Rice sculpture at Singapore Changi by artist Eng Tow. Rice the feeder of millions. Photographs of rice fields in Laos and Bangladesh. Hanging gardens and waterfall. Bringing plants to people.
Grains of Thought (2015) is the name. Huge grains of rice, magnified from reality many times, made from acrylic and carbon fibre by the artist Eng Tow . They were transferred in 2019 to the South Gateway Garden at Changi Airport from an exhibition at the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore .
These massive grains sit and hang among moist tropical vegetation inside the South Gateway precinct. All around, people were eating rice at the food stalls and restaurants.
Rice was domesticated in Asia. The climate suits it. Most rice is still grown in Asia. Over three-quarters of the global production comes from China, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Vietnam (Fig. 1). Rice is also grown in smaller quantities more widely, for example in the USA, south America, north Africa and southern Europe.
Fig. 1 Distribution of global rice production among countries, mainly in Asia: drawn from statistics of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.
In typical systems of cultivation in Asia, rice is grown in flat fields or terraces, surrounded by bunds made of heaped and compacted soil. The high rainfall of monsoon or wet seasons is retained within the fields or else lifted or pumped into fields from nearby waterways. The rice needs to be submerged in water but it is also better to retain the water and let it evaporate slowly, rather than have it flow downhill taking soil with it. The water is skilfully channelled between fields, sometime over extensive hillslopes and valley bottoms.
Fig 2 Rice fields in Bangladesh: upper, during soil cultivation before planting, hanging fronds are from coconut palms on a roadside; lower left, one field planted centre; lower right, all fields planted with young rice in lines.
Two examples of this ’paddy’ system are shown on this page, from Bangladesh and Laos. Once the soil has been cultivated, the rice is planted out into fields from ‘nurseries’. The lower parts of the stems are submerged for most of the plant’s life. The water has usually evaporated or else drained before harvest.
Not all rice is grown in this way: some varieties of the crop are cultivated on dry land and others in deep water where the stems extend upwards as seasonal flooding increases the distance from soil to water-surface.
Fig. 3 Rice fields in Laos: upper, foreground soil still being cultivated, young rice planted behind; lower left, ‘nursery’ from which the plants are moved to their final position in fields, the high bund in middle distance separates fields at different levels; lower right, young rice planted.
In Scotland, the main grains since agriculture arrived here have been oats and barley, also wheat and rye. All were domesticated just to the east of the Mediterranean and were moved across Europe to reach Scotland >5000 years ago. Rice has been imported into north-west Europe for many centuries, but it was never a main source of carbohydrate … that is, not until the last 50 years or so . In the 1950s, it was eaten in the home as a sweet milk pudding or added to soups and broths. Imports began to rise in the 1970s and by the 1990s its consumption had increased more than five-fold, making it one of the UK’s major sources of cereal carb .
The rice we eat is grown mainly in India, Pakistan, Thailand, USA and Cambodia. Various forms of the grain are now readily available in the UK for home cooking and as meals in carry-outs and restaurants. For example, basmati is the typical rice in Indian cooking while arborio is rounder and softer when cooked, ideal in risottos.
Basmati and arborio grains are shown in the photographs below as most Europeans see them – straight out of the packet. The grains have had their protective coverings removed in processing mills. Two other grains are shown with them: local oats, the protective cover still attached, and emmer wheat for which each grain was taken out of its covering by hand. The emmer and oat were grown in the Living field garden – we tried rice a few years ago. It grew leaves and stems, but did not make it to seeding.
Fig. 4 Grains of arborio rice (top left), oats (upper r), emmer wheat (lower r) and basmati rice (lower l). Grains are 4-5 mm long.
The grains of these four crops differ relatively little in size (although the basmati is thinner than the others). Along with most other cereal grains they are able to survive when dried for long periods in storage. The storability of cereal grains was one of the main factors that encouraged humans to grow seasonal crops and settle in one place. The grains have an optimal geometry for growth on the plant, harvesting, storage, transportation, milling and cooking.
Grains of thought?
Most people who eat a meal of cereals – bread, porridge, pasta, paella, roti, ngaiwa – probably do not see it as once being a collection of individuals on a mother plant. Yet each grain of a cereal originates from a single act of reproduction and lives life encased in its own protective sheath. The yield of a cereal crop is determined by the number of individual grains on a cereal head or spike. The balance between number and size of individuals is influenced by field management and in turn influences the nutritional quality and economic worth of the harvest.
