Max Coleman

Feb 212017
 

 

 

Blog by Fanni Barocsi, University of Edinburgh 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.

Oct 052016
 
Wentworth elm at the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

Wentworth elm at the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

Following extensive media coverage of the discovery of the Wentworth elm at the Palace of Holyroodhouse this blog seems like the appropriate place to give a bit more background on the story and to recognise the many contributions that have helped the story to develop.

The discovery happened as a result of existing connections between RBGE and the Palace established by Laura Gallagher in the RBGE Nursery. Laura was exploring the propagation of the many fine elms in the grounds. As Laura was not familiar enough with elms to be able to do the identification she asked me if I would be willing to have a look. An appointment with the Head Gardener was arranged and I was shown all of the elms in the grounds. There are many fine specimen trees at the Palace and it was a real pleasure to get a guided tour from Stephen Christoforou who clearly knows and loves his trees.

Among the many familiar elms were two tall majestic trees that have a distinctive weeping habit. As soon as I saw them I knew they would turn out to be interesting as they were completely unfamiliar to me, despite over 20 years looking at elms. During our survey I was able to tell Stephen that the two trees in question were identical to each other and represented a distinct clone that almost certainly had a cultivar name. I could see that they were of hybrid origin produced from a cross between the native Scottish wych elm (Ulmus glabra) and the southern European field elm (Ulmus minor). This hybrid has actually happened countless times and each of the hybrid offspring has its own unique characteristics. The scientific name applied to these rather varied hybrids is Ulmus x hollandica and they are sometimes given the common name Dutch elm (although that is a potential source of confusion and another story altogether). The next step was to establish the full identity of the tree by linking them to descriptions and images of a named cultivar. Not as easy as it might sound.

Gardeners and plant nurseries have selected and named trees, and other plants, over the years for particular distinctive characteristics. The Wentworth elm is an example of this process. Such plants are called cultivars and this word is derived from cultivated variety. As such Wentworth elm is not a species and it very much reflects what people have found to be attractive in elms. In order to get suggestions for the identity of these trees I passed on images to a network of contacts familiar with elms. Peter Bourne was first to come back with Wentworth elm as a likely identification. The key characteristics of this elm are a distinctly weeping habit and large glossy more or less hairless leaves. Further research convinced me that Peter was right and we began talking to the Royal Household about press publicity as the elms seemed likely to be the sole survivors of their type.

Leaf of a Wentworth elm grown at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew that matches perfectly to the Palace trees.

Leaf of a Wentworth elm grown at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew that matches perfectly to the Palace trees.

The published record of Wentworth elms is very scant indeed. We don’t know the exact derivation of the name or where the elm originated. A famous Berlin nursery called Späth is known to have supplied this elm in the late 1800’s when it first appears in the literature. As Wentworth elm is not in the standard tree books of the time we can only assume it was never widely planted or known about. The proper full name for Wentworth elm is Ulmus ‘Wentworthii Pendula’ as cultivar names are always placed in single inverted commas and not in italic text.

Thanks to Rob Cubey exploring the RBGE plant record archives we have unearthed a tantalising possibility. We have a record of three Wentworth elms arriving from Späth in Berlin in 1902. We also now know, thanks to all the media coverage of the story on October 4th 2016, that the Palace actually had three Wentworth elms. It has turned out that in 2008 one of the three was felled due to disease. Joe Muir, Park Manager at the time, had the rings counted and this indicated the tree went back to around 1905. Given that exact ring counting is tricky this result is in near perfect agreement with the RBGE records. Although we are yet to find the written proof, we can say with some confidence that the three RBGE Wentworth elms probably made their way to the Palace and were planted sometime after 1902. This would be consistent with accounts of other plants going from RBGE to the Palace at that time. In fact the Head Gardener at the time, William Smith, had trained at RBGE so it is very likely that regular contact between the two gardens was quite normal. Leonie Paterson at RBGE and Sally Goodsir at the Royal Collection Trust have scoured the archives to locate a record of the elms planting. So far, however, this final piece of the story has eluded us.

RBGE Wentworth elm that died in 1996 due to Dutch elm disease.

RBGE Wentworth elm that died in 1996 due to Dutch elm disease.

