Tagged: Gardening

Cleopatra’s Garden

Officially it has now been British Summertime for some weeks. However I’m still reclining on the sofa in a cold-weather slump, wearing a zebra-print onesie and day-glo green legwarmers, wishing I hadn’t thrown away my worn out winter friendly yeti-slippers. I should be sashaying langourously in my resplendent garden dripping with lush fertile beauty, while being fanned by an unwaveringly devoted team of eunuch puckawallahs, anointed with platinum and gold-leaf paint, kohled to within an inch of my life, massaged, depilated, scrubbed, and generally worshipped in a fanatical and obsessive fashion. Needless to say I’m a notorious daydreamer and this is hardly likely to happen, even with the most benevolent of summers and the very best of future outcomes.

The nearest I can get is to run a steaming hot bath in my tiny bathroom overlooking the garden, open the window and apply as many exotic and fanciful unguents to my body and hair as I possibly can, preferably containing copious quantities of argan oil, cocoa butter, coconut oil, orange oil, and other similarly beautifying and olfactory delights.

Should I suddenly transmogrify into a modern-day Cleopatra (for some reason I am channelling Kim Kardashian here) – and I could have a garden anywhere in the world, it would probably be in the one of the most fecund riverside regions imaginable, with a dreamy climate and the finest alluvial soil known to humanity. I wouldn’t marry Kanye though, just for the record.

The Heart Truth - Kim Kardashian backstage at The Heart Truth's Red Dress Collection.

Kim Kardashian backstage at The Heart Truth’s Red Dress Collection

Somewhere a bit like ancient Egypt, perhaps? Mesapotamian Babylonia? Or maybe the Hanging Gardens of Basingstoke are a little more realistic – if quite a lot less glamorous. Glamorous they may not be, but interesting they most certainly are. The gardens are at Mountbatten House, Basingstoke and were built between 1974 and 1976. They have recently been added to English Heritage’s stable of postwar architecturally notable buildings and landscaped areas.

‘Director of designation at English Heritage Roger Bowdler said: “…These offices show how architecture has adapted to recent radical changes in how we work, they show how the open-plan working space for computer-led work came about, and how architects responded to the need for lettable, attractive spaces with ingenuity and a deep understanding of human needs.”‘ (HortWeek, Jan 28 2015)

Enough of Basingstoke. Onwards to my palace. No self-respecting Egyptian (or Basingstoke) Queen could go without a fig or two (Ficus carica) and I would have to have figs that looks as good as they taste, so I would have a whole palace wall full of Ficus carica ‘Panache’.

Fig 'Panache'

Fig ‘Panache’

I would alternate ‘Panache’ with a dark purple, brunette bruise of a fig like Ficus ‘Violette De Solliès’ as a brooding counterpoint to the blonde elegance of Panache. I would only want impeccably pruned fruit from trees inspired by other royal palaces, though, and I would be far too busy pampering myself for gardening. So I’d employ a team of gardeners to do a West Dean Gardens job in the walled garden (in this case, the pruning was inspired by a visit to the Potager de Roi at Versailles). But I might have to interfere from time to time in a regal manner.

tree training w dean

Fruit tree pruning at West Dean Gardens, April 2015, Photo by Holly Allen

As Queen, you have many responsibilities, so it would obviously be impossible to survive without getting elegantly wasted from time to time. Or at least wasted. For this you would need a vineyard, full of the choicest grape varieties known to man. It simply wouldn’t be seemly to go without impossibly huge dripping bunches of grapes with dewy-fresh bloom to decorate your solid gold table receptacles. And, of course, for your minions to feed to you in front of the company.

Vitis vinifera

Vitis vinifera

The next royal plant would have to be the pomegranate (Punica granatum, literally meaning many-seeded apple, or pome) -only matched in beauty by its immense mythological and symbolic reputation. I would have a grove of these. Preferably on a gentle slope, so I could enjoy the jewel-like ornamentation of the fruits, dripping down the hillside. I’d have rare Iranian black pomegranates interspersed here and there for a little variety. Legend has it that monks in medieval Yorkshire managed to grow black pomegranates in walled courtyard gardens before the Reformation and inspired some of the beverages associated with the Temperance Movement, including Hebden Bridge ‘Black Pome Mead’*

Pomegranates not only look incredible in flower and in fruit, but they are also a superfood stuffed to the brim with antioxidants, essential for detox. I might even be impelled to wallpaper my dressing room with Morris lemon and pomegranate print in reverence.


Punica granatum, Jardin des Plantes, Paris


Before the detox, I would get my personal mixologist to work on my cocktails – using real grenadine for my Tequila Sunrise, of course. All you need to know about pomegranates can be found here. (I could elucidate, but that’s another post).

After all that booze, a girl needs a bit of body maintenance the morning after the night before. So I would ask my mixologist for a Shirley Temple, then I’d send my Moroccan beauty guru out to the Argania spinosa grove, which would be within a stone’s throw of the palace so my minions could whip up a few artisan argan oil hair products to make my tumbling locks shinier and silkier than the surface of the Nile at twilight.

Argan tree, Tighrassen, by F.Benotman

Argan tree, Tighrassen, by F.Benotman

I would also have to have citrus groves. You cannot have cocktails without citrus fruits – so a grove of oranges, lemons and limes would be de rigeur. These would be perfect for vitamin C after all that overindulgence, not to mention indispensible for making a myriad of cleansing balms and lotions. My grounds would not be complete without a brace of Prunus dulcis and persica, to provide me with almond milk and peach kernel oil for my delicate complexion; not to mention some more very tasty fruit and nuts.

