Thursday, 27 November 2014

The Victorian Phycologist, Mrs Alfred Gatty's Seaweed Collection

Chondrus crispus Carrageen 

Yesterday, I spent over two hours in the enjoyable company of Dr Heleen Plaisier, looking at an amazing collection of seaweed. Margaret Gatty's collection was  donated to the University of St Andrews by her daughter in 1907. I am indebted to Dr Plaisier for her time, and to James Hearsum, Executive Director of St Andrews Botanic Garden for facilitating my visit to the garden, where the collection is now housed. It was originally kept in the Gatty Marine Laboratory named after a relative of Mrs Gatty's husband, Alfred. 

I am a graduate of the University of St Andrews and if truth be known, I was somewhat fascinated by Margaret Gatty because my psychology practicals took place in The Gatty Marine Laboratory. Back in the late 70s and early 80s, I cared  little about whom the Lab was named after. I was completely unaware of one, Mrs Alfred Gatty. Nowadays, I laugh wryly as I  type phycology into my MacBook Pro and it kindly suggests that I'd prefer the word psychology. My winter, student psychology memories are mingled with wind, rain, sea spray and a coastal path lit by students smoking cigarettes. The wind was often bitterly cold and the best plot was to spend as little time along the East Sands as possible. Getting back to hall in the town of the red gown was the priority. Summer memories are more relaxed. At that time, I had no interest in any slimy seaweed, be it red, green or brown. As for the tides, I didn't notice them, although I suspect I preferred a low tide because then, the roaring, angry waves were further away.The influence of the moon, spring and neap tides and a time to harvest seaweed were of little importance.

Margaret Gatty was the wife of a vicar, as for some reason many Victorian phycologists seem to have been. She developed her interest in seaweed, whilst convalescing in Hastings, where she was given William Harvey's  Phycologia Britannia to read by her doctor. Over the years, her seaweed collection was added to by friends, and there were interesting additions from missionaries returning from overseas. Gatty's reputation grew after the publication of her book in 1863 and as a direct consequence, so did her seaweed collection.

Margaret Gatty mounted her seaweeds with care. She attached a red ribbon to red seaweeds Rhodophyta , a brown ribbon to brown seaweeds Phaeophyceae, and a green, to the green group Chlorophyta.
The cupboard in The Botanics where the seaweed collection is stored 

A red seaweed as catalogued by Margaret Gatty 

There are also seaweeds collected by Amelia Griffiths, and  many others in this collection.

Dr Plaisier has taken over curation from work by Helen Blackler (1902-81), who was in the department of Botany at St Andrews, from 1947 until her death.The collection has not be worked upon in the interim.There are over 8,825 specimens some of which have been mounted in albums on herbarium sheets  by Dr Blackler. Dr Plaisier is continuing this work but to my amateur eye, it will take some time. Identification involves deciphering hand writing too; be it Mrs Gatty's, her daughter, Horatia's, notes from the original collector or the pen of Dr Blackler. The seaweeds are  simply stunning and I hope that Dr Plaisier receives funding to complete the task as swiftly as possible; to enable others to view this magnificent Victorian seaweed collection.     

Thursday, 20 November 2014

A Guest post by Lynn Cornish

A Seaweed By Any Other Name...

