Max Coleman

Feb 232017

Healthy Dutch elm (Ulmus x hollandica ‘Major’) at East Baldwin Valley, Isle of Man.

The day that Storm Doris arrives seems a fitting time to mention newly published research that suggests cold and windy weather has actually been responsible for holding back the spread of Dutch elm disease on the Isle of Man. The island has an estimated 300,000 elms and only around one per cent of them have been lost to Dutch elm disease since the fungal pathogen was first noticed on the Island in 1992. This is a very different picture from that seen on the British mainland, where the disease has eradicated between 25-75 million trees since the 1970s.

The research, involving RBGE, Forest Research and Manx Biodiversity, has used DNA fingerprinting as a way to show that many of the surviving elms are a cultivated type called ‘Major’. This is an important finding as this elm is a single clone known to be highly susceptible to Dutch elm disease. What this tells us is that we can rule out the possibility that the Island’s elms are resistant to the disease. This has important implications for the future of elms on the Isle of Man and prompted the researchers to consider other explanations for the slow spread of the disease.

Dutch elm disease develops rapidly in summer and kills the tree by preventing fluid transport, creating symptoms of dought.

Dutch elms at West Nappin, Isle of Man.

An examination of local weather data has suggested that this may be the key to understanding the remarkable survival of these elms. It has long been known that the beetles that spread the disease are strongly influenced by both temperature and wind. As Dutch elm disease is a fungus that hitchhikes on the bodies of elm bark beetles it is completely reliant on them to get from tree to tree. It follows that anything holding back the beetles will also hold back the disease. The beetles need a temperature of at least 20 degrees to fly and if wind speed exceeds five metres per second flight is inhibited. By analysing local weather data from 1995 to 2015 it was found that only one year out of 20 could be regarded as a good year for the beetles and the disease to spread.

Ian Denholm, Editor-in-Chief of New Journal of Botany, where the research is published, said:

Combining research on elm genetics with consideration of beetle ecology has led to a convincing and elegant explanation of why the spread of disease has been constrained in the Isle of Man compared with much of the UK. Such inter-disciplinary studies highlight the extreme importance of understanding how climate affects interactions between organisms as well as its impact on individual species. Elms are a complex group; unambiguous identification of types present also helps ensure the accuracy of BSBI’s database of plant records encompassing the whole of Britain, Ireland, Isle of Man and the Channel Islands.

For more details see the abstract.

Feb 212017



Guest blog by Cristina Romero Rios, University of Edinburgh MSc student

Have you ever asked yourself where the bananas that you eat come from? Have you wondered the same about tomatoes, lemons, peppers, asparagus, or for that matter any of the fresh food you eat?

Map showing the source countries of UK fruit and vegetables.

The UK relies on many other countries to supply the fruits and vegetables people eat. If we talk about food security, the UK is highly dependent on foreign imports. At present the UK imports 50% of its vegetable needs and an incredible 90% of its fruit needs. This global supply system can cause problems in the UK if something happens in the source countries. Continue reading »

Feb 212017



Guest blog by Georgina Hill, University of Edinburgh MSc student

Neighbourhoods do not always have easy access to fresh produce.

For some, accessing fresh, nutritious food can be a challenge. Fruit and veg can be hard to transport and relatively expensive. At the same time, tonnes of fresh produce go to waste every year.

A possible solution: ‘Community Fridges’. People donate fresh food that they would otherwise throw away, and others are free to take what they need. The concept has had success in Germany and Spain. Exciting pilot projects are happening right now in the UK.

So, could we see community fridges in Scotland? Continue reading »

Feb 212017



Guest blog by Fanni Barocsi, University of Edinburgh MSc student

Charities around Scotland and other parts of the world play a vital role regarding food security in local communities. Here I provide an overview of the many organizations and charities committed to helping promote food security and sustainability in Scotland. Nourish Scotland works hard to help make nutritious food accessible. Love Food Hate Waste is devoted to raising awareness about the necessity of reducing food waste, while the Pilton Community Health Project is dedicated to ensuring that the local community is healthy. Continue reading »

Feb 092017



Gigi with freshly harvested produce.