Cyperus papyrus

Cyperus papyrus

When my primping and preening was complete for the day, I  may consider turning my attentions to affairs of the heart. Then I would send one of my messengers on a love quest with paper made from Cyperus papyrus; love letters for only the most privileged of my devoted admirers. Cyperus would look beautiful submerged in a rill in my interior courtyard, too.

Phoenix dactylifera

Phoenix dactylifera

Neither could I forego Phoenix dactylifera. I would have as many dates as possible, to furnish my palace with stately and imposing palms and to keep a girl at leisure properly occupied and entertained in the manner befitting. Just call me HRH.

A few more regal plants I could not be without:

Indigofera, for fabric dye.
Alliums, for ornamentation, dye, flavourings and for medicinal preparations.
Coffea arabica. Enough said.
Theobroma cacao. Ditto.
Lilium sp, for cut flowers.
Piper nigrum, for spicing things up.
Vanilla planifolia, for perfume and flavouring sweet dishes.
Cocos nucifera, for beauty products and flavouring.
Olea europea, for oil, olives and beauty products.
Salix alba, for aspirin – after all those goblets of wine and grenadine cocktails.

*This is complete balderdash, unfortunately. I wish it were true. NB The actual ‘Temperance Movement’ – not to be confused with one of these new-fangled bands, as the equally new-fangled Google and YouTube might suggest. Kids today *tuts*

Track of the Month

Queen,Killer Queen’

Book of the Month

Antony and Cleopatra, by William Shakespeare.

Art Spot


‘Cleopatra’ by Gustave Moreau

William Morris lemon and  pomegranate print wallpaper

William Morris lemon and pomegranate print wallpaper


Acers just beginning to turn leaf at Westonbirt Arboretum, October 2014

Acers just beginning to turn leaf at Westonbirt Arboretum, October 2014

A tree turning leaf from verdant green to fiery vibrancy is like nature’s lightbulb moment – a flash of brilliance before winter sets in. The riotous conclusion, hidden since budbreak, appears from almost nowhere. Mother nature throws up her showgirl-skirt ruffles with abandon; flashes us her rainbow knickerbockers and chucks on her gaudiest baubles.

Cotinus coggygria

Cotinus coggygria at Waterperry Gardens, November 2014

Plain old Crataegus monogyna (Hawthorn) and Rubus fruticosus (Blackberry)

Plain old Crataegus monogyna (Hawthorn) and Rubus fruticosus (Blackberry) in a local hedgerow, Bedfordshire

This sudden flash of brilliance soon gives way to the sedate evergreens and minimal silhouettes of winter. November is a month when glow, hue and luminescence are at the forefront of the imagination; the absence of summer colours and sunny brightness gives way to the brazen blaze of senescent fire you find in autumn colours, the reds, oranges, yellows and pinks which light up the grey skies like an open fire in a windowless boxroom.

Acers at Westonbirt Arboretum, October 2014

Acers at Westonbirt Arboretum, October 2014

Lux, lx, illuminance. Lumen, lm, luminous flux. Watt, W, power, radiant flux. These are scientific terms used to describe and measure the levels and power of light. One of the eminent founders (or ‘Lunarticks’) of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, James Watt –  was responsible for coining the term ‘horsepower’ and was named for the measurement of radiant flux, or ‘watts’. The Lunar society were a group of industrialists and philosophers at the forefront of the ‘Birmingham Enlightenment’, who met monthly on the Sunday falling nearest to the full moon, between 1765 and 1813. They remain esteemed as one of Britain’s most significant and influential groups of active pre-industrialists, the original ‘ideas’ men.

Iris foetidissima erupting orange berries from the dull, unprepossessing pod

Iris foetidissima erupting luminescent orange lightbulb-berries from the dull, unprepossessing pod, November 2014

Species rose with Cynara cardunculus (Cardoon) heads

Species rose with Cynara cardunculus (Cardoon) heads at Waterperry Gardens, November 2014


Jolly winter fun at Blackpool illuminations (and Funland)

One of my own early ‘lightbulb’ moments during my misspent youth in Yorkshire involved badgering my parents to take me and my friends across the perilous border into Lancashire to see a ridiculous amount of lightbulbs all in one place and make ourselves frightfully sick on the big dipper. Yes, the multiple highlights of Blackpool seemed to me to be the height of fun in the 1980’s. It certainly beats sitting in a wet field watching my dad turn the headlights of our Ford Cortina on and off on the Widdop Road c.1985. Incidentally, Strictly Come Dancing hailed from the Blackpool Tower Ballroom on Saturday 15 November (where if you went back in time, you could also see an eight year-old me dancing to the famous Wurlitzer organ). Lightbulb overload.

For an alternative route to illumination, you could swing east to Parcevall Hall Gardens and religious retreat for an almost impossibly contrasting experience. Enveloped in the undulating Wharfedale-towards-Nidderdale hillscape of North Yorkshire, Parcevall Hall was created in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s by one of the founding members of RHS Harlow Carr – W.P Milner. Parcevall Hall is now owned by the Diocese of Bradford and is still used as a religious and spiritual retreat today.

Milner was a devout man with a penchant for rare Chinese and Tibetan plants. He laid out his garden in the late 1920’s utilising natural outcrops of rock for his famous rockeries, and copious quantities of gritstone from the hall’s dedicated quarry were hauled down to shore up the immense buttresses he used to contain his ambitious cruciform terracing.

