Thursday, 26 March 2009

Dye Plants for the Heart: Flavonoids

I'm really enjoying my efforts to relate the various colours of dye plants to their medicinal uses. For someone who already understands all the chemistry of this stuff I'm sure it's all too simple and obvious. But for me it's a great learning exercise and provides a host of colourful mnemonics.
Going clockwise from the top, the wool in the photo has been dyed with: Brazilwood (Caesalpinia sp.), logwood (Haematoxylum campechianum), white onion (Allium cepa) and heather (Calluna vulgaris).

Apart from a range of other pigments, all these plants share a flavonoid content which significantly affects the overall colour they give. In fact, flavonoids are highly significant to nearly all plants as well as being extremely beneficial to our health. Consequently I've chosen them as the subject of this post.

Flavonoids can be broken down into several smaller groups of plant constituents which I'll deal separately at some point, but first I'd like to go backwards to try and understand what a flavonoid actually is. To do so I need to begin with a benzene ring - something which pops up time and again in the world of organic chemistry.

And so begins a grossly simplified explanation of where flavonoids come from:

Usually depicted with all the helpful labels removed, a benzene ring is essentially a compound made up of 6 Carbon atoms linked in a ring with a couple of Hydrogen atoms attached here and there to make it 'balance'. In fact, I think I'll do a separate post on how this works and link to it when complete. Apparently it's the benzene rings in molecules that are responsible for spicy scents and flavours and so groups of one or more benzene rings are all known as aromatic compounds.

Going one step further and adding a hydroxyl group to a benzene ring will produce an aromatic alcohol or 'phenol'. And if you bung a load of phenols together you'll find you've got a 'polyphenol' shockingly enough.

But, and this is where it gets exciting, depending on the shape of your polyphenol and the various things attached to it, you may find you have a flavonoid. Here's an example of Kaempferol, a flavonoid which is more specifically a 'flavonol'.
There's obviously a lot more to it than that. For example, what differentiates a flavonoid from other polyphenols is that it is based on a structure of two benzene rings connected by a bunch of 3 Carbons and maybe some other bits and bobs. I've tried to show which bits are which on the diagram above, but really my comprehension begins to dwindle at this point.

So, what else is there to know about flavonoids?
Well, they come in several forms including flavonols (as depicted above), flavones
, anthocyanins and isoflavones, but the differences between these groups and their individual uses will have to be the subject of a separate post.

As a group, flavonoids can produce anything from white and yellow through to red and blue pigmentation in plants. They are responsible for many yellow, red, pink, violet and blue flowers as well as the colours of autumn leaves.

Physiologically, flavonoids provide a whole range of services including protecting the plant from UV rays, inhibiting damaging enzymes, regulating growth and defending against insects and microbes. Their significance to plant health is evidenced by the fact that production is increased near sites of infection or injury.

As for their effect on humans, flavonoids are a key component of our everyday diet. It is thought that we eat 1 gram of flavonoids every day on average although there are doubts about our ability to absorb a large portion of it. Having said that, flavonoids are essential to a healthy diet and the number of known and potential benefits is far too great to do justice to.

The most famous effects however are to the heart and circulatory system so I aim to cover these health benefits of flavonoids and more soon.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Woolly Blanket Dye Plants

A quick (well maybe not) response to Debs from Herbal Haven who said:
"Lovely blanket! I have to ask, did you dye the wool yourself?"

Thanks Debs, and the answer is "sort of". Much of the wool was a combined effort from several occasions over a couple of years. The majority was dyed on two separate dyeing days in Northern Sweden, events my mother and I have taken to attending as often as possible.

These days, held at Brynge Kulturområde (heritage museum featuring traditional linen manufacture and Smithy) near Örnsköldsvik, are what introduced us to the wonderful world of natural dyeing - something I had wanted to try for a long time.

The back-to-nature disregard for British ideas of health and safety makes these days all the more enjoyable. Wandering bare foot between 6 - 10 small cauldrons, stoking fires, stirring plant stuff and dipping wool, we've had a fantastic, albeit exhausting time, when we've been.

And the location is perfect. Apart from the green grass and nearby cafe selling home-made Swedish cinnamon buns, a final rinse of each hank involves clambering down to the waters edge and allowing the current of the water to pull away the last bits of plant material and excess dye.

All the wool tends to be mordanted with alum in advance, or alum is added to the dyebath. Inger, who runs these events, also brings an iron pot for further experimentation with colour.

The plants we use generally come from the surrounding woods and ditches or are brought by Inger and other participants. We're guaranteed to do an onion (Allium cepa) skin bath because of the beautiful yellow it gives, and baths of madder (Rubia tinctorum), Brazilwood (Caesalpinia echinata) and logwood (Haematoxylum campechianum) are also often included for a bit of the exotic. Other than that, we've stuck to nordic favourites such as birch (Betula sp.), meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) and heather (Calluna vulgaris).

As the day progresses, more and more hanks are added to the line which encourages museum visitors to come and see what we're up to.

By the end of the day we usually have a stonking headache from all the heat, smoke, sun and hard work. But it's worth it for the beautiful array of colours we each take away with us.

...and thus did my blanket come into being!

(NB. better pics to be added when I find them!)

