Sunday, 15 May 2011

Walk at Corehead

Sat May 14: A well-attended 'ethnobotany' walk today with Ian Edwards of Edinburgh Botanic Gardens round Corehead, organised by Ed Glenwright of Borders Forest Trust, owners since 2009 of the land. Ian explained that his job for 27 years at the gardens has involved travelling round the world discovering how plants are used by the various native inhabitants; currently he is focusing on Bhutan the little-researched Himalayan kingdom. We started down by the stream and Ian talked about the grove of alders, explaining that they do not so much prefer wet habitat as tolerate it. He indicated the leaves of meadowsweet which will flower soon, and wild sorrel, a tasty salad leaf. Most hunter gatherer societies such as the people of the Pacific northwest eat a lot of meat and fish - by coincidence, BBC R4 had interviewed Elisabeth Luard that morning, who lives in Wales and she had said that whereas people cannot eat grass, they can eat sheep which do eat grass. Ian showed us pig nut, which is good in autumn when the root has swelled, young beech leaves and wych elm flowers which tasty nutty - a bit like walnut. Unlike Australia, Scotland has very few poisonous plants - there are dangerous funghi and a few more such as Arum Maculatum. Young bracken 'fiddles' are eaten widely throughout the world, and the sweet ends of reeds or rushes, used otherwise for lighting. Thistle leaves and stems can be eaten when young and the colourless little leaves found under mature thistle leaves in the autumn. We found plantain, violets, primroses,tormentil and celandines (pile wort), and nettles - all used either as food or in medicine. We paused by a grove of conifers where a raven was croaking or crooning to discuss the Sitka spruce. Ian pointed out that Britain lacked a conifer capable of withstanding the cool wet climate and the Sitka spruce fitted that niche. It was better to look at what grows now than to try to recreate an imagined (or actual) landscape of years past, and the Sitka spruce can be used from its roots (baskets, hats, boxes) to its shoots (for jelly, preserving berries, tea and flavouring for a drink akin to ginger beer). It was good to hear an independent expert signing the praises of the tree we grow up at Elvanfoot - apparently Andrew Fairlie the Michelin 2 star chef at Gleneagles is looking for spruce shoots as part of the rage for foraging and Nordic food fomented by Danish chef Rene Redzepi at Noma, his restaurant in Copenhagen, widely considered currently to be the best restaurant in the world. Ed has organised another walk in July to Corehead and the Beef Tub with Alistair Moffat to learn about the reivers cattle rustling there in years gone by, and we hope to arrange a hike to nearby Hart Fell with Nikolai Tolstoy at our October 15 Moffat Book Event to see the rumoured abode of Merlin.

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