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