The grains are now unseen in most cereal products. Maybe these giant sculptures can remind us of what most people depend on for life.
The Grains of Thought sculptures are sited within a major complex at the airport in which thousands of tropical plants are nurtured. The centrepiece is the waterfall or ‘rain vortex’, photographs below .
In my practice as a textile artist, I work largely with wool – a fibre which has been used since the dawn of civilisation. It was almost certainly one of the earliest fibres to be used in the manufacture of cloth. Its continued use right through to modern times is testament to its usefulness.
My own development as an artist has been very much influenced by happenings and circumstance rather than a planned progression, and living in the Highlands of Scotland means that wool is the fibre that just happened to be available at times when I wanted to explore a different route.
My mother had taught me to sew at an early age – or as she described it, she allowed me to have needle, thread and scissors – and although I have no memory of it, I could sew before I could read. Adding decoration to fabric in the form of embroidery or the addition of braids seemed to just come naturally. I was 10 before my legs were long enough to reach the foot pedal of my mother’s sewing machine, but once I got going with that, there was no stopping me – machines were the way to go! After a year away from home at university with no access to a sewing machine, I spent all my summer holiday earnings on my own machine, and have never looked back.
Broadening my skills
I was given a small table-top loom by my father when I was 15 – just a happy result of him being in the right place at the right time when a colleague was doing some down-sizing. As this was decades before the advent of the internet, I made a trip to the local library to find a book on weaving and from that figured out what to do with the loom. A friend with a knitting machine gave me a cone of Shetland yarn to weave with and I was off…….
Over a couple of decades I was just a serious amateur sewer and weaver with occasional forays into machine knitting, hand spinning and various other textile techniques as and when time allowed, but in the early 90s I stumbled into the world of Pictish sculptured stones. As a design style, this really captured my imagination and figuring out ways to incorporate this art form in my embroidery resulted in me getting commissions for my work. And of course, the more I was asked to do, the more I was able to let my art develop and after a few years, I got to the stage where I was able to give up my day job as a school science technician.
My mother had a small part-time business  making hats with Harris Tweed. (She started this because of taking early retirement and moving to the Isle of Lewis. The wind blows there, so warm hats were needed!) I helped her out whenever she was busy with orders, so Harris Tweed was always around and available for me to experiment with. The combination of Harris Tweed and Pictish design works really well and I discovered there was a market for my style.
Once I started working professionally I found I was able to invest in equipment that not only saved me time, but allowed me to develop my style in ways that had not previously been possible.
It was 2001 when I bought my first embroidery machine – a tiny domestic model that was very limited in terms of scale, but opened my eyes to the possibilities of what could be achieved with a machine so I saved up, and a couple of years later bought an industrial machine. And a couple of years after that, I added a bigger one………. Studio space prevents me from going bigger still. Two machines running side by side is all I have room for.
The technique I developed for all my Celtic/Pictish inspired work is appliqué. This involves cutting out shapes of fabric, placing it on the background fabric and stitching over the cut edges. At first, this was all done with a scalpel on a cutting board, but it was a slow process that put a strain on my wrist, so when I discovered about laser cutters………. yes, it might be the same cost as a new family car, but I did the sums and figured out that it could pay for itself within 5 years so a bank loan was worthwhile. Speed and comfort are not the only benefits. Wool is a mobile, flexible fabric. As the laser does not actually touch the fabric at any time there is no distortion in the cutting process. The laser works by burning along a very finely focussed line and gives a sealed edge as the fibres burn away. In the case of wool this gives a slightly tarry, charred edge but this is later concealed by the stitching that goes over it. The down side is that my studio can sometimes smell a bit like a charnel house, but the smell quickly dissipates.
Family circumstances meant I was spending a lot of time going to Lewis for a few days every month. As a change from my embroidery I decided that while on Lewis I should improve my weaving skills. I managed to acquire an old Hattersley loom (and a shedful of Harris yarn to go with it) and set it up in my mother’s garage. It took a while, but I did get to the stage where I was weaving Harris Tweed and getting it stamped with the official Orb certification mark. The image below right shows an Orb design embroidered on my own weaving.