Gritstone buttressing at Parcevall Hall Gardens

Dramatic gritstone buttressing at Parcevall Hall Gardens, October 2014

The result is a dramatic (and slightly gothic) combination of intriguing eastern planting, (much of which is characterised by vivid autumn foliage or berries) framed by immaculate, imposing stonework and structural, geometric hedgework.

Many old and heritage apple cultivars can be found here, and the bright palette reminds me that the traditional garlanding and decoration we see at winter festivals are all about bringing light and colour to the oppressive seasonal darkness and are undoubtedly inspired by the natural ornamentation we see on our native trees and in the hedgerows: Ilex aquifolium, Euonymus europaeus, Taxus baccata, and Malus species, fruits and berries beading the boughs well into winter.

Apples at Parcevall Hall gardens on Hallowe'en

Apples at Parcevall Hall gardens on Hallowe’en

Art Spot

Two works of art about light in the darkness, ideas as illumination – literally and metaphorically – sparks, inspiration and transformation.

Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, by Albert McNeil Whistler. Detroit Institute of Arts

Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, by Albert McNeil Whistler. Detroit Institute of Arts

The iconic 'An Experiment   on a Bird in an Air Pump' by Joseph Wright of Derby. One of my favourite works at the National Gallery, London

The iconic ‘An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump’ by Joseph Wright of Derby. One of my favourite works at the National Gallery, London

Track of the Month

High Voltage, by Electric Six. Coincidentally, also from Detroit, Michigan – where Nocturne In Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket currently resides. Currently? See what I did there – I’m on (electrical) fire. Somebody pass the fire extinguisher.

Book of the Month

The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made the Future, 1730-1810, by Jenny Uglow

Plant of the Month

Rosa moyesii ‘Sealing Wax’, a species rose collected by all-things-eastern enthusiast W.P Milner in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

A rose of distinction: Rosa moyesii ( J.N.Fitch lithograph, Curtis's Botanical Magazine, London  vol. 136)

A rose of distinction: Rosa moyesii (J.N.Fitch lithograph, Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, London vol. 136)

Molten red Rosa moyesii hips at Parcevall Hall Gardens

Molten red Rosa moyesii hips at Parcevall Hall Gardens,  October 2014


All images my own, with the exception of the landscape photograph of Blackpool Tower and the Illuminations and the botanical drawing featured at the end of the post, which are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Parcevall Hall Gardens
Diocese of Bradford
The National Gallery
Detroit Institute of Arts


Flaming Muse: Butea Monosperma

palash tree feb 2014

Butea monosperma photographed by Gupreet Singh Ranchi in February 2014, Jharkhand, India

I was disproportionately overjoyed when I stumbled upon Butea monosperma, a gorgeous tree which in India seems to embody the idea that the plants that grow naturally in the immediate locale should be used and revered where they grow, often to celebrate and facilitate necessities and local custom. Butea monosperma is not only emblematic of two important Indian regions – Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand – but is, both spiritually and in a practical sense, completely interwoven with the routines and rituals of daily life.

Preparation of Bankh rope from the roots of Butea monosperma, used for restraining cattle

Preparation of Bankh rope from the roots of Butea monosperma. The finished rope is used for restraining cattle

Butea monosperma is a flaming, beauteous beacon of floriferous ornament, as well as boasting numerous utilities and an entire pharmacopia of medicinal applications – among which (unromantically) is a hemorrhoid preparation made from the fruit. Fortunately, and in favour of romance, some of her common names are highly evocative; the most notable being ‘Flame of the Forest’. She is also known regionally as Palash and Dhak¹, and is, perhaps bizarrely, named after John Stuart – the third Earl of Bute, and former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1762 until 1763.

John Stuart, the 3rd Earl of Bute and namesake of Butea monosperma

John Stuart, the 3rd Earl of Bute and namesake of Butea monosperma. Portrait by Joshua Reynolds, (National Portrait Gallery)

So even her taxonomy is intertwined with the fascinating history of the British Empire and India’s shackled relationship with it. John Stuart (1712-1792) famously negotiated the end of the Seven Year’s War with France and her allies in 1754:

‘The French and British East India Companies and their respective Indian allies were at war with each other.  The East India Company led by Robert Clive defeat the French ally, Siraj Ud Daulah, at the battle of Plassey ending the rule of the last independent Nawab of Bengal.  This is judged to be one of the pivotal events leading to the formation of the British Empire in South Asia.  The resulting central administration and governance starts a process that leads eventually to the formation of unified India’.

Excerpt from http://www.theeastindiacompany.com/index.php/24/timeline/. Read more about the incredible history of the East India Company and the formation of the British Empire using the link above. Also see BBC 2’s current exploration of the birth of empire through the lens of the East India Company:


The Third Earl of Bute’s time in office was notoriously short. He was much maligned – or even hated – in Parliament, until his resignation after only 11 months. He was also a Scotsman, which may or may not have been an advantage in Parliament at the time. (Speculation suggests the latter).

Unlike the poor old third Earl of Bute (luckily for Butea) she is much loved, and still employed in countless capacities. Our ‘Flame of the Forest’ also goes by the moniker ‘Bastard Teak’, (presumably partly because she never rots of succumbs to the unpleasantries of podiatric fungi).The wood is so hard and resistant to rot that countless tools and implements are made from it². In a country where monsoon conditions can cause persistent problems with mould and rot during the rainy season, this must be invaluable.

