Friday, 17 April 2009

Hearty Onions

My next venture into the world of natural dyeing features one of my favourites - onion skin (Allium cepa).This is one of the easiest and most readily available natural dyes to experiment with. It produces beautiful sunny yellows when combined with alum and the only disadvantage with it is that it tends not to be so colour fast and will fade in sunlight.

For this one I boiled up 100g of white onion skins in around 5 litres of water. After about half an hour, I thought I'd be clever and put in 50g of alum mordanted Hampshire wool along with the same of un-mordanted Hampshire wool so that I would be able to see the difference the alum made afterwards. I separated the two types of wool by tying them up in muslin.

An hour and a quarter later both had turned a bright, sunny yellow. There was no noticeable difference between them which just goes to show it takes very little alum (the residue from one lot of wool affecting the other) to achieve the desired effect. This phenomenon was confirmed to me a day or two later by a far more experienced dyer than myself.

So much for a fair test, it seems if I want to compare the effects of mordants I'll have to use separate dyebaths which can alone cause huge variations in the colour obtained. But never mind, this was never meant to be about doing a fair test anyway.

Later, once I'd spun the wool, it was just possible to detect a difference in the two colours, but nothing worth mentioning really. The completed hank is the mordanted version and the stuff on the bobbin is unmordanted - it's just a tiny bit less acid in tone.
In a later experiment, which I won't detail to much, I tested the effects of acids and alkalis on onion dyed wool. Adding acetic acid first and then a load of bicarbonate of soda, I alternated a few times just because it was so exciting to see it all bubbling up the way it does (honestly, they should teach this stuff at school and then you'd get a few more kids taking sciences at A levels).

But no change of colour was apparent either way and I soon gave up and set about rinsing this last batch. As is so often the case, this latest experiment taught me another lesson - never attack your wool with too many bubbles of the hot water, acid or alkaline variety! I ended up with the most impressively felted lump of bright yellow and utterly useless wool that I've ever achieved so far.
Finally, to show you how wonderful onion can be when done well, here's a piccy of an onion skin and indigo bag made for me by my mother a couple of years ago. It has faded a bit, but you'd only notice if you scrutinised it carefully. I believe the varied tones were achieved by dyeing three different shades of wool - white, light grey and medium grey. This technique is always a good one for creating exciting and harmonious combinations.
And of course, why do I want to take onion with me to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival? Apart from being so effective and obtainable, it's also one of the best illustrators of medicinal pigments around. Onion is full of flavonoids and is particularly high in the flavonol quercetin.

Quercetin is found in significant quantities in onions, apples, tea, red grapes, citrus, dark green leafy vegetables, broccoli, tomato and a range of berries, especially red ones.

Studies have shown quercetin and similar flavonoids to be effective in reducing the incidence of
heart disease, heart attacks and stroke. As with many flavonoids, quercetin helps reduce capillary fragility which is often associated with high blood pressure, varicose veins, chilblains and bruising.

The icing on the cake is a 1993 study conducted in
Holland which showed an inverse relationship between mortality from heart related diseases and flavonoid intake. Of the 805 male subjects aged between 65 and 84 years of age, the most prominent sources of flavonoids were from tea, onions and apples - all of which contain significant quantities of quercetin. Other potentially relevant substances found in these foods include the flavonoids kaempferol and myricetin as well as certain tannins.

So, for a healthy heart, eat yellow!

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

The Scythian Lamb

I don't know how many are familiar with the story of the Scythian Lamb or "Vegetable Lamb of Tartary" as it's also known.

I think the story is a lovely one and I have particular reason for appreciating it just now whilst I'm so absorbed in dyeing endless quantities of wool.

Most versions of the story tell of an Asian plant which grew little lambs instead of fruit at the top it's stem (or umbilical cord as it's often referred to).

The lamb, attached to the stem, would graze all the plants in the surrounding area until there was nothing left that it could reach. Eventually the lamb would die and all that would be left at the top of the plant was a puff of wool.

This story almost certainly developed as part of European attempts at understanding where cotton (a vegetable wool) came from, but there's always more than one thread of truth in every legend and for this one it's the Cibotium fern.

Unfortunately, copyright prevents me from uploading an image of a Cibotium in it's lambiest form, but here you can view the one held by the Natural History Museum which was part of a collection belonging to Sir Hans Sloane. It clearly shows why the idea of a vegetable lamb should have survived so long in history. For more details on the myths and facts surrounding the Scythian Lamb, there is an excellent account of the history here.

