The wonderful world of Welsh plants

This blog feature is part of a series - “Hiraeth for Beginners” - by Pamela Petro

Two years ago I watched a woman named Kristina Patmore make vibrant, natural dyes from indigenous Welsh plants in the welcome shade of a tent pitched on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

Believe me: it wasn’t something either of us does every day.

Each June the Smithsonian Institution throws a Folklife Festival in the heat of the D.C. summer—a sprawling sensory fest featuring everything from food to poetry slams to art to sports to music—and in 2009 the festival featured Wales. Kristina came to Washington for two weeks to talk about the wonderful world of Welsh plants.

Her infectious enthusiasm and love for the green things that grow in Welsh soil was captivating, and when I was asked to write this blog, I knew immediately I wanted to include a conversation with her about Welsh plants and their uses. What follows is an annotated version of our email chat.

Kristina PatmorePam: Tell me a bit about your background, Kristina. How did you become fascinated by Welsh plants?

Kristina: All my life I've had a very strong connection with Wales. We've always had close family friends in both Abergavenny and Llandeilo who we would try to visit every year for a weekend or so when I was a child. I have very fond memories of those visits, particularly the lush green landscape and beautiful woodlands that were few and far between in London where I grew up. Our friends in Llandeilo arranged pleasant woodland picnics and took us out to pick mushrooms. Consequently, Llandeilo was the place I dreamed of living ever since the age of 10. Later, as part of my studies for a Higher National Diploma (a sort of vocational equivalent to a degree) in horticulture, I needed to spend a year on placement within a horticulture-related company. My intention had been to do this at a botanic garden because of my strong interest in medicinal and useful plants; unfortunately, the larger botanic gardens all run their own training schemes. I had been beginning to panic about finding somewhere suitable when someone tipped me off that the National Botanic Garden of Wales, the youngest botanic garden of the new Millennium, were looking for students and still had spaces. I got my place and it was perfect - just a handful of miles from my beloved Llandeilo and full of lush herbaceous plants which are what I like best. In the end I got a full time job at NBGW as the horticulturist responsible for the medicinal plant collection.

Kristina has since moved on to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, in London, where she’s involved in a project to digitize dried plant specimens from around the world. Beyond botanical work, Kristina writes: I am passionate about medicinal plants; I like to collect books on the subject as well as dried plants and tinctures, etc. I also tend to produce a lot of dyed wool, and love testing known medicinal plants for this purpose, but rarely seem to get around to using the wool for anything afterwards. Those are just two of my central interests, but there are many more and they mostly relate to medicinal/useful plants in some way.

Pam: Historically speaking, what has been the primary use of non-edible plants in Wales? Were they mostly used for medicines, teas, dyes, salves...all of the above?

Kristina: I would rephrase that and ask “What has been the primary non-edible use of plants in Wales?” since dividing plants into “edible” and “non-edible” seems so limiting to me. There are very few plants that I would not at least taste (having identified the plant as being safe first of course), and I find a great many common weeds very appetizing. However, beyond the limitless supply of unusual edibles growing in the hedgerows and meadows of Wales, we do also have a whole variety of plants that would once have been a primary source of medicine for much of the Welsh population up until the National Health Service (NHS) made healthcare accessible to all in 1946. In fact, the tradition of using plant-based home remedies is still very much a living memory or even continuing practice for some people, especially in the more rural communities of inland Wales, and there are currently efforts being made to collect and record this wealth of herbal lore before it is lost forever.

When we look at what remains of traditional Welsh herbal lore, a lot of it can be traced back to Mediterranean and Arabic medicine – largely via the Romans. However, there are also odd suggestions here and there of remedies possibly handed down from a more Celtic or North European direction… Examples of traditional remedies popular in Wales (and often throughout large portions of the Western world) include Elderberry cordials to prevent winter ills; Chickweed ointment for hot skin eruptions such as eczema; and Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) tea to raise a fever and help shake off a cold.