Maybe we could introduce her to Hebden Bridge? The good folk of t’Bridge could certainly do with a top-class rot-proof hardwood to make their famous clogs, ‘worn by Yorkshire folk long before industry and machinery invaded that county of broad acres’, as it’s monsoon conditions year-round in the Calder Valley. However, it is sub-arctic as well, so it may not be a match made in heaven. Incidentally, I had a Saturday job at Walkley’s clog factory in Hebden Bridge when I was 16.


Harry Hargreaves of Dean, Smith & Grace, Bingley. Harry went to Buckingham Palace in 1943 to receive a British Empire medal (presumably for his wartime role as clogmaker extraordinaire)

Harry Hargreaves of Dean, Smith & Grace, Bingley. Harry went to Buckingham Palace in 1943 to receive a British Empire medal from the Queen (presumably for his wartime role as clogmaker extraordinaire)

Photograph from the Imperial War Museum archive collection:


Because of Butea monosperma’s resistance to rot and entropy, her wood is routinely used for water-bearing vessels and appliances, drainage and pipework. Butea wood is noteworthy for being used to make well curbs and water scoops, and deteriorates incredibly slowly. So yes, perfect for Yorkshire.

The flowers are crushed and used to make dyes³ for religious festivals such as the festival of colours (Holi),  interior paint and even has a role in funerary rituals. Where mourners have no incarnation of the deceased but are assured that their loved one is dead, a piece of Butea wood is substituted and cremated in place of a body. The tree itself is also associated with the Hindu fire god, Agni¹.


Fallen Butea blooms

The traditionally English name of ‘Parrot Tree’ refers to Butea monosperma’s beautiful beak-like red flowers, emanating from massed stalks with dark green cup-like calices. Myriad ‘beaks’ radiate from the mass of stalks, conjuring up visions of gruesome pirates angrily dismembering their noisy avian familiars, debeaking poor old Polly and chums in a bloodthirsty and merciless frenzy. (Or perhaps that’s just my riotous and slightly ridiculous imagination running wild).

Continuing along the avian theme, Butea is an ugly duckling. Gangly and awkward in December and January when the tree is denuded of leaves and flowers, the gnarled silvery-grey bark only accentuates what is essentially an ungainly form. Messy and unfocused, the limbs grow in all directions and with a distinct lack of elegance. This phase is thankfully short. As the flowers crowning the upper canopy of the tree start to appear in February and March, the apex of each tree seen en masse clearly justify the name ‘Flame of the Forest’, creating the illusion of waves of flame.

Butea monosperma is native to tropical and subtropical regions – more specifically parts of the Indian subcontinent and southeast Asia. She belongs to the Leguminosae family, or Papilionideae. Other genera within the family include Acacia, Cercis (and a tropical vine wildly and rudely named Clitoria). According to http://www.theplantlist.org/ there are literally hundreds of other noteworthy friends and relations, too.

Butea monosperma is not only a beautiful tree, but provides seemingly endless resources for the people who are lucky enough to live alongside it. I have only touched on some of the uses of this versatile plant and, in particular, the medicinal applications merit significantly more detailed investigation. I hope to collaborate further on this subject with scientists and botanists in the near future.


Art Spot

Butea monosperma inspires artists, too:

Ramachandran: http://www.artoframachandran.com/node/178

Ranjani Shettar: http://talwargallery.com/ranjaniflame-pr/


Track of the Week

Light my Fire, The Doors https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vb5uJ4b78Q0


Book of the Week

The Strangler Vine, M.J Carter. A book about the oppressive and conflicting dilemmas of the Sepoys and the British military in India during the height of the East India Company’s powers. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/book-review-the-strangler-vine-by-mj-carter-9102257.html



A collective representing small-scale forest farmers and co-operatives in Rajasthan, India, is harvesting natural products and promoting the understanding of their native forest plants (including Butea monosperma) through carefully controlled, sustainable trade: http://www.samarthak.org/?page_id=46

‘The Rajasthan Forest Produce Processing Group Support Society ( Samarthak Samiti ) is a registered organization (under Act 1956), which is active in six districts of the state with the broad objective of providing guidance and motivation to smaller organizations, cooperative societies and such other societies, which are engaged with minor forest produce collection and devoted to the cause of biodiversity conservation’

Other relevant links:

Indian trees: http://www.outreachecology.com/landmark/category/botany/fabaceae/butea-monosperma/

Graphic illustration of Butea monosperma: http://salliesart.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/butea-monosperma.html

On Gardening in India: http://www.cityfarmer.org/indiagarden.html

Other articles on Butea monosperma: http://www.downtoearth.org.in/content/when-satpura-blushes


¹On Etymology, colloquialisms, general usage, medicinal applications, customs and ritual uses of Butea monosperma, Vinay Ranjam’s plant survey document for the Central National Herbarium, (Howrah) has been indispensible:


²Applications & uses from references kindly recommended by Indian Botanists via


³On natural dye:


General information on indigenous uses of Butea monosperma:



Since we discovered how to transform plants into articles of clothing, as an inherently creative species, we have probably also pondered how we can beautify and enhance an unnecessarily dull piece of garb and elevate it in order to make a more decorative and interesting garment. Perhaps rather like the lady in this wonderful Mexican-inspired assemblage. Creative.

Outlandish habillements

Outlandish habillements. Photo by Eva Rinaldi

Some of the earliest archaeological  evidence of dyeing comes from Mohenjo-daro, or ‘The Mound of the Dead’ in the Sindh province in Pakistan.

