When you wake up in the morning and realise you have become a plant stalker…

When you wake up in the morning and realise you have become a plant stalker…

Well it seems like it’s that time again so I would like to introduce you to the plant of my current time/week/month/life/is time not just a concept anyway/my new love interest….I say love but maybe it’s actually a slight obsession…You know when you see someone and they look a bit strange but in a really beautiful way and you just can’t stop staring at them and then it becomes a little bit addictive and you just want to follow them and know all about their life? Just me? okay…awkwarrd! WELL anywaysss….I totally have that right now but with a plant. The plant in question is the weird as fuck yet completely beautiful as fuck Dendroseris litoralis. I have a profound need to be around it and follow it as it moves throughout the glasshouses and watch it as I wait for it to to flower so thought I would do a little detective work of my own.

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Boy was it worth it! In fact not only is this plant completely strange and beautiful but is also totally rare as fuck too and not in the Northern Irish sense of the word rare…..’you’re ma’s pure rare mate’…no more like in the ‘Your mother is a rare and beautiful flower’ way. This plant has literally been brought back from the brink of extinction, when in the 1980s there were expected to only be 3 plants left in the wild and is now critically endangered on the IUCN redlist. Hence our dear Dendroseris litoralis is more commonly residing in botanical gardens. Unfortunately as well as being totally beautiful this plant is also deemed to be extremely delicious, hence it’s common name the cabbage tree….don’t be fooled by the name though kids and get your guessing caps on (is that a saying?) put your minds to the test (AND DON’T CHEAT, NOBODY LIKES A CHEATER!) and guess the plant family….go on it’s fun I promise! Top tip….look at the flower 😉

dendroseris flower

so…..I BET you guessed Brassicaceae or cabbage family if you got side tracked by those delectable looking leaves? WRONGGGG….this wee fella is actually a proud member of the compositae family (that’s the daisy family my budding amatuear botanists) Just look at that THE BLOODY BIG DAISY WEIRDO! I just LOVE it SO much!!

However the story doesn’t stop there for this quirky little creation, oh no my friends! For this big daisy was also thought to have been what our dear Alexander selkirk sustained himself on when marooned on an uninhabited island in the Juan Fernández Islands off the Chilean coast, well that and goats, lots of goats. More interestingly these goats did not only sustain his body but also his mind as in his memoirs he apparently trained these goats for company and when the mood would take him, he would dance with his little companions to pass the time….I bet you he came back with some kick ass dance moves!

Unfortunately it is expected that the grazing of these goats is what has led to the vulnerability of this plant, due to it being native only to this Island. By the way guys if you haven’t guessed already this Island is now called Robinson Crusoe Island and it was Selkirks ‘ordeal’ that inspired this tale hailed as ‘one of the first tales of British colonisation’ but we’ll not get into that just yet……that is for another post in the pipeline. 

But really the main thing I would hope you take away from this post is that if you are lucky enough to see this beautiful specimen in the wild then don’t be a goat and eat it….just give it a wee kiss like me, unless maybe you’re starving to death and there’s no corpses of your fellow seafarers to sustain you in the near vicinity, but even then I think you should just give it a big kiss and die happily knowing you got to kiss the weirdest daisy in the world, I know I would! 

 

hummingbird pollination

Just like this little Firecrown hummingbird, also a native to the Island and an important pollinator for OUR favourite plant, and you know how that famous saying goes….if you’re not sure do it like the hummingbird does!

A walnut story – regia and beyond…

A walnut story – regia and beyond…

I like nuts, do you like nuts? well actually when I think about it i’m pretty nuts about nuts, love a good nut me…so why don’t we talk about nuts then?

