Lumen print by Kit Martin. See her page on the cyanotype process.
Maize, along with rice and wheat, and to a lesser degree barley, provides most of the cereal or corn harvest for the world’s civilisations. Maize was domesticated in the Americas and did not arrive here until recent centuries, when ships and navigation were advanced enough to sail across an ocean.
Maize is a warm-climate crop  but consists of many varieties, some of which can be grown here in summer, where it’s product is known as corn-on-the-cob or sweet corn. It is also grown in stock farming as an animal feed, but mainly in the south of the UK.
Yet maize has many other uses. Here we look at two of them, both starting with the husk surrounding and protecting the cob – Jean Duncan’s exploration of paper-making using husks from maize grown in the Living Field garden, and the traditional use of maize husk as wrapping for Burmese cheroots.
For making plant paper, Jean tried various parts of the maize plants including the leaves, the thick stems and also the papery coverings of the flowering and fruiting head, known as the husk, which she said made the best paper .
The images above are of a print on maize husk paper of an etching of a maize root cut in cross section and magnified so that the internal structure can be seen.
In the print on the left hand side of the images, the original root cross section is about 1 mm wide, the image itself is 22 by 22 cm and the paper 40 by 49 cm. To the right are close-ups of part of the print and of the paper, showing the visible fibres from the original husks, now converted into paper.
The paper in this case became a visible part of the finished art. Sources below give links to Jean’s description of making the paper and an exhibition in which images of roots were printed on various plant-based papers .
Burmese cheroot wrapping
Once it was brought across from the Americas, maize travelled quickly in the 1600 and 1700s and became a favoured cereal through Africa and among the warmer parts of Europe. It established also in Asia, but usually as a secondary crop behind rice.
Its parts were used not only for food for humans and animals. There is a history of usage as a medicinal, as a substate for alcohol (e.g. chibuku in Africa) and curiously, as a wrapping for cheroots.
The long cigar shaped structures smoked in Burma (now Myanmar) and known as cheroots are usually filled with a range of herby and woody plant material, not always including tobacco. The wrapping can come from a range of plants, but the cigars below were wrapped in maize cob husks .
Several husk-leaves were used to wrap each cheroot. The contents were, as said above, derived from a range of plant material, most pieces being 2-4 mm long. Each cheroot had a filter, consisting of tight rolls of leaf or husk. They were on sale locally along the Irrawaddy River in Burma, now Myanmar .
In his compendium of useful plants, Burkhill  notes that an industry arose in north Burma at some time in the last few hundred years, based on the use of a type of maize, characterised by a waxy endosperm (the store in the seed), which also had a ‘peculiar suitability of the sheath for cheroots.’ He also refers to the possibility that certain impoverished areas were afflicted by the vitamin deficiency pellagra through reliance on maize, as in parts of the USA .
Male and female flower heads
Maize is unusual among the cereal or corn plants in having separate male and female flower heads, each on compact ‘branches’ held on different parts of the same plant. The male flowers are usually held at the top of the plant and the female lower down. Female branches are shown in the images below, taken in the Living Field garden.
The female flowering head remains mostly hidden within a sheath of leafy material (above left) that later forms the husk. The grain sites are arranged around the central ‘stem’ hidden by the sheath. The stem and grains together will later form what we know as the corn cob.
Each grain site puts out a long thread, many of which together emerge from the sheath in an irregular bunch, often named a silk, the female part of the reproductive process in this species (seen reddish, above left and top right).
The function of each female thread (comprising a stigma and style) is to receive pollen from male flowers and to provide a channel for the pollen tube, that emerges from a pollen grain, to grow into the sheath to a grain site. When pollinated, the grain sites fill to give the familiar, yellow kernel which remains protected by the sheath.
Sometimes the season in the Garden is too short for late flowering maize heads and they do not grow into a finished, filled cob. One of these late heads was prized apart to show an undeveloped cob (lower right in the images above) and the surrounding sheath that had turned to parchment in feel and colour. The female threads, now fibrous and dead, can just about be seen issuing from each grain site.
The paper shown in the images at the top of the page was made from husks like these.
Finally, here is an image of maize intercropped with groundnut growing by the Irrawaddy river . The male branches can be seen at the top of some of the plants. Female flowering heads are circled.
Sources, references, links
 The botanical name for maize is Zea mays. The genus Zea is of the grass family and has only this species. It was domesticated and developed many thousands of years ago in Central and South America. It was first brought across the Atlantic Ocean in the late 1400s, then spread rapidly east.
