Tag Archives: maize

Maize paper

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.

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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).

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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).

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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).

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Maize paper: lighter sheet (top left) is from the husk round the cobs, the darker sheet from stems; etchings below of root cross sections (Jean Duncan)

 

And that’s it – a sheet of paper!

Info, links

Khadi papers India. Web site: khadi.com. Youtube: Papermaking at Khadi Papers India

Jean’s recent work on an exhibition of etchings using her own-made paper: The Beauty of Roots and Root art.

[Update with minor amendments 10 June and 27 July 2017]

Peanuts to pellagra

Following a trail ….. starting with a blues song – cornbread, peas and black molasses – sung at the Dundee Jazz festival – and on to chain gangs, slavery and rural poverty, and the peculiar malnutrition  caused by a maize-based diet, appearing as the debilitating condition pellagra, and then on to the discovery by Joseph Goldberger that pellagra was not an infectious disease but a dietary deficiency, a shortage of bioavailable niacin ….. and this trail leads to the question of what happens when maize became the staple diet, or at least a major part of it, as the crop spread to Asia and Africa from its origin in central America.

With maize Zea mays as the main corn (grain) and carbohydrate, there has to be other food to provide the missing vitamins – food such as groundnut Arachis hypogaea (usually named peanut in the UK) and other high-protein pulse crops, and fresh green vegetables. And it’s noteworthy that in parts of the tropics, maize is often grown along with pulses such as groundnut, and not just as patches side by side but in intimate mixtures, named intercrops when the two are grown in rows.

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The spatial arrangement of the two crops probably matters little for the balanced diet, but the combination, when in rows as in the image above, increases the yield on at least one of them. So there are two products – maize and groundnut (peanut) – which together provide much of a healthy diet, and they yield more from an acre of land if grown  together.

The groundnut-maize intercrop shown above was on the margins of the Irrawaddy river in Burma, probably growing on stored nutrients and water left behind as the river receded during the dry season. This example (and there is no one way to grow the two crops together) looked like a long thin ‘field’ of groundnut into which maize was planted in every fifth row.

Research elsewhere on groundnut-maize intercrops  shows that in this configuration, the maize yield is ‘free’ or extra, in that it does not suppress the yield from the groundnut.

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The images above show maize cobs on sale at a local market and a groundnut harvest spread out in a cloth in the sun to dry. Each pod contains three or four seed (the ‘nuts’ in peanut). A month or two earlier, they were  on the plant, but unseen, buried just under the soil, an amazing adaptation that helps to protect the plant’s seeds while they fill and mature.

There are other ways to get essential vitamins in a maize-based diet, but the maize-groundnut mixed crop offers much towards a balanced diet and gets more from the environment than either crop grown alone.

Further

The article Mixed cropping in Burma gives more on crop mixtures, and scientific reference to pulses.

For more on the use of legumes in food: Botanists in the kitchen

Links on this site: Cornbread, peas and black molasses,  Feel the pulse

Contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk

 

 

 

Cornbread peas and black molasses

During his session at the Dundee Jazz Festival, at the Frigate Unicorn on 18 November, Mike Whellans performed the blues classic Cornbread, peas and black molasses. Memories…

Made popular in folk and blues clubs this side of the Atlantic by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, it was a work song – forced work – a complaint on a monotonous diet. The song leads back to a dark history, but also to an enlightened discovery of the cause of a serious dietary deficiency that was thought to be an infectious disease.

The constituents

Cornbread is made from maize flour (maize is corn in the Americas) and black molasses from cane sugar (known as black treacle here). So that’s two members of the grass family, originally accompanied by fatty preserved meat, constituting the food of slaves, chain gangs and many rural poor. In fact, the words go Cornbread meat and black molasses in some versions of the song.

Not a healthy diet therefore and the cause of the disease pellagra, a deficiency in the vitamin niacin (B3 or nicotinic acid). Symptoms include sores covering large areas of the skin, vomiting, diarrhoea and eventually dementia.

