Plant Profile: Poppy (Papaver somniferum)

Plant Profile: Poppy (Papaver somniferum)

Image by NickyPe from Pixabay
Opium Poppy Papaver somniferum
Synonyms Opium Poppy, Mawseed, Herb of Joy, Mohn, Klapper-Rosen, Mago, Magesamen, Weismagen, wilder Magen, Magensaph, Rosule

Description:

Opium Poppies are nothing if not showy. Their sturdy stems and large leaves make a stark contrast to their large but oddly flimsy flowers. The delicate petals give the impression of a butterfly that is just about to take off. At the base of the flower sits a prominent, many-rayed stigma surrounded by a mass of stamens. After the flower has been fertilized, the petals drop off, leaving the seed capsule exposed as it swells and ripens like a pregnant belly.

Individual plants grow to between 70 cm, and 130 cm tall. The erect stems and large wavy leaves have a tough, rubbery texture. The leaves are indented and clasp the stem. All green parts of the plant are covered by a greyish-blue waxy substance that is easily rubbed off. Botanists describe this feature as glaucous.

When any green part is cut or wounded, a milky latex oozes out and turns brown as it dries. This substance is known as raw opium.

The seed capsule of Papaver somniferum is almost spherical and has a star-shaped, flattened lid. As it dries, the top shrinks and lifts. Tiny holes are formed underneath the rim, allowing the tiny, white or bluish-black seeds can disperse.

Origin and Distribution

It is difficult to establish with any certainty just where Papaver somniferum originated or who its genetic parents might have been. But, most researchers now agree that the Mediterranean region of Asia Minor is its most likely ‘original home’.

From this strategically advantageous position, they spread east into Asia, south into North Africa and north into Central Europe. Today, poppies are even found as far north as Britain. Poppies are popular as ornamentals, and breeders have developed dozens of varieties of different colours and flower arrangements.

The Papaver genus comprises about 100 species that occur throughout the temperate regions of the world. Poppies like to grow in association with corn. In early summer, the related Scarlet Poppy (Papaver rhoeas) can often be seen in cornfields and verges. This species is much smaller, has scarlet-red petals and small, elongated seed capsules. Although the Scarlet Poppy has historically also been used medicinally, its action is much milder than that of Papaver somniferum.

Opium Poppies are not native to the New World. But when they appeared on their shores, Eastern tribes adopted their medicinal uses, which they learned from the Europeans.

Image by Peter Kraayvanger from Cultural History

The delicate Poppy flowers are beautiful to behold. Their papery petals gently waft in the summer's breeze - alas, it is a short-lived beauty. Here one day, gone the next. The fleeting splendour only lasts a few days before the petals fall, revealing a bulging seed pod.

The seed pods hold a myriad of tiny poppy seeds, a familiar item of the kitchen larder. We use them as toppings of bread rolls and bagels, or as cake fillings. Less commonly available is the delicately nutty seed oil, highly esteemed in gourmet cuisines.

But poppy has a secret power, and it flows within its fleshy stems, leaves and unripe seed capsules: its milky latex.

When it oxidizes and dries, the latex turns brown and becomes what the Ancients knew as 'opion'. This substance has been used for thousands of years. In the days of blood and gore, opion was a god-sent pain-reliever. Even today, the most effective pain relievers are still predominantly based on it.

Thanks to its potent analgesic and hypnotic properties, Opium relieves not only physical but also emotional pain. But woe to those who are seduced by it. Taken too regularly, it entraps the body and chains the mind to addiction, causing delusion, apathy, and even death.

Yet, in the words of Paracelsus:

"What is there that is not poison? All things are poison, and nothing is without poison. Solely the dose determines that a thing is not a poison.”

Our age-old relationship with poppies proves the point. Throughout history, it has brought great relief but also suffering and death.

 

Historical record

Archaeological evidence suggests that humans have used poppies since pre-historic times. Archaeobotanists have found charred remains of poppies and opium at Neolithic settlements, burial sites and even in the tombs of Egyptian Pharaohs. The latter were even decorated with paintings of Opium Poppy, Mandrake and Blue Water Lily - all considered magical plants connected to the underworld gods.

The earliest written record was found in Sumer and dates back to about 2000 B.C. It refers to poppies as 'Hul Gil' - the Herb of Joy. From Sumer, the knowledge and use of poppies spread throughout the Middle East to Babylonia, Assyria and Egypt, Persia and Greece.

They are mentioned in the famous Egyptian Eber's Papyrus (1500 B.C.), which recommends them as a remedy to calm incessantly crying babies. Remarkably, this use has persisted until the beginning of the 20th century in parts of North Africa and Europe. It certainly kept children quiet, but it also reduced their natural curiosity, thus dimming their wits.

From Hippocrates to Avicenna, Dioscorides and Galen - all the ancient medical texts mention opium as an effective painkiller and sedative.

Dioscorides offers a detailed description of how to obtain the latex:

"Those who wish to obtain the sap (of the Poppy) must go after the dew has dried, and draw their knife around the star in such a manner as not to penetrate the inside of the capsule, and also make straight incisions down the sides. Then with your finger wipe the extruding tear into a shell. When you return to it not long after, you will find the sap thickened, and the next day you will find it much the same. Pound the sap in your mortar and roll the mass into pills."

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Image by
Andy Faeth from Mythology

Poppies were considered sacred to Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep, and they guarded the entrance to his drowsy realm. Hypnos is often depicted holding the seed capsules in his hands and adorning his head. He brought prophetic dreams and soothed emotional pain with forgetfulness.

At the temple of Aesclepius on the Greek island of Cos, poppies were used in a kind of sleep therapy. Aesclepius is a god of healing, but the only medicine he prescribed was a potent brew of opium and other herbs, while the therapeutic recommendations were revealed directly to the patients via visionary dreams.

The Romans identified Hypnos with their god of sleep, 'Somnus', who lent his name to poppies scientific nomenclature. 'Somniferus' comes from the Latin 'somnus ferre', - bringer of sleep.

Poppies had a strong association with the gods of the Underworld. In Greek mythology, they were sacred to Thanatos or Hades, the Lord of the Underworld, and ruler of the realm of the dead. Excessive doses of opium can bring eternal sleep.

But they were also sacred to Demeter, the Earth-Goddess, who taught humankind the art of agriculture and particularly the cultivation of grains such as wheat and barley. Demeter was, of course, inconsolable when Hades abducted her daughter Persephone. Only poppies managed to soothe her pain. Poppies love mingling among the cornfields, and their bulging seed pods, containing an abundance of tiny seeds, serve as a perfect symbol of fertility.

Some scholars believe that opium was a chief ingredient of the secret ritual drink served at the Elysian Mystery rites. Unfortunately, the recipe ranks among the best-kept secrets of the ancient world, so we will never know for sure.

