Monday, 29 June 2009

Wales Smithsonian Cymru - Festival day 3-5

We're now at the end of our first week at the Smithsonain Folklife Festival 2009. It's been a wonderful experience so far and a real pleasure to be surrounded by so many talented and interesting people from so many walks of life.
One of the most remarkable things about a festival such as this is the way in which it changes your perspective of a place or culture you thought you knew so well. Wales will be so much richer to me from now on and, wherever I go in that small country, I'll have some idea of the incredible arts, crafts and music hidden around every corner.

Likewise, I have had the opportunity to sample some of the best talents of the local African American communities, several South American musical cultures and also a small number of Welsh Patagonians.

The only misfortune with all this is that we, as participants, have so little time to explore and absorb it all. After a full week on the National Mall, I have yet to cross the main path and see properly what is going on on the other side. It's the same for all of us. Regular mealtimes together give us all the opportunity to meet. Fascinating discussions are had, potential collaborations are explored, but only very rarely do we get to actually see each other in action.

In fact, our primary experiences are limited to the American public who come to visit us at our stands in droves. It's a very interesting cultural experience. Several of us have been surprised at how friendly, curious and forthcoming the locals are. More than once it has been commented that where a British person would stand and watch a demonstration in silence, never daring to ask questions, the Americans take an entirely different approach. Often they are so full of questions that squeezing in the occasional demonstration can be a real trial.
But we managed a few in the end. Gareth and I have been doing daily demonstrations on how to extract aromatic waters from medicinal and culinary plants. It's been a huge success and explaining the set-up to a constantly changing audience can easily keep us occupied for hours. One visitor asked me for written instructions which I promised I would put on the blog. If you're reading this now, rest assured it will go up as soon as I have access to a diagram I did which explains it fully.

Gareth and his leeches have also been very successful. Unusually, there are no livestock at the festival this year and so our 3 buckets of leeches are fulfilling that role admirably. Sometimes I wonder, given the fond way in which visitors and staff talk of the leeches, that they haven't mistaken them for something more like a family of hamsters.

Meanwhile, I have finally begun the occasional dyeing demonstration. It has to be said that the first one was a very disappointing effort. Using Broom (Cytisus scoparius) I should have been able to produce some kind of pleasantly strong greenish yellow colour. Instead I ended up with a clump of wool looking like it had been dragged through a mud puddle. I believe the problem is with the US electricity supply. I simply can't get the water to boil on my little hob and I should be simmering the stuff for over an hour. I've had the same problem with my camera which just didn't charge overnight resulting in a shortage of new photos. I managed to use the problem to my advantage yesterday however. Madder (Rubia tinctorum) typically dyes best at 60 degrees (C) or lower. The result was an absolutely incredible flame red. The best I think I've ever had from it and the photo below certainly doesn't do the colour intensity justice.
As I said before, meeting the visitors is often a great source of interest. I absolutely love these opportunities to share and exchange information. Whilst I've done my best to get people excited about the potential of medicinal plants, I must admit I'm learning an awful lot myself.

One of the most memorable examples comes from someone who said he had been diagnosed with MS several years ago. He said that he had given apitherapy (bee stings) a try and found it very successful. In fact, his last scan showed all or almost all lesions had disappeared. To support the idea that it's the bee stings which made the difference, he described how he had become a beekeeper and had once received 200+ stings when a hive collapsed near him. Although he was lucky to survive, he said that afterwards he had not a single symptom for the next 3 months.

But that's not all he told me. Given that he kept bees, I asked him if he had had trouble with Varroa and various other bee related problems that are so prominent at present. He told me he hadn't had any trouble at all even though others had. His methods with the hives are entirely organic and he said his secret to success was Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium). He mixes an infusion of this rather potent mint with honey taken from the bees. He then waters it down and gives it back to the bees as drinking water in cans near their hives. By drinking this water the bees are able to ingest some of the mint and also introduce it to the hive itself. He says he does this summer and autumn and so far so good. It's definitely something to pass on to Chris who keeps the bees at the National Botanic Garden of Wales and who has had mixed results experimenting with Citronella and such like.