As placement students from the University of Edinburgh at the Royal Botanic Gardens, our first day was far from conventional. Cristina was “amazed and entranced by the beauty, different colours, sounds and smells” of the gardens. We headed towards the oldest… but newest building in the Gardens, the Botanic Cottage. It travelled, brick by brick from its original site on Leith Walk to become a hub for community engagement at the Gardens.

Food and food security is currently a hot topic for the Royal Botanic Garden as they are part of the Big Picnic project. We took a tour around the Edible Garden and collected ingredients for our huge pot of soup to feed the group. For Gigi, growing up in Hong Kong, the vegetable garden was “a new experience”. Similarly, Cristina “laughed inside because it is very obvious, but sometimes we forget that food comes from nature, just like the trees in a forest.” Continue reading »

Feb 032017



Today the media is covering a story about vegetable shortages here in the UK due to poor weather in southern Europe. This is a timely reminder to us all that food should not be taken for granted and factors entirely beyond our control can interupt the food supply.

Yesterday (2nd February 2017) saw the first gathering of residents and community representatives from North Edinburgh at the Botanics Cottage here in the Garden to begin the process of co-creating an exhibition about access to nutritious food. After a hearty soup prepared from seasonal vegetables from the Garden (made by the co-creation participants), and bread baked in the Cottage from locally grown wheat (East Lothian), we set about identifying the barriers to nutritious food experienced by individuals and communities. Continue reading »

Jan 302017



Thinking about food is something we all do everyday when we get hungry. We are also increasingly being urged to think about food by medical professionals who give us advice on healthy eating. This can sometimes be confusing, and may even contradict earlier advice (of course science can work this way as new evidence overturns old thinking). The Scottish Government wants us to be a ‘good food nation’ and Scotland is certainly famed for its quality food and drink products. Think of seafood, beef, soft fruit and, of course, whiskey.

Edible gardening is now the major activity in the Demonstration Garden due to the work of the Edible Gardening Project. As this aspect of the Garden has developed visitors are increasingly able to eat food grown in the Garden at the catering outlets within the Garden. Prestige Scotland, the catering provider, is now funding a new Market Garden operation in the Nursery, just a few minutes walk from the main Garden, to supply this growing demand. Continue reading »

Dec 222016

PROTREE is using Scots pine as an example to explore how forestry can encourage resilience in our tree populations.

Tackling the tree health problems caused by an ever expanding number of new pests and diseases is not just a matter of being vigilant and responding to outbreaks. Just as vital is the aim of building resilience into our forested landscapes. It is this second approach that has provided the focus of work by RBGE and six other Scottish research institutes involved in the PROTREE project.

In order to reach a wide audience, and in particular young people who will be the next generation of plant health specialists, PROTREE has opted to use the medium of computer games. Getting across the message about genetic diversity and its fundamental role in enabling tree populations to become more resilient is ultimately the challenge that we faced with this game. Working together, the scientists and a team of games designers at Hyper Luminal Games have created CALEDON. The game makes you the manager of your own virtual forest and is targeted primarily at teens and secondary school teachers. Having said that, anyone with an interest in plant health or the environment can learn by playing the game and it has already been used as a teaching aid in the forestry sector.

The game includes an encyclopaedia that helps players develop knowledge and hone their strategy.

The way tree species and pathogens interact with each other and the environment is informed by the real world, and the game is in effect a simple forest simulator. Although it is educational entertainment and not a tool for real-world planning, the game could be used to illustrate how differences in genetic diversity or species composition might affect response to a disease. The player is completely in control of the pace as time is only advanced when all the changes s/he wishes to make and can afford (the game has a financial aspect) have been made. Time is then advanced by five years and in a few seconds all sorts of interactions and random events will play out.

CALEDON has been well recieved at a series of public events in 2016.

The hope for CALEDON is that players of the game learn something about the many threats our trees and forests face and the complexity of creating a sustainable forest landscape. In addition, a sense of the value of genetic diversity should become clear from experience, in-game prompts on good strategy and an encyclopaedia that can be consulted at any time. Ideally the game will introduce some new thinking and perhaps even stimulate a shift in direction for forestry that acknowledges diversity and its important role in tree health.

Educational computer games are an entirely new departure for RBGE, and the process of scientists and games designers working together has been positive. If this first foray into a new medium for communication is successful we can expect to see more games in the future.