Mythology tells us that poppies sprang from Aphrodite's tears as she mourned the loss of her lover, Adonis. In ancient times, her birthplace, the island of Cyprus, was a major centre of poppy cultivation and trade.

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Folk Magic

Poppy's association with the goddess of love is also reflected in its relaxing aphrodisiac properties. Opium was very popular in folkloristic love magic. During the Middle Ages, it was the ingredient of choice for love charms, philtres and potions. Poppies were also tasked with predicting the fortunes of lovers. To learn the identity of a future spouse or divine the outcome of a love affair, the inquirer would write his question on a piece of parchment and place it inside a poppy seed capsule. The seed pod was then placed under the pillow until a prophetic dream would reveal all.

Naturally, love associates with fertility. The belly-like seed pod full of seeds makes an apt symbol not just of fertility, but also of prosperity. On New Year's Eve, giving gifts of poppy sweetbread served as tokens of prosperity blessings, while the seed capsules were used as a fertility charm.

Invisibility was also considered one of the poppy's magic powers. For this purpose, it was included in a magic potion. This use is probably linked to the myth of Persephone. It is believed that Hades' wore a cap of invisibility that resembled a poppy seed pod when he abducted Persephone.

Yet, poppy seeds are also said to be anti-demonic. If one found such nasty creatures hard on one's heels, all one had to do to get rid of them was to toss some poppy seeds in their direction. Apparently, demons and vampires are compelled to count everything. A handful of scattered poppy seeds would keep them busy long enough to allow you to escape.

From traditional herbal medicine to potent pharmaceutical drug and addiction

 

Opium was widely used in the ancient world, but it was Andromachos, the personal physician of Emperor Nero, who popularized it. One day, Nero challenged Andromachos to create a true panacea, a remedy that would ease all pain and diseases. The physician came up with a potent potion consisting of about sixty different plants and substances, including opium, which he called 'Theriak'. Later, Galen refined the brew and renamed it Galene. It became so popular throughout Europe that it rose to the status of a miracle cure. But the potion was expensive, and some ingredients were difficult to obtain, which led to adulteration.

During the Middle Ages, medicine became 'heroic' - in other words, unsympathetic, and patients were expected to simply bear their pain. The use of opium as a painkiller declined. But eventually, Paracelsus revived it by creating a stripped-down version of the original Theriak recipe, which proved extremely effective and soon surpassed even the success of the original. He compounded his concoction into pill form and called it 'Laudanum Paracelsi'.

 

 

Laudanum

He had managed to make his painkiller even more effective by the simple addition of lemon juice. The acid subtly changes opium's chemistry and enhances its anodyne action. For a long time, Laudanum was a celebrated panacea, believed to be effective for every ailment except leprosy.

The somewhat hyperbolic reputation meant that it was often in short supply. But it also pricked scientific curiosity and inspired numerous experiments. It even gave rise to the groundbreaking invention of the hypodermic needle. In 1656, Sir Christopher Wren first employed a syringe to prove the theory of blood circulation. He injected a dog's hind leg with a solution of opium, and sure enough, the drug rapidly took effect over the dog's entire body.

In 1680, the English Doctor Thomas Sydenham revised Paracelsus' potion once again. His aim was to purify the raw drug and rid it of impurities that seemed to cause 'sickness' when taken in large quantities. He added sherry wine, saffron, cinnamon and cloves to Paracelsus' Laudanum and renamed it 'Sydenham's Laudanum'. It was no more effective than the original, but it kicked off a new wave of enthusiasm for opium-based products. Soon every chemist seemed to market their own blend. Venice Treacle, Mithridate, London Laudanum and Dr Bate's Pacific Pills all became popular household names. But the available raw opium could barely keep up with the demand.

Laudanum was as popular as aspirin is today. Physicians routinely prescribed twice-weekly preventative dosing. Alas, sometimes too much of a good thing proves, well..., too much.

 

 

Overprescription and Addiction

It was at this time that overprescription led to the first cases of serious opium addiction. The problem was compounded by the fact that Laudanum was even overprescribed for children. But the problem with an addictive substance such as opium is that frequent dosing increases the body's resistance, and larger amounts are required to get the same results.

In 1700, Dr John Jones published a book called 'The Mysteries of Opium Revealed'. In the course of about 400 pages, he extolled the properties of opium. Describing its uses and effects, he also reported on its pleasant side effects and symptoms of addiction. Although his work was clearly biased and likely to have been influenced by his own intimate relationship with the subject, it did contain a grain of genius. Jones was the first to intuit that opium actually imitated substances that are already present in the body. But it took another 275 years before scientists discovered these substances, which subsequently became known as endorphins.

 

 

Morphine

Debate and experimentation continued. In 1799, Friedrich Sertürner, a young German pharmacist's apprentice, observed that the effects of opium seemed to vary considerably from batch to batch. He became convinced that this must be due to the varying presence of an active constituent in the raw opium. After only four years of experimentation, he managed to isolate such a substance. In allusion to the Greek god of sleep, he called 'morphine'. But he wrongly believed that this purified compound was free of the unpleasant characteristics of opium. He had assumed that morphine was safer because only a tiny amount of it was necessary to induce far stronger effects than those of raw opium. But neither he nor anyone else at the time realized that it was also far more addictive. Soon, several pharmaceutical companies started to churn out morphine by the boatload. At the same time, Wren's earlier invention for injecting opium was perfected and morphed into what we now know as the hypodermic syringe. The improvement was celebrated as a great success, since the administration of morphine via a syringe tripled its efficacy.

The story of opium epitomizes the risk of relying on science to solve all our problems. Sometimes the solution to one problem engenders new ones that we only fully grasp much later.

(The history of poppy also has a very interesting, dark and thought-provoking political aspect, which, however, is beyond the scope of this article. Those interested in this plant and its impact on world history should read up on the opium wars - the consequences of which still linger.

The Cultural History of Grapes

The Cultural History of Grapes

Grapevine (Vitis vinifera)

Grapes are one of the most important agricultural crops in the world. But they have far more uses than ordinarily meet the palate. There are at least 8000 cultivated varieties of grapes, most of which are grown in the Northern Hemisphere.

Name: Grapevine (Vitis vinifera)
Family: Vitaceae
Synonyms: Grapevine, Vigne, Weintrauben, Rebstock

 

Description:

Grapes are one of the most important agricultural crops in the world. From New Zealand to California, Chile, South Africa and of course, their traditional turf around the Mediterranean Basin, grapes are cultivated in Mediterranean climate zones around the world. Grapevines are surprisingly hardy. They can live on next to nothing. They thrive on poor soils, so long as they are well-draining and don’t mind the heat. The only thing they won’t survive is a cold, wet climate.