But back to the point, why am I flagging up Scythian Lambs in the first place?

With a bit of skewed logic, I came to the conclusion that if cotton could be considered a "vegetable lamb", there was no reason why wool couldn't be "animal cotton". And since I'm spending more and more time with wool because of its incredible affinity with vegetable dyes
I decided I needed to make it an honorary herb of some some sort.

After all, it occurs to me that when so many of the people fascinated by plants (herbalists, botanists etc) are also keen spinners and weavers, the two areas are clearly spiritually related. But I'm a systematic kind of person so, if I start a herbal blog, the rule is that only herbs are allowed. The only way around that is to reclassify the things I want to talk about.

Of course, doing so also gives me the opportunity to highlight what is really a very enjoyable myth along with the opportunity to sport a wonderful picture of the Scythian Lamb itself.

As a sideline I found, whilst trawling unsuccessfully for a public domain image of the Cibotium lamb, an image from the front of the 1629 book by John Parkinson which I've never seen before. I fell in love with the image instantly and have to celebrate it here. Notice the Scythian lamb grazing (with some difficulty) in the background - and sorry it's so small.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Dyeing Wool with Logwood

Today I feel I can finally draw a close to my experiments with logwood (Haematoxylum campechianum) which, would you believe, began well before last Christmas. Now I have a range of samples and, having finally reclaimed my dye pot, I've emptied it of anything even remotely purple and begun extensive work on the onion skins we've been collecting for so many months instead.
The red coloured chips are the raw material obtained from the heart of the trunk of the logwood. The stuff I've been using is 20 yr old pharmaceutical grade chippings that I was lucky enough to get from the pharmacognosy collection I've been cataloguing. It looks far less bitty and dusty than what I usually see being sold for dyeing so that it's characteristic green sheen is clearly visible in real life. Amazing stuff, it has a patina almost as you'd expect to see on a colourful beetle.

The black chips are how they look after use and the small piece of stocking is an indicator of just how little I used to obtain all the purple wool in the picture plus about the same quantity again in the same strong purple.

The first bath I did only used a small quantity of wool (I didn't expect the dye to go quite so far) and produced the bright violet visible on the un-spun fleece to the right.

Thereafter, I plonked in several loads more fleece and kept getting the medium purple visible at the back of the picture. The dye bath seemed to have absolutely no inclination to exhaust itself and eventually, exotic though purple is, I decided I'd had enough of it and didn't want to waste any more wool in an effort at clearing the dyebath.

Hoarder as I am, I put the dye pot full of purple liquid on a shelf until I could decide what to do with it. Logwood is expensive and I just couldn't bring myself to waste such a good bath.

Several months later I started noticing interesting solids bobbing up and down in the purple sludge that was still sitting there on the shelf. A prod with a long stick indicated it to be a new and rather slimy life form that was beginning to take on a shape of its own.

This discovery, combined with my need to do further experimentation before the Smithsonian festival finally led me to pull the pot off the shelf for another go. Interestingly, around the same time I read on a web site that leaving logwood water to oxygenate for a period of time can cause it to produce black instead of purple. Brilliant I thought, if 6 months isn't a decent period of time I don't know what is.

So I put my final 100g of fleece into the pot and boiled it up in high hopes of something bordering an exotic black. Sadly, I ended up with a rather blotchy and uninspiring colour I can only describe as browny-salmony-mauve. I didn't hold out much for a good result, but once carded and spun it it produced the paler mauve hank in the picture - a colour which has been growing on me ever since.

So I didn't get the black I had hoped for, but I'm satisfied with the rest and I now have enough purple wool to last me a life time.

Being my first attempt at dyeing in a kitchen setting, my methods for this lot have been a bit sporadic, but I can summarise it roughly as follows:

The wool used is mostly Hampshire (I think, it was someone's pet) and the occasional clump of white Jacob. All was pre-mordanted using Alum, but I have no idea what proportions I used for this batch.

My method was to boil up the logwood in my stainless steel dye pot for about 1 hour and I used the knotted stocking to prevent the chippings tangling up with the fleece.