Another very exciting experience for me came from some of the other participants. I was told that the Welsh food demonstrators had been doing something with the plant Yerba Maté (Ilex paraguariensis) - a South American holly shrub. "Welsh!?" we exclaimed, "that's hardly Welsh!". But of course it is Welsh if you include the small number of Patagonians who are here amongst us. Intrigued I hunted one of them down and she explained that they drink Maté regularly as a sort of social ritual. She invited me to join which I enthusiastically agreed to do next time they were to have some. Later that day she found me and asked me along to where they were sharing their brew. What I found was very exciting indeed.

They drink their Maté in a small terracotta pot. It is packed to the very top with the chopped dried plant which is a grey-green in colour. Hot water is added and an attractive metal straw protrudes from the mix. They had just one small pot to share between the three of us and I gathered that the sharing aspect was important to the whole experience. We then took turns to sip from the cup and I was impressed by the strong fresh and surprisingly bitter flavour. I have seen the Maté plant so many times and heard about it frequently, but this is the first opportunity that I've ever had to taste it. I was instantly sold on the idea and enjoyed the flavour very much which is most closely reminiscent to a top quality fresh green tea I was once given by a group of Chinese botanists.

The chance to share this tea with these Patagonians is one of the most special experiences I've had here so far and I'm hoping I can buy some of the tea from them if they have enough left. I certainly intend to seek them out again so that I can photograph the pot and straw. In the mean time a photo and explanation are available on Wikipedia here.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Wales Smithsonian Cymru - Update

A few photos have now been added to the last two posts. More to come soon hopefully.

Wales Smithsonian Cymru - Festival day 2

It's the evening of the second day of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival 2009. Cameron and I are sitting in the dedicated hotel ballroom ready for one of the evening socials. Already three of the Welsh musicians are sitting at a table across the room playing folksy jigs on flutes and a fiddle. It's exactly the kind of music I love so I'm keen to spend time down here in the hope of hearing more.
It's been a hectic two days for all of us, but by the end of today the shape of the festival is beginning to become clear I think. We started yesterday with an opening ceremony. In the Welsh Dragon tent a series of VIP's and Smithsonian staff took turns to make announcements interspersed with performances from each of the 3 programmes. We heard some brilliant rapping from the Giving Voice programme, a bit of the Las Americas music and also some Welsh harp. I didn't get a chance to see the whole thing since we were expected to be in our tents ready for the festival to open to visitors.
When the moment finally came I hardly noticed the transition. I went from frantically searching for herby samples to put out to being swamped by visitors who were all surprisingly interested in our little garden and all the things we're about. When I next looked up it was to find one of the Smithsonian interns attempting to throw me off our site so that I could get myself lunch. I hadn't realised it was already going on 3 o'clock.

The day continued in this fashion until eventually the visitors dwindled to nothing. I don't think any of us noticed closing time at 5.30 arrive and we certainly missed the main shuttle back to the hotel. We didn't even manage to do any of our demonstrations during the day. Partly because we still hadn't received all the necessary equipment, but also because the visitors are all so keen to talk and love having people participate in the festival. More than once I met seasoned Smithsonian Folklife visitors who asked me how I was enjoying the festival and thanked us for coming to share our culture and crafts with them.
Today was no different. The start was a little more predictable and I began to streamline the set-up process so that I can actually find all the things I want to show people. Again we found ourselves swamped by enthusiastic and curious people from every walk of life and again I was ready to miss lunch if need be because the act of showing people all these plants is so thrilling.

I still haven't started the dyeing demonstrations I'd planned on. I've managed to wash some wool, but issues with electrics and safety means I can't start boiling up big tubs of water just yet. Hopefully tomorrow. Instead I tried to lay out a dye plant rainbow for people to touch and smell. I had madder (Rubia tinctoria) for red, rhubarb (Rheum palmatum) for a sort of orange, chamomile (Matricaria recutita) and barberry (Berberis vulgaris) for yellow, birch (Betula pendula) for green (it can if you boil it long enough), woad (Isatis tinctoria) for blue, logwood (Haematoxylum campechianum) for purple and finally the shells of my mixed xmas nuts for a brown.

Other than that, we've decanted a load of smelly herbs into clear plastic cruet sets for people to sniff. I've found Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is a real winner with children because they either love it or hate it. Working with kids terrifies me so it's a good prop which I keep close by at all times just in case.

