27 May 2015

F ... F ... F ... F ...

Mating Flies on Naturally Dyed Cloth
The natural dye mania continues.

I've been raiding local parks for greenery: Buttercups, Butterbur, Hawthorn and Willow, to name a few.

It is quite a furtive operation. There is the initial reconnaissance sweep of an area, head down, suddenly stopping at seemingly random places to fondle a plant. Then there is the brandishing of garden pruners and determined gathering of armfuls of leaves. Followed by the stomp back home through suburban streets with rustling plastic bags stuffed with weeds.

Each outing is an exercise in embarrassment. What do other park users think I'm doing? Once when I was picking up autumn leaves a woman came up to me. When I said I was going to use them for natural dyeing her face suddenly lightened as understanding dawned. 'You're a teacher, aren't you?' she said. I nodded in agreement and she went off reassured she had slotted me into a socially acceptable role.

I think I'll use that explanation if  I'm asked again. I did try to describe to two men walking their Staffies what I was going to do with the bag of dandelions I was carrying, but it got horribly complicated and they went away with the idea I was a fashion designer.

Regardless of needing a succinct justification of what I'm doing, there is a worry that taking 'wild' plants from parks is not allowed. True, it is mostly weeds that I target, but sometimes its leaves from a tree, or municipal flowers.

I do worry that someone might challenge me about the ethics of the practice. It can't be denied that I'm destroying or damaging the plants and this impacts on their surrounding ecosystems. If I'm taking flowers from a plant it wont develop its normal amount of seeds or berries. I've eyed up elderflower flowers, but would it be wrong to prevent the development of elderberries?

Even the harvesting of ugly weeds deprives insects of food sources for their larvae. And I'm always fishing out insects and spiders from the hot water the plants eventually get simmered in.

It's a concern.

Hawthorn Flowers Simmering in Dye Pot

One of the reasons for going on the foraging walk last week was to ask about the legalities, if not the ethics, of taking plants from the 'wild'. Foraging is after all what I'm doing, even though I don't eat the result.

The leader of the walk said it is legal to forage as long as it's for your own use and not for commercial gain.

But then he would do wouldn't he? I think he was referring to foraging in the countryside, but my stomping ground is urban parks. Who owns the parks? Aren't there byelaws about the acceptable uses of parks?

I've done some Googling on the legal aspects, but it is confusing. Here are my findings:

The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 covers access to open land. In this there is a list of what you are not permitted to do while you are exercising your right to roam. You are not allowed to light fires, or walk about with an animal other than a dog, or bathe in non-tidal water for example. Picking plants is also restricted:

l)  intentionally removes, damages or destroys any plant, shrub, tree or root or any part of a plant, shrub, tree or root

However, I think this Act is talking about larger pieces of land like moorlands, forests and nature reserves.  Under this act those gorse flowers I picked from Southwold Common were strictly speaking stolen. Oops.

Maybe issues of access aren't relevant to urban, council owned parks.

And yet, parks aren't common land, which is a very restricted legal concept.  A council can prevent people, or an individual person, from going into a park. Those dandelions I pick belong to Manchester Council, or whatever NGO type of organisation they can fob them off to.

Under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act you have to have permission to mess about with plants.  So although it is safe to assume I am allowed  into a park I don't really have permission to take away their plants because I haven't asked.

What is stopping the local police from whisking me off to the cells (apart from having better things to do) is Common Law. This is 'derived from custom and judicial precedent rather than statutes.'  Customarily then people are allowed to pick the Four F's:  fruit, flowers, fungi and foliage.

This is with the understanding that it is picked for personal use and not going to be sold on.

The 1968 Theft Act:
"A person who picks mushrooms growing wild on any land, or who picks flowers, fruit or foliage from a plant growing wild on any land, does not ... steal what he picks, unless he does it for reward, or for sale or other commercial purpose’

I can relax then. The foraging man was right.

If anyone says I can't nip the tops off those nettles I can reply that I do have a right to them, because this madness is my own personal affair.

Now I've just got to get the ethics worked out, and I'll tackle the political considerations some other time.

Foraged tulip petals and associated fauna

24 May 2015

Defying Zombies

Foraging for Mushrooms
If you would like to know where to find magic mushrooms, particularly in south Manchester, just give me a call.

The other evening, as the sun sank, and I sipped elderflower wine from a plastic cup, I found myself trapped in a conversation between young people discussing hallucinogenic mushrooms, from which I couldn't extricate myself without appearing impolite ... and square.

Wood chip, apparently. Magic mushrooms grow on the wood chip councils sling under shrubs in car parks. There, how cool am I?

This embarrassing, and yet educational, encounter came at the end of a guided forage walk in Fletcher Moss park.

In my increasing botany mania I found the walk very interesting. It is surprising how many plants are edible. Though that's not to say many are palatable. I think it is more a matter of being able to whisk up an impressive salad for your hipster friends, rather than being able to cook anything delicious. It is also reassuring to know, that come the apocalypse, when supermarkets are overrun by zombies, the local park could help keep starvation at bay.