Nov 012016
Tiina harvesting black nightshade in October 2016.

Tiina harvesting black nightshade in October 2016.

Visitors to the Garden have been asking questions about this year’s Really Wild Veg trial plots that contain various black nightshade species. Jan, who tends the plants, has passed on these interesting bits of feedback on the uses of black nightshades:

While I was picking today I was approached by an Edinburgh woman and her grandmother from Pakistan.  She was adamant that she uses the leaves with no other preparation than ‘wilting’ them ‘like spinach’ into curry.

A second visitor from Johannesburg identified one particular row as a weed in her garden but said when she gets home she will revise what she can do with it!!

As the plan is to repeat this trial next year we will try to capture such comments from visitors.

Oct 272016
Jan and Tiina with one of the black nightsahde plants in the Really Wild Veg trial for 2016.

Jan and Tiina with one of the black nightsahde plants in the Really Wild Veg trial for 2016.

Try to imagine how would you feel if you were invited to attend a meal where dishes made with black nightshade were going to be the centrepiece? This is exactly the position I was in recently at an Edible Gardening Project volunteer social. Although on the face of it this sounds really alarming, and one might reasonably wonder if someone had it in for you, this event was actually a great pleasure and really very interesting. Black nightshade (Solanum nigrum) is a weedy plant that produces small black berries and lots of leafy greens. However, this pretty non-descript looking plant has some truely deadly cousins. The nightshade family, often called the potato family, includes the highly poisonous deadly nightshade (the names tells you all you need to know) as well as many other plants you’d be wise to avoid like the plague. The family is well known for producing toxins called alkaloids. The thing about green potato that is bad for you is the alkaloids. Obviously black nightshade is edible as serving toxic food to volunteers is a fast track way to get fired!

Black nightshade fruit. In this species the fruit are not edible and the leaf is the crop, but in most of the other close relatives the fruit is good to eat.

Black nightshade fruit. In this species the fruit are not edible and the leaf is the crop, but in most of the other close relatives the fruit is good to eat.

I should explain that black nightshade growing trials and tastings are the latest result of the Garden’s ongoing exploration of edible wild plants under the banner of Really Wild Veg. During 2016 the first set of trials have taken place and a lot of learning has resulted. Jan Tapson from the Edible Gardening Project volunteer team has taken the growing trials under her wing. Seeds were obtained via Tiina Sarkinen of the RBGE science team as part of her research into the group of related species that are called the black nightshade group. A number of these are important tradditional crops in Africa, hence their other name African nightshades. The real interest in these plants, from a food plant perspective, is that research is showing they are highly nutritious and often better than the imported European crops that African farmers have been encouraged to grow.

What we want to know is do they have potential as crops in Scotland, which is why the trials are so important. The other advantage of growing them is that they link directly to current botanical research being carried out here to determine exactly how many species there may be in this group and what factors have driven their evolution.

Getting back to the dinner event…

With a meal like this there is always that thought in the back of your mind that you might be about to poison yourself. For me that was intensified by the fact that I had moments earlier been helping Tiina to harvest the leaves and berries to be cooked up. I was given the task of picking berries from different types and keeping them seperate for later tasting. Naturally I sampled as I picked. All was going fine until I got an unpleasant buring sensation in my throat. I told Tiina about this and she casually said “oh no you should’nt eat the fruit of those ones there”! All I could do was assume that as she was not reaching for her phone to dial the emergency services I was probably going to live to tell the tale.

The story does have a happy ending as many of the Edible Gardening Project volunteers did get to try both the fruits (the edible ones) anf the cooked leaves as part of a most impressive spread provided in the form of a pot luck dinner in The Botanic Cottage. The leaves were parboiled with some bicarbonate of soda before being squeezed and either added to a dal or fried with onions and spices. The pretreatment step is supposed to reduce the bitterness of the leaves. In both forms they were truely delicious, with no obvious bitterness. Rather like spinach, but with much more substance to them. The berries, I have to say, are pretty bland, although Tiina has assured me that they do make a passable jam.

Edible Gardening Project volunteers sampling black nightshade.

Edible Gardening Project volunteers sampling black nightshade.

This was certainly my most memorable dinner in a long time.