It’s pretty common knowledge that seaweeds have been around for a very long time....even longer than all of our wonderful and diverse land plants. When naturalists started collecting and identifying various plants and the seaweeds growing in and around the cold Atlantic waters, they had great difficulty settling on a scientific name for what we now know as Irish moss, or Chondrus crispus. Initially, in 1762, it was called Fucus filiformis, and then in 1767, Linnaeus saw fit to call it Fucus crispus. Then finally, in 1797, botanist John Stackhouse (1742-1819) removed the species from the genus Fucus, and renamed it Chondrus crispus. The main reason for all the name changes has to do with the variety of morphologies C. crispus can exhibit. It is exceedingly ‘polymorphic’, and was therefore an early taxonomists’ nightmare. In their description of this species for the Linnean Society, Goodenough and Woodward, in 1797, stated that “No plant can be supposed to vary more than this!”
Present day identification of Chondrus crispus however, is much easier, attesting to the familiarity that comes with experience. Irish moss has been, and still is, an extremely useful and versatile seaweed, recognized in the early 1800’s for its robust gelling properties. Prior to that time, it is known to have been used extensively for the treatment of chest and lung ailments, including tuberculosis, as well as for the treatment of kidney ailments, burns, and various gastrointestinal complaints. These medicinal applications were so highly valued that a recipe for preparing a demulcent from C. crispus “for diseases of debility” was included in early Materia Medica.
The first formal recognition of the peculiar gelling properties of boiled ‘Fucuscrispus was documented in 1809, and it was eventually called carrageenin by John Pereira in 1840. Numerous versions of the name refer to the seaweed itself, and you may see it written as carrageen, carrageen, carragheen, carraigin, carrageen moss, carrageen rock moss, and so on. There has been some speculation that the name carrageen was derived from a town-place in County Waterford, but that idea has since been rejected.
Modern research methods using molecular sequencing have indicated that C. crispus most likely originated, surprisingly, in the North Pacific Ocean. From there, its migration to the Atlantic occurred prior to the Pleistocene period via the Bering Strait and the Northwest Passage. Scientists believe that this seaweed survived the subsequent ice ages by taking refuge in protected areas along European coastlines, eventually spreading again throughout the North Atlantic once conditions improved.
In the fresh state, many seaweeds are tough, or very chewy, and in the 18th century, household processing involved cooking, or toasting in some way. Thus, Irish moss came to be utilized more for its gelling properties, and soon, the carrageenan industry began to develop. In 1854, Peter Lund Simmonds (1814-1897) appraised “carrageen” or “Irish rock moss” as a feasible industrial commodity for commercial trade and development in Europe. Other seaweed sources of carrageenan are now supplying much of industry’s needs, and recent scientific studies have shown that, like many edible seaweeds, C. crispus is full of important nutritional components, beneficial to human health.

So…nomenclature aside, Chondrus crispus, with its fresh taste of the sea, has been used for centuries in both food and medicine, and it continues to be utilized to some extent in this way today. Our ancestors were compelled to turn to the natural world for help in treating sickness, and it is no surprise that they knew the importance of a dish that could be both food and medicine. Following this link will take you to a lovely children’s story, written in 1892 by K. M. Loudon and called “The Legend of Carrageen”. Make yourself a cup of hot tea, put your feet up, and enjoy a colorful little history lesson. 
This lovely post is by Lynn Cornish. Follow her on Twitter @Sea_Garden 

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Garlic... whoops I mean Pepper Dulse.

Pepper Dulse

Pepper dulse is one of, if not the most fiddly seaweed to harvest. The tiny red fronds resemble ferns; it's a pretty and delicate seaweed. This begs the question of how harvesters can pick it sustainably. Equipped with nail scissors, I snip the tiny ferns with care but will always find the odd particle of rock or shell that a frond has attached its hold fast to, in my bag. On returning to the kitchen I  feel hugely guilty but the task of the pepper dulse picker is laborious. Pepper dulse is however, easy to wash and dries well. It is one of my stalwart kitchen store cupboard sprinklers. Its flavour is strong, so less is often more and of course, dried pepper dulse is more powerful than fresh. Red seaweeds are water soluble, so pepper dulse makes a colourful as well as piquant stock.

Mussels Cooked in Pepper Dulse and Butter
I mentioned to Sally McKenna author of the excellent  Extreme Greens - Understanding Seaweeds that I was anxious that readers of this blog might become weary  of my Outer Hebridean seaweed escapades. Sally graciously suggested otherwise, and today foraging pepper dulse I realised how fortunate I am. For lunch, we ate mussels in pepper dulse butter and mopped up the juices with laver sourdough. Simple local food. Cooked within an hour - from rock to plate.
The Seaweed Harvester

A wetsuit is useful in winter. I cram scissors and a phone in a ski bumbag from which, I hang bags - so I am  hands free for picking seaweed.

Today's harvest: Carrageen, Sea Lettuce and Pepper Dulse

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Amelia Griffiths - The Queen of Algologists

Amelia Griffiths features in a chapter of Seaweed in the Kitchen  entitled The Seaweed Sisterhood. She is one of my favourite Victorian Seaweed Ladies. Of her interest in seaweed, she writes:

' It occupied the small amount of leisure from domestic occupation and amused a mind depressed by domestic misfortune.'

Read more about the Queen of Algologists in Science and Nature Writing by Philip Strange