Walnuts have an extremely rich history, both economically and medicinally. Walnuts are one of the oldest tree food known to man, trade of such dating back to 7000 BC. Excavations from the Neolithic period have unearthed petrified shells of nuts, as well as inscriptions left on clay tablets around 2000 BC by the Chaldeans (people of the Chaldea, which later assimilated into the Babylonians…don’t you know? no neither did I until I chose to write about this) revealing the existence of walnut groves within the hanging gardens of Babylon….anything to do with the hanging gardens of Babylon makes my tummy wobble. Early history indicates that English walnuts came from ancient Persia (again tummy wobble…my tummy wobbles when I can’t comprehend). Thus the Walnut is often known as the Persian Walnut, where it traveled thousands of miles via caravan along the Silk Road route between Asia and the Middle East, eventually finding its way to the great old isle of England. The name English Walnut is expected to be due to the supposed fact that English merchant mariners transported the humble nut to ports around the world…the English, the bearer of nuts…

silk road picture

The walnuts botanical family name originates from Roman mythology, according to ancient myth, Jupiter, who was also known as Jove, and lived on Walnuts when he lived here on earth…I mean why would you not want to live on a walnut? (I can possibly think of quite a number of reasons…but by Jove, Sundays aren’t the day for being negative)  Juglans regia  translating as ‘The Royal nut of Jupiter’ or also known as the glands of jupiter…hmmmm, I can think of one possible reason for that…however in some cultures walnuts were also seen as a sign of fertility, interestingly both men and women liken it to um…parts of themselves..

Medicinally Walnuts have also been used for centuries…in an alarming variety of ways, some slightly more questionably than others. I feel that this is the perfect time to introduce you all to the concept of the Doctrine of signatures, where it was believed that certain plants that represented parts of the body were a mark from god, who bestowed these human body resembling plants upon us to cure us of our ailments. Due to their uncanny resemblance to the brain (among other things) the nut resembling the brain was expected to treat head injuries, or even strangely bald babies…Dioscorides wrote in the materia medica that if walnut kernals were burned and ground, applied to the child’s head, the hair would then begin to grow abundantly…I think personally, I’d give it a few months before applying burning nuts to the scalp of a new born…Plutarch also reported that Walnut trees were soporific (NO, not like this post), “for they send forth a drowsy spirit which affects those heads who sleep beneath it” interestingly though Walnuts are very high in Melatonin which are known to help regulate the sleep/wake cycle, as well as being extremely rich in DHA an Omega 3 fatty acid which is known to greatly improve brain functioning and concentration…..cheers god!

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Walnut trees have also been associated with witchcraft and ancient medicine women, known as the Janara. These women were usually expert medicine women revered as witches due to their worship of the Egyptian goddess Isis (Goddess of womanhood and magic) as well as Diana (goddess of the moon and the forest), possibly where their name Janara is derived from and the pagan rituals which they performed, involving illegibly dancing around a walnut tree as roots were thought to connect to ‘the other side’ and bring up the other worldly energies which were used to heal and for insight. However these knowledge keepers were essentially ‘witch hunted’ due to their opposition of Christian beliefs. With the encroaching practice of Christianity these women were demonized and no longer accepted.  Saint Barbatus cut down the sacred tree and tore out its roots, and on that spot he had a church built, called Santa Maria in Voto.

Unguent, unguent,
Carry me to the walnut tree of Benevento,
Above the water and above the wind,
And above all other bad weather – song of the Witches of Benevento

Noce_di_Benevento

 

Well I don’t know about you but whether it’s the glands of Jupiter i’m eating or a connection to the underworld  or a big edible yummy brain, i’m totally a fan….

Crataegus and the curse of the faeries…

Crataegus and the curse of the faeries…

 

Alas, this series is focusing on Irish tree traditions, and with being Irish a certain amount of literality and rationality must go out the window, because you’re a kill the craic if you don’t. Therefore we must take note of the faerie trees and the exceptionally important toothache tree, brace yourselves folks…..

 

Crateagus (Hawthorn) are still much revered in Ireland due to their conotations with faeries, lone trees and bushes are often found standing on their lonesome as if by magic in fields and on roadside verges and if damaged or removed bad luck would surely follow.

