Category Archives: Botany and Wild Food

Monkeyflower – Mimulus guttatus (Scrophulariaceae)

Today i ticked off the first from a long list of plants, by taking a video of my meeting with the Monkeyflower – Mimulus guttatus. What a thrill to finally make a start on the list. By my calculations only 512 to go.  Provisionally i’ve said that i’d like to meet one plant from each genus of native and naturalised flowering plants, using Francis Rose’s “The Wildflower Key”. It’s funny because i already know that goal is kind of impossible, at least with regards to Epipogium – Ghost orchid. It lives mostly underground, feeding on a host plant via mycelium networks, possesses no chlorophyll of it’s own, and is therefore unable to photosynthesise. It shows it’s head once every 17 years on average, in locations kept top secret by those botanists lucky enough to have met it. Last time it appeared for one night before a slug unceremoniously ate it. Besides which, i know that certain genera will warrant a much deeper investigation, and besides besides which, i’ll never pass up the opportunity to meet a really interesting plant (ie all of them). So a little more nuanced than my original goal sounds. It makes a nice sound-bite though, and is at least a minimum standard i’d like to aim for.

A video i took of me keying out the Monkeyflower.

On with the Mimulus show.
Firstly, it’s interesting that this woman links it’s herbal uses to uplifting the mood. When i first clapped eyes on it i started looking in St John’s Wort family; lovely yellow flowers. i then realised the flower was much more reminiscent of foxglove, snapdragon, toadflax, all in the Scrophulariaceae or Figwort family.
Plants for a Future list it’s edibility as 2 out of 5 – subjective of course, but i’m thinking along the lines of medicine rather than food. Next time i see it i’ll have a nibble, fairly happily having read some of how it’s used and having keyed it out confidently.
Wikipedia page for the Monkeyflower.

Plant Walks

I’ve had a lot of fun recently leading plant walks in Marsden. I’ve started to get a feel for how it works best. Individuals or small groups up to 4 allow me to give more of myself. It means that when I find something interesting the group is clustered close round me to get a good look at what i’m showing, and to hear what i’m saying. I feel much more relaxed, and have the feeling that I can really be myself. I have felt like a tour guide with larger groups. There seems less possibility of chatting between plants so I don’t end up getting to know anyone that well. It’s always nice to come away from a walk and feel that I’ve got to know someone.
I’ve been taking donations rather than charging, which has worked really well. It’s interesting to note that the people in the larger groups gave less per person than those in the smaller groups. It reinforces to me that it would be a false economy to lead larger groups because it doesn’t necessarily make me more money. I haven’t ruled out charging for the walks one day, but this model is helping me to get an idea of how much my time is worth.
It’s really important to me to keep it affordable for people.
I’ve been looking at other people who lead plant or wild food walks to see how they organise it, but the best would be to go on a walk with them. There are lots of ways I can see to improve them or to add more value, but they’ll wait for another time. That’d mostly involve foraging and cooking some of the things we find, or preparing tasters beforehand of the plants that we’ll find. On one walk I went on we sampled sloe gin, hawthorn fruit leather etc.
Recently, I went to Leeds and walked around the park and woods at Meanwood with a friend. We were walking for 5 hours, must have stopped and talked about 100 plants, and by the end I actually couldn’t process any more. I had to shut down my curiosity and turn on tunnel vision just to get home. We had a meal, then I collapsed onto the couch. There was a huge white Lily in a vase on the table and it actually hurt to look at it. I was still going through my checklist – 6 tepals, 6 stamens, 3 parted stigma and it hurt!
I noted that it’ll be really important as the trip goes on not to overdo it. It’s always a danger, especially when you’re passionate about what you do. There’ll be days where every plant I look at is new and interesting, compared with Marsden, where I know the flora fairly well.
“Wow!…..ahhh, nooo! No more wow!”

Give what you can, receive what you need.

This has been a momentous week for me. I decided to stop claiming benefits in order to give myself a push towards setting up a business. Over the last few years i’ve invested heavily in picking up as much knowledge as I can about botany/wild food, and in cooking/fermentation traditions, and now i’m ready to share those things.

Today was the first Plant Walk i’ve done that i’ve received donations for personally. The week before that I raised £48 for the homeless charity Shelter. The business model i’m using is that people can donate whatever they think my time and knowledge are worth. I’m not going to put a figure on that, and there’s no pressure on my part as to what that value is. “Give what you can, receive what you need.” is the way that I look at things. I’d also be interested in doing work swaps, particularly with anyone who could help me out with bike mechanic skills.

I’ve several ideas so far. A snail collection service, the Plant Walks obviously, fermentation workshops, a business supplying wild plants, a pop up wild food restaurant. I’m very keen to get feedback from people, anything constructive that could help me towards making a living from the things i’m passionate about. That should allow me to continue to invest in myself, and the plans that I have to travel further afield and study in greater depth.

I’ve thought long and hard about what role money has to play for me, and i’ve consciously made choices that mean I can use less of it, but in order to continue growing in what I do I believe that money has some part to play. So if there’s any way in which I can be of service, let me know. See you soon.

