Greg Kenicer

DURING these past few months, nature hasn’t felt more alive since my childhood. It may just be the run of great weather through the spring, or the slightly slower pace meaning we can all take the time to enjoy it that bit more. Maybe it is the quieter streets helping us hear the birdsong better, but many folk can’t help thinking the reduced traffic and less mowing – just less interference all round – makes for a much healthier relationship between us and the wildlife with which we share our towns and country.

For me, the most striking thing is quite how vibrant and green everything has become in a single season without feet tramping over plants or mowers chopping through them. It is almost as if nature is just waiting in the wings; when we are gone the world around us will recover in the blink of an eye. That’s one of the most powerful things about the living word, and plants in particular. They don’t need us, but we definitely need them. Plants provide us with food, drink and medicines, they clothe us, provide building materials, shape our myths and give us the very oxygen we breathe.

Modern society often fools itself into feeling removed from plants, but the vast majority of humanity’s cultures are profoundly shaped by the green world around us, and Scotland is no exception. Its rich heritage of plant lore shows how the country’s flora has shaped our history, from the earliest inhabitants right through to the present day. Hints come from archaeological finds – ancient log boats hewn from huge, single trees show the importance of the coast and rivers to hunter-gatherer and early settled communities. This is understandable when much of the interior was covered in deep forest. These forests evidently harboured some huge trees, if the boats are anything to go by.

Millennia of exploitation, climate change and "land management" mean there are very few trees as large and straight as these left in Scotland, so we have to imagine these early post-Ice Age times as a primal world, where hunting and gathering were the fundamentals of life. Modern foragers find there is a huge wealth of interesting botanical fayre out there – a topic we’ll return to later.

Plant pollen found in various Bronze-Age cups and beakers suggest a culture where honey, mead and beer were important aspects of either daily or ritual life, with many of the plant finds potential flavourings for the drinks. Interestingly, brewers and distillers have turned to many of these same species in making modern concoctions, supporting the huge growth in artisan beers and gins.

Another wonderful find is the ‘hair-moss cap’ found in the defensive ditch around the Roman fort of Newstead, near Melrose in the Borders. Woven from the tough stems of the woodland-dwelling hair-moss, Polytrichum, this enigmatic artefact prompts many questions – who made it? A Roman soldier, camp attendant or member of a native tribe? Why was it literally ‘ditched’? Is it a cap, or something else? The now peat-blackened stems form a frill of hair around the cap, so my pet theory is that it was the forerunner of the ‘see-you Jimmy’ wigs you can buy in tourist shops. Or maybe not.

One of the big issues with archaeological botany is how to interpret these botanical finds. The fact that hazel shells pop up in ancient middens all the time might reflect hazelnuts’ popularity and value as nutritious foods or the fact they remain fresh for months. Or it might just be because the hazel shells are tough and survive through to the present while softer fruits, leaves and other parts of the hunter-gatherer diet rot away, giving us a false impression of people who appeared to eat nothing but hazels and shellfish – sounds quite posh actually.

In more recent times, we are very fortunate that people had the foresight to research and record many fascinating uses – one of the champions of this was Sir Robert Sibbald. A 17th century physician, botanist and eventually Geographer Royal to the Scottish Crown, his passion for plants and their uses led him and friend Andrew Balfour to establish the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. This year is the Botanics’ 350th anniversary and from a small plot of land behind the Palace of Holyrood House, this institution has grown into a pioneer of international research and collaboration on plant diversity and conservation.

Sibbald’s pamphlet entitled Provision for the Poor in Time of Dearth and Scarcity was an attempt to list all the edible things in Scotland in case crops failed and famine reared its head again as it had in the "Seven Ill years" of the 1690s. Provision for the Poor lists a great many edible plants that could be foraged, as well as many fish, fowl and other animals including wildcat and pine marten – essentially the bat or pangolin of their day in Europe. More than one hundred species of plants are listed in the book, although with names such as “the small hemlock chervil with the rough seeds” it could be a bit of a lottery trying to identify the correct plant. Chervil would be tasty, while hemlock would be deadly. This one sounds most like bur-chervil, a relatively rare plant which has been eaten in the past. Strangely, Sibbald does not mention a single mushroom, reflecting the Scottish and wider British dread of a fatal error while mushroom hunting.

Sibbald does, however, reserve space for seaweeds. Coastal communities across Scotland ate plenty of this nutritious resource, and it was likely on the menu for those earliest settlers millennia before. Martin Martin, a native of Skye was commissioned by Sibbald to document the land, people and natural history of the Gaelic-speaking parts of the country through the late 1690s. His renowned account A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland mentions many uses for seaweeds as fertilisers, snacks and medicines. Carrageen pudding was made from carrageen seaweed and is still made widely today. It needs plenty of flavouring – traditionally lemon, pepper or vinegar. Reminiscent of a supernaturally bland crème caramel it was thought particularly good for invalids recovering from stomach problems. The jelly-like chemicals in the seaweed help to set the milk for the pudding. Called carrageenans, they can be found in a host of modern products as gelling agents.