I also once heard about a miner’s hospital on the south coast that routinely used houseleek (Sempervivum tectorum) topically for treating burns and inflammation. It was an ex nurse who told me this so I wonder if it didn’t continue even during the early days of the NHS.

Incidentally, it's worth mentioning that the concept of the NHS was the brainchild of Welshman Nye Bevan, and that the idea of providing free or affordable healthcare goes back a long way in Wales - all the way to the ancient Welsh King Hywel Dda (around AD 930). Wales has always been way ahead of most other nations in the world in this respect.

Gorse PricklesPam: I can’t go on without asking, because this amazes me: what common weeds do you find appetizing?

Kristina: Most of my friends and family find my constant attempts at making them eat bitter green things both suspicious and tedious, so I’m glad you asked. Top faves could include:

Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) – almost certainly my all time favourite plant. All parts are edible, though they can be coarse and bitter when old. The young leaves in salads, especially if blanched. The latex-containing stems were once chewed by rural people as a spring tonic since bitters like this stimulate sluggish digestion after cold and meaty winter months. Likewise, Dandelion & Burdock beer was also originally a bitter tonic drink. The roots can be roasted to make what I consider the best caffeine-free coffee substitute there is with hints of burnt caramel (again, my family beg to differ on this one) and the flowers have to be the best parts. I find they have a mild, ever so slightly sweet flavour. They’re nothing much if you don’t tune in to the taste because they’re so delicate. But I think they’re worth persevering with, especially since that gorgeous yellow colour must be full of flavonoids and other goodly substances.
Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica) – Widely considered to be one of the most nutritious and abundant plants available. They can be used to make soups and purées which are full of vitamins and minerals including a goodly source of iron. They are also a very popular herbal remedy for a wide range of conditions, partly because they’re so nutritious. I used to enjoy fresh nettles in my tea to combat allergies and they also have anti-inflammatory properties. They taste a lot like spinach so they’re easy to incorporate. The only drawback really is the hairiness of the leaves which means they have to be well cooked to enjoy. Oh, and the collecting of course – thick gloves recommended.
Brambles (Rubus fruticosus) – Aside from the blackberries, I was told just a few years ago about the delicious young shoots of the bramble. When walking in a forest in spring, it’s usually easy to find and nip off these soft green, somewhat hairy shoots. I start by picking one or two and chewing them. At first they’re nothing much, but then I begin to notice a slight currant flavour mixed with a tart, but mild tannin. This tannin is a bit of an appetite stimulant, but the currant flavour is also strangely moreish. Before I know it I’m hunting out more and more of these shoots because they’re so tasty! What I’ve realized is that the season when they’re at their best is fairly short so it’s easy to get a bit of a duff batch and be put off. But at other times they’ve been the nicest forest food I’ve ever known. I always have to watch out though, the aphids enjoy them as much as I do and there comes a point when almost every branch is covered in greenfly.
Ribwort Plantain (Plantago lanceolata) – This is more of a curiosity which I like to indulge in occasionally. The young central leaves of this usually nondescript roadside/lawn plant taste unusually savoury and somehow mushroomy. They’re not at all what you’d expect a green weed to taste like and they can add a bit of character to a salad in small quantities.
There are tons more, both wild and cultivated. I had a happy springtime once in Wales when I challenged myself to obtain lunch from the Apothecaries’ Garden each day at work. Armed with a bread roll, I collected as many edible flowers, leaves and fruit as I could find and stuffed them in with a bit of butter. My sandwiches were delicious and the best combination I discovered was wild strawberries (Fragaria vesca) with the garlicky flower buds of Allium cernuum ‘Major’ on a bed of young chickweed (Stellaria media)!
Again I must emphasize that this is only safe for those who know exactly what the plants are and what is safe to eat.
Pam: What medicinal plants--from a "green" perspective (i.e., not used for pharmaceuticals) --are grown in Wales? What have they traditionally been used for, and are their uses changing?