At some point ‘peas’ entered the title, but they would probably have made little difference to the prevalence of the disease unless they were fresh.

Pellagra and niacin deficiency

The discovery by Joseph Goldberger in the USA that pellagra was a vitamin deficiency was a victory for logic and experiment over presumption and superstition. (See the links below under Sources.)

So where does the vitamin niacin come from. It is made in plants. They take up minerals from the soil and with the products of photosynthesis, make, for their own purposes, what we know as vitamins.

The deficiency has been associated with areas that consume maize (or sorghum) as the main staple carbohydrate, notably in the south of the USA, but including parts of southern Europe in the 1700s. Maize contains niacin, but not in a form readily available to humans.

A note on the Linus Pauling Institute’s page on niacin reads: “Interestingly, pellagra was not known in Mexico, where corn was also an important dietary staple and much of the population was also poor. In fact, corn contains appreciable amounts of niacin, but it is present in a bound form that is not nutritionally available to humans. The traditional preparation of corn tortillas in Mexico involved soaking the corn in a lime (calcium oxide) solution, prior to cooking. Heating the corn in an alkaline solution results in the release of bound niacin, increasing its bioavailability.’

Foods rich in niacin include pulses such as peas and groundnut (peanut), some fresh fish and meat, wheat bread, green leafy vegetables and fruits; and it’s this sort of food that the poor or enslaved pellagra victims did not get.

Sources

Pellagra and niacin

Linus Pauling Institute, Oregon State University: Niacin
http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/vitamins/niacin

Poverty, slavery and the discovery of dietary deficiency

Middleton J. 2008. Pellagra and the blues song ‘Cornbread, meat and black molasses’. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 101, 569-570. Also Middleton J. 1999. The blues and pellagra: a public health detective story. BMJ 319, 7218.

National Institute of Health Office of History (USA) Dr Joseph Goldberger & the war on pellagra.

US Slave blogspot http://usslave.blogspot.co.uk/2012/01/slave-diet-low-in-niacin-causes.html (Note: includes images of people afflicted by the disease)

Singers and songs

Mike Whellans web site: http://mikewhellans.co.uk/biography.htm

The Mudcat Cafe (discussion forum on trad songs):  Cornbread peas and black molasses.

Worksongs.org  http://www.worksongs.org/blog/2013/01/25/cornbread-and-peas-black-molasses

See Worksongs.org link above or search U-tube for the song title + Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee, Johnny Silvo or Mike Whellans.

Links to other livingfield pages that touch on slavery: Empire at Wall projects II MontroseIt was slavery days.

Ed: first heard Cornbread peas and black molasses sung by Johnny Silvo quite some time ago, but no idea at the time what cornbread and molasses were. Good, also, to listen to Mike Whellans again. He played for a time with Ali Bain on fiddle, touring the folk clubs in the 1980s; never forget their versions of Sweet Georgia Brown and  Jimmy Clay (on a vinyl LP called Ali Bain – Mike Whellans).

Great venue, the Frigate Unicorn – an upper room stretches almost the whole length of the ship.

Contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk

Sectioned II

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.

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“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.

Sources/contacts

Jean Duncan on this web site (with links): art/jean-duncan

The original microscopic cross section of a root was provided by Robert Baker of the Department of Botany, University of Wyoming http://www.robertlbaker.org and http://www.macromicroscopic.com

Here it is.

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And thank you for allowing us to use it on this site.

[More to follow from Jean’s experimenting ….]

 

Fiberoptic 4

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Sections down a single maize silk, the upper one just below the exit from the forming cob: each strand, less than 1 mm wide, leads to a seed site deep in the cob, 23 September 2015, Living Field garden (Living Field collection).

Bad hair day ….?

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A newly formed silk … but too late in the year for success, 23 September 2015, Living Field garden (Living Field collection)

See also: Fiberoptic 3, Fiberoptic 2 and Fiberoptic.