The RBGE did have a specimen of Wentworth elm until 1996 when it died from Dutch elm disease. This tree was considerably smaller than the Palace trio and must have been planted many years later. Even the former nursery site in Berlin, which is now an arboretum, has confirmed that they do not have a specimen of Wentworth elm. Given the wide geographical spread of Dutch elm disease in Europe it seems unlikely that Wentworth elms have survived elsewhere. The reason for the unexpected survival at the Palace is that the City of Edinburgh Council has controlled Dutch elm disease very effectively. Without this action by the Local Authority the Palace and the rest of the City would have lost almost all the many thousands of elms present today.

Looking to the future and thinking about how we can ensure future generations are able to enjoy this majestic elm the RBGE will embark on a programme of elm propagation. Elms often root readily from cuttings, but if that fails a standard horticultural practice called grafting can be employed. Given the disease control measures now in place in Edinburgh it would be safe to plant Wentworth elms and it is hoped that a new generation of trees might be established at the Palace and RBGE.

Elsewhere in the UK there are other areas where the disease is strictly controlled or absent. Brighton hosts the National Collection and northern Scotland is still free of disease. Here populations of the very hardy native wych elm still thrive, representing a very unusual survival in a European context. New research is suggesting that certain parts of northern and western Britain are too cold for the beetle that is essential for spreading the fungus that causes the disease. In a few places on the higher mountains of Europe similar survivors have been noticed.

Overall, the loss of elms has been massive (25-75 million trees in the UK alone). However, there is hope for the future. A small percentage of trees seem to have some sort of natural advantage and various projects are working to propagate this natural variation. The RBGE has worked on this in the past in relation to Scottish wych elm. In addition, since the 1970’s breeding programmes in various countries have been crossing and selecting elms for resistance with some considerable success. This has mostly involved crossing Asian elms with European elms as the Asian species display high levels of resistance. Research is showing that Asian species can get infected and yet display no symptoms of disease. In truth the future of elms looks bright and we should follow the lead of the Dutch who regard their national tree as something worth fighting for. Today if you visit Amsterdam most of the street trees are disease resistant elms.

Aug 302016
 
Male wool carder bee on a favoured leaf from which he defends his territory.

Male wool carder bee on a favoured leaf from which he defends his territory.

This morning around 11am Meg Beresford set off on her ‘Let’s Make a Bee Line’ walk from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh to Wiston Lodge covering 10km a day over 8 days.

The 10km a day is a carefully chosen number. It is all bound up with the bees Meg is bringing to our attention. A foraging bumblebee will fly 10km from its nest in search of pollen and nectar. Unfortunately, modern farming, and other changes in the environment, are making conditions for bees increasingly challenging. Meg wants to bring the plight of bees to a wider audience and fund raise for a meeting on bee conservation to be held at Wiston Lodge.

You can follow Meg’s progress at The Buzz Feed, a blog that will chart the progress of the walk. This will also give information of events that will happen along the way. If you would like to support Let’s Make a Bee Line donations can be given at https://makeabeeline.org/honey/

Meg at the Water of Leith on the first day of her Let's Make a Bee Line walk to raise awareness about the plight of bees.

Meg at the Water of Leith on the first day of her Let’s Make a Bee Line walk to raise awareness about the plight of bees.

Ian Edwards (RBGE) joins Meg on the first leg of the walk.

Ian Edwards (RBGE) joins Meg on the first leg of the walk.

Aug 302016
 

Moth trapping in the Garden is now happening on a regular basis with the input of Edinburgh Natural History Society and MSc student Tom Dawes.

Records from 29th/30th August:

Ypsolopha dentella (Honeysuckle moth) – 2; Blastobasis adustella – 9+; Large Yellow Underwing – 57; Lesser Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing – 1; Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing – 1; Copper Underwing – 3; Mouse Moth – 1; Mottled Beauty – 2; Flounced Rustic – 1; Dun-bar – 1; Acleris sp. – 1; White-line Dart – 1; ?Brown House Moth – 1; probable Ingrailed Clay – 1; Agriphila tristella – 1; Dark Arches – 1.

Copper Underwing.

Copper Underwing.

Mottled Beauty.

Mottled Beauty.

Marbled Beauty.

Marbled Beauty.

Records from 10th/11th August:

Mottled Beauty – 1; Large Yellow Underwing – 43; Fan-foot – 1; Lesser Yellow Underwing – 3; Large Broad-boardered Yellow Underwing – 1; Golden Dart – 1; Dotted Clay – 1; Small Fan-foot Wave? – 1.