The first lot of fleece, having been mordanted, was well wetted and warmed before being added to a gently simmering bath for around another hour. Thereafter I started throwing in whatever spare fleece I had to hand and, if I had some which wasn't mordanted, I chucked half the normal quantity of alum into the bath with it to simultaneously mordant it.

Once dyed, all fleeces were cooled and rinsed gently over a period of time and I used Ecover clothes washing liquid to clean out the excess dye. I then spent hours and hours carding and spinning purple on my wheel until I realised how overrated purple is and dropped it in favour of dyeing a few things yellow instead.

Incidentally, logwood will be going with me to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival for two reasons. Partly because it was definitely used by the Welsh dyeing industry of the 18th and 19th centuries and also because it's purple which is always a crowd pleaser.

Medicinally, logwood is not so impressive. The primary blue pigment of the heartwood, haematoxylin, is used in medical staining and also oxidises to form haematin - something I thought was a purely animal substances formed by the breakdown of haemoglobin. In fact, it seems haematin has been used to treat acute intermittent porphyria, but I bet that's from animal sources too.

Still, it's interesting that the contents of a purple tree can be even vaguely connected to a disease that sometimes causes purple urine - is there an inkling of the Doctrine of Signatures in here somewhere? Disappointingly, one source confirms for me that the haematin of logwood and the haematin of blood are not the same which I find just a little annoying. Once again I wish chemical names could be classified and systematised as logically as botanical names can.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

The Physician's Well and the Forest Bounty

With the weather so glorious and hoping not to sound too repetitive, I thought I'd relate my second visit to the Physician's Well in less than a week. This time however I was armed with a brand new dainty little camera with which to take sensible pictures worthy of a blog rather than having to lug around our totally impractical SLR everywhere.
And just as well I didn't burden myself with the SLR since, having walked a distance along a route we thought we'd memorised so well that we didn't bother to bring the map, we found ourselves lost as substantially as we did on our first attempt last year.Even, dare I say it, worse.

We spent a good deal of time traversing high flung branches and performing balancing acts along logs before, dragging our way through endless marsh and bramble, we finally saw daylight on the other side and found ourselves in the Physician's Meadow once again - a bleak landscape of tufted grass littered with small streams and the sound of water trickling, unseen, through the tall sedges.
After another short walk, and a sit down to savour the sun and quiet for a bit longer, we re-entered the forest in the right place and headed to the well.
Here's a pic of the spring as it emerges from the stone......along with the little cup left there for visitors by the Potters of Myddfai who live in a farm on the far side of the heath...
...and several common medicinal plants are also beginning to make their presence known in the surrounding area. Lots of Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) is coming up, a plant the Physicians of Myddfai are said to have used for stomach tumours rather than as a powerful (and dangerous) drug for the heart as is the modern use.
I also saw several patches of little violets (Viola riviniana) around - another plant used by the physicians though I don't remember what for - and a species of lady's mantle (Alchemilla mollis possibly?) which I don't remember seeing on the Myddfai list but which had a famous reputation for saving the lives of many women during childbirth as a result of its ability to stop haemorrhage.
As well as these, there were several more tasty plants in evidence, of which my favourite has to be bramble (Rubus fruticosus). The young shoots of this plant can be eaten raw, a revelation made to me only last year.
Although so many turn their nose up at them (my entire family included), I find them unbelievably moreish. If soft and young enough, the tannin content is minimal, but still apparent, causing a slight puckering in the mouth. This is followed by a pleasant blackcurrant/blackberry type aftertaste along with another very full flavour I simply can't describe.

It has to be tried for the flavour to be understood and I really recommend persevering a few times to develop a proper appreciation. Once I've started eating these I find it very difficult to stop although they can get a bit much after a while. I had debated trying something like bramble shoot crumble, but I fear I would be isolated in my enthusiasm for it so I never have. If anyone else has ever appreciated this gourmet wild food I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Another edible worthy of mention is the lanceleaf plantain (Plantago lanceolata) which is beginning to make an appearance. They must be caught young since they turn bitter fast, but if the very young leaves in the centre of the rosette are eaten raw or thrown sparingly into a salad they can add a delicious flavour remarkably like mushroom. Finally, I must comment on the wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella) and the common little daisy (Bellis perennis) which also make such tasty snacks. The former with a sharp rhubarb-like flavour from the oxalic acid which makes it very refreshing though unsuitable for anyone with kidney problems and the latter with a warm fragrant flavour to the early flowers whilst the edible leaves are almost flavourless, but are at least available almost all year round.

