Friday, September 26, 2014

How To Distill Your Own Wee Dram

These are troubling times in the Fandom. 

Starz announced this week that instead of the second half of Season 1 of Outlander beginning in January, it will start on April 7, 2015. This news went down badly with fans who were already wondering what they were going to do with themselves from the time when Episode 8 airs on September 27 until the first of the year when Episode 9 was going to arrive.
Waddya mean? We have to wait six whole MONTHS? Waaaaah! 
This from people who should be used to waiting. Diana Gabaldon, prolific as she is, says that it takes her three to four years (not months) to write one of her Big Books. Doing the math, that means that since the most recent book in the Outlander series, In My Own Heart's Blood, came out in June of this year, we won't see the next book in the series until summer of 2017 or 2018. That makes waiting until April for a new TV episode seem like no big deal.

It happens that this upset over the date change is happening at the same time that I am doing research for a post on barley - a far more interesting subject than I ever expected. The research has led me to do some reading about how barley is used in the making of barley wine, beer and whisky. And once I got past the information on malting and fermenting, the next thing I wanted to know was how whisky is distilled.

As I was watching YouTube videos, it occurred to me - if anyone needs an Outlander-related activity to keep them occupied for the next 6 months, building a still and making whisky could be just the thing.

You're going to start by making wort, a liquid drawn from the mash of malted barley which contains the sugars that will convert to alcohol in the fermenting process. Unless you are really desperate for something to do, I'm not going to send you to the malting shed with bags of wet barley grain. To keep this simple, go to your local home-brew store and buy malt extract. That will save you the steps of malting the barley, making the mash, and extracting malt from it. You simply mix the malt extract with water to make the wort. While at the home-brew store, ask about recipes and buy the yeast you will use for fermenting the wort. You will also need to buy a large glass container in which to store the wort while it ferments. When fermentation is complete, you are ready for distilling.

This article, How to Make Whisky - Step by Step, is a good overview of the entire process. Before you get invested too much in this project, you should give it a read.

The basics of still manufacture are pretty simple, as this article 3 Ways to Build a Still explains. If you are more of a visual learner, here's a video, below, that explains what to do. You can probably build a still for around $100.

There's enough to do here to keep you busy for weeks. And if your attempts are less than hoped for, you can always pop into a bottle shop on April 6 and buy a bottle of the good stuff to sip while you watch Episode 9.

Slainte mhath!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

3 Reasons To Love Latin Plant Names

Cue Tina Turner...

What's Latin got to do, got to do with it? 

What's Latin, but a sweet old fashioned language? 

What's in a name? Quite a lot, as it happens, in the world of horticulture. Consider the flap over plants in Episode 3 of Outlander. Claire correctly explains that Convallaria majalis, commonly known as lily of the valley, is often mistaken for wood garlic, Allium ursinum. However, the plant she identifies as lily of the valley is not Convallaria - a fact pointed out by many viewers - it doesn't even look similar. Because the script was so clear, specifying Convallaria, one wonders how such a mistake could have happened.

Lily of the Valley shrub - Pieris japonica 
My guess, and this is only a guess, is that the person sent to find the plant for filming the episode was simply told to find a "lily of the valley." That seems innocent enough, especially to people who don't have much experience, but if you want a specific plant, the only way to assure accuracy is to use its Latin, scientific name. Using the common name, lily of the valley, can get you into trouble because more than one plant may have that name. Possibilities in this case include: false lily of the valley (Maianthemum dilatum), which seems most likely the plant used for the show, or lily of the valley shrub (Pieris sp.

I can sympathize with the producers of the show, because of my experience as a landscape designer. Designers and architects specify plants for landscape plans using Latin names because we are very particular about form, size and color. We know precisely which plants will deliver those characteristics, and we strive to be as clear as possible with our instructions. But nearly all of us have had the experience of visiting a job site and being horrified to find that an installer has taken it upon himself to make some substitutions. If I have specified a dwarf conifer that will fit nicely into a small, urban garden, I am not happy to see that one of its relatives, a forest tree that wants to be 150 feet tall, has taken its place. 