And that's another thing. I knew I would be confronted by children on a regular basis during this festival. I had decided to stomach it and put it down to very good experience and a steep learning curve which is well overdue for me. What I hadn't expected was to be approached by a teacher with a bunch of 7 year olds and be asked to give a 10 minute lesson on plant medicines. I just had to wing the whole thing and decided to give them a few good reasons to eat their broccoli until I discovered that American kids seem to love broccoli. Unheard of! You learn something new every day I guess.

The other inevitable request that we get is to suggest treatments for various conditions. The most common is for relief of mosquito bites, to which end we've placed a curled parsley (Petroselinum crispum) plant nearby from which leaves can be picked to rub on bites. I've tested it on myself twice so far. Once on an ant bite and once on a mozzy bite. Both vanished instantly, but then, the mozzies around here are tiny and feeble compared to what I'm used to in Sweden.

On the whole I'm enjoying myself immensely. The hard work building the garden over the first couple of days was well worth it. Our little verge is perking up and the chickweed (Stellaria media) has already produced new shoots. Everyone loves the garden and there are always people wandering around reading the labels about traditional Welsh cures made from cabbage (Brassica sp.), wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) and tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) amongst other things.
Tim is busy demonstrating hedge laying, but also gets into extended conversations with people about sustainable farming. It seems he can't be dragged away. Alison, biochemist, can tell stories of fascinating new chemicals discovered in plants. I desperately want to borrow her interpretative material for a bit of bedtime reading, but so far I've been too disorganised and knackered to read anything.

Gareth is wowing adults ands children alike with his buckets of leeches. They get so frisky when being transferred from tub to tub that I thought one of them had bitten his finger off on the first day. I've been assured however that they're well fed and shouldn't cause a problem. Having said that, the hotter they get, the more energetic they are and presumably that'll make them hungry more quickly.

As for me, I feel a bit of a cheat. I have my funny "natural dyeing" take on the whole plant medicine thing which means I also need to have wool around. Tim has given me a top quality Welsh Lleyn fleece and I also have carders and drop spindle. Consequently, I find myself drawn into a discussion of crafts rather than medicine on a fairly regular basis and spent a good 15 minutes teaching a teenager how to use the spindle today. Others are simply fascinated by the dyeing process and lots of people want to know about the woad ball I have on display even though it barely has a medicinal use.

All the same, this is about making people excited about plants and encouraging them to recognise the incredible properties they have. I honestly feel that if these visitors have gleaned as much from me as I have from them then it's well worth it and I'm keen for another day.

Which reminds me. Today Gareth and I did our first demonstration in the “Around the Table” tent. The idea here is to run an interactive workshop on your topic of choice. We offered to contribute a demonstration of aromatic water distillation using a simple kitchen method. The real bonus with this was that when the time came, we just happened to be surrounded by a group of adults with varying levels of visual impairment. Whilst Gareth explained the history behind this kind of domestic distillation, I described how I was boiling up rose (Rosa centifolia) petals so that the steam rose and condensed against the upturned lid of the pan (cooled on top with ice) and dripped into a bowl in the center. Afterwards we were able to take our hot rose water around the group so everyone could have a smell. The scent was pungent and perfect for the audience. We now have our water stoppered in a bottle and hope to do a lemon water next time.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Wales Smithsonian Cymru - Plant Medicine (days 1 & 2)

Finally I've made it onto the internet since arriving in Washington two days ago. This is just a quick post on progress so far. I'll add photos later once I've had a chance to upload them [photos now added!].
It's past 10pm here now which makes it the small hours in the UK. Although I don't feel as exhausted as I did yesterday, I still don't have the energy (or time) to go too in-depth.

So far we've worked two long and intensive days on the National Mall just a short distance from Capitol Hill. The site has been relatively quiet the last two days since we arrived in advance of the main party. White tents dot the Wales part of the festival site, each one covering a different aspect of Welsh culture, both old and new. On either side of this area are the tents for the Giving Voice (The Power of Words in African American Culture) and Las Americas (A Musical World) programmes.

Gareth, who has been leading the whole plant medicine project, Cameron (my partner who is supposed to be here as a guest) and I got stuck right in trying to develop a Welsh Cottage Garden and wild hedgerow verge in the four custom-built wooden planters that had been provided outside our little tent.

It's been a very satisfying task. The Smithsonian horticulturists have provided an abundance of healthy looking plants and, although several things weren't quite what we expected, we've had great fun patching together meadow grasses, chickweed, clover and numerous other weeds into what might resemble a verge below a barberry hedge. On the other side of the hedge we've been planting a mixture of herbs and veg in small rows.