Of course, with all of these I've found it best to enjoy them early in the season. Not only can they turn a little bitter later on, but it may also be deemed unpleasant to have to compete with so many aphids for the tenderest shoots.
Finally, I saw this fascinating growth (above) occasionally on the main paths. If anyone could enlighten me as to what it is I would be very interested - sorry the photo's not very good. I wouldn't be surprised if it wasn't cropping up in places previously fertilised by the friendly wild horses who we had the pleasure of meeting again on this occasion. This time they came within yards of us and contemplated us for quite a while before concluding that they would rather not go past and decided to amble back the way they had come.And of course, I should mention that the photo at the top of this post is the view of the Black Mountains including the hills around Llyn-y-Fan-Fach as seen from the Usk Reservoir where we started our walk.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

The Physicians Well and a Trip to Dryslwyn

At last, after a glut of work and a dodgy internet connection, I shall finally relate the events of last weekend - a visit to two special places.

My activities are currently largely dictated by efforts to prepare for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival 2009 and last Sunday was no exception.

Our desire to relate to the Americans the incredible importance of plant-based medicine in the history of Wales sent myself and my partner, once again, in search of the Physicians Well, a little known place not far from the village of Myddfai in South West Wales.

We've been there a couple of times before, but only with a guide leading the way over field and heath from the Myddfai direction. Previous efforts to find it ourselves using another route have been just a little disappointing to put it mildly.

Last year we tramped, my whole family and I, for what felt like hours as we attempted to approach the well from a direction that would bypass the land of local farmers. The fact that the well is not marked on any maps, whilst the Forestry Commission's haphazard approach to felling makes footpaths more of a suggested rather than practicable concept, meant our plan for a gentle roam turned into more of a team-building obstacle course. We found ourselves clambering and climbing endlessly in often fruitless attempts at getting our feet to touch the ground let alone find the well.

This time was different. Huge tree trunks no longer criss-crossed every path and my partner and I had a better idea where to start looking so that, with a bit of to-ing and fro-ing we finally made it to the grassy pathway that leads to the well through the trees.

Said to have been the preferred source of water for all remedies made by the Physicians of Myddfai, the well is actually a small spring. Bubbling gently out of the earth, the surrounding stones have a gentle red tint indicating a reasonable iron content.

The water itself both smells and tastes faintly metallic with just a hint of sulphur and is oh so refreshing and delicious on a hot day after an energetic walk. And the plants growing around the area are just so green and lush. I always find the pine plantations of Forestry Commission land have a kind of deadness to them, devoid of vitality, at least in areas where pine would not normally grow.

This little patch just on the edge of FC land next to the Usk reservoir is different though. A small belt of broad leaf trees have been allowed to remain and, although pines are still very much in evidence, there is also a localised flush of other vegetation that almost conjures up an idea of what the area may have looked like all those years ago when the Physicians are said to have frequented the spot.

And their legacy has certainly lived on here. Just outside the forested area is a marshy patch that borders the heath we walked across on previous visits. This area is called Pant Meddygon - The Physicians Meadow - and is said to be one of the places they collected their

Here too (or at least, not far from here) are the remains of the famous scar across the landscape, said to be the result of two oxen dragging a plough back to Llyn-y-Fan-Fach after the Lady returned to her lake. You can read the legend of the Physicians here.

The scar is visible when standing on a high point of the heath, and although subtle, is most definitely there. Ironically, it doesn't remotely head in the direction of Llyn-y-Fan however. Maybe the Oxen were taking the scenic route back home.

The area does have a definite atmosphere. It's so unbelievably peaceful. We both sat down on the remains of an old stone wall in the meadow (might there have been a dwelling here once?) and enjoyed the sun for a bit. We commented on how quiet it was. With 3 or 4 Red Kites circling above and the occasional noise of other birds chattering in the forest behind us, we couldn't hear a single other thing apart from the trickling of a stream and the distant winds across the black mountains and the ridge over Llyn-y-Fan itself.

It was also nice to see that others regularly enjoy the spot. We had passed a small group of wild horses (how genuinely wild I don't know) including a fluffy black foal on our way to the well and there was clear evidence that the well itself was another of their favourite haunts. There's something rather nice about the idea of sharing a drinking hole with a horse even if I did cheat and use the little cup that's left there by the potters of Myddfai for human use.