Wool is a lovely yarn to weave with, and almost all the weaving I have done over the decades has been with wool. It is a “forgiving” fibre. It has a degree of natural elasticity that makes it easy to weave with, and also easy to disguise mistakes and breaks. When it first comes off the loom it is quite hard and rough, but at this stage, careful examination gives the weaver a chance to do any necessary darning and once the tweed is washed you can’t tell where the problem was.
When my mother died I no longer had an island base for my loom so moved it to my studio near Inverness. Of course the weaving that I do here cannot be called Harris Tweed because for that the entire process has to be carried out in the Outer Hebrides, but I found that not all my customers were bothered about what the tweed was called – they were more concerned that it had been woven by me.
This year I decided I had had enough of the hard pedalling that was involved in operating the Hattersley loom and so I sold it on and invested in a new hand loom (photographs below) that has a computer dobby (the mechanism that lifts and lowers the shafts to separate the warp threads). This new adventure is allowing me to be much more experimental in my approach to weaving, and to use a wider variety of yarns. The gentler technique will also allow me to weave with my own hand spun yarns, so watch this space….!
With the exception of my sewing machines, all my equipment needs a computer to run. I now find that I design straight onto the computer most of the time, though I often do quick sketches with pencil and paper just to work out which way I am going to take a bit of knotwork or key pattern work. Being able to do the simple processes of copy and paste, flip and rotate allows me to easily bring the precision to my work that is so important in Pictish art.
Computerised technology has its place, and certainly makes it possible for me to create my art and sell it for prices that people can afford, but I do still use a lot of purely hand techniques. I weave braids and bands using a variety of methods – inkle weaving, tablet weaving and mini peg-loom. I often embellish little details of my machine embroidery with some hand stitching, beading or couching. I do a bit of hand dyeing and fabric painting, and quite a lot of hand spinning – mostly wool.
In addition to working with woven fabrics – mostly wool and silk – I also make my own hand made felt. This is another ancient fabric making technique but it has only been in the last few decades that it has become a popular activity in Scotland. Unlike weaving and knitting, no yarn is needed – just loose wool fibres. It is basically a question of rubbing the wool fibres with soapy, warm water until they bind together – though of course things such as initial fibre preparation, the techniques used and the skill of the feltmaker all play their part in how the final product looks and handles.
An important feature of felt compared with woven and knitted fabrics is that it can’t be undone – once the fibres are felted, they can’t be separated. The advantage for my way of working in embroidery is that felt doesn’t fray so there is less need for full coverage of the cut edges in appliqué work. I also make use of the thickness of the felt to achieve a semi-relief look in some of my embroideries. Although the felt has to be made largely with wool, other fibres such as silk and bamboo can be added sparingly to give interesting surface textures.
Creating my own cloths, whether this is on the loom, the knitting machine or at my felting table, means that I can blend colours in a way that would be impossible with shop-bought fabrics. As I am creating the fabrics I am thinking about how I am going to use them. If I am making clothing I will weave, knit or felt just the amount I need to make a particular garment and will introduce colour changes as I go along. If I am planning a piece of wall art it may be that I let the fabric develop organically and then decide how I am going to embellish it once I have the fabric completed.
I don’t really sample. With weaving I might weave a small section in 2 or 3 different colours of weft before I start for real, but generally I rely on my decades of experience and am confident that something will turn out the way I had envisaged – and if not, there are always other ways I can use a piece of cloth. Nothing is wasted. And while it may take a while to sell a particular piece, there is always someone out there who likes it enough to buy it. I am also very lazy about record keeping, so don’t ask me to repeat something. I can do something similar, but it won’t be the same.
In terms of what inspires me…. just about everything! I am always seeing things and thinking, “That’s a nice shape, colour or texture, how can I work that into my art?” I suspect I will never grow tired of Pictish design. Sometimes I take the ancient designs and recreate them in my embroidery – other times I just take ideas from them but develop my own designs. The possibilities are endless and as even now, ancient sculptured stones are still being discovered, I don’t anticipate running short of inspiration – just the time to bring all my creative ideas into being.