When left untended, grapevines can reach a height of about 15 m. As climbers, they will scramble up anything that will give them support. In cultivation, they are often trained on wires and cut back after each season so that only the strongest one or two shoots remain.

The gnarly stem forms finely grained, dense wood. The leaves are palmate (hand-shaped) with deeply indented lobes, with very jaggy serrated margins, depending on the variety. In May or June, they begin to flower, forming bunches of tiny, white, 5-petaled flowers with a very delicate and sweet aroma. Alas, this phase does not last long. Soon, bunches of sweet, juicy berries start to develop.

Depending on the variety, their size and colour vary. The smooth-skinned, yellowish-green to reddish, or purple-black berries usually contain 2 seeds each (except for seedless varieties). Vines can be propagated by seed or cutting. Most European stocks are grafted onto American rootstocks due to a devastating blight that nearly destroyed all European vine stocks.

There are also many wild grape species, which also tend to be a meandering bunch. They can sprawl over an extensive area if left undisturbed. Their berries also grow in bunches, but they are much sparser and consist of much smaller berries, which are usually quite tart. Like their cultivated counterparts, the flowers are small and rather inconspicuous.

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Distribution:

The geographical origins of the vine is still a matter of debate. Various wild varieties can be found in different parts of the world, far beyond the Mediterranean. When the Vikings first arrived in the Americas, they called it ‘Vinland’ for the many wild grape varieties they found there. The type now under cultivation in Europe seems to have originated in Georgia. Under the influence of Greek and Roman expansion, it steadily spread west and north from there. Today grape production is prolific in all warm, temperate regions of the world, from Central and Southern Europe, Northern Africa, Asia Minor, US, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Australia, to New Zealand.

Problems and Pathogens:

Viticulture is a profitable business, which, however, claims a vast amount of land. Wine lovers may appreciate the variety of tastes and textures this diversity produces, but environmentally it is a disaster. Relying almost entirely on just one single cash crop is highly risky. Furthermore, monocultures heavily depend on fertilizers, and pesticides that are highly damaging to the environment.

Various pathogens can threaten grapevines: powdery mildew rots the stalks, shrivels the leaves, splits the grapes and finally kills the vine. Red spider mites suck the sap from the leaf veins, phylloxera vastatrix strikes the roots, and the cochylis moth grub attacks the flowers.

wine press

HISTORY, MYTHOLOGY AND FOLKLORE

The story of viticulture is so old that nobody really knows where and when it all started. The Bible mentions that Noah planted a vineyard, but even he was probably not the first. Wine is mentioned in almost every classical text, with records dating back some 6000 years.
It appears as though the Greeks were the first to popularize fermented grape juice, with the Romans soon following suit. As major trading powers, they spread the art of viticulture all around the Mediterranean Basin. By 600 BC, wine was a sought-after export commodity, especially popular with the Gauls who, in time, became expert growers themselves.
However, in the latter half of the 18th century, tragedy struck. By then, grapes had moved to the Americas along with the colonists. The drama unfolded when a North American grower sent some specimen of his rootstocks back to the old world for further study. Unfortunately, the sample he sent was infested with a devastating blight (phylloxera vastatrix) that threatened to wipe out vineyards across Southern Europe. It was a catastrophe of unprecedented proportions.
Luckily, the cure also came from North America – and just in time. A frantic search for a blight-resistant yielded results, and another sample was sent to Europe. Growers started quickly grafted their ancient varieties onto American rootstocks, which saved them. Although the industry took some time to recover, European wine-growers rank again at the top of the international charts.

The wines of Ancient Greece seemed to have been quite a different kind of brew than what we are used to today. Historical records describe a much thicker and heavier beverage that had to be diluted at a ratio of 1:3 for consumption. Typically, it was infused with other substances such as resins, aromatic herbs and even psychotropic plants. It is not surprising then that the Greeks associated wine with Dionysus, the wild, shamanic god of ecstasy. His rites were frenzied and orgiastic. A menacing mob of Maenads, (his priestesses) pursued the god (or his representative) in a feverish hunt and tore him apart. Eventually, an animal (a fawn or fox) replaced the human sacrifice. In time, Dionysus was tamed and re-cast as a chubby, cheerful, but domesticated deity of wheat and wine. The animal sacrifice was replaced with a ritual sharing of ceremonial bread and unadulterated wine during the annual celebration of the Elysian Mystery play.

The Romans equated Dionysus with Bacchus, their god of wine and intoxication, whom they worshipped in much the same manner. In Egyptian mythology, Osiris is the Lord of wine, and Isis fell pregnant with Horus after eating his grapes.

The Hellenized Syrian satirist Lucian recounts a ‘tall satirical tale’ in his ‘True History’. A strange vineyard once grew on the far banks of a river that ran with wine instead of water. The grapevines grew woody stems, but their upper parts sprouted beautiful maidens whose hair was a tangle of leaves and bunches of grapes growing from their fingertips. Their enchanting song lured passers-by. But woe to those who succumbed to their embrace: instantly drunk and unable to escape, the hapless took root and soon sprouted shoots and leaves themselves.

Aphrodisiac associations:

Wine is a divine gift of the gods. In moderate amounts, it lifts the spirit, exhilarates and inspires. It opens the mind and holds the key to the heart and soul. Innumerable works of art have been inspired, and countless adventures started by a spark of its passionate fire. But in excessive quantities, it stupefies and causes delusion. It is a fine line between ecstasy and frenzied oblivion.

 

Ever tried making homemade wines?

MEDICINAL USES

Both red and white wine was traditionally used as a solvent to extract other substances when making medicinal wines and cordials. But various parts of the plant itself were also used as medicine.

PARTS USED:

Leaves: fresh young leaves
Flowers: dried or fresh flowers
Berries: fresh or dried fruit
Seeds: oil pressed from the seeds

HARVEST TIMES:

The flowers appear in May/June. The leaves should be picked in spring when they are tender, and the grapes ripen from September onwards (in the Northern Hemisphere).

LEAVES

Constituents:
In the summer, the leaves contain a mixture of sugar and glucose, tartaric acid, potassium bi-tartrate, quercetin, quercitrin, tannin, Amidon, malic acid, gum, inosite, a crystallizable fermentable sugar and oxalate of calcium. In the autumn, they contain more
quercetin and less quercitrin.
Actions:
Anti-inflammatory, astringent, styptic
Indications:
An infusion of 1 TSP of fresh, finely cut leaves per cup of water helps with conditions such as rheumatism, gout, nausea and spitting of blood. A preparation known as ‘Papinorum Extract’ made from the leaves is used in Homeopathy to treat epilepsy and inflammatory conditions of the hip. Dried and powdered, leaves were fed to cattle as a treatment for dysentery. A decoction was used to prevent a threatened miscarriage. The astringent properties help to arrest internal and external bleeding, cholera, dropsy, diarrhoea and nausea. The decoction can also be used to treat mouth ulcers and as a douche for vaginal discharge. Grape leaves are used as a treatment for varicose veins and fragile capillaries. For this purpose, leaves are harvested as soon as they turn red and are used either fresh or dried.