Seaweeds are fascinating group. As different from most land plants as we are, these marine algae are abundant and wonderfully diverse. The burned ash of some of the big brown seaweeds was the basis for Scotland’s kelp industry in the 18th and 19th centuries. Thousands of tonnes of mineral-rich seaweed ash were produced annually and made many of the lairds in coastal areas very wealthy men. The same could not be said of the crofting families that were set to making the pits on the beach, hauling the weed and tending the fires as they smouldered. Parts of the Orkney archipelago were likened to volcanoes because of the smoke billowing up day and night from the shores. The kelp ash was very versatile – as a fertiliser, for bleaching linen or use in glassmaking. Inevitably, cheaper replacements were found over time and the bottom had fallen out of the industry by the 1820s. The lairds who had grown comfortable on the profits of the industry looked straightaway to the next big thing – sheep. The failure of Scotland’s kelp industry went hand-in-hand with the Highland Clearances.

Tracing where these ideas about plants and their uses come from, and how they change on their journey, is fascinating. Plant medicines are a great source of such stories. St John’s Wort is an excellent example – it appears in classical Roman literature as fuga daemonum – the chaser of demons. It was widely used as a medicine throughout Europe from Classical times – the idea possibly spreading with the Romans, although one of its names in Gaelic suggests a strong connection to the Celtic god Lug who filled a similar role to St John as a shining, heroic sort. Of course, in Gaelic Christianity, the plant became St Columba’s plant and was known by one curious name reported by Alexander Carmichael: "armpit package of St Columba". Pieces of the plant were tucked into the oxter, where the sweat and hair would presumably break up the plant and allow the active "demon-chasing" principle into the thin skin of the armpit. This is a beautifully elegant interpretation of the plant’s antidepressant compounds. If you were beset by devils, an interpretation of psychiatric issues such as depression, then surely the power of a saint or a god working through the plant would vanquish those demons.

We still do not understand how St John’s wort works as an antidepressant and it can have significant, dangerous interactions with other medicines, but it is just one example of a rich folklore building up around a real-life bit of biochemistry. How else would people have interpreted this seemingly magical property of the plant? The sinister associations of foxglove with witches, the dead or fairy-folk reflect a poison still used as a medicine in heart conditions today. There are many other examples of intriguing tales where a botanical story might hold the key to a new medicine, and many where the story is seemingly just that – a story. Why, for example, do witches supposedly fear rowan trees? Is it the red berries or some other property lost to time – and has anyone actually done a proper double-blind scientific research study on it? Of course it doesn’t matter why, but just take a look at how many gardens have a rowan tree by the gate and you can see that these stories run deep in the cultural psyche.

As well as the ideas and stories, our flora also contains many plants that were brought here by humans, either intentionally or by happy accident. These are the ‘non-native’ flora and actually make up about half the species we find in Scotland today. The vast majority of these are rare, often limited to the port towns where they arrived, or the gardens they were cultivated in. A very few of them can be invasive, but they have all contributed to diversity of our new flora. In the face of climate change and globalisation, the flora changes all the time, and many species, both native and non-native are hugely adaptable. Watch this space (for the next hundred thousand years) as the sweet cicely brought by monastic communities from central Europe as a flavouring and strewing herb evolves into a unique new variety or species cut off from its original populations.

Many traditionally useful plants are important parts of Scotland’s ancient native habitats. These are precious and unique places with global significance for biodiversity. The incredibly rich Atlantic oakwoods – our local "west-coast rainforest" – have a profusion of lichens, mosses and ferns, but are potentially threatened by development. The pinewoods of the north west and mountains are hemmed in by vast tracts of heather moorland while the looming threat of climate change is never far from the headlines. However, if you fence off the heather moorland, excluding grazing deer and sheep, the recovery is nothing short of miraculous – within a matter of a decade you have a beautifully rich young pine woodland emerging. Once again, we see how resilient plants and habitats can be.

Scottish Plant Lore, an Illustrated Flora, explores the wealth of versatile plants on a tour from the seashore up the mountains to the city streets. The beautiful illustrations are the work of over 40 wonderfully talented artists which interpret the Scottish native flora in watercolour, acrylic, pencil or even the ink from the ink-cap mushroom tap.

Dr Gregory J Kenicer is a research botanist in the education department at the Royal Botanical Garden Edinburgh. Scottish Plant Lore, An Illustrated Flora is published by Birlinn (£20, hardback)