 The article Maize paper by Jean Duncan describes how to make paper from plants in the garden. The exhibition The Beauty of Roots shows prints and etchings made on maize and other plant papers displayed at the University of Dundee in 2017.
 Details of the spread and growing of maize in Asia are given in the major compendium of useful south-east Asian plants by Burkill, published in 1966, but clearly the result of many decades of investigation and cataloguing. He lists the use of maize husks for cheroot wrappings and of maize leaf and stem for paper.
Burkill IH. 1966. Dictionary of the Economic Products of the Malay Peninsular. Two volumes, 2444 pages. Published on behalf of the Governments of Malaysia and Singapore by the Ministry of Agriculture and Co-operatives, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The entry on maize is in Vol II at pages 2327-2334.
The writer refers to the following article for confirmation of the use of ‘waxy’ maize varieties as cheroot wrapping in Burma: Collins GN.1920. Waxy maize from upper Burma. Science 52, 48-51. doi 10.1126/science.52.1333.48.
 The cheroots shown in the images were bought at a village store in 2014 on the banks of the Irrawaddy. Further description of the region is given at Mixed cropping in Burma on the curvedflatlands web site in an article by G R Squire. Disclaimer – no cheroots were smoked in the research for this article!
Most of our paper comes from plants, but the process by which leaves and stems are converted to sheets that we can write on or wrap things in is unknown to most of us.
As part of her work with the Living Field, Jean Duncan has been making paper from plants grown in the garden.
She started with some maize, which is a tropical and sub-tropical species originally from the Americas. Some types can now grow in our climate, and it was one of these that was grown in the garden for its cobs (corn on the cob).
Jean used the maize plants to make the paper. Here is a description of what she did.
Step 1 is to collect maize leaves and stems when they are in good condition, still green.
Step 2 is to cut the leaves and stems into small pieces. Leaf pieces should be about the size of those in the white bowl. The tough stems were cut into larger pieces (right below).
Step 3 – put the cut material into an enamel bowl or pot (above left). Add soda ash to the material, 1 teaspoon for a 10 litre pot, and mix.
Step 4 – cook the plants for 3 hours, or more if the material is tough. At this point you will need pH indicator strips (litmus paper) to check that the cooking is going according to plan. (Litmus can be bought on-line or at some gardening shops.) The pH of the mixture should be around 8, but if it drops to 7 or 6 then add a little more soda ash. When cooked, the fibre should be soft and easy to tear.
Step 5 – rinse the fibre thoroughly in water; when fully rinsed the pH or the water should be neutral (i.e. about 7).
Step 6 – the fibre now needs to be beaten to a pulp. The traditional way is to beat it with a mallet for a few hours. (Craft-workers in some countries still use this method). An alternative, if you have electricity, is a kitchen blender working in short bursts so as not to burn out the motor. Jean uses a machine called a Hollander beater.
Step 7 – the fibres are now ready to be transformed into sheets of paper. The pulp is suspended in water. A ‘mould and deckle’ is lowered into the water (image above) and brought out slowly with a flat layer of fibre on it, or else the pulp is poured into the mould and deckle until there is a flat layer of the right thickness for the type of pulp (which you work out by trial and error); the water drains out through holes leaving the moist fibre.
Step 8 – the moist sheet of fibre is turned onto an absorbent fabric or board or something similar for drying and pressing, a procedure that takes about 3 days (top right in images below).
And that’s it – a sheet of paper!
[Update with minor amendments 10 June and 27 July 2017]
Another of the garden’s unusual plants attracting attention – NileHQ, a design company, commissioned a photographer from Dundee to take some images woad growing in the Living Field garden.
Woad flowers early in its second year. By late June, the yellow flowers are almost gone, while the pods, hanging in masses on the pale yellow floral branches, are turning from green to brown. In the next few weeks they will turn black and then the seeds are mature.
Woad reproduces in the garden from its own dropped seed. We thin and sometimes rearrange the plants in the summer of the first year.
Photograph above by the Living Field on 29 June 2015.
Indigenous crops; Scotch Bonnet; wool, woad and indigo; Tam o’Shanter, Burns supper; staple food of the north Atlantic seaboard; tatties, neeps, oat and barley; the grey cat!
In its undying search for the truly indigenous crop, the Living Field investigated the ‘Scotch Bonnet’, to find it was nothing local at all, but a hot little capsicum, now grown in the West Indies and other tropical places and used to give some spicy heat to food.