FLOWERS

Actions:
Nerve tonic
Indications:
1tsp of dried flowers per cup of boiling water is said to strengthen neuronal dendrons. It also supports the bone marrow to build red blood cells. The infusion can be used internally or applied externally as a rub to aid neuronal function (even for numbness of the lower limbs)

BERRIES

Constituents:
Malic, tartaric, ascetic ascorbic and racemic acids, alanine, alpha-linolenic acid, alpha-tocopherol, arginine. Oxalic acid in unripe fruits, Ca, P, Fe, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, and ascorbic acid
Actions:
Fortifying blood tonic, nourishing, stimulates kidney and liver function and thus aids elimination and inner cleansing, gentle laxative
Indications:
A grape-fast is a popular method to rid the body of accumulated metabolic waste products and other toxins. 2 kg of grapes should be eaten throughout the day for two weeks, with little or no other food. It is recommended to do a full day fast one day before embarking on this regime. This is an excellent way to stimulate and tone the kidneys and thus to lose weight by releasing water from the tissues. It reduces fat, regulates bowel function, purifies the blood and cleanses the skin. A grape-fast can alleviate rheumatic pain and heartburn, regulate metabolic processes, water retention, oedema and circulatory complaints. Grapes are restorative and nourishing food that aid recovery from anaemia and debilitating conditions. Dehydrated grapes (raisins) have demulcent, nutritious and slightly laxative properties. Grape sugar (fructose) is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream. It almost instantly restores energy levels in case of exhaustion and debility.
 Contraindications:
A grape fast is not recommended for dyspeptic, excitable, hot-blooded individuals, as it may cause palpitations.

SAP:

Grapevine sap, a watery substance that naturally occurs when pruning the vines, was used as a lotion to treat weak eyes and corneal floaters. It has also been used as a skin lotion. Internally, it acts as a diuretic.

 

wine press

 

GENERAL USES

  • Basketry: The annual shoots are pruned in the winter. They are very flexible and have been used for basketry and broom-making.
  • Cosmetics: A lotion made from the flowers has been used for freckles, while the oil (seeds) is used for making soap.
  • Dyes: The berries yield a purplish colour, which is not durable. The fresh or dried leaves dye yellow.
  • Fuel: The old grapevine stocks are popular as firewood, especially for grilling due to the aromatic smoke. The twigs make good kindling.
  • Grapeseed Oil: Grapeseed oil is pressed from the seeds. It is used for culinary and cosmetic purposes. For culinary use, the oil must be refined to make it fit for consumption. Unrefined grapeseed oil is slightly sticky. As a massage oil, it is best to blend it with other oils.
  • Culinary uses: Grapes are wonderfully refreshing, nourishing and cleansing fruits that can be enjoyed straight from the vine. Their sweet and tasty juice makes a refreshing beverage and can also be used to make jelly. Evaporated to produce a concentrate, it makes a good sweetener. But above all, grape juice is fermented to make wine and champagne. Wines come in a staggering variety: reds, rose or white wines, champagne or sparkling wine, are made from hundreds of different grape varieties. A dessert wine is produced by adding alcohol to the ferment to prematurely stop the fermentation process.
  • The young tendrils can be eaten raw or cooked as a vegetable. The flowers are also edible and can be prepared as fritters.
  • The sap tastes sweet and can be used as a drink, but harvesting large quantities weakens the vines. Roasted seeds can be used as a coffee substitute.
  • Pickled leaves are used as a wrapping for finger-food appetizers (dolmas) that are especially popular in Greek and Middle Eastern cuisines.
  • A crystalline salt, cream of tartar, also known as potassium bitartrate, is derived from the residue of pressed grapes. Sediments collected from wine barrels are used for making baking powder.

 

Photographs by Kat Morgenstern

Plant Profile: Moringa

Plant Profile: Moringa

Plant Profile: Moringa (Moringa oleifera Lam.)

Moringa is a tropical tree that is not very well known outside its native habitat, despite offering multiple gifts for the benefit of mankind.

 

Habitat:

Moringa has spread from its native habitat in the sub-Himalayan region of India to tropical and subtropical areas around the world. It is now cultivated on many continents. It is highly adaptive and tolerant to even the most inhospitably arid soil conditions. Prolonged cold spells with temperatures falling to below 20 °C are the only conditions it can not tolerate. Its preferred conditions are temperatures between 25°-30 °C and well-draining soil.

 

Description:

Moringa is a fast-growing subtropical tree native to the Himalayan foothills. In as little as 10 months, it can grow to an astonishing height of three meters – from seed! However, it rarely grows to more than 10 meters in total – a tree of medium stature.

Its feathery leaves and bean-like seed pods give it the appearance of a legume species. But that is not the case. Moringa is the only genus of the Moraginacae family, which comprises 13 species. The pods, which are slightly thickened at one end, are known as ‘drum sticks’. Each pod contains 15-20 winged seeds.

The tree branches freely and produces dark, green feathery tri-pinnate leaves with elliptical leaflets. The flowers grow in bunches of small white or cream-coloured flowers and have a subtle fragrance.

Moringa BlossomImage by Yaayaa Diallo from Pixabay

Moringa Blossom

 

History

Moringa is one of the most important and universally useful plants of the tropics.

The entire plant is edible – leaves, seeds, pods, flowers and even the roots – although some experts warn against eating them. (The British called this tree ‘Horseradish root tree’, an allusion to root’s distinct flavour).

Moringa is remarkably rich in essential nutrients such as vitamin A, C and E, calcium, potassium, iron and, perhaps most importantly, protein. It is recommended as a nutritional supplement for pregnant women, nursing mothers, children, and the elderly and infirm. It is one of the few sources of high-quality vegetable protein that contains all essential amino acids.

In India, the young, green and immature pods (the ‘drumsticks’) are a popular ingredient of curries. The seeds yield a high-quality oil used in cooking which is rich in oleic acid. It is very stable, comparable to olive oil in terms of resistance to rancidity and nutritional value. The leaves are the most perishable. Ideally, they should be consumed within a couple of days of harvest. To extend their shelf-life on the market, they need to be bagged and cooled. Alternatively, their nutritional value can be better preserved by drying and powdering them. The powder can then be added as a nutritional supplement to soups, beverages, curries and other foods. But the most miraculous powers are contained within its seeds: Moringa seeds act as ‘flocculants’. They can purify water by causing contaminants to ‘flock together’ and precipitate, i.e. sink to the bottom of the vessel, thus effectively purifying the water. Pharmacologists at Gadja Mada University in Indonesia showed that “one crushed Moringa seed can clear 90% of the total coliform bacteria in a litre of river water within 20 minutes. While an animal study showed that even 2,000 seeds per litre of water had no toxic effects on mice.”