Friday, 13 March 2009

The Medicinal Uses of Dye Plants

After nearly a week of studious book worming, I find I am finally ready to collate my findings on the medicinal uses of dye plants and try to make some sense of them.

So I present to you a photo of my blanket, parts of which may be used to illustrate future posts:

The point of this project was outlined in a previous post and has to do with the Smithsonian Folklife Festival I am due to attend this summer.

My aim, at the festival, is to try and demonstrate in as entertaining a manner as possible the active constituents of Welsh medicinal plants. And what better way than to show people what colour those constituents are?

So began a long shot of a project to determine the following:

  • Which medicinal/dye plants have been most often used within Wales
  • What specific pigments can be found in these plants
  • And what medicinal uses such pigments can be put to

I'm not a scientist and so it's been a steep learning curve for me to throw myself into all this dyestuff, but I now have a list of the most common pigments and some of their uses. Through sharing these with you, I hope to better understand them myself (and maybe get some help and feedback?).

I should also mention how sorely disappointed I was to find that, having come from the comfy world of plant taxonomy where every plant has its place in the tree diagram of life (according to the kind of systematics that are so dear to the human race), chemical classification appears to achieve nothing of the sort!

I found that through the addition of a few sugars or a lump of carbon a previously cut and dry chemical classification of "phenylpropanoid" (that's a benzene ring with a 3-Carbon side chain don't ya know) can suddenly find itself being yanked off to a completely different chapter of a book and reclassified as a glycoside or some such. If only Linnaeus had had some input on this one.

For those of you who are interested I have cross referenced several resources on this (bookshelf looking surprisingly empty whilst desk has grown a foot in height), but my mainstay has consisted of these two books:
The Medicinal Constituents of Plants by Andrew Pengelly (featured in my Amazon widget)
Dye Plants and Dyeing by John & Margaret Cannon

More on this to follow shortly...

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Ethnomedica: Nettle Beer (Urtica dioica)

The sun's shining through the window and I can smell springtime on the air today.

Chlorophyll is rising, the plants are beginning to grow and soon it'll be time to make a spring tonic to flush the stagnant winter living from our bodies.

I'm looking forward to the first nettles coming through because of the sheer number of uses to which the plant can be put. Here's a very simple Ethnomedica suggestion (may require some experimentation) for a traditional spring beer. Good health and indulgence all in one go!
Nettle Beer (Urtica dioica)
Used as a tonic or to cleanse the blood. Phyllis thinks it probably worked, but isn't certain. It is prepared in the following way:
"young leaves - tops of nettles - & a small quantity of Cleavers & Dock leaves made into a fizzy drink with yeast (brewed)"
Phyllis has known this remedy since the 1920's and learned it from her Mother who was Welsh. Phyllis has now passed her knowledge to the Ethnomedica project so that it can be safeguarded for future generations. (ref:60N)
Any truth to these claims?
Nettle has a strong reputation for a wide range of traditional uses including "cleansing the blood". However, clinical trials have not yet confirmed the efficacy of nettle for many of these uses. There is clinical support for the use of nettle leaf in both osteoarthritis and hay fever (allergic rhinitis). Nettle root has proven of use in the treatment of benign prostatic hyperplasia.

Cleavers (Galium aparine) and Dock (Rumex obtusifolius) are also commonly included in spring tonics. Cleavers have a long history of use as a "cleanser" and are traditionally used to break down tumours (anti-neoplastic) although modern experiments have failed to confirm this action. Likewise various species of dock have frequently been included in treatments for skin disorders which are sometimes thought to be the result of blood toxicity.

Please note that reference to a plant by the Ethnomedica project is no guarantee of its safety or efficacy. Please consult a suitably qualified practitioner before taking herbal medicines.

Image: Julio Reis


If you know any traditional plant remedies passed on to you by family or friends I would love to hear from you. Please use the link below to access the contributions page. All memories are of interest. Whether it be dock leaves for nettles stings or honey and lemon for a sore throat, please pass on your knowledge now.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Smithsonian Folklife Festival 2009

This summer I am due to go to the US to partake in the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

Free to visit and typically drawing more than 1 million visitors, the festival features a different combination of nation, region or theme each year and for 2009 Wales will be the guest nation.

It's hosted by the Smithsonian Institution's Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage on the National Mall of Washington, DC, and will run for two-weeks spanning the July 4th holiday.

Preparations are well under way for the army of Welsh singers & dancers, artists & crafts people, and all manner of others who are involved. And for us, a small group of plant & medicine professionals/enthusiasts of one sort or another, there is much work to be done.

We will be celebrating the wonderful plant-medicine heritage of Wales. From the teachings of the famous Physicians of Myddfai to modern-day pharmacognosy in Aberystwyth, we hope to raise enthusiasm for the native plants of Wales and their medicinal potential.

Apart from a mock-up of a Welsh Cottage Garden and wilderness, we hope to feature a variety of demonstrations and activities. From brewing herby beverages to extracting medicinal constituents as dyes, there should be a lot to see and learn.

We're still working on much of it, but I'll keep updates on our plans coming. At any rate, this isn't just an opportunity to showcase Wales. The "Sustainability" theme for this years festival will give those of us who already know about the medicinal benefits of plants an opportunity to spread the word about a more holistic and sustainable form of healthcare.

(Image: James Smithson, Smithsonian Institution founder)