Textile (cotton) artefacts have been recovered from the archaeological site, which was a huge settlement and one of the first notable early ‘cities’ in the modern sense of the word. The artefacts recovered from Sindh have included pieces of cotton dyed with a madder-based (Rubia tinctorum) vegetable dye, and Indigo, (Indigofera tinctoria) from an ancient dyeworks:

‘One of the greatest accomplishments of the subcontinent was the development of the technology of dyeing and patterning of fabric. This is evident from the discovery of a dyer’s workshop at Mohenjodaro. . Indigofera tinctoria, source of the most fabled dye, grew in abundance on the banks of the River Indus. Over time various embroidery techniques were developed in the quest to further embellish the fabrics’  (Article from The Free Library, Bilgrami, Noorjehan, 2008)

Common madder

Common madder

Common madder (Rubia tinctorum) produces anthraquinone pigments in its roots, one of them being alizarin (1,2 dihydroxy anthraquinone) which has been used for dyeing textiles since 2000 B.C.’

The incredibly long, thick roots of the common madder (Rubia tinctorum) are a source of red dyes generally known as ‘rose madder’ and ‘turkey red‘, the intensity of the final colour depending on the type and amount of mordant (dye fixing agent) used.

Variety of colours from common madder root natural dye

Variety of colours from common madder root natural dye

A celebration of colour in India, the spring festival of Holi (translated as ‘burning’) sees the fury and vibrancy of reds and oranges, cadmiums, and siennas, moody blues and verdant greens thrown every which way over the human body.


Primarily, Holi is a celebration of the beginning of the new season. There is also evidence in Indian literature that it has been a celebration of agriculture, good spring harvests and fertility – (which has latterly been transposed onto married women). In the Hindu faith, it is commonly seen as a  time to enjoy the new proliferation of spring colours.

Some participants in Holi still prepare plant-based pigments derived from Butea monosperma, a beautiful tree with flaming blossoms  indigenous to tropical and sub-tropical Asia. The flowers are crushed to yield a bright yellow dye.

Beauteous Butea

Beauteous Butea

The festival ushers in the dominance of good over evil and the arrival of spring. Traditionally it is a day of forgiveness and an opportunity to socialise, heal rifts in relationships, and generally have a darn good hoot. Holi is celebrated at the approach of vernal equinox, and is closely linked with the full moon falling closest to it.

As a colour steeped in mystery and royal mythology, purple is an interesting colour case history. ‘Royal Purple’ or Tyrian Purple, was the colour of choice for the gods and kings of the ancient Greeks (and more latterly of diminutive purple pop-professor Prince – legend has it he still insists of Tyrean methods to embellish his raiments. (Not actually true).

Prince's gloves & Madge's underwear

Prince’s purple gloves, (bottom left) Madge’s underwear and a hat from a Rolling Stones tour at the Hard Rock Cafe in Toronto. Photo Toms Bauģis

The purple dye known as Tyrean or Royal Purple was extracted from the mucous glands of Mediterranean Murex brandaris (a species of mollusc) by the Canaanites and Phoenicians. It was initially extremely costly and time consuming to extract – four million molluscs for one pound of dye (hence the preserve of the regal).

The pauper’s version of Royal Purple could be simulated using a lichen, Roccella tinctoria. Unfortunately it was just as stinky and unpleasant as the Phoenician city of Tyre (famed for Tyrean Purple) and its overwhelming stench of rotting shellfish, because it requires weeks of steeping in ammonia (or piss, to you and me) for the colour to bind.

While Royal Purple is not derived from plants, composite purple dyes can be made by mixing blue dye extracted from Isatis tinctoria (woad) and Indigofera tinctoria (Indigo) with  Rubia tinctorum, (common madder).

Other plants capable of producing purple shades are Morus nigra (Mulberry), Bryonia dioica (white bryony) and Caesalpinia echinata (Brazilwood) using sulphuric acid (or vitriol)  as a mordant. I often employ vitriol myself on people I don’t like. Not the acid version – that would be GBH. Just the less harmful ‘ascerbic tongue’, which runs in the family. And I usually keep it to myself, (where possible).

‘Mauveine’, ‘Perkin’s Mauve’, or ‘Aniline Purple’ was the first synthetic chemical dye to be invented. It was discovered  by William Henry Perkin by accident in 1856, in a failed attempt to sythesize quinine.

Usually I include a Hebden Bridge quip but I can’t find many reasons to joke this week. Before the height of the Industrial Revolution in West Yorkshire, I’ve heard anecdotes that the river Calder was hopping with salmon. From 1850 onwards, there were no fish stocks left, largely as a result of the chemical runoff  industrial dyeworks discharged along the banks.

As a child growing up in Hebden Bridge, I still saw what appeared to be similar practices happening from time to time well into the 1980’s. Apparently fish are now beginning to reappear.

Track of the Week

‘Purple Rain’, by Prince

Art Spot

Purple Paintings ‘Purple Brown’ by Mark Rothko and ‘Purple King’, by Kazuo Sharogo

Also highly recommended viewing: ‘A History of Art in Three Colours’ a triptych of programmes with Dr. James Fox commissioned by BBC4 in 2012.

Book of the Week

‘The Colour Purple’, by Alice Walker

More Blogs on Plant Dyes and the Iconography of Colour

Details of  another  blogger’s  experimental forays into vegetable and natural dyes can be found here. Another interesting blog read on purple is WTFArtHistory.


