Potion walk and experiment

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Potion walk and experiment in Spitalfields, Saturday 18 June, as part of Artsadmin’s Two Degrees festival.

Thanks to Katy Beinart and Emma Purcell for photographs.

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Hackney Elder Ointment

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Making elder ointment with herbalist Melissa Ronaldson.

We started by smelling oil that the elder leaves had been in for a week, to see if we could detect the smell of bitter almonds. Elder leaf, bark and root a cyanide forming glycoside – that is a compound that may release free cyanide as it breaks down. However, all these parts of the plant have useful medicinal properties if used correctly.

Hackney Elder Ointment contains:

Olive oil infused with elder leaves
Olive oil infused with comfrey leaves
Essential oils of lavender and wintergreen

The ointment is useful for pain relief and sprains, but should only be used externally.

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Elderflower Champagne Recipe

This is the recipe we used to make Elderflower Champagne on Sunday:

12 elderflower heads
6 litres water
2kg sugar
5 lemons – juice and zest
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

Steralise your bucket using boiling water or baby bottle steralising solution.
Pull the small flower heads off the stalks to remove as much stalk as possible. Take the zest of the lemons but avoid the white pith (this tastes bitter).
Boil 2 litres of water and dissolve the sugar in it in the bucket. Then add the remaining 4 litres of water to bring the temperature down.
Add the elderflowers, vinegar and lemon juice and zest.
Stir and put a lid onto the bucket. Leave for 4-6 days before straining and bottling.
Bottle in plastic bottles, allowing space for expansion as the champagne bubbles.

The Champagne will be ready to drink after about ten days in the bottles, but can be kept for longer.

This recipe is based on Melissa’s previous experiments with elderflower champagne and includes fewer elderflowers than many online recipes. This should result in a more subtle flavour – we will report on the flavour of the champagne when it’s ready to drink!

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Champagne and Cyanide

A day with herbalist Melissa Ronaldson learning about the different uses of Elder, Sambucus nigra.

Melissa started the day by inviting us to meet the elder tree. She shared some of the rich folklore around this plant: In Denmark it was believed that folk who stood under the Elder on Midsummer night’s eve would see the King of Fairyland ride by, attended by all his retinue. In northern Europe generally, it was believed that the tree was inhabited by a Dryad, Hylde Moer, the Elder tree Mother who lived in the tree and looked after it. There is evidence that the tradition of asking the Elder Mother permission before pruning or cutting down of Elder (in English she is known as Lady Ellhorn) was still common up until the last century.

Repeating the old tradition of asking the Elder’s permission to pick from it felt strange, but it made me pay attention to the plant, and increased our awareness of how much we were picking. Melissa suggested a general rule for harvesting elderflowers – leave some for berries, leave some for the birds, leave some for the tree.

As we sat under the elder tree, Melsisa described the medicinal uses of different parts of the plant, which gained the name of ‘Poor Man’s Pharmacy’ thanks to its properties. The flowers are useful in head colds, flu, ear, nose and throat infections, sinusitis and hay fever. The berries are high in vitamin C, and anti-oxidants; they stimulate the immune system, and are specifically anti-viral to some strains of the flu virus. We heard a remarkable story about the outbreak of bird flu a few years ago: that autumn all the elderberries were eaten by the birds. A debate raged amongst herbalists as to why this was, and if the birds were seeking out elderberries anti-viral properties. A seven-year-old in Tottenham summed it up: saying the birds had taken matters into their own hands and prevented the virus from spreading to humans by eating elder.

Melissa discussed stories about elder wood, which some say it is dangerous to burn, and the tradition of using the hollowed sticks as pea-shooters. We talked about the potential toxicity of the leaves, bark and root – but there appears to be no reference to toxicity in folklore or old herbals – and these part of the plant are referred to as a powerful purgative. In contemporary science, the stems, leaves and roots have been found to contain a cyanide-forming glycoside – that is a compound that may release free cyanide as it breaks down. This raised the question about the difference between the actions of a isolated constituent of a plant and the use of the whole plant.

We spent the day doing practical experiments with elder, making elderflower champagne, elderflower fritters, and elder leaf ointment. The elder leaves steeped in oil smelt strongly of bitter almonds – a true Agatha Christie text for cyanide. Our cream should be useful for pain relief, but it should definitely not be eaten.

Recipes to follow.

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Geffryes museum garden

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Ingenious plants


I meet Alex Laird at Fulham Palace, and we sit in the shade of a Cedar Tree as I talk through ideas for my project and ask her about specific plants. She tells me about some of the plants on the ‘Schedule III’ list – that only qualified herbalists can prescribe. She talks of Foxglove and Lily of the valley, both the source of powerful heart medicines; tells me that Yew is the source of the chemotherapy drug Taxol, and describes the properties of mistletoe, and the use of Belladonna by contemporary opticians. These plants are all examples of something that can be harmful if used in the wrong way, or in too large a dosage, but that are medicinally extremely useful when used correctly.

As I learn more about plants and herbalism, I realise that plants do not illustrate a neat metaphor about tipping points – they are far more complex than that. Herbalists treats their patients holistically, and the impact of a particular plant may vary from person to person. I wonder how and why plants have developed such potent chemicals that effect humans and animals so profoundly.

“Most of the ingenuity of plants – that is, most of the work of a billion years of evolutionary trial and error – has been applied to learning (or rather, inventing) the arts of biochemistry, at which plants excel beyond all human imagining… while we animals were busy nailing down things like locomotion and consciousness, the plants, without ever lifting a finger or giving it a thought, acquired an array of extraordinary and occasionally diabolical powers by discovering how to synthesise remarkably complicated molecules. The most remarkable of these molecules (at least from our perspective) are the ones designed expressly to act on the brains of animals, sometimes to attract their attention, but more often to repel and sometimes even destroy them.” (Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire)

The root of the word ‘Poison’ is the same as that of ‘Potion’: From the Latin Potare, ‘to drink’, indicating a draught with health-giving or toxic properties. There’s a fine line between medicine and poison, a delicate balance between a substance that supports health and life, or causes illness and death. The plants we look to for healing are powerful drugs that have a profound effect on the body. The art of medication is the art of preparation, and dosage.

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Research blog

This blog will record research and experiments as the project develops.

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