 

The generic name Crataegus stems from the Greek-Kratos meaning strength. The species name monogyna reveals that this species contains one (mono) seed (gyna), whereas C.leavigata typically has two seeds. Hawthorns belong to the ROSACEAE family (Rose family to you amateurs) and contrary to popular belief those red ‘berries’ you see are not actually berries at all but ‘Pomes’ a botanical term for the types of fruit hailing from this family. There you go, a fact you can use to impress your tinder date on those long walks through the countryside…Flowering in May they have extremely pretty and abundant blooms, followed by red POMES beginning from September to October, depending on location and elevation. These pomes are rich in Vitamin C, as well as containing flavonoid molecules which have vaso-dilation properties, Translation: ability to expand blood vessels and strengthen capillaries.  Thus, Hawthorn has been used in traditional medicine for increasing energy levels, shortness of breath and even to ‘mend a broken heart’. Be it metaphorically or physically…potato, potatoe?

 

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Also known as the ‘faerie thorn’, the Faerie Queen by her hawthorn can be seen as a representation of an earlier pre-Christian archetype, reminding us of a Goddess-centred worship. Traditions still stand strong today, in 1999 the Irish Times reported on how the preservation of a faerie thorn was deemed so important that the construction of a £100 million road was put on hold till members of the community and constructors could discuss what to do. The tree was never felled and the road was rerouted to avoid the removal of the faerie thorn…not much wonder really when you listen to the story of the Delorean car factory….

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John Delorean an American car dealer bought some land close to Belfast for the development of his car factory in Dunmurry, however didn’t there stand a faerie thorn slap bang in the centre of the field? Now, all the locals knew of the stories of the faerie thorns and how the foot prints of the ‘wee folk’ were said to be found surrounding the base of the trunk. Development started in 1976, however workmen refused a direct order cut down the tree. However one day the tree was gone, it is said the impetuous Delorean felled it himself and the wrath of the faeries was set upon him….many misdemeanours plagued the venture and Delorean is now known today as the man who was brought down by a thorn tree…..don’t mess with the little people dear John!

 

Another faerie thorn can be found at Beragh hill in county Tyrone, however this is not renowned for the thwarting of American car dealers but for the cure of a toothache. Where it was said driving a coin or nail into the trunk with a stone could bring relief from a toothache, chewing on the bark of the hawthorn was also said to bring some sweet relief from the pain of an unholy toothache. Elsewhere in Ireland there are also many more sites where nails and coins have been driven into trees to cure what ails ye! Such trees are seen to hold cultural links and beliefs which encourages preservation and conservation of such trees, as well as enabling future generations to learn and preserve their natural heritage, while carrying on sacred traditions through generations….as well as warding off suspicious American car dealers!

 

My thoughts on folklore

 

I am a woody perennial plant, typically having a single stem or trunk growing to a considerable height and bearing lateral branches at some distance from the ground, what may I be?

 

Folklore is an integral part of our development as a society and our cultural and religious beliefs, it defines who we are as a society and our identity within that. Folklore heritage and myth can create strong bonds between human and nature, thus creating a need to protect that bond. Fear or loss is found when such bonds are broken, such as the case with the faerie tree and the loss of king Williams tree.

 

Passing down tree traditions and the preservation of them can focus attention on relationships to certain species and specific sites, thus creating a need to protect them, as well as a need for localized conservation and environmental awareness.

 

ANSWER: Why, I am A TREE silly. 

 

 

 

Billy bashing and the Irish tree

Billy bashing and the Irish tree

A wee riddle for yis…I feed many mouths, have a bark but no bite, many rings that may tell you my age, what am I?

(You’ll only find the answer if you read the WHOLE article go’wan)

 

So….for a little change I’d thought we’d talk about trees baby, just you and me. Trees are ancient knowledge keepers that withstand the test of time, wise and all knowing. Trees see all and never tell, the kind of friend you’d like to tell your secrets to, humans can’t keep secrets, tell your secrets to trees not humans. For this reason, trees can be associated with historical events, as being part of that historical event itself. Trees have stood still in battle and listened to the secrets of Kings, queens and noblemen/women, which we can only begin to ponder upon, we can however trace these trees through history to begin to understand the events of these dark battles and how they panned out in space and time.