This is powerful and important indeed, especially given the poor water quality in many tropical and subtropical parts of the world. Given that access to clean drinking water is still a problem in many tropical regions, Moringa offers hope. Promoting the planting of Moringa trees could significantly improve water quality, as well as help to boost nutrition in some of the poorest regions of the world.

 

Moringa sticks

Moringa Drum Sticks Image by S V from Pixabay

Medicinal uses:

Medicinally, Moringa is primarily used to address problems arising from malnutrition. It has a tonic effect on the gastric system and can cure diarrhoea. Thanks to its high vitamin A content, it is a great immune system booster. Vitamin A also helps alleviate visual problems, such as night blindness and xerophthalmia.

Despite its impressive nutritional profile, Moringa can not cure severe malnutrition. The body can no longer process iron, protein or fat once severe physiological abnormalities have been triggered (e.g. infections, impaired liver and intestinal function, imbalance of electrolytes and related problems). However, Moringa is the best available ally to prevent such severe cases and correct mild and moderate ones.

Moringa can also reduce blood sugar levels and thus help control diabetes and high blood pressure. Furthermore, it is said to be helpful in the treatment of respiratory problems, tuberculosis and malaria.

The raw seed pods act on the liver and are used as an anthelminthic (deworming) agent.

The seed oil contains antibiotic and anti-inflammatory compounds. It is used in the treatment of bacterial and fungal skin conditions. Topically, it can be applied to aching joints.

Recent research suggests that Moringa may be effective against certain kinds of cancer, particularly skin cancer. Traditional healers have long used Moringa for this purpose, but further studies are needed to evaluate and verify these traditional uses. They also claim that it to be an excellent nutrient to prevent cancer.

It is easy to add Moringa to the diet, and almost anybody could benefit from it. But above all, it should be used to improve the conditions of those who live in extreme poverty. Moringa should be planted in every available patch of public land to make it accessible to all.

 

Lead image by Iskandar Ab. Rashid from Pixabay

Plant Profile: Aloe vera

Plant Profile: Aloe vera

Aloe Vera is no longer an exotic stranger. We see it advertised as a popular ingredient in numerous household products, from washing-up liquid to latex gloves, and even razors. Many of us also know the plant itself.

Aloe Vera is an undemanding, perennial succulent, at home in arid regions of Africa. It is a distant cousin of the century plant, so common in the southwestern United States. Both belong to the order of Asparagales, but do not share the same genus.

Description:

Aloe Vera’s fleshy, succulent leaves contain a clear, gooey gel-like substance. The leaf margins bear ‘sharp teeth’ to deter casually browsing animals. It loves hot and dry conditions and only ‘wilts’ when over-watered, or exposed to freezing temperatures. Grown in the right conditions, (that is, mostly ignored), the plant will do just fine. It may even send up a central shoot with short tubular yellowish flowers sprouting from the upper part of the spike.

The Aloe genus comprises about 400 species, with Aloe Vera considered the most useful for medicinal purposes. Mature plants contain the most potent healing compounds.

Habitat:

Aloe Vera is native to arid regions of the north-eastern and southern parts of Africa and Madagascar. But thanks to its tremendous value as a healing plant, it has spread to arid regions throughout the world. Today it is widely cultivated around the world, including in North America, Japan and China.

Aloe vera plantation

History

Aloe Vera is a truly wonderful plant, with a well-established reputation as a medicinal plant, that is particularly useful for skin conditions, minor cuts, abrasions and burns. The dried latex, a well-known laxative, is distinct from the gel. It derives from a yellow juice that is contained in the pericyclic tubules of the inner leaf.

Although Aloe has been in documented use for at least 3500 years, there is a lot of controversial and contradictory information about it.
It was first mentioned in the famous Egyptian Ebers Papyrus, which dates back to 1500 BC and is widely regarded as one of the earliest documents on what was to become the western Materia Medica. More than likely, Aloe Vera’s use was well-established long before it was recorded. In the hot and dry countries of Northern Africa and the Middle East, Aloe Vera served as a soothing household remedy for sunburns and a ready-to-use moisturizing cosmetic lotion.

Some confusion surrounding this plant stems from the fact that it is still frequently mistaken for lignum Aloes or Wood-Aloes, which is an entirely different species of plant. Although abundantly mentioned in the Bible as an incense ingredient and constituent of embalming oils, Wood-Aloes does not grow in the Mediterranean Basin but is a tree of the genus Aquilaria. Also known as Agar wood, Wood Aloes is native to Southeast Asia. While Aloe Vera latex does transform into a hard substance when dried and is sometimes referred to as ‘Aloe resin’, it is not particularly aromatic and has never been used as incense.

Aloe Vera juice

In recent years, ‘Aloe Vera juice’ (as well as a myriad of spin-off products that contain the juice), has become popular. But by their very nature, products are always processed. Aloe Vera juice is no exception. It always contains flavourings and preservatives. In its natural form, Aloe juice (gel) is not very palatable – it is bitter and gooey – not exactly a pleasure to gulp down. It is not hard to see why the ancients didn’t recommend it and only saw it fit as an emergency measure for the treatment of intestinal parasites.

Careful handling is of utmost importance as oxidation sets in the minute the leaves are cut, and enzymatic activity begins to destroy some valuable compounds. Traditionally, the leaves are taken to a processing facility as quickly as possible after being cut, ideally in a refrigerated truck. At the processing plant, they are filleted by hand to remove the outer skin. Unfortunately, most of the beneficial compounds are concentrated just beneath, and filleting removes much of what makes the plant so valuable.

Aloe vera gel

Modern uses

Aloe Vera is best known for its use in topical skin-care applications. But commercial products are not quite as potent as the gel that can be squeezed from a freshly cut leaf, since the natural jelly-like substance is not very stable and deteriorates quickly upon exposure to the air. To preserve its properties and thus extend its shelf-life, manufacturers must process the gel. But processing rarely enhances a natural product. In the case of Aloe Vera, it reduces a ‘miracle plant’ to a mediocre substance with vastly diminished benefits.

This back-story sheds some light on some rather puzzling research results: Aloe Vera’s glowing reputation in folk medicine is not confirmed by research results under laboratory conditions. The reasons for this are a bit complex and are partly due to the lab conditions and partly to the processing methods that are used to ‘preserve’ the gel or to extract its ‘active compound’.

But plants are highly sophisticated when it comes to their biochemistry. Their healing effect is often not due to one simple compound but rather the result of complex interactions, or ‘synergy’ between a host of different compounds.

Conventional preservation methods involve pasteurization: heating the gel to a high temperature, thus destroying many of the more fragile components. Chemical preservatives are added, further adulterating the original substance. Understandably, the result is rather disappointing, leading researchers to conclude that Aloe’s benefits may have been exaggerated. But one could equally conclude that we simply lack proper processing methods to preserve the natural composition of fresh Aloe Vera gel.

Processing

In recent years, more efficient processing methods have been developed. A cold process that dissolves the green cellulose parts of the leaf, leaves the biochemical activity of the gel substance intact, including the aloin, a yellow bitter laxative compound that is found just underneath the outer skin. Additional processing involves adding various anti-oxidants, as oxygen initiates the deterioration and breakdown of the gel and promotes the development of aerobic bacteria. Finally, the pulp is separated from the liquid part, a carbon compound is added to help filter out the aloin. The carbon compound is subsequently removed. In the last step, the liquid is exposed to ultraviolet light that destroys any bacteria.

This method still requires stabilizing compounds to be added to the final product, but it is a great improvement to conventional extraction processes, which only processed the gel and relied on heat treatment for sterilization.

An alternative whole-leaf extraction method involves the same cold process leaf processing described in the first step above, but then utilizes short duration low temperature-controlled sterilization techniques to kill off bacteria, eliminating the need for additional chemicals. The resulting gel is concentrated in a vacuum chamber and dehydrated to yield a water-soluble compound that retains the biochemical activity indefinitely without using preservatives. This is currently regarded as the most efficient method. Although heat is used in the process, it is closely controlled and never reaches more than 65°C applied for less than 15 minutes at a time. Longer exposure and higher temperatures would deteriorate the final product.

It is easy to see that what you get at the store is not the same as the natural product straight from the plant. It is important to read the label and evaluate the extraction method to determine its quality. There are huge differences between manufacturers.

A self-regulating body of producers certifies Aloe Vera products according to industry standards of quality control. Their seal of approval is meant to reassure consumers. However, due to the different processing methods, certification is not a gold standard.

Aloe vera gel

Medicinal Uses

Parts used: resin, gel extracted from the leaf
Constituents: Hydroxyanthracene derivatives of the anthrone type (principally barbaloin); 7-hydroxyaloin isomers, aloe-emodin, chrysophanol and their glycosides; chromone derivatives (aloesin and its derivatives aloe resins A and C, and the aglycone aloesone. Gel: glucomannan (a polysaccharide), steroids, organic acids, enzymes, antibiotic principles, amino acids, saponins, minerals.
Actions: latex: cathartic, laxative, emmenagogue, digestive stimulant
Gel: immune system stimulant, skin healing, anti-irritant, moisturizing, anti-cancer
Indications

Traditionally, Aloe Vera gel is used as a soothing topical application for sunburns and minor burns, abrasions, acne, psoriasis, shingles and even cold sores. The fresh gel squeezed from the leaf and applied directly to the affected areas is most potent. Its skin repair qualities on burns and sunburns are truly remarkable – healing occurs quickly and without scarring. The gel is also used to reduce stretch marks and scarring in wound care. It even protects the skin against the immune suppressant effect of ultraviolet light – thus it can also be used as a protective sunscreen lotion. Aloe Vera gel is a highly valued additive for moisturizing cosmetic preparations and is praised for rejuvenating the skin by stimulating the synthesis of elastin and collagen.

External application of Aloe gel penetrates the skin directly and produces a soothing, pain-relieving anti-inflammatory effect on arthritic joints and tendonitis.

For internal use, Aloe Vera latex preparations are usually mixed with antispasmodic herbs to reduce the cramping effect of its laxative action. Used by itself, the cathartic action could be rather painful. The latex also stimulates the uterus, thus promoting menstrual flow. Aloe containing laxatives should be avoided during pregnancy.

Laboratory studies on mice have demonstrated high-quality Aloe Vera juice to be an effective immune system stimulant in the treatment of certain types of cancer and HIV. Further studies are underway.

Aloe juice has a healing and balancing effect on the digestive system: it improves the absorption of nutrients and the elimination of toxins. This promotes overall cell nutrition and activates the body’s self-healing powers and enhances energy levels. It can also relieve gastrointestinal problems associated with peptic or duodenal ulcers. It stimulates regular bowel evacuation and soothes colitis and irritable bowel syndrome. Many chronic conditions have a component of digestive imbalance that trigger secondary symptoms due to malabsorption and cellular malnutrition. Aloe Vera juice can help to restore balance to the entire digestive system.

Aloe Vera juice also appears to benefit the liver and kidneys. It lowers levels of blood lipids (cholesterol) that can clog up the arteries and can cause coronary heart disease. And, it also has a positive effect on blood sugar levels, which can make it a useful nutritional supplement for diabetics.

Aloe vera skin care

Home-made cosmetics

If you wish to incorporate Aloe’s healing benefits into home-made skincare products, you can use the gel to replace all or a portion of the liquid in your recipe. However, beware that unprocessed Aloe Vera gel is not very stable and won’t keep long. Make small batches only, and store them in the fridge for a few days. For maximum benefit, skincare preparations should contain at least 20-40% of gel. If you have a fresh plant at your access, you can simply cut off a bit of a leaf and apply it straight to the skin.

 

Grow your own

Aloe Vera is one of those plants that everybody should have at their access as an immediate first aid remedy for burns and minor cuts. Growing it is easy, as it is a very undemanding plant. Just don’t over-water it and protect it against freezing temperatures. It loves the sun but will also grow in the semi-shade, nor does it need particularly rich soil. Well draining, sandy soil will do.

 

Caution:

  • Do not use Aloe Vera based laxatives during pregnancy. The juice may also contain traces of aloin above what would be deemed safe during pregnancy.
  • Consult with your health advisor regarding possible interference with prescription drugs if you intend to use Aloe Vera internally.
  • Rare cases of allergic reactions to the latex have been reported – even for external use.

The quality of Aloe Vera gel or juice very much depends on the manufacturing process. Some products that are currently on the market have little or no medicinal value. Do your research before spending a lot of money on what may turn out to be an inert substance. Whole-leaf extracts are recommended. Look for the International Aloe Science Council certificate for quality assurance.

 

 

 

 

Image credits:

Title Image by Elstef from Pixabay

(1) Image by Françoise BERNARD-NICOD from Pixabay

(2) Image by Franziska Ingold from Pixabay

(3) Image by mozo190 from Pixabay

(4) Image by Jenny Porter from Pixabay

Plantains – Plantago sp.