Sadly, we couldn't stay long because we had a spontaneous meeting with two of the Smithsonian Institutions curatorial staff from America and Gareth Evans, a fellow plant medicine/Myddfai enthusiast who is also on the Smithsonian curatorial committee.

We met them at the top of Dryslwyn Castle (pictured at the top of this post) which is located just near the Botanic Gardens and is one of my favourite places for dragging visitors to.

The view from Dryslwyn is just incredible. From it you can see right across the green flood plain with the Towy river snaking it's way through and the sun always glinting off the water to produce what feels like a brighter than normal light.

The castle itself is more ruined than most although I can't comment on it's history except to say that it was the victim of quite a brutal siege. The bonus of a castle on a mound with all it's walls in bits is that you have a 360 degree view of the local area and from here it's possible to see the next castle along (Dinefwr), Paxton's Tower up on it's hill, the mountains of Llyn-y-Fan over in the distance and a beautiful canvas of overlapping hills and dales fading off into the distance - all pastel shades of green and blue and grey.

The site is truly spectacular and is only added to by the greenery of the hill itself which is often tended by a flock of sheep. Down at the bottom of the hill I was also pleased to find a bountiful patch of dandelion (Taraxacum officinal), Lady's Smock (Cardamine pratensis) and bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) - all worth a good nibble.

I plucked a couple of huge dandelion heads for a snack - so sweet - and we headed home. With plans to return to the Physicians Well to take photos for the festival as soon as possible, all I had left to do was admire the rather impressive blisters I'd acquired as a result of stupidly wearing new boots for our long walk.

Dryslwyn by Clare West
Llyn-y-Fan-Fach by SNappa2006

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Wales Smithsonian Cymru

I've just come back from a two-day induction which has finally given me some idea of the personality of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. It was brilliant. Totally informative with very little faffing about.

Aside from a series of lectures and Q&A sessions to cover practicalities, it was a fantastic chance to meet participants from all the other sections so that I now have a far better understanding of who will be there and what they'll be doing.

A whole host of musicians will be going over with a fair proportion devoted to the kind of Welsh folk music that I absolutely adore. We were treated to a sample in the evening as the result of a spontaneous jamming session in the hotel bar. I don't understand any of the words in the songs they sang, but the whole atmosphere was very moving with musicians and non-musicians alike joining in on harmonies and choruses on a fair few songs.

There's also an army of craftspeople preparing to share their skills in everything from pottery and basketry to dry stone-walling and clog making. I'm really looking forward to the summer and a chance to see what they can do.

The opportunities for collaboration between sections is also tremendous. A number of story tellers are on board and they'll be going round the site and telling stories in different places. They'll be coming to us to tell the story of the Lady from Llyn-Y-Fan-Fach who is at the heart of the legend of the Physicians of Myddfai. They'll also be doing a couple of other Mabinogion stories that I'm not familiar with - one which features Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria).

Our section (covering Welsh folk medicine & Ethnomedica, Physicians of Myddfai, turn of the century pharmacy practice and modern biochemistry) will include a small herb garden designed to evoke something of a traditional Welsh cottage garden, a small glasshouse without the glass (too hot) to feature biochemistry and a tent where we can do pharmacy and natural dyeing demonstrations as well as a few experiments in ointment making and suchlike.

We're also situated right next to the Welsh food demonstration area (unless plans change) so the chefs involved in that came over to us and asked if we could join forces at all. It seems one of the chefs is very interested in functional foods and is particularly focused on women's health issues so we got chatting about how she might include that in some of her demonstrations. We even wondered if we might find somewhere to forage for a few things whilst in the US and she had some ideas about how we might obtain some more interesting edibles when we're there.

Overall the experience was a very beneficial one and I'm almost feeling excited about the festival now rather than just daunted. On the down side, I'm suddenly beginning to comprehend the sheer quantity of work I have to do before then and each bit just as urgent as the next so I have no idea where to start.

All in a good cause though and we may have a visit from some of the American curatorial staff this week to visit our dear old village of Myddfai and as many other Welsh features as we can tempt them to. So that might provide a pleasant break from glaring at the computer.

For an entertaining little film about the festival click here:

And for more info about Wales Smithsonian Cymru visit...
...more info to be added shortly apparently.

Oh, and the Smithsonian Institution's own details for this year here: