Sunday, 4 November 2012

Recording your herbal ally

We always think we know what something looks like but it’s not until you actually stop and study something you realise how much you have been missing. If you want to know more about a herb, you need to look at them closely.

What colour are they? What are their first leaf shapes? How many leaves are there? Are they opposite or parallel? Simple? Complex? Does the colour of the stem change over time? Do they have flowers? What colour are they? Are they simple? Complex?  In whorls around the stem or on a stem by themselves? What colour are the bracts? The questions are endless and the more you try to answer them, the better you understand and appreciate the herb.

Of course you can’t just look at a plant, you need to touch, taste, smell and listen to experience both its world and its entirety but you can gain great insight by close observation. (NB: Please don’t touch taste and smell unless you know the plant is non-toxic!)

One way to record a herb is to photograph it during the various stages of its life. This can be done once a month or every time you do something with the plant. Building a photographic collection can act as both a diary and a reminder of what you have done and how you did it. I keep all my photographs in a digital folder depending on subject matter so each one is clearly labelled with the date and clues to what is in the picture and where it was taken.  They provide a useful resource and means of illustration when I’m writing.

The best way to really appreciate a herb is to draw it. It doesn't matter if you've never drawn anything before or were told by your art teacher at school that the brush had more talent on its own than you did. Take a pencil (HB if that's what you have handy, but 2-4H gives a clearer drawing) and look closely at one portion of the plant.

Choose a section of the plant which is really simple like a large stem or a leaf bud or something which calls to you. Put the pencil on your piece of paper and try to reproduce what you see. As you try to match your strokes with the shape of the plant part I bet you will surprise yourself. It doesn't have to be a Rembrandt or a Picasso, just something really simple.

I can't draw for toffee and have no artistic skills, but the simple sketches I've attempted of my herbal ally, rose, this year, please me. They don't have to please anyone else. I've only sketched the same William Shakespeare plant four times this year and I can't get my pencil around the complexity of the flower as well as I would like, but it's a unique record I would not otherwise have.

Each sketch takes me around half an hour sitting on the patio with my small sketchbook on my knee. We’re fortunate in having a specialist art shop next to our local station about a mile away, but most art supplies can be obtained cheaply from remainder shops such as The Works or stationary outlets such as Staples. You don’t actually need anything artistic in the first instance, a pencil, rubber and sheet of plain, unlined paper is all that’s necessary.

Even if you find perspective difficult, it doesn’t matter. The whole experience of transferring what you see in front of you onto a sheet of paper will help you remember exactly what each part of the plant looks like. It means you can identify it elsewhere and notice when things are different or damaged.

I know if I hadn't attempted sketching, I would never have appreciated the amazing reds on the emerging rose leaves which are still present on the leaf bases now or learned the shapes and arrangement of the rose leaves. I didn’t know rose leaves were serrated nor that their usual number was five on one plant and six or seven on another

This new knowledge enabled me to correctly identify a wild rose by the canal when I was foraging last month, something I would not have been sure about twelve months ago.

Taking a chance to develop a new skill is always scary, especially if you have little or no confidence in your own ability but there can be many rewards. Making sketching part of your herbal education can provide many joys if you are wishing to expand your herbal horizons.


KeLLy aNN said...

I really really like that idea.
It would be perfect for me!

Jo-Ann said...

Sarah I love your drawings