Plantains – Plantago sp.

Introduction

Most of us are familiar with the broad-leaved plantain, a common weed that seems to grow just about anywhere. Or, perhaps you also know the Ribwort Plantain, with its long, slender leaves. But did you know that this genus of humble weeds comprises some 200 species that occur all over the world? 

 

As masters of adaptation, Plantains are ubiquitous. They have managed to eke out a living in almost every conceivable kind of habitat. Gardeners curse them as intruders when they cannot abolish them from their neat lawns and paths. But they are oblivious to this humble plant’s remarkable healing properties!

 

Name

Linnaeus named the genus, ‘Plantago’ which derives from the Latin word ‘plantar’ meaning ‘foot’. He intended to convey that these plants go wherever they want – or rather, wherever we go and spread their seeds, via the bottoms of our boots. This property was not lost on the Native Americans either. They called it ‘white man’s footprint’ as they watched it spread across their land.

 

History

In neolithic times, the broad-leaved Plantain (Plantago major) was held sacred for it grew nowhere better than on the old straight track, the ceremonial causeway. They were always kept clean and free of weeds, but the plantain proved unconquerable. Hence it was called ‘Wegerich’ or, ‘King of the road’.

The Anglo-Saxons included it in their ‘Nine Herbs Charm’, calling it ‘Waybread’. This name refers to its use as a sacrament. Sacrificial victims were given a gruel of Plantain seeds as a kind of ‘Last Supper’.

 

Its amazing resilience and determination to return eternally, no matter how often it was cut or removed, were a sure sign of its supernatural powers. Thus, Plantain roots were used as a talisman to protect the traveller and its leaves put into shoes was supposed to keep the feet happy and untiring.

Ribwort Plantain
Image credit: Kathy Büscher from Pixabay

Medicinal use

 

Constituents: mucilage, glycoside (Aucubin – an antimicrobial and liver protective agent), ursolic acid, tannins, silicon, vitamin C, K, citric acid, potassium, and zinc

 

Action: bitter, astringent, anti-hepatotoxic, laxative (bulking agent), antispasmodic, antibiotic, expectorant, cooling, soothing drying

 

Plantain has an amazing range of healing properties. The leaf contains an antibacterial glycoside that is effective against many types of bacteria. 

External use

The fresh leaves make a very effective and readily available anti-bacterial band-aid that can be used on all kinds of scrapes, small wounds and insect or even spider bites. Just take a leaf, rub it between your fingers so that the juice comes out and apply it directly to the sting or wound. The roots are said to be similarly effective on scorpion stings and snake bites.

A paste made from the boiled seeds of broad-leaved plantain draws out splinters and thorns.

 

An infusion of the leaves combined with oak bark makes a good mouth-wash for gingivitis or stomatitis or for cleansing wounds (even festering ones. )or to treat varicose veins, haemorrhoids, ulcers. The leaves contain silicon which strengthens and tightens connective tissues.

 

Internal use:

For internal use, it makes an excellent tea or syrup for treating diseases of the respiratory system. The leaves of the Ribwort plantain are particularly effective as they are anti-inflammatory and expectorant. The antibiotic properties of the fresh juice can even be used for the treatment of tuberculosis. But upon drying the antibiotic effect diminishes.

 

The fresh juice also makes a good blood cleansing remedy and can also be used as an anti-inflammatory agent for treating swollen glands.

 

Plantain can support other organ systems as well. Its antimicrobial properties can improve intestinal health (fresh juice) and its anti-hepatotoxic effect protects the liver better than milk-thistle seeds. 

 

An infusion of the leaves helps to control diarrhoea, while the seeds are a great aid for the elimination of waste products and for weigh-loss. As they are water-soluble (especially those of Plantago psyllium), they bulk up the stomach content and absorb and eliminate toxins. This also makes them useful as a safe and effective remedy for constipation. But drink PLENTY of water to facilitate excretion.

 

Recent research has shown the seeds of the broad-leaved plantain to have potent anti-cancer properties.

 

Foraging

Plantains are edible. The young leaves can be added to salads or used as a potherb when combined with other herbs. (Older leaves tend to be rather tough and stringy.) The leaves make a great addition to green smoothies, while the roasted seeds can be mixed into the porridge or muesli, and the birds love them too!

Natural Dyes – The Colours of Nature

Natural Dyes – The Colours of Nature

The art of natural dyeing comprises a huge body of knowledge. Sadly, it has been fading ever since the discovery of tar-based pigments at the beginning of the 19th-Century. Natural dyeing methods and the intricate arts of natural textile design are fast becoming another relic of times gone by.

Unlike birds with their flamboyant feathery attire, human beings are not born with a naturally colourful outfit. The birthday suit varies in tone, but no matter what, it is pretty plain. We have to draw on our own ingenuity and creativity when it comes to designing our apparel.

A true game-changer in our human quest to stand out has been the discovery of how to use the colours of nature to our own advantage. The search for natural dyes is as ancient as it is universal. No matter which culture we examine, all have experimented and explored every conceivable source of pigments in their environment. Everything from shellfish to lichen, not to mention roots, barks, leaves, berries, fungi, and even flower stamens have been explored for their potential as a dye.

Body-paint

Even societies that traditionally pay little attention to clothing still use pigments to paint their bodies. Such body paints are typically obtained from ochre, chalk, and charcoal and usually used on special occasions such as rituals, healing ceremonies, or initiations.

A slightly more elaborate (and more permanent) type of body ornamentation is seen in the art of tattooing. But permanence is not necessarily always desirable. Being able to change design from time to time would certainly be nice. Certain vegetable dyes are used in this way. They last for a few days, at least, but not forever. before long they will wash off, thus leaving the ‘canvas’ clean for new designs. The best-known vegetable dye for temporary designs is Henna (Lawsonia inermis). Body painting with Henna is still widely practised in the Middle East and in Asia. It is an integral part of traditional wedding preparations.

In the West, Henna is mostly used as a popular hair dye, and nowadays also for temporary tattoos. In South America, indigenous people use Achiote (Bixa orellana), and Huito (Genipa americana), as body paint or dye.

Henna tattoo

Colour as code

But colours express more than just artful fancy. Practically all cultures associate certain colours with specific meanings. Colour is an essential key to the mysteries, which can unlock the significance of a whole complex of symbols. For example, the four directions are universally colour-coded, although different from one culture to the next. The colour encodes a whole network of associations – e.g. the East is the direction of the rising sun, of new beginnings, of birth etc. and its colour is often yellow, or white. The relevance to the topic of dyes is that the plants and materials which yield dyes have also become part of the symbol complex.

