Hortus Medicus: The Seed Book

Seeds are on my minds right now. Every year I optimistically plant many seeds. Every year I try to improve our heavy clay soil and every year a few heroically struggle through.

This year I am doing it again. It is a classic example of the triumph of optimism over experience. Last year as part of my MA I did manage to coax some life out of some of the medical herb seeds I was working with. Henbane, datura, artemisia, celandine, foxglove, and strawberry sticks germinated, other did not. But I was encouraged enough to continue. One outcome of the work was the Hortus Medicus Seed Book. A small booklet which I printed in a week from start to finish in Amsterdam with the expert and essential  help of Thomas Gravemaker at Letterpress Amsterdam.

Just the printing was done with Thomas, the assembling I had to do at home which takes a long, long time and I realised I had not actually posted the finished booklet on the blog before.. so with seeds on my mind and in my hopes, here is the booklet.


HORTUS MEDICUS. A booklet detailing the dubious attributes of Seven Medicinal Herbs.

The work developed out of a visit to the Hortus Botanicus in Amsterdam where I met the then head gardener Hanneke Schreiber. We had discussed the origins of the garden which was originally set up in 1638 as a Hortus Medicus, a teaching garden for apothecaries in Amsterdam and both agreed that the most interesting herbs were those which were both beneficial and deadly. The 17th century was a heady time with old superstition and new science co-existing in both peoples minds and in writing. Irresistible to me. I decided to combine those two aspects in this little booklet which was really designed to be exercise in letterpress printing.


The blue slip cover was printed on both sides with the text “Hortus” and “Medicus” with nice big san serif wooden type.


I printed the small arrow and decoration on my Adana here at home after returning from Amsterdam.


The booklet cover is printed on both sides to echo the slip case.


On opening there is a small panel which contains a quote from the wonderful 16th Century botanist/physician Nicholas Monades.


“For it is a greate thing to know the secreates and marvailes of Herbes. I will make experience of them and I will know their vertues and operation. The Seedes we will sow at their due time to remedy the hurtes and deseases that we all do suffer and endure”


The inside spread shows 7 apothecary bottles, the names of the herbs spiral up in the fumes mixed with the red text which indicates warning and dangers. It was a tricky printing exercise. I hand drew the bottle shapes in an old fashioned way with photo stopout ( which reminded me of working on hand drawn colour separations many years ago) and prepared the fume texts in a very modern way with Illustrator. I worked on this overnight on my laptop in our AirB&B room in Amsterdam learning on the hoof really. Thankfully Thomas prepared a really accurate layout for us to work from on his Mac. That was just a bit beyond me!

The plates for fume text and shapes of the bottles were made with Thomas’ photopolymer machine and I hand set the herb texts for the bottle shapes in 10pt Garamond. It’s very small!


The herb texts were taken from some of the old herbals which I love so much; i.e. The juice of the Thorn apple boiled in hog’s grease cureth all inflammations whatsoever” .. Simple! What’s not to love!
Some are just bizarre and some have the element of truth. The foundations of our modern medicine based on trial and error and endless observations. Having whetted your appetite for planting these mysterious and dangerous plants, turn over again for the seeds themselves, nicely prepared for you on perforated seedsticks which you can just pop straight into the garden.


Yes they are real seeds.. :)… but in the interest of public safety, not THE seeds.


We used some wavy brass line to signify the earth with the S indicating the root.


The final page has a small linocut I made of the gable stone attached to the printshop building which looks out on an adjacent  “secret” now unused passage. I just wanted to add something special to the booklet that was very specific to the location and to Amsterdam and as mysterious as the wonderful “herbes”.


It shows three fish and their baskets and is dated 1742.


Next to the gable stone image, the colophon etc. And we printed it in just a week. It was quite something and not possible without Thomas!

sb11      sb14


Hortus Medicus, by Valerie Littlewood. 4 page Booklet in slipcase. Letterpress printed. Folded size 380mm x 11mm ( 15.5 x 4.25 inches).. and with real seeds… My research into the whole subject of old herbals, superstition and bizarre texts and ideas was extensive and much of it still waiting to be developed into prints and booklets.