The list of plants sampled included the old favourites of wild garlic and three cornered leek, but also ground elder and the flowers of oil seed rape. Basically you can nibble the young tops of seemingly any plant. They all more or less taste the same - bitter and peppery. The tendrils of vetch were different, tasting, not surprisingly, like pea shoots.

One of the more challenging plants we sampled was Japanese knotweed. If you strip off the outer skin of young stalks there is a gelatinous layer that is edible. Some people said it was like cucumber. I didn't, but ate it because of the zombies.

Huge amounts of mushrooms were picked, particularly Chicken of the Forest. I am not really interested in fungi - it's weeds that float my boat, so I was surprised how easy it was to find edible mushrooms once you've got your eye in.  At the end of the walk the leader (a slim, steely haired man in a bottle green jumper) cooked up the fungi with half a block of butter and some cream. Trusting to his expertise I shovelled some up with a crust of bread. It tasted .... of mushrooms, the kind you'd get in any Aldi store. And sadly I didn't turn temporarily into a zombie.

But, still, it was all together an enjoyable evening.

See the sweet man in the middle? He had bought this walk as a gift for his pregnant wife. Sensibly she refused to come.

17 May 2015

The Unicorn And The Duchess

Coincidence is a strange phenomenon isn't it?

Here is my latest brush with it:

This Saturday's Guardian (I think you can guess who I didn't vote for this past election) had a review of a book called 'A Natural History of English Gardening'. Naturally I pounced on it. This book is "one in which the garden is seen as an ecological and cultural system rather than a stage for fashionable designs or horticultural achievements." Yes, definitely my kind of book. Unfortunately at £45 this review is as near as I'll get to seeing the contents of its pages.

As it happens this may not be too much of a loss because I get the impression the author's focus is not on the garden in the cultural context of the normal person. Instead, by cultural system he means 18th century land owners and their ability to send botanists to far corners of the empire to bring back new plant species. Perhaps not my kind of book after all.

However, we are all, rich or poor, human and there was one plant collector I found some sympathies with. The Duchess of Beaufort (remember that name), who had a garden that rivalled the one at the royal palace at Hampton Court, used gardening to help deal with depression.

"When I get into storys of plants," she said, "I know not how to get out."

I understand that.

I put the paper down and went to the Unicorn (a vegan veg shop) in Chorlton. On the street approaching the shop I spotted a pretty weed growing under some trees that I hadn't seen before. Being a shameless plant hunter (give me a brigantine and a merry crew and I'll go get you some plants for your garden) I picked a few flowers and took them home to identify.

The flowers had yellow daisy-like petals, so we are talking of the Asteraceae family, and they had a look of groundsel about them. I went through a couple of flower ID sites online, but they didn't reveal anything. So I resorted to the old fashioned method of using a key system in a book. This pointed to ragwort, but to me ragwort is a big aggressive plant, this one was chirpy and dainty. With an extra boost of some Wiki flicking I got the answer: Oxford Ragwort .

This plant came from the lava fields of Mount Etna in Sicily. Originally it was intended as a garden ornamental but it escaped and famously spread throughout Britain along the clinker trackways of the new railways.

'I have seen them enter a railway-carriage window near Oxford and remain suspended in the air in the compartment until they found an exit at Tilehurst'

Now here is where that coincidence weaves its magic ...

In whose garden was it first grown? The Duchess of Beaufort's of course.

Mary, Duchess of Beaufort, 1650




13 May 2015

Aboriginal English


I love a plantain.

Ribwort, to be precise. Greater always looks like it's been trodden on.

I think it's my spirit weed. It comes to me in my dreams where it gives convoluted, metaphor-rich messages about Truth, Beauty, and The Meaning Of Life.

No, not really. But I do like them.

They are however an ingredient in an Anglo-Saxon magical charm against poisoning. The Nine Herbs Charm is found in The Lacninga, a collection of ancient medical writings and prayers.

Directions are given on how to make a salve with the nine herbs that involve mixing with soap and ash, and boiling up a paste. This isn't a simple recipe though. Once you've made the salve you have to recite a charm to the patient before you apply the remedy.

Sing that charm on each of the herbs thrice before he prepares them, and on the apple also, and sing into the mouth of the man and both the ears and on the wound that same charm before he puts on the salve.

This sounds very shamanistic to me. It opens a window onto our deep roots.

When I think of traditional herbal medicine I first go to an imagine of some sort of Elizabethan proto scientist weighing and distilling. Or maybe I think of a peasant woman who used weeds that grew round her cottage because her mother told her they work, in a chain of practical women doing the best they could. The idea that medicine was applied with set prayers or charms, which is just another word for spells, has previously seemed too Other. Either fantastical, or aboriginal. And yet here's the Anglo-Saxons being not us-a-long-time-ago but Very Different.