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 Roots set deep and standing proud in the grounds of Scarva house remains the sweet Chestnut tree (Castanea sativa) known for being part of the route taken by King William and his army from landing sites in Belfast. We can also follow a trail to Cranmore park where King William is said to have taken shelter under a tree there during a rainstorm…said tree however was felled by strong winds, also a second, the third remaining tree, an Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) still stands strong today…the Irish winds however clearly aren’t a fan of keeping the memory of the dear great King William sacred, wonder why…

 Similarly in the grounds of Bangor castle a stump remains called ‘the Schomberg tree’ named after the Duke of Schomberg who led a force under the order of King William, and who laid camp under that very tree. While at Legacorry a massive beech tree whose stump (STUMP!) remains which King William was said to have tied his horses to still remains to this day…seeing a pattern?

 This is just one example of how historical events and expeditions can be traced when using the language of the tree, they are landmarks and sacred knowledge keepers….imagine all the trees out there and the secrets they’ve kept from overhearing tales at a campfire, or screams in the heat of battle….Gosh the mind dos’t wonder!

 Trees may not tell secrets, but they sure do encourage ideas, they are said to have calming and inspirational energies…sure was it not Sir Isaac Newton who gained such inspiration under an apple tree? Imagine a world without understanding the laws of gravity…IMAGINE THE WORLD WITHOUT APPLES! Doesn’t even bare thinking about does it?

 However since we are on the subject of IRISH trees I thought I’d find an example closer to home, that of Professor Thomas Andrews, the first vice principal of Queens University Belfast. Now Thomas loved trees, so much so that he was known for writing up the majority of his seminal work on the liquefaction of gases, while under the shade of a Laburnum tree in the Quadrangle of the University.

However, in the 1950s the tree died but in May 1995 a further tree was planted in its place to celebrate the university’s 150th anniversary. So there you go if you’re having a mental block while coming up with a potentially world changing theory just go see a tree and it will for sure sort it out, trust me it works…..

 

ANSWER: I AM A TREE DUH

Sippin on gin and Quinine…

Sippin on gin and Quinine…

Okay well firstly let us not beat around the bush here and i’ll no longer introduce this as plant of the week, but plant of a week and it’s this week’s lucky week……HOORA…gooooooo WEEK! This one is going to give us a cheeky peek into the history of illegal plant collection (known as stealing in some circles) exportation, medical research and let’s face it an awful lot of shameful exploitation, but hey we wouldn’t have all our mocha choca loca latte frappechinos or rubber tyres (not quite sure how to jazz those up, apologies) without a bit of shameful exploitation here and there, now would we? This is going to be a bit of a history lesson so I apologise in advance to all those ‘here and nowers’ who only look forward, onward and upward and all that, but me I prefer to wallow in the past, so here goes…..another large amount of time passing…another plant to tingle your mind buds (sorry for the slightly disturbing mental image and length of my ramblings).

The plant in question here which MAY be totally completely awesome as f@ck if you are suffering from convulsions, profuse sweating, diarrhea, vomiting,  high fever and the good old faithful….bloody stools, you may also be dying, just sayin……