It's been a little tricky. We've had a huge number of plants we wanted to include, but a very limited amount of space so getting the feel we want can be tough. We're also worried about how the plants will take. So far we've been very lucky with the weather apparently - the steamy atmosphere and hot sun today were described as comparitively "cold" by one person. Our plants must be able to tolerate everything from baking hot sun to torrential downpours and gale force winds. It'll be a matter of time before we see for ourselves what they (and we) are in for.
So far our tasks have been varied and numerous. We began with the quandry of how to fill our planters without using up too much of our compost straight away. Cameron saved the day with the suggestion that we fill the bottom of each planter with plastic bottles from the recycling bins around the site. This has the added bonus of providing Gareth with inspiration for the recylcing talk he suddenly found he was scheduled to give during the festival.

We then set about filling and planting not only these planters as our main garden, but also several other smaller ones with examples of medicinal plants for us as well as pretty flowers for the food demonstrators in the tent next door.
So far we haven't had much time to consider the contents of our own tent in any great detail. We have a mock-up of a Welsh Dresser made from recylced plastic and a few banners and tables. Tomorrow we'll be opening up all our freighting boxes and putting together our displays.

This evening the rest of the Smithsonian party arrived and so tomorrow the real chaos will begin all over the site. Alison (biochemist) and Tim (National Botanic Garden of Wales Estate Manager) will get the opportunity to see what we've achieved so far and will, presumably, give their verdict on what we've been preparing for them. Hopefully most of it will be up to scratch though Tim didn't get his wildflower meadow in the end. We also need to find a way for him to demonstrate hedge laying without sinking any pegs into the National Mall itself.

As for my projects, almost as soon as I arrived at the hotel, I unpacked my woad balls and tried to activate one of them with a view to doing a dyeing demonstration with it. I confess, I've never tried it before and so I'm curious to see wht the damp heap of smelly green stuff in my hotel room will eventually produce. I'm also a little worried it might be a total disaster since I should be fermenting the stuff for two weeks apparently. Still, it certainly smells like it's doing interesting things and I'm sure it'll be an enjoyable learning experience regardless.

Time to sign off now and get some sleep. We have another early start tomorrow with lots to do on our final day of preparation as well as all the inductions to get through.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival: Just Around the Corner

Many a time I've looked at this blog of recent and wanted to write about the various things done or new things discovered. But I simply haven't had time and can't remember ever being busier.
On Friday we will finally set off for London ready to fly to Washington the next day. In the following two weeks we'll be doing all sorts of exciting things at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and if I manage to get any kind of regular internet access I'll do my best to post updates on how the festival is going.

The reality is becoming increasingly exciting and just a little daunting.

When we arrive we're due to help set up our little Welsh cottage herb garden full of plants we haven't yet seen. Around the same time I'll need to start experimenting with my dyes. I've bought a load of woad balls which should be fantastic fun, but I've never used them before so it's going to be a case of learning on the job.

Other than the garden and the dyeing, we plan to have a range of herbs and spices on display for people to touch and sniff. We'll be making aromatic teas and macerating a few oils in that hot Washington sunshine. We'll be dyeing wool with a whole range of plants and I might be teaming up with farmers and weavers to go the whole way from sheep to colourful blanket in a day if we can. Perhaps it would be more realistic to go from sheep to handkerchief instead.

We also have plans to attempt the distilling of some aromatic waters and will be melting beeswax to make our own ointments. What else? Well my esteemed colleague Gareth has just heard that his team of Welsh medical leeches have arrived safely in Washington so, whilst I share my room with fermenting woad balls, Gareth will be tending to his new pets in his. Hopefully we'll both develop a greater appreciation for them as the festival goes on.

Biochemist Alison will also be there to talk about the more modern aspects of plant medicine research and I look forward to learning a lot from her. And the daffodil will be our special guest because of its fame as a new Alzheimer's treatment being produced in the Welsh mountains.

And much much more I'm sure. But hopefully I'll tell you all about it when I get there.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Politics and the Regulation of Herbal Medicine

Recently there has been much discussion about new legislation which is being proposed to regulate the herbal medicine and supplements industry in the UK.

Opinions on the issue are divided and there are many aspects to consider, but it is my personal belief that as regulation is increased, our choices are greatly reduced and, whilst it may make healthcare options safer, it also encourages a culture where individuals are no longer able to take responsibility for their own health and lifestyle.