The Future for Scottish Wool and Textile Art
Scottish wool has had its share of ups & downs. Currently sheep farmers are getting a lot less for their fleeces than it costs them to shear the sheep. But it is not that there isn’t a market for the wool. Now more than ever, people want to use natural fibres but the systems and manufacturing capabilities are not in place to connect producers and customers. The Harris Tweed industry relies on local wool. The Outer Hebrides wool clip is not enough to support the current level of tweed production, so wool is brought in from mainland Scotland. Most British wool gets used in carpet manufacture because it is considered too course and rough to wear – but these features make it excellent for walking on. It would also be ideal as house insulation (wool is naturally fire retardant!) and we are all being advised to better insulate our homes. We need a bit of joined up thinking.
At the other end of the scale, some small scale farmers are making direct connection with textile enthusiasts who are happy to pay for nice fleece – particularly for some of the more interesting breeds.
I am currently working on a long-term project that is entirely for my own amusement rather than with thought of finding a paying customer. I am spinning my way through a couple of kilos of North Ronaldsay fleece. Once it’s all spun and applied I will venture into the world of natural dyes and then start weaving.
My ultimate aim is to use a combination of tablet weaving and loom weaving to construct my version of the Orkney Hood. However, I want a finished garment that is soft and luxurious, not something that looks as though it has been in a peat bog for 1500 years! This project has been made possible by the covid pandemic. As the world went into suspended animation, I found myself more in control of my time. It is quite liberating to work without having to be concerned about the commercial aspect of what I am doing, but maybe as I work I will try to figure out if there is a viable way to make such garments for sale – and see if there is a demand for it.
Author | links
Ruth Black www.ruth-black.co.uk The Workshop, Inchmore, Inverness, IV5 7PX
01463 831567 // 0777 177 4172
 For my Harris Tweed products I trade under the name of my mother’s business – Anna Macneil www.annamacneil.scot
All images on this page by Ruth Black.
Ed: many thanks to Ruth for giving the Living Field such insights to her art and craft based on natural fibres and providing the photographic material for this article.
And here is a photograph of some North Ronaldsay sheep from the Living Field’s collection (added 7 February 2022)
Caroline Hyde-Brown, at Norwich University of the Arts, gave the Living Field this account of her work with the legume, grass pea. Here are some examples of her craft.
Read on to see how it is done.
Introduction to the grass pea
The grass pea Lathyrus sativus is a member of the legume family (Fabaceae) and commonly grown for human consumption and livestock feed in Asia and East Africa (Caroline writes). It is a hardy yet under-utilised crop and able to withstand extreme environments from drought to flooding. The grass pea fixes nitrogen from the air which helps maintain a healthy and well fertilised topsoil .
However, the grass pea contains a potent neurotoxin called B-ODAP which increases if the plant is exposed to conditions of severe water stress. Historically the grass pea is known to produce adverse side effects with excessive human consumption which exacerbates the risk of a neurological disorder known as lathyrism which can cause permanent paralysis below the knees both in adults and children.
Growing the plants
In September 2019 I initiated a collaboration with John Innes Research Centre in Norwich to investigate whether this ancient legume could be utilised to create a biomaterial with a sustainability strategy of raising its residual value. With a mixed methodology of qualitative research, critical inquiry, and home-based experimentation, I explored the inherent qualities of the natural raw plant residue with Anne Edwards and Abhimanyu Sarkar . I used a framework known as the ‘whole systems’ approach adding freshly collected rainwater and solar heat .
I experimented with different types of potting containers to observe growth patterns and plant behaviour. Shallow containers produced spindly and weak plants compared to the much stronger and higher yielding plants grown in deep ‘rose’ containers or in a glasshouse.
My assistance with the harvest at John Innes yielded positive results during January 2020. I began with behavioural growth studies in agar flasks, which provided a fascinating insight into the delicate root structure as the roots are normally below ground. Unexpected discoveries about how the grass pea behaved under certain conditions helped the iterative design process.
During lockdown last year I had time to observe the plants on my windowsill and how they used the agar provided by John Innes. I didn’t need to water them, and it was fascinating to see how the plant easily grew, the perfect house plant!
I also planted some grass pea in different types of container with various depths to see which environment the crop preferred. The black container (photographs above, lower left) provided the wonderful patterned shapes shown lower right.
Embroidery with roots and tendrils
Perfectly formed tendrils from the harvested residue of grass pea inspired me to do some hand embroidery. I used Kantha stitching on cotton to reflect the Indian traditional embroidery technique of simple straight stitch.