May I introduce you to Cinchona? No, I do not mean the 4th countess of Cinchona who was married to the viceroy of Peru in the 1600’s, however this was how this plant got their name. Cinchona is a genus of 23 species, four of which are expected to be of medicinal value C. offianalis, C. ledgeriana C. succirubra and C. calisaya. However due to the readiness of hybridisation in upland areas of these plants, the exportation and medicinal uses of certain species is pretty damn difficult to track, leading to a much convoluted and interesting history. Belonging to the Rubiaceae family, yes for all you die hard caffeine addicts that is also the warm and welcoming but slightly dysfunctional family of Coffea arabica (coffee, dumbass.)  Such trees are native to the Eastern slopes of the Andes, mainly Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru and were found in abundance historically in these areas, that is however until the great species that is man came and messed it all up like only we know how. They are also now widely cultivated in many tropical countries for their commercial value, however not indigenous to these areas. Linnaeus (who by the way is a pretty big deal in the world of Botany and kind of came up with the framework for classifying and naming  plants, pretty cool guy if you’re curious and like order) decided to name this genus after the Countess of Cinchona, who was apparently cured of a fever after bathing in a pond beneath these trees, full to the brim of the broken down plant material, an alkaloid soup of *drum roll puleez* QUININE, leading to the tree also being known as the fever tree (more than likely the origins of the brand fever tree tonic…now there’s a story to tell at the bar). However, like many other things in history this event was disproved eventually because people like telling tales and proving others wrong, it’s in our nature.  So, BYE countess…see you NEVER you big Pinocchio you!

This however does not disprove the fact that during the 1600s and more than likely for many many years previous the Quechua peoples of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador were cultivating this tree to use the bark medicinally as a muscle relaxant to abate the shivering from temperature changes experienced in the grips of a Malaria fever. Which, when western culture caught whiff of this, the plant was then targeted as a cure for Malaria…and so it goes. The exploitation and exportation begins, leaving many dead in its wake, like so many similar discoveries of this kind. However it could be argued that the lives saved in proportion is much greater…always a silver lining eh?

The bark was very valuable to Europeans in expanding their access to and exploitation of resources in distant colonies, such as India for the exploitation of tea, where they were at increasing risk of malaria. So begins the raping of economically poor and biodiverse rich areas through the medium of plant collecting and exportation.

By the 1650s shipments of Cinchona bark were regularly reaching Spain and by the 1670s was a well established remedy in Britain and surround, being used by big celebrities such as King Charles II and King of France Louis XVI, which encouraged an even greater demand for this natural commodity to soar, kind of like coconut oil or ummm…the selfie stick, they grow on trees right? Unfortunately as we know, with such increasing demand comes corruption. Bark gathering was often destructive destroying huge expanses for their bark, soil degradation and loss of biodiversity due to monoculture cultivation. There was also contention over the bark received at ports over its quality and effectiveness, due to only several species being high in active compounds.  Not to mention low wages and poor conditions for workers involved in the cultivation who would only see a miniscule fraction of the profit compared with the large sums European traders would see.

Somewhere around the 1820s the first quinine alkaloids were extracted and described by Pierre Pelletier and Joseph Caventou. Within five years, the extracted alkaloids had become standard treatment for malaria. Quinine is now widely used medicinally and also contributes to that bitter taste attributed to the much known and loved Tonic water…I wouldn’t mind dying of malaria, but come on gin WTHOUT tonic water, that is a life I would not want to live.

The South American rainforests initially benefited from the income generated by harvesting cinchona bark for the extraction of this alkaloid from the bark for the manufacture of quinine drugs. Until those naughty botanists smuggled some seeds in 1865, notably that of the C. ledgeriana species which was known to be exceptionally rich in Quinine. After not much interest in Britain the seeds were then sold to the Dutch who successfully cultivated this species in Java. Extensive plantations established of quinine rich Chinchona trees, thus quickly dominating the worlds market of quinine by 1918. Huge profits were reaped by the dutch at this time – Bolivia and Peru seeing none of it. Shameful – eh?

This whole contentious historical debacle that formed one of the largest plant exchange and flow of germplasm at the time for profit in and out of the Americas, raised the alarm for equal benefit sharing from profitable plant material from parent countries, which has in effect led to the development of mutual benefit sharing agreements between countries and a crackdown on illegal plant trade. It’s just a shame such things have to happen before people begin to catch on….pillagers at heart ❤

bark

So next summer we can all sing along….