And, you, Waybread, mother of herbs,    open to the east, mighty within;

carts rolled over you,    women rode over you,

over you brides cried out,    bulls snorted over you.

All you withstood then,    and were crushed;

So you withstand    poison and contagion

and the loathsome one    who travels through the land.


Given my uncharitable feelings about Greater Plantain, I wonder if this was the species used in the charm.

 Posted with BlogsyPosted with Blogsy

10 May 2015

Fleas Knees And Bad Backs

I found this poor dead bee while hoovering (yes, I do occasionally do a spot of housework).

Her wings are beautiful - like a sepia ink pen drawing on parchment.

Bees need flexible wings because the don't simply flap up and down but do a sort of figure of eight shape in the air. There might be a post about that somewhere in this blog, but it'll take some rummaging to find it.

The flexibility is provided by a protein called resilin which is found at the junction of the wing veins. It is used by most insects in body parts that need lots of elasticity. Fleas need it to jump. Cicadas use it to make their famous sound, and it is even in the mouths of insects that pump poison into other insects.

It is a miraculous substance that has near perfect elasticity. Experiments have been done on the resilin in dragonfly wings. Even when strained to over twice its original length for two weeks, a dragonfly's resilin tendon snaps back perfectly when the stress is relieved.

The reverse action of compression is also impressive in that about 97% of the energy that’s put into it is returned. Experiments, on fleas this time, show it is not good at storing energy as such. The ability of fleas to jump isn't due to the resilin. Instead, it allows the body to quickly return to its original shape, ready for the next leap.

It is such amazing stuff that scientists are trying to make artificial spinal discs with it to transplant into humans. Being a sufferer of a bad back I can't wait for that to happen.

1 May 2015

I Am A Dandelion

This year is developing into The Year of Natural Dyeing. Last year was The Year of Crochet. Before that was The Year of Genealogy. There was once mystifyingly a Year of Yoga.

My enthusiasms generally last a year.

Simmered ivy berries have been successful this year, producing a blue and a pink. The berries from a plant in Sainsbury’s car park (Barberry?) gave a subtle purpley pink, and spring’s purple crocuses deposited a minty green on cotton.

Daffodils and dandelions have turned out to be the flowers that keep on giving. They perhaps not surprisingly, give a golden buttery yellow. The trouble is it doesn’t run out. There is a limit to the amount of yellow fabric even I can use. It is so magical though it feels a waste to throw the dye liquid away. There is a pot of it outside that whispers, ‘Go on. Dunk another’.

The variety of these colours and the inexhaustibility of daffodil yellow have made me wonder what the chemicals responsible are. There is also another, more desperate, question following from that query: ‘... and how can I get them to stick to the cotton?’

Being intelligent readers I am sure you can guess the pigments are Carotenoids and Flavonoids, the chemicals that give colour to fruit and vegetables. Tomatoes are red because of lycopene, a carotenoid; blueberries blue due to flavonoid anthocyanins. You will remember anthocyanins from our experiments with black beans.

The reliable yellow of our generous daffodils comes from a type of carotenoid called zeaxanthin. Pleasingly, the ‘xanth’ bit of that name comes from the Greek for yellow, ‘xanthos’. Bright yellow marigold flowers contain up to 98% of another carotenoid, lutein. And what is the Latin for yellow? Luteus!

Paddling in the shores of organic chemistry is fun. Unfortunately the fading memories I have of chemistry lessons in school during the late 70’s mean I don’t understand the scientific terms. What is a phenolic glycoside? Should I be concerned with covalent bonds? But at least I now have some vague idea of what is going on.

However, the overall lesson from this encounter is more sobering.

These pigment chemicals that are the focus of my latest hobby are essential for health. As an example, zeaxanthin and lutein are found in high concentrations in the eye. In some cases it may be helpful to take them as supplements. Public health authorities (and the Daily Mail) repeat the mantra that we should eat more fruit and vegetables because they contain these vital chemicals which are not only pigments but antioxidants.

Admittedly I don’t follow this advice and rarely eat the full five portions of fruit and veg. I am not worried about this because I think I eat enough to keep ticking over. Yet, what struck me when researching natural pigments is how many are needed by a body to merely function, let alone to blossom into full sparkling health.

During the last few weeks I have been picking individual flowers and weighing them to the nearest gram, then fussing over simmering pots to coax molecules of colour to dye a piece of cloth. Just to satisfy my curiosity and creativity.

Shamefully I don’t take such care over the plants I eat for health. It’s more a matter of frying an onion because it makes the sauce taste better, or adding a stick of celery because the recipe says I should.

I can hear the vegetarians among you yelling at the screen. Of course I know fruit and vegetables are ‘good’ for me, but I never fully comprehended how the organs and living processes in my body rely on the chemicals made available to them by the plants I eat.

Life is precarious.

It is also interconnected. As the more spiritual amongst us may say ‘we are all one’. Absolutely, if a dandelion flower is made up of the same stuff as my eye.