I have used what appear to be reliable sources, you can find further information on these by clicking on the links. Where I have quoted directly I have provided further information.

Images: Wikimedia Commons, attributions stated where necessary


Have  you ever heard of Extreme Makeover? In a nutshell, it is about aesthetically-challenging people who have had a gutfull of being ‘social outcasts’ because of their unfortunate, or at best plain, countenances.

The fairy godmother of plastic surgery visits her scalpel of sparkly benevolence upon these poor poky-folks and hey presto! Flappyjowells bignose is miraculously transformed into a perfectly-primped  identikit pageant princess (or male equivalent).

Plants undergo similar feats of transmogrification, but unlike Extreme Makeover the finished product usually ends as a more useful manifestation. Although I love him, I’m not sure this applies to infamous plastic surgery survivor Pete Burns (pictured below)

lovely pete burns
Jolly old Pete Burns. Definitely not a pageant princess

Crazy Pete has reminded me that rubber (Hevea brasiliensis) , for example, constitutes a rich and interesting seam of black plant magic.

Rubber is native to Native to the Amazon region; Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia and is cultivated in large plantations. The sap is tapped from strips on the bark of the tree (clearly visible as diagonal stripes on the tree trunks).

Tapping begins when trees are 5–8 years old . . .  and increases every year until a maximum at about 20 years, then yield sustained for 40–50 years or more. Tapping consists of removal by excision of a thin cut of bark about 1 mm deep at regular intervals, thus opening the latex vessels in the bark. . .  arranged in concentric cylinders and run in counter-clockwise spirals up the trunk. Usually the cuts run half-way around the trunk, but may encircle the tree’ (Purdue University)

Oops there goes another rubber tree plant

Oops there goes another rubber tree plant. Photo by Andreas Krappweis

hevea brasiliensis seeds

Rubber seeds are incredibly decorative, and highly toxic.

‘. . .latex coagulates with the aid of acetic acid, formic acid, and alum. . Seeds are source of Para Rubber seed oil, recommended for manufacture of soap. Although poisonous, seeds can be eaten as a famine food after processing. Boiling removes the poison and releases the oil which can be utilized for illumination.’ (Purdue University)

Rubber is of course infinitely malleable, and so the product range is indeterminately gargantuan.

Modern pneumatic tyres are generally a mixture of materials, including synthetic rubber, natural rubber, fabric and wire, as well as carbon black and other chemical compounds. Carbon black  is almost pure elemental carbon in ‘colloidal particle form’, made by charring organic material.

massive tyre

massive tyre

Of course there are the obvious everyday rubber items we take for granted – rubber wellington boots, buttons on electronic devices, and rubber bands – to name but a few. Then there are the distinctly non-traditional uses. Look away now if you’re squeamish, (you can’t unsee this once you’ve looked).


What I really love about this picture is the ‘Calamari’ sign – calamari infamous for being. . . well, rubbery. These enterprising chaps have mixed leather and latex with applomb. Congratulations, boys.

Cotton (Gossypium hirsutum) is another amazing plant, used in the modern textile industry as the core material for natural fibre clothing all over the world. It is a beautiful plant belonging to the illustrious genus Malvacae, which includes floral stunners Hibiscus and Abutilon.

Abutilon megapotamicum

Abutilon megapotamicum

Unfortunately the cotton industry is and has been notoriously bloody, as well as being demanding to grow and subsequently environmentally unsustainable as a crop: ‘More chemicals are sprayed on cotton than on any other crop. Today cotton takes up less than 3% of the world’s farmed land but uses a quarter of the world’s pesticides!’

‘The cotton trade was a driving force in the Industrial Revolution and helped to finance the British Empire. It was the mainstay of the slave trade and contributed to the American civil war’ (Eden Project)

Here comes the Hebden Bridge joke. Hebdeners: we even have the cotton industry to blame for the addition of Todmorden as a stop on the Leeds-Manchester railway line. One of the Fielden Bros, a Todmorden based worsted and textile company – John Fielden – was on the railway’s board of directors and used his influence to ensure that Todmorden had a station.

John was an interesting chap, too, and was ‘a radical reformer, a supporter of universal manhood suffrage, promoter of the 10 Hours Act of 1847, and opponent of the 1834 New Poor Law Act’ (The National Archives). Human rights and conservaton issues are not something you see modern companies campaigning for enough, with the exception of a handful of forward thinkers like Katherine Hamnett, Vivienne Westwood and creative director of Eco Age Livia Firth.

Gossypium hirsutum (cotton)

Gossypium hirsutum (cotton)

Another bloody trade,  diamonds.  Diamonds consist of highly compressed carbon molecules, and only form at extremely high temperatures in the Earth’s mantle at least 100 miles below the surface. Some organic carbon is made from ancient microorganisms (plants and animals), which reappears hundreds of millions of years later as eclogitic diamonds. Other types of carbon come from stardust and meteorites. Poetic.

Album of the Week

An album instead of the usual track: Rubber Soul, by The Beatles

Art Spot

Many of Eva Hesse ‘s works were made using latex. Here you can watch one of SFMOMA’s curators talking about her use of the material, and read about her extremely interesting but short life in this Telegraph article from 2009.

Book of the Week

An account of the psychological fallout of the slave trade, ‘Beloved’ by Toni Morrison


Kew, Purdue University (Rubber)
The Eden Project , The National Archives (Cotton)
Geology.com, About.com, photius.com (Diamonds)
Images Wikimedia Commons
Eva Hesse (SFMOMA)

Plant Rites

We depend on plants for our survival. We need them for everything. They play a central role in possibly every formal and informal human ceremony ever invented – births, deaths, marriages –  and the very important business of our daily lives. Imagine the British without tea.

