Urban Growing

“A key feature of the walks is the pervasive presence of allotments in Bristol”

By Nicholas Edwards

The latest Bristol Good Food story is from medical herbalist Nicholas Edwards who is leading ethnobotany-themed walking tours of Bristol’s suburbs this spring. Nicholas makes the connection between plants and people, observing trends in food growing and foraging, as well as exploring the benefits (and limitations) of herbal medicine.

I am very excited to be sharing the stories of plants with the people of Bristol. My love of nature and alternative lifestyles led me to studying herbal medicine, which involved learning in detail about the medicinal qualities of plants and the clever chemicals that they manufacture. During the pandemic, I decided (like many others) to try something new and I finally got round to studying ethnobotany. This slightly odd sounding word refers to the connection between people, culture, and plants. This includes the use of plants for medicine, but also so much more. Plants have played an integral part of the evolution of culture: they can be traded as a commodity, used in construction, provide novel drugs, to say nothing of their role in feeding the world. Although in developed western societies our relationship with plants and their habitat has become more distant, they are still critical to our wellbeing. Without them, we would be nowhere!

The idea behind the ethnobotany walking tours is to reconnect people with the plants growing all around them and to share stories of how they are used and the history they have with us. Granted, as a herbalist I focus more on their medicinal value, and this is a major focus during the tours. As an amateur linguist, I also like to delve into botanical naming systems, which unlocks more of the stories that plants have to tell. For instance, for years I was baffled by the common name “Lime blossom” for the Linden tree, or Tiliacordata. This lime has nothing to do with the citrus fruit of course, but it was only recently that I discovered the name comes to us from Middle English lind and is related to the German word lind (yielding, lenient) and the Latin lentus (flexible), as well as the modern English word “lithe”. This name alludes to the flexible and easily carved nature of the wood, which lends itself well to the creation of puppets, musical instruments and sculptures.

I’m very happy to see in recent years a resurgence of interest in growing one’s own food, wildcrafting and foraging. In a similar vein, people also seem keen to take control of their health and explore options that are freely and easily available from nature. Herbal medicine is perfect for this, since plants don’t just feed us, they can heal us too. Why not try a lavender and mint compress before reaching for the paracetamol when you have a headache, or trying a chamomile infusion for an upset tummy?

As much as I try to be a champion for herbal medicine, I also think it’s important to raise awareness of its limitations, and the caution that is needed when using it. Unfortunately,”natural” is not a synonym of “safe”. Great white sharks are natural! Meeting plants first hand is the best way to learn about their effects, and how to use them safely.

I currently run the walking tours in two different locations in Bristol: St Werburghs and Totterdown. The former starts near Mina Park Road and goes up towards the allotments off Ashley Down Road. This is a fantastic area to do the tour, with the City Farm and community garden, as well as the Narroways park nearby. There is so much to see and talk about, as well as a lovely view out over Bristol. People often say they didn’t realise there was so much going on in terms of “interesting” plants. That’s the beauty of the walks – they shed new light on familiar features.

The other tour route starts just by Saint Mary Redcliffe Church in the city centre and heads out to Victoria Park, before climbing up the slope at Perrett Park. A key feature of the walks is the pervasive presence of allotments in Bristol, which are a joy for me to see. It goes to show that for a lot of people, the connection between plants and people is still strong.

Find dates for all upcoming ethnobotany-themed walking tours on The Apothecary Box website.

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