Pools of light

Fluorescent rock poolOver the last few weeks I have been a regular visitor to the great stretches of basalt rock that reach out into Milsey Bay in the east of the town, and to the beach by the 3rd hole in the west, to watch the ebb of Winter flow into Spring. There are a few favourite tide pools that draw me in especially on the days of lowest tides with their beauty and intensity of light and life. This is not a collecting time of year, so I take photos, Some I have made into banners for this site, but thought I might post them here in their original forms.

Red sandstone rock pool

Red sandstone rock pool

Opposite the Marine Hotel, in the low rocky outcrops of the Hummell Ridges, are shallow pools with pink bottoms of exquisite cerise Lithothamnion and rougy Hildenbrandia. Lining these pools are blankets of Laminaria and Fucus, their great floppy fronds forming a protective ridge at the each poolside’s edge, hiding within them a myriad of seaweeds, snails, crabs, shrimp, shells and sand. On the east side, between the Seabird Centre and the Yellow Man, are the dark milky bore holes of the Milsey Rocks.

Irredescent Carragheeen These surprisingly deep craters are home to copses of kelps at one end, and crevices of purple corallines and magenta rhodymenia at the other, sheltering in and out of the orange sandstone ledges. Here the contrast between the red sandstone and greenstone is acute, borders merged by splashes of crustose algae, with iridescent blue Carrageenans sparkling in the first rays of Spring.

Final weekend of Sea Flora Exhibition

Photo by Serge Jak

Photo by Serge Jak

This weekend marks the end of my first exhibition at the Gateway Gallery of the RBGE. Many thanks to all at the Botanics, especially curator Kirsty White, who have made this show such a success.  A big thank you too to Kate Eden for joining me in our talk on Victorian seaweed collectors on the 13 June, to BBC Radio Scotland’s Out of Doors programme for their support, and to all those who came along to see the show and wrote lovely comments in the guest book.

Many of the pressings both on paper and in acrylic are now for sale – if you are interested, please send me an email through the Contact page.

Sea Flora acrylics - photo by Serge Jak

Sea Flora acrylics – photo by Serge Jak


Seaweed art

William Kilburn's seaweed fabric design, circa 1788

William Kilburn’s seaweed fabric design, circa 1788

Oh! Call us not weeds, but flowers
of the sea,
For lovely, and gay and bright-
tinted are we!
Our blush is as deep as the rose
of thy bowers –
Then call us not weeds, we are
Ocean’s gay flowers.

from Mary Matilda Howard’s, “Ocean flowers and their teachings” (1846)

Pink and green feathery branches and floating tendrils spin from a central arrangement of coral, periwinkle and seaweed to form the central motif of William Kilburn’s classic textile designs for frocks of the 18th century. Weaving organic forms of foliage, flowers and roots his courtly compositions presaged the naturalistic designs of William Morris by a century, but are oddly familiar to those of us who delight in early Laura Ashley and Cath Kidston.

Kilburn (1745-1818), born in Dublin, worked as a botanical illustrator for William Curtis on the Flora Londiniensis, his adherence to authenticity rooted in the new science of botany just at the moment when Linnaeus was devising his monumental classification system. Kilburn later started his own printing company creating fabrics that captured the growing fascination for natural history and craze for gathering and collecting seaweeds. In fact more than twenty of his textile designs in the V&A’s archives have British seaweeds at the centre of his compositions.

Anna Atkins cyanotype of Laminaria digitata, circa 1853

Anna Atkins cyanotype of Laminaria digitata, circa 1853

A generation later, Anna Atkins (1799 – 1871), a trained botanist, explored the use of photography to create her exquisite cyanotype photogenic ‘drawings’ of seaweeds, using a cameraless technique introduced to her by William Henry Fox Talbot and Sir John Herschel. She published three volumes Photographs of British Algae starting in 1843 and completing the set in 1853, leading the way for photography in scientific illustration. She was one of several well-known Victorian women seaweed collectors, together with Amelia Griffiths (1768-1858) and Margaret Gatty (1809-1873) – whose work is still treasured in the collection of the University of St Andrews.



In 1941 Henri Matisse (born 1869) started his “vie seconde” and his celebrated artistic period of painting with scissors – cutting freeform shapes of colourful painted paper into organic shapes and composing rhythmic improvisations. He was “taking a closed space of reduced proportions and, through a play of light and colours alone, conferring infinite dimensions on it”.  In 1947 he began the design for the beautiful stained glass window of La Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence, based on motifs of seaweed and coral   In this vibrant late period of his life he created over 20 collages, many now on view in the masterful show at the Tate Modern.

Julia Lohmann_Oki Naganode, 2013

Julia Lohmann_Oki Naganode, 2013

More recently, Julia Lohmann, a German designer became head of the Department of Seaweed at the V&A, exploring new techniques of crafting objects from kelps. Her stunning pieces are both art and product design, from huge installations to elegant benches and lamp shades.

Lastly, I recently visited the stunning stained glass show ‘Beyond the Object’, by Dale Chihuly (American, 1941), at the Halcyon Gallery on New Bond Street. The light and shadow effects are mesmerising, a dreamlike sensation of floating beneath stilled chromatic waves of organic forms diffusing the colour and light of a electric rockpool.

Dale Chihuly from 'Beyond the Object', Halcyon Gallery, 2014

Dale Chihuly from ‘Beyond the Object’, Halcyon Gallery, 2014

Sea Flora Exhibition open!

The Gateway Gallery is now awash with seaweeds!

Located on the first floor of the John Hope Gateway centre of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, the exhibition is free and open from 10am – 5:45pm daily, until 15th June 2014.

Sea Flora table 1Gathered from the East Lothian coast between Gullane Bents and Tyninghame Beach, the sea flora pressings of Rhodophyta (reds), Chlorophyta (greens) and Phaeophyta (browns) are displayed primarily by colour along with some wonderful Victorian books on collecting seaweeds. The larger entrance display holds bolder specimens from wracks and kelps to edible laver and sea lettuce.

See my Gallery page for more details or go the ‘What’s On’ pages of the RBGE website.

Sea Flora table 2




Sea Flora at the Botanics

Callophyllis laciniataI will be exhibiting about 40 of my seaweed pressings in the John Hope Gateway Centre at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival.  The show is curated by Kirsty White and runs from Sat, 5th April to 15th June 2014.

This collection  reveals the extraordinary range, beauty and diversity of seaweeds that grow in the rock pools and kelp beds along the shores of East Lothian, from Gullane to Seacliff. Collected through the seasons, they show the life cycle from vibrant new growth to mature form, with the accompanying changes to pigmentation and ultimately decay as time and tide take their toll. These are real specimens (although at first glance they resemble botanical illustrations) based on an old Victorian tradition of herbarium pressing, but presented in a contemporary context. The images are striking in their simplicity and surprising by their similarity to land-based flora, taking graceful organic forms resembling trees, leaves, flowers and feathers – their exquisite abstraction of colour, shape and form questioning the division between science and art.

More details are available on the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh’s website

Eat your greens!

Sea lettuce and LaverUlva latuca, commonly known as “sea lettuce” grows in gentle profusion at the mid-littoral zone of our northern shores where it can find protected, tide pools, crevices or low-lying rocky outcrops to gain a holdfast protected from the force of tidal surges, but not too far from sunlight. Ulva will settle in quite well with its cousin Laver (Porphyra umbilicalis) – who is much more prolific in its range and spread – and are happy to populate the lower parts of rocky stretches that are home to a variety of wracks (Fucus vesiculosus, F. serratus and F. spiralis). They will live quite happily cheek by jowl with the Enteromorphas (Gutweed), hiding in their long strands along the water’s edge.Enteromorpha underwater

A brilliant bright green, translucent in water, a bed of Ulva latuca will resemble waving leaves of young lettuce underwater but are rather gooey when on dry land.  Highly nutritious (full of natural protein, potassium, magnesium, iron, iodine, zinc and vitamins) they have been used for centuries to augment the diet of poorer coastal dwellers, particularly in the ‘lean’ months between Feb and May, and are still one of nature’s  natural “rescue remedies”; growing rapidly in the Spring and providing a wealth of essential micronutrients (Omega 3 fatty acids too) that we all lack in northern climes. Sea lettuce can be eaten raw or lightly cooked (unlike Laver which needs a protracted period of boiling) by steaming or frying, and is often dried and then crumbled onto salads.