Tea drinking is part of being British. Bad day? Cup of tea. Friend round for a chat? Cup of tea. Wilting in the doldrums of the afternoon at work? Cup of tea. Whole life fallen down around your ears, wife left you and house burned down? Cup of tea. Most scenarios will usually involve some tea drinking, (unless it’s the evening, when we can be found indulging our other national drinking obsession).

Lovely tea (Camellia sinensis var.sinensis)

Lovely tea (Camellia sinensis var.sinensis)

Tea is made from the leaves of shrubs Camellia sinesis var. sinensis from the Yunnan province of China, or C. sinensis var. assamica, which is grown in the warmer climes of India and Southeast Asia. 

We use plants  not only for celebrations and rituals, but for enhancing our immediate environment, healing, medicine, food and spiritual sustenance. It would be a miserable, impossible life without them (especially in Medieval England).

Not many people  would have had a reliably clean source of drinking water, so beer made with oats,  (Avena sativa) wheat (Triticum aestivum) or barley (Hordeum vulgare) were often consumed as a substitute. Having been boiled during the brewing process, most of the harmful bacteria and micro-organisms would have been rendered benign. So it would actually have been safer to drink beer!

Medieval pissheads

Medieval pissheads

‘Some of the earliest chemical evidence for (barley) beer comes from residues – calcium oxalate, known as beerstone – inside a jar excavated at the Godin Tepe archaeological site in the Zagros Mountains of Iran that is dated to between 3400 and 3100 B.C.’

Undoubtedly-many festivals and rituals have evolved from beer drinking –  some relatively recent and others ancient. Oktoberfest in Munich is famous for its excess, but is relatively recent (1810.) The Peruvians also have some interesting  modern beer drinking rituals as well as a labyrinthine and vast pre-inca brewery, discovered in the Peruvian Andes in 2004.

Unfortunately ‘They destroyed the site in an elaborate closing rite, setting fire to the entire brewery and throwing their ceramic drinking vessels onto its burning embers.’

Maybe one of their master brewers got carried away, made a crazy percenter and everyone went a bit doo lally?

I’ll continue the Peruvian theme by looking at some of their ritual plants, so I can revel in my fantasy of living somewhere lush and exotic for a bit, where it’s not considered deviant to be completely out of your head.

Or you could just go to Hebden Bridge* for the latter experience. However, you may end up in a hippy’s** attic surrounded by pot plants and not a tropical rainforest, or a majestic Andean jungle. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Cannabis sativa fresh from a teenager's bedroom

Cannabis sativa fresh from a hippy’s attic

In the Peruvian Andes, the immeasurably more exotic ayahuasca is a potent brew made by indigenous Amazonian plant shamans who claim that they receive directions about the benefits of all the plants used in the preparation of ayahuasca directly from plants and plant spirits.

Ayahuasca is prepared with infusions from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, and has some colourful common names, including ‘Doctor’, ‘Vine of the Dead’, and ‘Vine of the Soul’. The plant itself is a beautiful large vine, which occasionally flowers, like this:

Banisteriopsis flower

Banisteriopsis flower

The leaves of  DMT-containing species of shrubs from the genus Psychotria (usually P. viridis) are used, along with Justicia pectoralisor ‘Tilo‘. The leaves develop a rich, sweet smell as they dry due to the formation of large quantities of coumarin – a fragrant crystalline compound which is often used in a Peruvian psychoactive ‘snuff’ and in a ridiculously high percentage of all perfumes.

Justicia is used as a traditional treatment for fever in some parts of the Carribean, and is widely used as an anticoagulant.

The brew is said to induce life epiphanies, cure depression and be spiritually cleansing. But you have to endure a living nightmare for a few hours to get to the good bit. An American egghead has even done a study on ayahuasca:

‘The unconscious mind holds many things you don’t want to look at. All those self-destructive beliefs, suppressed traumatic events, denied emotions. Little wonder that an ayahuasca vision can reveal itself as a kind of hell in which a person is forced—literally—to face his or her demons.

“Ayahuasca is not for everyone,” American egghead Dr Grob warns. “It’s probably not for most people in our world today. You have to be willing to have a very powerful, long, internal experience, which can get very scary. You have to be willing to withstand that.”

Unlike most common antidepressants, which . . .  can create such high levels of serotonin that cells may actually compensate by losing many of their serotonin receptors, the Hoasca Project showed that ayahuasca strongly enhances the body’s ability to absorb the serotonin that’s naturally there. . .

The main chemical in the brew, dimethyltryptamine (DMT) . . .  though chemically distant from LSD, (DMT) has hallucinogenic properties. But it is ayahuasca’s many plant ingredients cooperating ingeniously to allow DMT to circulate freely in the body that produce the unique ayahuasca experience.’  National Geographic Adventure, 2006

If you are particularly interested in ayahusca ceremonies, watch the legendary episode of ‘Amazon’ with Bruce Parry.

Justicia pectoralis

Justicia pectoralis

So while ayahuasca ceremonies seem to be about connecting with spirits, ancestors, spiritiual healing, exorcism and catharsis, the Mexican Day of the Dead is specifically about celebrating the idea of inviting the dead back in the world of the living, and the continuing roles that the dead have to play in the lives of their descendants.