‘Well I know what i’ll be doing when i’m Laid back with my mind on my money and my money on my mind. I’ll be Rollin down the street, smokin indo, sippin on gin and QUININE….’

SORRY but it had to be done….

Queen Lilly VI

Queen Lilly VI

If anyone has ever wondered why I think plants are completely cool as f🌺ck, take this lily species Victoria amazonica (Eurgale amazonica) for example, the sex changing pineapple beetle brothel that only shares its sweet but fabulous life with us for 48 hours. The flower opens up on its first evening white, attracting ready and willing beetles with its sweet pineapple scent while emitting heat as an added party trick. Of course because its hot and smells like amazing pineapples, the sex of the flower is now naturally female and shes ready to ‘make the magic happen’ she closes round the beetles while they amble about within transferring pollen to stigma . The next night she rises above the water making her debut as a fully fertilised male flower opening up to reveal a now purplish red colour, living out the day as a fully fledged male sending out his beetles to the next sweet pineapple lady flower, only to sink below the water for one last time…. Shantay you stay Amazonica

Don’t Mandragora if I do….

Don’t Mandragora if I do….

Well…I have found the time out during my seed collection expedition in Italy to update you all on my plant of the week…

So here goes week number 2 and another update on a plant I would most definitely classify as cool (or shall I say Fico!) as f#ck. A plant I’m sure many of you have already heard of or some reference to it, which is one of my favorites, possibly due to its devilish past, but come on who doesn’t enjoy a bit of morbid intrigue?

The plant of reference is the Mandragora officianarium, also commonly known as Mandrake hailing from the Solanaceae family, also commonly known as the deadly nightshade family. Mandragora officianarum has centuries long associations with magical practices and mysticism from love potions to sudden death, as well as a long history in traditional medicine from treating toothache to inducing sleep…..BUT HOW I hear you cry!

Well, my modern day witches and wizards and knowledge seekers, I’m not going to go into the nitty gritty of it all as I claim to be many things but a chemist is not one of them, so I’ll break it down for y’all. You see plants contain alkaloids, which are naturally occurring organic compounds that have pronounced physiological effects on humans. Some may be pleasant, others not so, depending on dosage of course as well! Ever drank 4 espressos and thought you were going to die? Yeah well, you’ve overdone it on the alkaloids man.

Just some examples of alkaloids that I’m sure many of us could not live without such as that lovely stimulant CAFFIENE (commonly found in: Coffea arabica) or what about nicotine (Nicotiana tobacum), one which I personally could do with cutting out of my life for good.

Anyway, my lovelies I digress, the alkaloid in question here is scopolamine, which our friend Mandragora offianarum has in abundance. Scopolamine as an anesthetic induces effects of intoxication and narcosis, making users lose all sense of themselves, impairing memory, and inducing a deep sleep, as well as being a narcotic hallucinogen. No, that wasn’t just a beer you were drinking love!

It is no wonder then that is has such a long and shrouded past in medicine and mysticism. The berries, known as ‘the berries of love’ were seen to reflect more feminine parts of the human body and were also used in ‘love potions’ which we would now know as modern day rohypnol. All those saucy witches would make a brew from the berries for their unbeknown ‘lucky’ lover and due to the high concentration of scopolamine would go into a sedated state leaving the women to have their wicked way with them, waking up feeling confused and heavy headed.

However, it is not just from a chemical point of view why I find Mandragora officinarum so intriguing but also the physical appearance of this strange plant. Mandragora officinarum was given its name because its taproot was thought to resemble a small human figure (“man”) and because it was believed to have mystical powers (“dragon”). Harry Potter fans it’s your big moment…..leading to the myth that if uprooted the plant lets out a deathly scream and for whom he hears it is almost certain death. This lead to herbalists use of animals to uproot the plant to save themselves of a fate most deadly such as horses and even dogs, illustrations of which can be seen in medieval herbals, expressing how this plant was also thought to be completely cool as f#ck even in ancient times.

‘Release the hounds Smithers, I have a Mandragora to catch….’