Why then is it called the Scotch Bonnet? It seems because it looks like one. Unlike many varieties of the chillies, this one bulges and sometimes flops when it leaves the stem: to some, with imagination, it resembles a Scotch Bonnet, on a head.
The Scotch Bonnet
Now the Living Field is well disposed to the headgear named Scotch Bonnet, originally made of local fibre, usually wool, and dyed blue with woad Isatis tinctoria, which was once grown as a crop in these islands, or with the deeper indigo Indigofera tinctoria, which is imported and replaced woad. Such skill and craft go into making this one little hat: you have to rear the sheep and shear them, then wash, spin and weave the fibre, grow and harvest the woad or indigo, extract the dyestuff, dye the cloth, then form it into a shape that would fit on a head – and it was all done before electricity.
But we see the Scotch Bonnet (headgear) is also called the Tam o’Shanter, and this is, it seems, because Tam in the poem by Burns wears a blue bonnet – it’s mentioned only once, but there it is – ‘Tam’s blue bonnet’.
Now these three words do not define what sort of bonnet it is, yet those who have depicted the bonnet in drawings and paintings of the epic give it the character and shape of a Scotch Bonnet, and those such as Alexander Goudie (1933-2004) who have painted in colour give it the colour blue – woad-blue or indigo-blue.
In Goudie’s fabulous paintings, the blue bonnet is there in almost every picture. It grows in significance. Even when chased by Cutty Sark and the other infernals, the blue bonnet stays on. Even when, with diminishing sark, she grabs Maggie’s (Tam’s mare’s) tail, pulls it and leaves just a stump of hair … the bonnet stays on. Considering the state of Tam, and the number and aggression of the infernals .. you wonder how the man and mare escaped? Was there something in these blue-bearing plants that somehow made Tam and his mare go faster or the infernals slower. Doesn’t matter, because if they had caught him, there would be no recitations of the poem and much less fun at Burns Night.
The poem Tam o’Shanter is very much associated with the festivities of the Burns Supper, and through the medium of the Supper, visitors can sample some of the great staple food and drink of the north Atlantic seaboard – oat, swede, potato and barley. Together, and with offal, including lungs, and other fleshly stuff from sheep, they make the traditional meal of haggis, neeps and tatties, the barley going not so much into the haggis as into the dram for those who partake (though, on the Night, the dram can sometimes … well … go into the haggis).
Would Burns have known the main crops that now form his Supper – he was a farmer for a few years? Sheep of course he would have known. Of the three main vegetable constituents, only oat has been here for a long time and that for thousands of years. He would have known oat. The neeps, usually swede rather than the (white) turnip, and tatties (potato) are relative newcomers, arriving perhaps a few decades before Burns was born. Burns probably knew about swede and potato but might not have grown them. Barley is older than oat here and he would have known barley and certainly known its products.
So while Burns (1759-1796) is now celebrated around the world, the world reciprocated before he was born by offering the vegetable constituents of his commemorative supper – oat and barley from west Asia, swede from (probably, though it’s not certain) east Europe or west Asia and potato from Central America. What a generous world!
Sources at the bottom of the page give links to his poems and song and to the Scots Dictionary. The image of haggis, neeps and tatties (above) was taken at a Burns ‘lunch’ at the Hutton staff restaurant. For those who want to know more about the crops, below is something more on swede, potato, oat and barley.
The tatties’ tale is well told elsewhere. Briefly, potato Solanum tuberosum arrived in Britain from the other side of the Atlantic in the late 1500s, but gained little interest other than a garden curiosity until …..
“To Thomas Prentice, a common day-labourer, who lived near Kilsyth, is the honour due of bringing this useful esculent into general notice in Scotland [so wrote Lawson and Son in 1836 only 40 years after Burns’ death … and read on … ] He procured, in 1728, some “sets” from Lancashire, and bestowed considerable care in their propagation; and as their value became known, they were eagerly sought after by his immediate neighbours. By continuing the cultivation he, in a few years, saved upwards of £200, with which he purchased a small annuity, on which he lived independently to an old age, dying at Edinburgh in the year 1792.”
So Thomas got his tattie tubers from Lancashire well before Burns was born and he died only a few years before Burns did. Burns was probably familiar with the potato, but only just. His parents’ generation probably did not know it and his grandparents’ would not have known it. Yet what an explosion of genetic resources there was after that, because little over a hundred years later there were 175 recognised types of potato known to Lawson and Son (1836, 1850) and today there are great collections of genetic resources such as the one at the Hutton Institute.