Palmaria palmataDulse – although decidedly not green, Dulse (Palmaria palmata) is an ancient foodstuff of the Northern British Isles and a staple ingredient in many traditional Scots and Irish dishes. Today it is sold in health food shops, neatly chopped and dried to be tossed onto salads, vegetables, or mixed into stews.  Highly nutritious, and tasting vaguely of Marmite, it is an excellent, potent source of vitamins, minerals and iron and historically recommended to those suffering from nutritional deficiencies or recovering from illness. I was delighted to see it being used as an alternative to salt in a pizza dough recipe for healthy school eating programmes.Laver covered rock

Laver – The Welsh equivalent, Laver bread is still made and consumed in coastal and mining communities along the shores of Wales.  Washed, chopped, boiled and moulded into ‘cakes’ it is then traditionally fried and served at  breakfast as accompaniment to bacon and eggs. Not surprisingly, it has a very high vitamin D content that helps to mitigate against long hours spent underground with no or low exposure to the sun’s rays, in addition to being a plentiful source of protein, as well as vitamins B, B2, A and C.  Japanese, Korean and Chinese cuisines use Laver (Porphyra yezoensis), known as nori or gim, to wrap sushi in, and to flavour soups and stews, drawing on the huge coastal sea farms for their harvests of both it, Ulva prolifera  and Sugar kelp.

Kelp  – The huge stalks of Laminaria that range across the lowest strands of the tidal zones have long been used by harvesters and farmers to augment meagre diets and incomes.  Kelp has been harvested to extract agar (used for centuries as a gelling agent) – formerly harvested off the shores of Scotland, but now harvested for that purpose in Japan and Iceland. Today kelp is still sold in capsule form to help combat obesity – an ancient diet pill. It is kelp that is used to create the gold standard of luxurious skin cream, Crème de la Mer, developed by creator Dr Max Huber who saw Pacific Coast fishermen applying it to sunburn.  I understand that it is also used in Burn Units of A&E hospitals, where it is laid directly onto affected skin, just underneath bandaging, to promote healing of scarred and burnt tissue.

SaccharinaSugar kelp (Saccharina latissima) and “Long feathers” (Alaria esculenta) were traditionally collected from the shores of the Firth of Forth and sold in Edinburgh by merchants in street markets. These two seaweeds are still cultivated and harvested by coastal communities and served as a regular staple in diets of China, Iceland and even parts of Maine and Connecticut.

More recently, scientists at the University of Birmingham have been using seaweed in tandem with other natural products to create gel-like ingredients that make you feel fuller, longer – molecular gastronomy.Alaria esculenta

It makes me wonder that so many easily accessible sources of vitamins, minerals and health promoting substances are so little known by today’s populations.  What a bounty we have at our shores just beyond the reach of dry land!

Winter Storms

Surfer at NB BayWalking along North Berwick beach last week I spotted a rare sight lying low along the foaming waves –  a surfer. Bobbing up and down she battled the surge to gain the swells forming within the shallow bay, but after several attempts, and no decent rides, she abandoned the effort and waded off, probably down to Ravensheugh or Dunbar in search of bigger waves.

Eroding sandsThe sand however could not retreat, and great chunks were being pulled into the sea creating a landscape of soft cliffs along an ordinarily level sweep of beach. Tugging and pulling, the surf relentlessly washed forward and back, sucking the mounds from underneath, and then once dispelled, surged to nag at the old boards holding the sea back from the shore.

Seaweed pyres

Further towards the West, once the tide had retreated, I came across great heaps of seaweeds, tangled and tossed into huge pyres and hanging from the highest rocks. These mangled mountains must have contained thousands, if not millions, of seaweeds, from giant kelps and big bands of fucus to mats of shiny laver and tangles of mermaids’ hair.  What an extraordinary testament to the flora beneath the waves.

Rare Harvest Jan 2014

Lastly, at the lowest ebb of the tide, I came across a rare harvest; with tons of sand pulled back into the deep, there lying exposed were a plethora of golf balls. I started to gather one or two (good for backyard practice) and soon realised they were in every nook and cranny, some even came with the stipes of young seaweeds attached. The most interesting one however was an old specimen, brown with microscopic algae, its shiny surface of tiny pockmarks echoing an age gone by – it was probably played about 30 years ago… I guess golfers have found this stretch of the course difficult for a long time.

Sea Change Event

We had a great evening at the Sea Change event at the RBGE on Thursday night.