Pink and Ruby

Luckily, I sleep with a notepad next to me. My brain made a connection whilst I slept and I woke with a strong urge to write it down.
A little background:
I’ve been gently mulling over ways to categorise the plant families, possible ways of lumping them together, memory aids, mnemonics, stories that are meaningful to me to help make sense of what is a very large area of study. I’ve drawn mindmaps and done a fair amount of word association. An example: the family Caryophyllaceae, otherwise known as the Pink family. It contains such common plants as chickweed, Stellaria media, and carnations, Dianthus spp. I imagine a pink cadillac driving down a road, driven by a woman named Cary, and a man named Phil. I can see chickweed growing from the glovebox. As I get to know the family better i’ll add other things to the image.The flower parts come in fives so I could make all the parts  of the car come in fives. 5 spokes on the wheels, 5 spokes on the steering wheel, maybe even 5 wheels, a wacky races pink cadillac. According to Botany in a Day there are 5 sepals, 5 petals and 5 or 10 stamens, but there are exceptions. The petal ends are often split, giving the impression of  there being twice the number. Don’t be fooled!
A feature of the family is the saponin content, they literally contain soap. So as a defence in our botanical wacky race, the pink cadillac will spray soap on the road behind it to foul it’s competitors (predators).
So, last night, the connection I made was in linking  the Rubiaceae family to the Caryophyllaceae. One connection is obviously the ruby part of the name, which links to pink. Another is that it contains cleavers, or goosegrass, Galium aparine, among it’s members. Chickweed and cleavers are plants I see everywhere around gardens and waysides. They’re among the first wild edibles I learnt, and I love them both. Also in Rubiaceae we find coffee, Coffea spp. Apparently the roots of some Galium species will give a red dye, and the family contains the very popular herb Rubia tinctorum, madder. Historically, used widely as a red dye.
I still need some thinking time to draw the Rubiaceae wacky races car in my head. It’s got to include velcro somewhere, cleavers being the inspiration for that invention. You’ll know cleavers by it’s little clinging seed heads that get stuck in fur and clothing.
I’ll update this when I’ve some more ideas.

Protein options for my trip

Two important factors for me in my choice of protein are the nutrition and ecological impact. A large portion of the Earth’s land mass is given over to the inefficient rearing of livestock. This is the argument traditionally presented for turning to a vegetarian or vegan diet, being less damaging to the environment.
One important mutritional point is that protein is digested down into amino acids, which are then used as building blocks to create all the combinations of protein needed by our body. Some amino acids are considered essential, they must come from the diet. Some protein sources are complete, containing all the amino acids required by our bodies for growth and maintenance of tissues.
There are many potential sources of protein, with varying amino acid profiles. Amino acids are sometimes said to be limiting. That is, if you relied solely on that protein you’d miss out on that particular amino acid, which would certainly have consequences further down the line. Animal protein is said to give a complete profile. Combinations of pulses and grains can also give a good profile.
Part of my motivation for the cycle tour is to gather more experience, and to find a middle path. We are adaptable, and I believe we thrive on variety.
I’m not a nutritionist, dietitian, medical doctor, herbalist or even a shamanic healer.
I’m a layman with a strong interest in the role that diet and nutrition have on human health.
In fact, even this summer I was talking to a qualified nutritionist friend about my “wheat allergy”. She informed me that what I have is an intolerance. As we were being catered for, I wanted to make sure that the chefs took my intolerance seriously and I took to calling it an allergy. Which is a way of saying that my research into nutrition and health is a work in progress.
This blog for me then, is a space where I can consolidate. I can update it as my knowledge deepens, as I challenge my beliefs and biases, and as others share their viewpoints.
Some of the options include: leaf concentrate, animal, pulses (including soya and lentils), and micro-livestock (insects).
In terms of my upcoming cycle tour I have considered hunting those animals considered pests: grey squirrels, rabbits, wood pigeons etc and would like to find land-owners willing for me to hunt on their land. I’ll forage and fish by the sea: mussels, crabs and various fish. I’ll only visit those beaches recommended by the Marine Conservation Society.
Gathering insects is also a possibility, although some sources claim it’s not wise, not knowing what they’ve been eating. For something like snails, i’ll be following my standard procedure of purging them for at least 3 days. I don’t generally feed them up on anything, but some do. Earthworms are good, once purged, boiled then fried in butter. 
Acorn weevil grubs are another thing i’ve tried. I kept some in acorn meal as pets for a while, to see what i could learn. That brought me recently to the idea of raising Black Soldier Fly Larvae (Hermetia illucens), or Mealworms (Tenebrio molitor). Some people feed them to animals. I’d like to at least taste them before I did that, who knows, they might be delicious!
There is a woman who collects snails from people’s land. Everyone wins. They get rid of snails they see no value in and she gets delicious snails which she does. 
I’d also love to investigate further into making leaf concentrate. Very briefly, taking edible leaves, extracting the protein content into water, then coagulating the protein by heating it, and using the fibre for other things. For a nice description of the process, with pictures, see here. Also, a free downloadable e-book here. And the Daddy of all, the leaf curd manual here. I’d like to blog more about this at a later date, it deserves a whole post of it’s own.

