporting that they use at least one online source for biocultural information, it’s clear that digitally-literate gardeners do rely on the internet for information on novel crops.
In survey 1a, 96% of my respondents also reported using the internet as a source of biocultural information. However, 27% of them also said that a lack of suitable information was one of the reasons they chose not to grow novel crops. As one put it, “i never realsied [sic] i could grow them in this country, so lack of publicity and information of what we can grow in this country”.
The sheer volume of information on the internet can be problematic, and a key “information skill” is the ability to sort the wheat from the chaff, the useful and reliable information from the banal or dubious. Carl Legge gave the example of American recipes online, which often rely on processed ingredients (branded goods, such as tins of Campbell’s soup) that may not be familiar, or available, to a UK audience, or popular with those who prefer to cook from basic ingredients. Gardeners who are researching novel crops also have to understand that the information they find is not all universally applicable – they have to combine it with local knowledge (e.g. of soil and microclimates) and horticultural skill.
Online apps and tools allow us to filter the flow of information, to provide a highly personalised “Table of Contents”, tailored to specific interests. I suspect that the divide between those who feel they have access to the biocultural information they need – and those that don’t – is down to a lack of information skills, rather than a genuine lack of information, and it would be interesting to research this point more fully.
More traditional information sources are still popular, with 21% of survey 1b respondents (and 68% of survey 1a respondents) using books. This may represent a preference for ‘scientific’ knowledge from industry representatives, the media, and ‘experts’ over local knowledge gained through experience and passed down through generations. Gilbert found that gardeners on British allotments rely on commercial seed catalogues for both their germplasm and their biocultural knowledge. Whilst the majority of my respondents sourced their germplasm (at least originally) from a commercial source, only 15% of them report referring to printed seed catalogues, seed packets or information leaflets supplied by the seed company. This may sound a heartening note, as Gilbert found that a reliance on seed catalogues for biocultural information resulted in deskilling, in the sense that gardeners were delegating diversity management to professional breeders, rather than saving seeds and selecting varieties themselves. However, I would have thought that most gardeners refer to seed packet information, at least occasionally. Another possible explanation is that people remember using sources of information such as books and the internet for research, but forget that they have referred to seed packets, which they are likely to do during a gardening activity rather than a research activity.
Zohary’s assertion that co-migration of expert growers with crops (or at least close contact between then and gardeners/ farmers in the new territory) is essential to successful crop adoption is demonstrably true in the historical examples. However, my results indicate that the internet can replace (or at least transform) this close human contact, as gardeners can now record their personal experiences online, and even converse with strangers on the other side of the world. For example, the Sowing New Seeds Project is conserving both the germplasm and biocultural knowledge for novel crops grown (primarily by migrants) on allotment sites in the Midlands. Although collating the information involves close human contact, the information is being released to a wider audience via factsheets freely downloadable from the website (and the germplasm is being distributed via the Heritage Seed Library).
Alexiades, M. N. (2009). The cultural and economic globalisation of traditional environmental knowledge systems. In: Heckler, S. ed. Landscape, Process and Power: Re-Evaluating Traditional Environmental Knowledge, Vol. 10. Berghahn Books, pp. 68-98.
Carruthers, S. P. (ed.). (1986). Alternative Enterprises for Agriculture in the UK. Reading: Centre for Agricultural Strategy, University of Reading.
Gilbert, P. R. (2012). Deskilling, agrodiversity, and the seed trade: a view from contemporary British allotments. Agriculture and Human Values, 30(1), 101-114.
McCune, J.L. (2010). A Preliminary Study of the Plant Knowledge and Grassland Management Practices of English Livestock Farmers, with Implications for Grassland Conservation. In: Pardo de Santayana, M., Pieroni, A., and Puri, R. K. Ethnobotany in the new Europe: People, health and wild plant resources. New York; Oxford: Berghahn Books. pp. 307-328.
Office of National Statistics. (2013). Opinions and Lifestyle Survey [Online]. Available from: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0At6CC4x_yBnMdHdsRWhkQld3dms5U1pHMzlWUW03a1E&usp=sharing [Accessed 29 August 2013].
Osterrieder, A. (2013). The value and use of social media as communication tool in the plant sciences. Plant Methods 9(1), 26-32.
Sowing New Seeds. (2011). What is Sowing New Seeds? [Online]. Available from: http://sowingnewseeds.org.uk [Accessed 29 August 2013].
Zohary, D. (1998). The Diffusion of South and East Asian and of African Crops Into the Belt of Mediterranean Agriculture. In: Prendergast, H. D. V. ed. Plants for food and medicine: Proceedings of the joint confereence of the Society for Economic Botany and the International Society for Ethnopharmacology, London, 1-6 July, 1996. Kew: Royal Botanic Gardens. pp. 123-134.
Posted in Blog on Dec 17, 2013 · ∞
Last modified on Dec 11, 2013