Preparing seaweed specimens

Preparing seaweed specimens

It was the first ‘Botanics Late’ venture, and was held in John Hope Gateway centre; a huge open space venue on two floors.  The lower level housed a three different artist’s exhibitions, a sound stage with performances by poets, musicians and comedians, and a lecture theatre filled with microscopes and modelling clay where Professor Kate Darling gave an illustrated talk on the science of foraminifera and the movement of sand.

The upper level had several workshop areas; one for seaweed scrubs (by fellow Herbologist Jill Tees),  Dr Greg Kenicer offered up seaweed products including a delicious agar panacotta, and Dr Elspeth Haston showed off specimens from the Herbarium collections. Stargazers sprawled across the big deck, sheltering under the eaves, and the bar was in full swing.

Sea Change event - seaweed pressings workshop

Seaweed pressings at the Sea Change event

I held my seaweed pressing workshop in the large space at the back and was flooded with curious and eager participants. Some had experience of flower pressing from their childhood, but all were new to pressing seaweeds.

The enthusiasm was overwhelming and we went through every bit of art paper, blotting paper, cardboard, muslin, and newspaper by then end of the evening!  I hope the tightly wrapped specimens made it to their respective airing cupboards later on and that the evening sparked a love of the beauty of seaweeds.Botanics late pass

Sea Change Exhibition

On Thurs, 7th Nov, the RBGE will be hosting their first ‘Late Event’ to preview the Sea Change exhibition.  The evening will bring together artists, scientists and environmentalists who have been exploring the effect of climate change on the sea as part of a four-year Cape Farewell project funded by Creative Scotland, Arts Council England and others.

Storm coming in from FifeThe event is taking place in the John Hope Gateway Centre and will include live music, film, poetry, printmaking, food and drink celebrating work resulting from voyages around the Western and Northern Isle. As part of the evening,  I will be giving workshops in pressing seaweeds.

The evening kicks off at 7pm and goes on to 10pm. Tickets are £10 each and it is an adult only event.

phpThumb_generated_thumbnailjpgBook your tickets now at www.botanics-late.eventbrite.co.uk

The Sea Change exhibition will be open to the public from 8 Nov to 26 Jan 2014.

Seaweeds to biofuels

I was intrigued to read of the growing interest in using seaweeds as a source of biofuel across the globe and interested to know how Scotland could use its rich algae fields and extensive coastlines to capitalise on this. (Anything to do away with wind-farms!)

Some outstanding research has been done by the At-Sea project, a European research programme focusing on growing seaweeds on innovative textile mesh placed in shallow inshore waters, producing multiple annual harvests. One of the aims of the project is to develop a high tensile strength textile mesh and cables to act as a substrata, that is robust and durable enough to survive the tidal environment. The Scottish Association for Marine Science at Dunstaffnage near Oban, a key partner in the project, is also looking to design flexible and lightweight tanks to extend the project scope

Green seabeds June 2013 075Farming annual fast-growing macroalgae seaweeds like Ulva lactuca and Palmaria palmata, in manmade inshore seabeds could deliver massive yields for the green energy industry.  This would release a huge amount of land for food production now currently (and controversially)  being used grow corn, palm oil and sugar cane for bio-fuel production. More interestingly, some research and development by companies both here and in the USA, has pointed to a 3-part yield: nutrient rich oils for the health market; bio-fuels, methane and ethanol for energy; and fertiliser compounds of agriculture.

One of the issues up to now in using seaweed biomass to develop bio-fuel has been the difficulty in finding a way to ferment the sugar from seaweed to turn it into ethanol. One Indian company , Sea6Energy, has developed a process using normal yeast  to create a successful fermentation process for red seaweeds, whilst researchers at Berkeley, California have focused on developing genetically modified bacteria to do the trick.

Further research from the University of Delaware has found that one microscopic algae, Heterosigma akashiwo (common worldwide) actually grows on toxic gas emitted by power plants, neutralising what is currently a harmful and noxious substance. In fact the algae in this process actually thrive, growing twice as fast as normal and so producing huge amounts of carbohydrates that can be converted to biofuel – a real win-win situation!


The Hearald: http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/home-news/magic-carpet-grows-seaweed-as-a-bio-fuel.21498281

Sea6 Energy: http://www.sea6energy.com/

Science Mag http://www.sciencemag.org/content/335/6066/308.abstract?sid=4917299c-2cb9-4c85-b5d7-68094f7a62bf