That said, if you are not in the horticulture business, do Latin plant names really matter? If you are a gardener or have any interest in plants, I believe so. Here are three reasons:

1) Latin botanical names are names without borders. No matter what country you live in and no matter what language you speak, botanists, biologists, nursery professionals, landscape designers, architects and savvy gardeners all use the same Latin, scientific name for the same plant.

2) Using Latin names eliminates confusion. Plants have common names, but these names vary from place to place. You can't assume that the common name that you have for a plant means the same thing to other people.

Is this a mango? 
One of my hort instructors told us a story about ordering a pizza while visiting in Ohio. Looking through the list of toppings, he was surprised to see that mangoes were offered. Thinking that an orange, tropical fruit was rather an exotic choice, particularly in the midwestern US, he had to ask. Turns out, "mango" is what the locals there call green bell pepper. It's one more example of how common names can cause misunderstandings.

3) Finally, when ye have a wee bit o' the Latin, the names will tell ye more about the wee plants, ye ken?  Here's brief list of Latin species names to give you an idea.

alba - white
aurea - yellow or gold (Au being the chemical symbol for gold)
baccata - having berry-like fruit
callosum - thickened, calloused
compacta - small, compact
dendatum - toothed
fasciata - bound together
ilicifolia - having leaves like holly
indica - native to India
lacteum - milky
macrophylla - having big leaves
nana - small
nigra - black
palustris - loves marshes
pendula - pendulous, weeping
purpurea -  purple
rubra - red
spinosa - spiny or thorny
sylvatica - of the forest
tortuosum -  twisted, contorted
umbraculifera - umbrella-like
variegata - variegated, usually refers to foliage with more than one color
viridis - green
vulgaris - common

Want to know more? Have a name you want to look up? Go to the Botanical Dictionary at Dave's Garden.

Related Post:

Right Plants, Wrong Season?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Rowan Tree

"I had no idea how much time had passed since I had entered the standing stones, or how long I had lain unconscious on the hillside below the circle. Quite a while, judging from the sogginess of my clothing; I was soaked through to the skin, and small chilly rivulets ran down my sides under my gown. 
One numbed cheek was beginning to tingle; putting a hand to it, I could feel a pattern of incised bumps. I looked down and saw a layer of fallen rowan berries, gleaming red and black among the grass. Very appropriate, I thought, vaguely amused. I had fallen down under a rowan - the Highland protection against witchcraft and enchantment." 
- from VOYAGER, by Diana Gabaldon, Chapter 24
Rowan, or "Luis" in Gaelic, is both a tree and the name of the second character in the Celtic Ogham Tree Alphabet. Examples of writing with this alphabet can be found in manuscripts dating from the 6th to 9th centuries and inscriptions on standing stones in Scotland, Ireland and Wales, dating as far back as 400 AD. (Here are maps showing the locations of some of these stones.) Ogham was used to write Primitive Irish, Welsh, Pictish and Latin.

The origin of this alphabet is a mystery:
  • Was it invented before the time of Jesus by Druids that inhabited northern Italy? 
  • Was it a secret code used by Celtic people to communicate in a way that couldn't be deciphered by those who spoke only Latin? 
  • Was it a way to combine Latin and Celtic languages as intermarriage brought the two cultures together? 
Historians and scholars have come up with different theories, but no one has the answer.

Ellen Evert Hopman, an herbalist, researcher and modern day Druid priestess, offers her understanding of the Ogham Tree Alphabet in her book, A Druid's Herbal of Sacred Tree Medicine.
"The 'Tree Alphabet' is a vital bit of tree lore that has been handed down through the centuries. The ancient Scots, Irish and other Celtic peoples did not use the alphabet that we use today (A, B, C, and so forth). They had their own script, called Ogham, which was both a type of sign language and a written alphabet... Ogham was not used to write books, it was used on commemorative stones such as burial markers. It was used for magic: an Ogham spell could be written on a scrap of tree bark and placed in the way of an advancing army, which would stop them in their tracks."
There are 20 characters in this alphabet, one for each of the trees sacred to the Celts. It makes sense that the letters were named for trees because of the close relationship people had with the natural world. Trees were a source of food, medicine, and material for shelter and tools. For ancient people, trees also had religious, spiritual and magical significance.