With similar feelings on these issues, my mother Tanya recently sent an e-mail asking about policies on herbal medicine to her local (York area) MEP's for Labour, Lib Dem and Green parties and has allowed me to post the responses she has received so far.

The copies of the correspondence below gives us some idea of where each party is heading on the herbal medicine legislation front:

E-mail sent by Tanya Jane-Patmore to Yorkshire & Humber EU reps for Labour, Lib Dem and Green:

Before the elections, can you let me know your view on plant (herbal) medicine. EU is aiming to regulate and thus remove many current choices from us. Britain has a good track record on herbal medicine, with strong self regulation going back a very long time. This may be different from other European countries. But our ability to choose how we get help when unwell may be threatened by this. In my view it is an example of over regulation.

There are many other issues that are important and I care about. But for now knowing whether you support or will vote against this may make the difference as to whether you get my vote or not.

Tanya Jane-Patmore

So far she has received two responses, from Labour and Green:

Response from Labour's Richard Corbett:
Dear Tanya,

Thank you for your email. What EU countries are trying to do is to see whether we can find a common set of rules for the common market. If that can be done on acceptable terms, it would have the advantage of avoiding confusion, conflicts and companies playing off one country's rules against another. However the devil is in the detail and the key is to find acceptable terms.

Best wishes,

Richard Corbett MEP
Labour Member of the European Parliament for Yorkshire & Humber
In contrast, the response from the Green's Eamonn Ward is below and includes a couple of their policies on the matter:

Thank you for your enquiry.

With just 48 hours to go and a real push to win in this region, we are now struggling for available resources to answer queries in detail. I have found the following policies in this area and also attach our manifesto [not included here] for this election.

I would have liked to spend more time researching this but hope that this does answer most of your questions.

With Regards,

Eamonn Ward
Campaign Manager Yorkshire & the Humber Green Party European Election Campaign
Green Policies as included in e-mail:

Natural medicines
HE317 When assessing the degree of control required over the availability of medicines, a balance must be reached between the right of the individual to freedom of choice, and the duty of society to protect the individual from the consequences of unwise choices. We are concerned to protect users from unanticipated adverse effects of novel pharmaceutical compounds, some of which may not be evident until the drug has been in use for many years. The Green Party proposes the founding of a regulatory agency with responsibility for natural medicines, including nutritional supplements, medicinal plants and herbal remedies, essential oils and homeopathic remedies. This agency should be founded on the principles of:

1.Freedom of information and full labelling of ingredients.
2.High standards of safety in production methods.
3.No animal testing.
4.Strong encouragement towards organic production.
5.A ban on GM ingredients.

However when the drugs have been in use for many generations, as with many natural medicines, the need for statutory control is diminished. Measures will therefore be taken to protect the availability of established herbal and homeopathic remedies, subject to basic safeguards.

Synthetic Pharmaceuticals
HE318 Novel compounds will not be introduced into general use unless they can be shown to have significant advantages over existing drugs. Limited list prescribing will be extended across the full range of pharmaceuticals. The direct advertising of prescription only medicines to the medical profession will cease. Information to the medical profession will be the responsibility of medical schools and independent authorities with no vested interest in companies which manufacture or market pharmaceuticals.

HE319 The Green Party recognises the huge profits made by the drug companies out of the NHS. This is often through a form of cartel pricing, and we do not believe it is right that the National Health Service as a public health service should have to pay unfair prices. Therefore we will set up an independent NHS Pharmaceutical Body with power to set the price of drugs provided to the NHS. The Body will be composed of doctors, healthcare professionals, economists, and a legally trained chairperson, which will look at the cost of research and development in drugs and their manufacture, and receive evidence from chemists, the pharmaceutical companies, and other countries' health services. The Body will then decide what is a fair price for a drug which is to be provided to the NHS by the manufacturer, and that will be the price which the NHS will pay for the drug.

Sadly this is all very short notice before the elections, but hopefully of interest nonetheless.

Finally, I must apologise for my tardiness in writing new posts. I have spent the last two weeks in York on a dog-sitting mission, but have also been juggling what feels like vast quantities of work which must be done before I head off to America in 3 weeks time for the Smithsonian festival. I've never known life so busy, but hopefully I'll be back on track and posting regularly within the next couple of months.