‘Show your true colours’

We still use colour in this way today, although usually in a secular context and more often than not, we are not even aware of it. We paint political parties red or blue, speak of ‘the grey (indistinguishable) masses’, or label things ‘green’, if they are eco-friendly. Different social groups still follow an unspoken dress-code – business people prefer greys, whites, beige, or dark blue, while Goths wear black. In the West, white is associated with purity, while in India, it is the colour of the dead and of ghosts.

Likewise, traditional costumes also convey much more than meets the uninitiated eye. Every piece of clothing signals a specific message informing those in the know as to the social and marital status of the wearer. This message was woven as pictographic symbols right into the fabric, or colour-coded into the design. Other items of clothing, worn only at certain times, e.g. during a hunting expedition, or for certain rituals, were covered in colour-coded protective symbols to act as spells.

Colour as a status symbol

Some natural colours are exceedingly precious due to the rarity of the substance that yields them. Royal purple is derived from molluscs, and not easy to come by. For a long time, it was a prerogative reserved for royalty to wear this colour.

Nor could an ordinary mortal afford it, given the extraordinary price tag. In Roman times (400AD) a pound of cloth dyed in royal purple costs the equivalent of $20.000! The mollusc was already endangered and very rare. And, as is often the case, the symbolic value drove up demand which in turn catapulted the price into an intergalactic orbit. As a result, the status association was reinforced.

Other colours, such as those obtained from walnut shells, or onion skins, or lichen were more easily available and widely used – despite the time-consuming process. Large amounts of plant materials had to be gathered; the linens and skeins of wool had to be prepared with a mordant to render them more absorbent and a fixative added in to fix the colour so it does not fade too quickly in subsequent washes.

The art of natural dyeing comprises a huge body of knowledge. Sadly, it has been fading ever since the discovery of tar-based pigments at the beginning of the 19th-Century. Natural dyeing methods and the intricate arts of natural textile design are fast becoming another relic of times gone by.

How to dye wool with natural materials

How to dye wool, using natural materials

Preparing the wool:

In order to prepare the yarn, it has to be gathered up into skeins and tied loosely but securely with a piece of yarn of the same material. The first step is to thoroughly wash the skeins. If you want to experiment at home, use natural wool as this is the easiest material to prepare.

All the natural oils in the wool have to be removed, so use a mild flaked natural soap, so that it will dissolve easily in hot water. Rinse the wool with several rinses of hot water to wash out all the soap.

Mordants

The washed yarn is now ready for the mordant bath. Depending on the mordant different shades of colour can be achieved using the same plant material. Commonly used mordants are alum, copper sulphate, iron sulphate, tin or chrome, which are toxic! (Keep out of reach of children!)

Due to this toxicity, some people prefer to do without. But without the mordant or the fixative the dyes are not colour-fast. They will run very easily in the next wash.

To produce a stronger colour one can ‘over-dye’ the skeins, i.e. submit them to several treatments in the dye bath. Only do this with yarn, not with finished pieces of textiles, or knitted jumpers since they will shrink in the hot dye bath.

The most commonly used mordant is Alum, which is another way of saying ‘potassium aluminium sulphate’. Sometimes the wool is subjected to several different mordants to achieve a different shade of colour.

Equipment

Dyeing does not require a whole lot of equipment, but as the mordants are toxic, it should always be done outside.

Tools:

  • large pot
  • stick, or large spoon.
  • Gloves

Set them aside as dedicated utensils for this purpose only.

Never use them for cooking after you have used them for dyeing.

Ingredients:

  • 4 oz aluminium sulphate
  • 1 oz cream of tartar
  • 1 lb wool
  • Water

Method:

To mordant the wool follow this procedure:

Place the aluminium sulphate and the cream of tartar in large pot of cold water. Stir well to dissolve the powders. Once the powders are fully dissolved place the wool into pot and slowly bring the mordant bath to a boil. Turn down the heat and simmer gently for 1 hour. If the wool is very fine and soft, less mordant and a shorter boiling time is sufficient.

After 1 hour, take the pot off the heat, drain and gently squeeze out the liquid. (Wear gloves!) The wool can be dyed right away, or it may be dried and stored for later use.

For the dye bath, it is usually best to use fresh plant materials, but make sure you either pick them from your own garden, or from a place where the plants are in plentiful supply.

Use about 1 lb of plant material per 1 lb of wool skeins.

Place the plant materials into a muslin bag and tie securely.

Place the dye pot on the stove, ¾ full of water.

Add the muslin bag of dye material and submerge it well.

Place the skeins of wool into the pot and slowly bring to the boil, then turn down the heat and allow to simmer for about one hour.

Stir occasionally.

After an hour, turn off the heat, but leave the skeins in the water until it is cold, or when you deem the colour to be just right. Lift out the skeins (a pair of metal tongues will help), and rinse in water of the same temperature.

When the water runs clear, you can hang the skeins up to dry. (A suspended rod will do fine)

Fix a light weight to the bottom of each skein to prevent crinkling.

CAUTION: Mordants are mineral based substances that are highly toxic. Such substances must be handled with due care. Wastes must be discarded properly. Wear protective clothing (especially gloves) and avoid inhaling the fumes. Dyeing should preferably take place outside.

The information given here is for educational purposes only.

Some common dye plants:

Plant

Part

Colour

Mordant

Madder (Rubia tinctorum)

roots

deep red

alum

Woad (Isatis tinctoria)

leaves

blue,

Somewhat complicated process involving a real chemical cocktail. Woad (Indigo) dyes by oxidation, the trick is to get the dye bath right. Indigo is a fast dye that fades very little in sunlight or in washing.

Weld (Reseda luteola)

whole plant

lemon yellow,

alum

Blueberries (Vaccinium myrtillus)

berries

shades of blue and purple,

alum

Elder (Sambucus nigra)

berries, leaves

purple and violets green

alum

Blackberries (Rubus fructicosus)

shoots berries

black/grey blue//grey

iron alum

Bracken (Pteris aquiline)

young shoots roots

yellow/greens orange/yellow

alum

Heather (Calluna vulgaris)

shoots

olive/yellow

alum

Fig (Ficus carica)

leaves

lemon yellow

alum

Birch (Betula alba)

leaves

yellow

alum

Privet (Ligustrum ovalifolium)

leaves

yellow

alum

Ragwort (Senecio jacobaea)

whole plant

yellow

alum

Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare)

flowers

yellow

alum

Canadian Golden Rod (Solidago Canadensis)

flowers

golden yellow

chrome

Pine (Pinus sp.)

cones

orange/yellow browns

alum iron

Onion (Allium cepa)

skins

golden brown

alum

Walnut (Juglans regia)

shells

pinkish browns

no mordant

Turmeric (Curcuma longa)

rhizome

yellow

no mordant

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