The Lost Tales of the Plant Kingdom

Or, Why are all the reindeer stick-men called Phil? And, Why are they so sad?
*for a clue, see the note at the bottom.To me the art of botany is one of observation. We get to know a plant by the colour, number, shape and texture etc of it’s floral and vegetative parts. It’s habitat and the time of year are important too, but at it’s most simple we can tell a lot from the flower itself. We recognise the patterns and we piece them together, until we know with certainty it’s name.
If we are serious about healing the wounds of the Earth, we must re-introduce plant knowledge in an accessible and fun way. If it’s not fun, why should anyone learn it? We must engage the wonderfully vivid imaginations we have been gifted.
I propose that a way of introducing people to the incredible world of plants is by telling stories. Using standard botanical terms as a jumping-off point, we can weave magical tales. As time goes on and passion develops those terms won’t seem so alien. I can certainly think of no better way to get children interested in plants.
Are you a plant teacher? How do you teach botany yourself? What has worked for you?  Do you have any other memorable ones? Any feedback or guidance appreciated.
My imagination was first sparked by the book Botany in a Day by Thomas J Elpel. The title alludes to the fact that you can learn the first 7 families and their patterns in a single day. Up till that point I’d learnt them one by one, comparing pictures from the library of books I’ve amassed. You certainly can learn plants that way, but deeper knowledge is never a bad thing.
A huge influence for my upcoming journey was hearing of the work of Frank Cook, an ethno-botanist who had the aim of meeting at least one member from each plant genus. He travelled all over the world doing just that.  When I heard that this book was the one Frank took with him everywhere I’d found the missing piece of the puzzle.
I don’t have such a definite plan as Frank’s. Maybe one day a plan will emerge. For now i’m content not knowing where i’ll end up, embracing whatever the day holds. I aim to share the knowledge I have gathered, and to learn from others with knowledge of plants, permaculture and everything that springs off from there.
*For those not aware, the male parts of a flower are the stamen, composed of a long filament, topped with anthers. Get it?

Cider

A couple of years ago I went wwoofing for the first time, and stayed with a lovely couple called Nick and Sarah in Lincolnshire, who have the distinction of being the first holding, small or otherwise, to be included in the LAND Network of the Permaculture Association (UK). http://www.permaculture.org.uk/land

One thing in particular I took from my week with them was that Nick took notes of everything he did in the garden, how many hours he spent doing a task, observations, a diary essentially.  He impressed upon me the importance of being able to document and to review your observations in later years, to build a body of knowledge right? So I began taking notes of all the things I was foraging ‘in the wild’ ie. down the woods, weeds from the garden, walking on the moors etc.

That diary now tells me that on the 16th October a local farm in Marsden held an Apple Day at which I washed, chopped, ground and pressed a heck load of apples! (I didn’t weight them) I gathered them from 5 local trees in Marsden. It took me about a day gathering, then half a day processing. I ended up with about 8 demijohns of raw apple juice. The apples themself were pretty tart, not quite crab apples but not exactly dessert apples either – wildings. But let me tell you, the juice! So sweet.

So I gathered my demijohns, cleaned them up, bunged an airlock in each and fermented that apple juice into cider. I believe in the trade it’s known as hard cider, or maybe scrumpy?

So here we are in January 2013 and the story continues. I find myself making herring rollmops. You fillet the fish, brine them in 60g salt per 500ml water overnight, then pickle in a vinegar of at least 5% acidity. That last is crucial to the process, if you want to avoid the risk of botulism, and who doesn’t. A fatal illness brought on by the bacteria Clostridium botulinum.

So I find myself thinking hey! i’ve got some cider vinegar, 2011 vintage, but here’s the rub, I don’t know how strong the acid is. The standard advice is not to use homemade vinegar for rollmops because of this, but there is a way round it. I’ve purchased from a homebrew supply shop an acid titration kit. This explains more precisely for those interested.

For my first batch of rollmops I bought some 5% acidity cider vinegar, until I can give this process a go, and see if my vinegar is suitable for botulism killing duty. I’m not entirely sure to what extent it’s the salt, or the vinegar, or both, that kills the botulism. But there we go, that’s where i’m up to with it.

The cider itself, by the way, is delicious, but it sure packs a punch! At the moment I have about a 20/25 litre plastic keg full, maturing in my parent’s kitchen. If i’d known i’d have put it in a keg with a tap on the bottom. As it stands now, I need to open it when I know it’ll all get drunk. (Despite the rollmops I don’t have much call for the vinegar) You know what that means! I need to organise a big party. Well, for now it’ll be there, waiting and maturing.

Ahh, fermentation!

PS I said to fillet the fish, “but what about the heads and guts!”, I hear you cry. I chose to start a fish sauce, what is called in Thailand ‘nam pla’,  and by many other names throughout South East Asia, but more on that in another post…