My overall aim was to see whether the grass pea residue could be recreated into a cloth of some kind. Cutting up the paper samplers and using other threads and vintage lace slowly transformed the paper into a fabric, but the harvested residue was extremely dry and brittle.
I was unable to spin a thread out of the stalks. However, I believe, with the right biotechnology, cellulose could be extracted from the grass pea to make clothing, paper, shoes and lighting. Recent advances prove that using agricultural waste is an extremely profitable and sustainable operation with companies such as Agraloop , already spinning innovative and unique fibres.
Initially my papermaking explorations were unsatisfactory. The handmade paper felt stiff, broke easily and resembled cardboard. After boiling the residue and retting it in a bucket for a week however, it softened to produce a softer slurry or pulp.
Although I was unable to provide precise samples of artisanal stationery, each piece of handmade paper had its own individual character. I began to realise that imperfections can help create an authentic narrative and felt more confident in exploring other possibilities with ingredients.
A series of handmade papers were constructed from localised resources. I wanted to see if the grass pea could hold other grasses and petals within multiple layers of slurry. I took advantage of the warm weather and dried them in the garden. By adding spices from the kitchen, combined with grass clippings and petals taken from hedgerows and heathers they took on a lovely range of colours.
I also wanted to test some of the bio-resins from my collection of azeleas to see whether it added another material dimension. I looked at adding colour and referenced the pantone colour range for 2020 to provide inspiration for a moodboard of handmade paper.
Bio pots and other functional products
Interpreting scientific knowledge and merging it with my own craft-oriented methods is a lengthy and complicated process. The bio pots initially started out as a conversation when I decided to see whether the knowledge I had gained through papermaking over the summer could result in something more tangible like a functional product.
I looked at whether the grass pea pots could be dyed to provide colour, starting with kitchen spices such as paprika and herbal tea bags with raspberry, blueberry, tea, and coffee. These were quite successful samples and ongoing observations are being made into the waterproofing and durability. Further growth studies will commence this year with a view to creating something that may offer a sustainable alternative for the tree planting initiatives overseas.
… and some final remarks
Research into the use of natural resources to provide extra sources of income has proven potential. It shows how the bridging of traditional artisan work with modern design can provide sustainable solutions. An essential part of the process includes rigorous testing of raw materials to demonstrate that the process is both restorative and circular from the beginning of the supply chain to the end product.
As an inter-disciplinary artist, I seek to implement new ideas through forming partnerships which help shape and question my own practice. I feel fortunate that we could build a strong professional network to bridge knowledge gaps. It was a collaborative process that reinforced our objective of helping to improve rural livelihoods in India.
I conclude that the grass pea supply chain could be disrupted from field to biomaterial and repurposed to provide vital ingredients for economic change.
Sources | Links
 Caroline writes: “When all other crops fail, grass pea will often be the last one left standing. It is easy to cultivate and is tasty and high in nutritious protein, which makes it a popular crop. The Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (CGIAR) states that at least 100,000 people in developing countries are believed to suffer from paralysis caused by the neurotoxin. More at the Crop Wild Relatives Project: The curious case of the grasspea.
 The “whole systems approach” was devised by a group of Product Design Students at the Iceland Academy of Arts in 2015 during a project using willow. They designed a unique range of products including paper, glue and string adding just heat and water.
 Agraloop: transforming low-value waste to high-value fibre.
The editor writes: Many thanks Caroline from the Living Field for sharing your experiences and experiments on grass pea. We hope you can continue to develop the technology and craft work and help to generate new income streams for growers.
Note on a visit to the ArtScience Museum in Singapore. TeamLab’s mesmerising exhibition halls. Stunning architecture. Lily pond.
The ticket desk warned adults that about 60% of the exhibits were for children. There was no need. The exhibition spaces were mesmerising, children and adults alike absorbed in the shifting images and games.
It was like one of those busy open days at the Living Field garden: people marvelling at the diversity of life, children quietly buzzing around the activities and all coming to appreciate that people and nature can coexist.
Concept and design of the building
The main exhibition halls were below ground, underneath the ‘palm’ and ‘fingers’ that are the visible part of the structure. The ‘palm’ appears supported only near the base. A lacing of struts extends throughout the fingers.
The concept of the quite stunning building was explored in early sketches by Safdie Architects, viewable in the foyer . One of the sketches is shown above left.
teamLab and Future World
The main permanent displays, given the name ‘Future World – where Art meets Science‘ are housed in the below-ground chambers. They were made by teamLab, founded in 2001 and comprising a group of ‘ultra-technologists’, bringing together ‘hundreds of innovative thought leaders from multiple technical and creative backgrounds’.
In first exhibition – Nature – people interact with the various streams of images projected onto, or rather part of, the walls and floor.
‘Water’ streams down the far wall and along the floor. The flow is deflected if a person moves close to the wall or stands on the floor. Butterflies emerge and flap round the walls. They disappear if touched. Incessant, low volume, musical sounds accompany the movements. You’d think they would soon grate, but they didn’t, even after an hour of wandering in the space.
The descriptive panels explain the purpose: people affect nature all the time; they are part of it, not distinct from it. They can destroy it but need it.
The photographs shown in the panel above – all from Nature – are phone snaps taken in the available light. Excellent images of the exhibits can be viewed on teamLab’s web site .
Next on from the Nature exhibit are a series of rooms where visitors can move things around, sit at desks writing and making things, interact with moving images and (for the very young) play with brightly coloured balls. Crocodiles crawl across the floor. They know you’re there!
Leaving the darkened halls, the visitor emerges into the central shaft, a great space with a pond at the bottom and open to the sun and rain at the top, connecting inside to outside.
Outside the Museum – the lily pond
Immediately beneath the ‘palm’ on three sides is a pond whose surface is almost covered with lily leaves. The pond is raised above the surrounding walkways, so that people can kneel on the bounding wall and peer into the water. The pond lies above the underground display halls and is said to filter light down through their ceilings.
The pond extends some way out towards the Bay. The cluster of tall buildings at the city’s financial sector can appear as if they are on a level with the pond.
To the right of the financial sector, directly by the Bay but too small to see from here, is the Merlion that continually spouts its stream of water (top panel, upper-right).
As in most other parts of Singapore’s centre, the standard of plant-culture is very high. The lily pond is made to look like it takes care of itself, but there must be a continual pruning and removal of dead material and maintenance of an ideal nutrient balance in the water.
Did Art meet Science?
In the Living Field’s work with artists, the starting point is usually some topic of environmental or agricultural science – field systems, population dynamics, the structure and functioning of roots, plant metabolites and so on. The artist bends scientific knowledge and sometimes the scientific process, bringing together things that could not possibly coexist or would at least be normally far apart in time or distance.
A similar process underpins the construction of the Future World exhibitions. They do this to a degree subliminally, through the senses. It’s the impressions that last, rather than anything strictly logical. There’s more on one of the exhibits at the next post Real time virtual field – Tashbunosho rice.
The Museum is well supported by Singaporeans. Like the V&A Museum in Dundee, it must be a source of great local pride.
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.
Print of maize root on maize husk paper
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!
Our artist friend, Jean Duncan has been trying out new techniques, getting inspiration and materials from the Living Field garden and from microscopic sections of roots. Jean writes about her depictions of brassica roots:
“The print is an etching made on a zinc plate by drawing with a needle into soft wax and then etching the lines in copper sulphate. Ink is rubbed in to the etched lines and then printed on wet paper.
“My idea is to print root sections and plant drawings on to plant papers. I want to combine ancient techniques of papermaking with the latest microscopic images in a way that will highlight the plant’s diversity and engage people in how plants can enrich soils as well as provide food.
“For papermaking, the most successful fibres so far have come from maize stalks from the Living Field garden. These are chopped and simmered for several hours in soda ash to break down the fibres. The long fibres are then bashed further in a Hollander beater like a large grinder. Sheets of paper are then formed on a mould and stacked for printing or casting. Wet paper sheets can be pushed into plaster moulds of the plants and roots and when they dry the plant is embossed into the paper.
“So it’s a long process but I am currently working on a latex cast of a plant root and it’s been successful so far. It may even be useful to scientists as a way of preserving the fragile roots in a way that means they can be handled without being damaged.
The original microscopic cross section of a root was provided by Robert Baker of the Department of Botany, University of Wyoming. [Ed: the original links given for this image are no longer active but are retained for reference – http://www.robertlbaker.org and http://www.macromicroscopic.com ]
Here it is.
And thank you for allowing us to use it on this site.