Tagetes are the symbolic flower used in the Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations – (not to be confused with Calendula officinalis.) The incredibly pungent smell of the flower when handled is said to be the reason that Tagetes are used to decorate gravesides – the idea being that the smell is strong enough to rouse the dead.

Roses are often used, as are Celosia cristata, Matthiola incana, Gladiolus, Gypsophila paniculata, and Chrysanthemum morifolium – all of which have symbolic significance in the festival.

cemetery entrance

A cemetery entrance decorated with Tagetes on the Day of the Dead in Mexico

Art Spot

Whoaaa! (Movement in Squares, 1961)

Whoaaa! (Bridget Riley, Movement in Squares, 1961)

Book of the Week

Two books this week. ‘The Doors of Perception/Heaven and Hell’, by Aldous Huxley and ‘Memory, Wisdom and Healing: The History of Domestic Plant Medicine’, by Gabrielle Hatfield.

medicinal plant book

Other Significant Plants in Ritual Use

Lophophora williamsii (Peyote cactus)
Coffea arabica (Coffee)
Theobroma cacao (Cocoa)
Calea Zacatechichi (Dream Herb)
Artemisia absinthium (Absinthe)
Agathosma betulina 
Salvia divinorum
Echinopsis lageniformis 
Bolivian Torch Cactus

Track of the Week

Josh Wink ‘Higher State of Consciousness’

Plant of the Week

Camellia sinensis

*This link will take you to a New Statesman  piece about Hebden Bridge – the most interesting thing about it is possibly the debate sparked by residents and anti-Hebdeners:


“Hebden Bridge is a dump and its citizens are segregated losers.

The closest the residents of that vile place get to ‘culture’ is when it appears on their discount supermarket bread which lies rotting in their dilapidated homes.”

What a guy.

** I was going to put a picture of a Hebden Bridge hippy in here. I could have raided my photo albums, but when I did a google search one of the first photos I found was of my stepdad, followed closely by several people I know. So I’m opting out. You’ll just have to use your imagination.


Subjects include links from the following:

Camellia sinensis: http://www.kew.org
Hebden Bridge: New Statesman, Independent
Ayahuasca: National Geographic Adventure, The Ayahuasca Project, ‘Amazon’, with Bruce Parry
Modern Peruvian drinking rituals: Footprint Guides
Images: Wikimedia Commons
General research: Wikipedia and associated sources


New Year is a traditional time for taking stock, reviewing, and irksome Top Ten lists. Everybody is dreaming of a shinier, better, happier and more successful year ahead.

Gardeners in particular are dreamers par excellence.  At the start of the new season we envision our vegetable crops will be vast and immaculate, the weather will bestow infinite benevolence upon us and we will skip like innocents among flower meadows at sunrise.

unicorn puking a rainbow

Picture a few additional bunny rabbits interspersed with perfectly formed long carrots, children holding hands, a rainbow, some giant cabbages with absolutely NO slug holes in them, towering flowers humming with vitality and possibly a gurgling baby looking upwards at a beautiful and majestic tree while sunbeams filter through the pristine leaves, illuminating them like spring emeralds. . . .

Good God

Good God

*THUNDERCLAP* *LIGHTNING* cue pestilence, blight, canker, assorted mildews and a proliferation of superslugs evolving before our very eyes.

Before this (inevitably) happens, we are quietly plotting, scheming, planning  and fantasising, not to mention ordering excessive and sometimes wildly unrealistic amounts and types of seeds. We convince ourselves it will be the best growing season EVER and that we will able to grow ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING we like OUTDOORS and WITHOUT A GREENHOUSE, despite for example, living far too north of the equator to ever grow sweet potatoes and vanilla orchids.

I once tried to grow a date palm in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. Outdoors and without a greenhouse. I’ll say no more.

It’s good to dream, but I have to include myself among those who do have a tendency to get totally carried away. I would genuinely love to recreate Edward James’ outlandish and exotic Mexican garden of Las Pozas in my back garden, or grow a Tacca chantrieri. But to even nod to the majesty of Las Pozas, I would have to scale down the follies and use plants with a ‘tropical appearance’. My Tacca chantrieri specimen would end up looking like a drowned stray cat rather than an miraculous tropical bat mimic. Trying to scale down follies only leads to bathos and disappointment. (See Stonehenge, by Spinal Tap in my ‘Solstice’ post).

Yo batface, what are you staring at?

Yo batface, what are you staring at? (Tacca chantrieri)

While I’m on the subject of spooky mimics and pathological fantasists, I think I’ll move on to some eccentric art.

Art Spot 

This is exactly the kind of harvest we expect from 2014

This is exactly the kind of harvest we expect from 2014

Jan Davidsz de Heem, ‘Festoon of Fruit and Flowers’ 

She always manages to sneak in a vagina or a cock or two, doesn't she?

She always manages to sneak in a vagina or a cock or two, doesn’t she?

Frida Kahlo ‘Still Life (Around)‘. Kahlo was associated with Surrealism, Primitivism and Magic Realism, so it would be fitting to include one of her works too.

Book of the Week 

surrealist manifesto

The Surrealist Manifesto, by Andre Breton

Alternative Reading Matter

A good pile of seed catalogues from fine seed and plant purveyors of distinction.

Track of the Week

California Dreaming (either of The Mamas and the Papas or The Beach Boys versions)

Plant of the Week

Tacca chantrieri

2013 Top Ten Stupid Things

1. Top Ten Lists

2. I’m bored now, byeee