The significance of the Rowan tree was that it provided protection from witchcraft and evil spirits. It was called "the Druid's tree."  According to Hopman, it was an important wood in the celebration of Beltane: "A rowan fire in the hearth brought luck on May Day morning." In autumn, garlands of red rowan berries were worn by women in the Highlands to keep them safe. The Scots made tiny Xs of rowan wood, bound with red thread, and sewed them into clothing to protect against witchcraft. Implements, cradles and coffins were made of rowan wood as protection from evil.

As ye may remember, Dougal MacKenzie told Claire how Geillis Duncan met her end: "Sent to the devil in a pillar of flame, under the branches of a rowan tree."

Botanical Information

Family: Rosaceae
Genus: Sorbus
Species: Sorbus aucuparia (red berries) and Sorbus americana (orange berries)
Common names: rowan, witch tree, mountain ash

Note: in spite of its common name, rowan is not really an ash - true ash trees are in the Oleaceae family, genus Fraxinus.

Sorbus aucuparia, European mountain ash, is native to Europe, western Asia and Siberia. Sorbus americana is native to eastern North America.

Rowans are striking trees in the landscape with deep green foliage and abundant clusters of white flowers in spring. The flowers give way to large displays of red or orange berries in fall.

Because these trees are in the rose family, they are susceptible to the same fungal diseases. To deter black spot and scab, use members of the Allium genus as companion plants. Alliums include: garlic, chives, onions and shallots.

Culinary Uses

Rowan berries are very bitter if eaten raw, but are palatable when used in jams, jellies, compotes, syrups, wine and liqueur.

Medicinal Uses

Rowan berries are a good source of Vitamin C, used to treat or prevent scurvy. The berries have been used in traditional Austrian medicine to make tea, syrup, jelly and liqueur for the treatment of respiratory problems, fevers, infections, and gout.

Hopman says that Scottish Highlanders simmered rowan berries, apples and honey to make a syrup to treat colds, coughs, fevers and sore throats.

Related Posts

A Rose Is A Rose, Is An Apple, Is a Berry

A Druid's Herbal

Garlic - A Food, A Medicine, an Aphrodisiac?!

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Heathers & Heaths

Heather blooming in August at Kubota Garden in Seattle, Washington
"I swung down the road that afternoon toward the village, to fetch Frank from the vicarage. I happily breathed in that heady Highland mix of heather, sage, and broom, spiced here and there with chimney smoke and the tang of fried herring, as I passed the scattered cottages." - from OUTLANDER, by Diana Gabaldon, Chapter 2
Next to the thistle, heather is probably the plant most associated with Scotland. Much of the color in the moorland landscape is from the flowers and multi-hued foliage of heather. The greens, greys, bronzes and purples blend in ways that are reminiscent of an Impressionist painting, especially in summer.

Heather is also an integral part of Scottish culture. It is the subject of folklore, such as the legend of Heather Ale (see below). The Druids considered it a sacred plant. White heather flowers, which are rare, are regarded as a good luck charm and a protection from harm. From a practical standpoint, heather has been used to thatch roofs and stuff mattresses. Ancient Scots used it as medicine for a whole host of complaints including digestive issues, anxiety, arthritis and what is today known as tuberculosis. Heather is used to make beer. Bees love the heather flowers and make a distinctive honey from the nectar. Heather is a food source for sheep and deer. Like the Scottish people, heather is rugged and resilient.

Botanical Information

There are two plants that are commonly called heather. They belong to the same family, look very similar and have the same cultural requirements. But they are in two different genera.

Family: Ericaceae
Genus: Calluna
Species: Calluna vulgaris
Common name: Scotch heather, heather, ling

Family: Ericaceae
Genus: Erica
Species: There are many. Erica carnea and E. x darleyensis are two of the most common.
Common name: People usually call these plants "heather," but technically they are heaths.