Kristina: If by 'grown' you mean large-scale cultivation, then medicinally there isn't a great tradition in Wales. Much of what would have been used in the past would have been collected directly from the wild or cultivated on a purely domestic scale. However, today there are several small-scale growers and producers of medicinal plants and plant products all over Wales, some of which have a fantastic reputation amongst the herbal medicine community in the UK for the quality of their products. Possibly because Wales feels such a strong connection with both its heritage and its plants, there is also a significant amount of interest in researching the medicines of the past to see what relevance they might have for us today. It was announced just this week that the National Botanic Garden of Wales and the Welsh School of Pharmacy have teamed up to study the superbug fighting potential of Welsh honeys and to identify which species of plant might be contributing to such properties. It is hoped this might support the development of medicines capable of treating infections such as MRSA.

National Botanic Garden of Wales
: Can visitors to the Nat'l Botanic Garden see a display of medicinal plants?

Kristina: Yes, the small “Apothecaries’ Garden” tells some of the story of the use and development of medicine from plants. Of particular interest is the Meddygon Myddfai bed which is devoted to medicinal plants thought to have been used by the famous Physicians of Myddfai, a 13th century family of doctors who lived in a tiny village about 12 miles North-East of the National Botanic Gardens. The family is famous because they recorded many of their recipes in the Red Book of Hergest and this now forms the oldest known record of plant medicine use in Northern Europe. Their knowledge and practice is also considered to be incredibly advanced, comparable to that of the Salerno medical school in medieval Italy. The selection of plants featured in the Apothecaries' Garden shows that the Physicians of Myddfai used many species which must have grown wild in the local area such as Birch (Betula pendula) and Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), but there are also a few species which would have been imported via early trade routes from areas such as the Mediterranean e.g. Dittany of Crete (Origanum dictamnus).

Pam: Welsh woolens and quilts have long been prized for their vivid colors and patterns. Did these colors come from plant dyes produced locally in Wales--and if so, can you give us some examples of indigenous plants and the dye colors they produce?
Kristina: Yes, traditionally these dyes would most certainly have come from plants as well as from different coloured wool fibres blended together to produce blacks, greys, and browns. Many of those plants would have been native or naturalised in Wales and I once spoke to someone from South Wales who remembers, as a child, collecting naturalised Weld (Reseda luteola) from council land and selling it to a local dye mill to raise pocket money. Weld is a famous source of yellow, prized for its light-fastness. Other Welsh plants that could and would have been used to produce dyes include lichens for yellows and oranges, elder (Sambucus nigra) for blues and purples, gorse (Ulex europaeus), with difficulty, for green, and there is even evidence that a magenta colour was obtained from dandelions (Taraxacum officinale). I’ve heard rumours that at least one modern-day dyer has managed to replicate this trick, but I have yet to see it with my own eyes.

Aside from this, it is also important to remember that Wales had the advantage of thriving trade by sea and could have accessed foreign dye imports earlier and more easily than many other parts of the UK. It is known that famous dyes such as madder, indigo and cochineal were regularly imported to produce expensive cloth in vivid colours. Madder (Rubia tinctorum), the source of Turkey Red seen in Persian carpets, was also grown in many parts of Wales. The plant I grew at the National Botanic Gardens produced a very satisfying orange though the Welsh dyers of old had ways of obtaining a true red from the roots even in our chilly climate.


This blog feature is part of a series - "Hiraeth for Beginners" - by Pamela Petro.

Pamela Petro - for by-line

Pamela Petro is a writer and artist who first traveled to Wales to attend graduate school at St David's University College in Lampeter. She speaks Welsh haltingly, with a wing and a prayer--and has visited Wales from her home in Massachusetts nearly once a year. She's written about her language-learning saga in the acclaimed book, Travels in an Old Tongue: Touring the World Speaking Welsh (Flamingo, 1997), and about Wales and the Welsh for publications including The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, The Washington Post, Islands, and many more.