In their list of 1852, Lawson and Son, seedsmen from Edinburgh, write “in modern times the turnip seems to have been re-introduced to this country from Flanders about two-hundred years ago” which is the 1650s or thereabouts, but they also state that the time of introduction and the degree of cultivation of the swede or Swedish turnip is less certain though probably later (let’s approximate to around 1700). By Burns’ time the turnip had become a commercial farm crop in some areas of Scotland. Today the turnip has the botanical name Brassica rapa and the swede Brassica napus.
Both types of turnip were used to feed horses and cattle, but also people. The swede, the same species as oilseed rape, has leaf that is less coarse and hairy than the turnip, bluey-green rather than bright green and generally a yellow-orange flesh rather than white, which colour remains when cooked and mashed. So the neeps that are eaten these days with haggis and tatties are mostly swedes. An excellent vegetable, rich, smooth and distinctive to the taste, one of the very finest of the cabbages.
Oat Avena sativa and barley Hordeum vulgare had been the staple cereals of the north atlantic seaboard for a very long time. Charred grain of barley has been found in the earliest farming settlements. Their relative popularity has risen and fallen but in Burns’ time, oat was by far the most common, and it is the meal ground from oat grains that binds the animal constituents of the haggis. Today it’s the other way round, barley is the commoner crop, though oat is the one still used in haggis. More on oat and barley can be found on this site at Garden/Cereals and in the series of articles on landraces, e.g. The bere line – rhymes with hairline.
The grey cat?
She says “Arrived, invited, for a SoSCOtchBOnnet photoshoot posing in nothing but a Scotch Bonnet – and what a bonnet! Fine wool, indigo-dyed, cost me the earth … credit card maxed out … but the editor says ‘no nudity on the Living Field web site’ and I had to keep my fur on … no fun in that. Name’s Meggie by the way, like Tam’s horse Maggie but with an ‘e’. I do photoshoots. Call me.”
Burns poetry. Best get a book of it – there are several – and read it by a fireside on a winter’s night or in a field of corn and poppies in midsummer.
Burns is accessible online, e.g. http://www.robertburns.org and http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/robertburns/biography.shtml
Tam o’Shanter, a tale by Robert Burns, illustrated by Alexander Goudie. 2011. Berlinn, Edinburgh. More on the artist at http://www.alexandergoudie.org.uk at which – check under ‘paintings’ and ‘Tam o’Shanter’.
A Scot’s dictionary is handy if you are not familiar, e.g. The Concise Scots Dictionary (The Scots language in one volume from the first records to the present day). Editor in Chief: Mairi Robinson, 1985. Aberdeen University Press.
Lawson and Son’s exhibitions and lists of 1836 and 1852 are described on this site at Bere in Lawsons’ Synopsis 1852
The roots of the white water lily Nymphaea alba, extracted from the mud at the bottom of lakes, were once used to dye tweed ‘black, blue or dark brown’, and mixed with leaves to make a poultice (Scots Herbal).
Nymphaea alba is striking plant where it finds a place to expand in shallow lochs in open water between patches of reeds and sedges. The plants in the photographs above were growing in water at least one metre deep. They began flowering in early July. The small catchment that fed the loch had been mixed crops and grazing until the 1980s when it was turned to sheep grazing and sitka plantation. Apart from atmospheric deposition, the only pollutants were from animal dung and the annual sheep dip. Entry and outflow streams are crystal clear.
The metallic sky and water on this day recalled images of Tasek Bera (or Berak ) an inland expanse of water and swamp in Malaysia. Travel was by dugout and accommodation a small tent by the water’s edge: swimming in the dark water, paddling dugouts and exploring pandans, pitcher plants and white water lilies. At that time, a system in balance and now a Ramsar wetland site.
The photographs above taken on a visit in 1984 show (top left clockwise) water lilly, a view to the land surrounding the lake, pitcher plants and pandanus growing in the water, plant species uncertain.
More to follow on Tasek Bera.
Darwin T. 1996. The Scot’s herbal. Mercat Press, new edition 2008 by Berlinn.
Wetlands International web site for Tasek Bera – for information on the lake, plants and people, click the ‘Library’ tag on the site and next to ‘Current publications’ search for Tasek Bera to browse several sources including downloads.