What is the difference between a heath and a heather? If you look closely at the foliage, you will see that heaths have needle-like leaves and heather has scale-leaves. Another difference is bloom time. Heath flowers in winter and spring. Heather blooms in summer and autumn.

Like most members of the Ericaceae family, heathers and heaths require acidic soil. The moorlands of the British Isles are one of their native habitats. Heather also does well west of the Cascade Mountains, in the Pacific Northwest, where the soil pH is generally between 5.5 and 6.5. Heather does not require much care. It thrives in poor soil and needs little or no fertilizer. It likes sun to light shade and evenly moist soil. Shear plants right after blooming to keep them from getting too leggy.

It is possible to have continuous bloom and color year around by combining heathers and heaths in the garden. In winter and spring, heath has white, pink and rose flowers. In summer and fall, heather has pink, red, white, lavender and purple flowers, and foliage in a striking array of colors: bronze, gold, chartreuse, apricot, grey-green, yellow and, of course, various shades of green.

Many of these plants are ground covers, but some can get as tall as 2 feet. There is a tree heath (E. aborea) native to southern Europe and north Africa that can grow as tall as 20 feet.

Medicinal Uses

Ellen Evert Hopman describes how heather is used as medicine in A DRUID'S HERBAL.
"The flowering shoots of heather are used for insomnia, stomach pains, coughs, and skin problems. Heather, used fresh or dry, strengthens the heart and slightly raises the blood pressure. Heather is slightly diuretic."

 Heather Ale - a brew with a 4,000 year history 

Fraoch Heather Ale from Scotland with sprigs 
of 'Red Fred' Scotch heather from my garden.
On the Isle of Rum in the Inner Hebrides Islands of Scotland, archaeologists have discovered traces of a drink made from heather on pot shards dating back to 2000 BC. Stories and folklore from medieval times tell of the making and drinking of beverages made from heather flowers.

Legend has it that the secret to the art of brewing heather ale died with the last Pictish king. Robert Louis Stevenson's poem, Heather Ale: A Galloway Legend, tells the tale. You can read it here on The Poetry Lovers' PageOr listen to the words set to music in the video below. 

In spite of what legend tells us, however, that wasn't the end of the practice of brewing heather ale. This ancient tradition continued for centuries until it was all but wiped out, for real, after the Act of Union in 1707. On the Rampant Scotland website there is this explanation:
"1707 AD, The Act of Union: After centuries of war Scotland became part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain. Despite many wars of independence and Highland uprisings, Scotland had lost its freedom. Many atrocities were passed through Parliament during the 18th century, outlawed was the wearing of tartan, playing bagpipes and Highland gatherings. Lands were stolen from crofters, Gaelic was forbidden and clans were persecuted - a whole culture and way of life was virtually destroyed. An Act was passed which prevented brewers using any ingredients other than hops and malt. Hops cannot grow in Scotland (indeed there is no Gaelic word for hops) and heather ale was all but reduced to legend."
(And this was before Culloden. It is no wonder that those bloody Sassenachs were verra unwelcome in the Highlands by the time Claire arrived. However, in spite of the "laws," Highlanders continued their customs including wearing tartans and speaking Gaelic until after the Battle of Culloden.)

Acts of Parliament notwithstanding, this still was not the end of the heather ale story. In 1988, Scottish microbrewers Bruce and Scott Williams began making an ale inspired by a 17th century Gaelic recipe for leann fraoich (heather ale). You can read how they happened to acquire the recipe, handed down for generations, on the Williams Bros. Brewing Co. website. It is quite a good story. Their Fraoch Heather Ale (pictured above) has been so well received that they have added four more ales based on ancient recipes to their repertoire. They are:

  1. 'Alba - Scots Pine Ale' - a Viking recipe introduced to Scotland
  2. 'Grozet - Gooseberry Wheat Ale' - a 16th century monk recipe
  3. 'Kelpie - Seaweed Ale' - an early west coast brew 
  4. 'Ebulum - Elderberry Black Ale' - a recipe introduced to Scottish Highlanders by Welsh druids.

If you live in the Seattle area and would like to try their Fraoch Heather Ale, you can find it at The Beer Junction in West Seattle.