Recently I attended a symposium at Warwick University which covered many fascinating aspects of book production in Italy from 1570-1700’s. Chap books, broadsides, illustrated books, natural history books, alchemical  recipes, were all discussed.
So many ideas….if only I had more time!

Growing … can be a deadly business…

I like to get really up close and personal to my subjects, so am growing the herbs for the final MA project work.

Here is a wicked little set of Janus plants; Henbane, Deadly nightshade, Foxglove, Thornapple, Artemisia, Celandine… sure, in their various strengths and concoctions, to do you more harm than good.


Innocent little seedlings right now…

And then there are the plant dyes. Little bottles of colours …lovingly prepared with mordants and salts and minerals, macerated, ground and pulverised, boiled, extracted, slaked and reduced, drowned in alcohol and fattened with oils, relaxed with ox gall and waterproofed with saponified shellac. A little witchcraftery in the kitchen and and studio.


av-ink        av-gd

Some gorgeous avocado ink. Add a little gold here and there for true alchemy…

People ask me how Chris is doing?  Well he’s just fine; at the moment. He just needs to watch his step. __________________________________________________________________

(BUT one final thing today.. it’s just a “get well soon wish” to Orlando. Why this beautiful, fun–loving city?  Responsible for some of the very very happiest days of my life and some of the best people I have ever met. I am thinking of you all.)

I’m glad it’s Leap Year

The extra day is much needed. This week’s progress has been mixed, a frustrating letterpress session, some quite interesting research for the thesis and some trial seed drawings and prints to be made into small trial books.It is all rather small at the moment. Playing with shapes and colours and a few concertina book ideas.

arti     seeds-conc     foxglove


art     c3      c4



Below left are the first proofs of the little linos for the seed book. It will be a very slim volume, only 10 pages, but just enough to create a book block or two, printing will be a mixture of hand printed lino, InDesign  printed text and them maybe some letterpress.

My biggest triumph is getting everything set up to print a small booklet. Below right are some of the finished pages. Text printed first on my very cheap Inkjet via InDesign then the linos hand printed.

seed-linos      linos

The letterpress didn’t work that well as we only use the proofing press for trials. Paper, pressure, inking etc all have such an effect and it’s hard to get good results to start with, but I am getting quicker at setting up the type.
Below some big numbers, a small amount of set text and inkjet printing


I am managing to keep my lino printing clean now but not so the letterpress work. Everything seems to get smudged.Its mainly because I am unsure about exactly what I am doing and faff about a bit. Letterpress seems to respond best to firm and decisive actions and deft movements. It will all improve, I am sure ..:)

The Land Magazine: Seeds of Resistance

A few weeks ago I was delighted to be able to supply some illustrations for the excellent The Land Magazine.

“The Land is written by and for people who believe that the roots of justice, freedom, social security and democracy lie not so much in access to money, or to the ballot box, as in access to land and its resources.” Their Aim: “To campaign peacefully for access to land, its resources and the decision-making processes affecting them, for everyone, irrespective of race, creed, age or gender.”

Nothing you can argue with there, is there? Perhaps we sometimes forget that without “land” we have nothing. The article I provided the drawings for is Seeds Of Resistance written by Ed Hamer who is a farmer in Devon. The article is a fascinating read and takes you through early seed saving, the history of hybridisation and the political and economic pressures surrounding seed production and the issue of Seed Saving, as well as an insight into the work of the Heritage Seed Library.

I am, as you know, a dedicated bee conservationist so seeds, flowers and pollination are always on my mind. I save seed when and where I can and after reading this article and also meeting Peter Brinch and hearing his excellent lecture about Open Pollinated Seeds I am thinking much more about the seeds I buy and where I buy them from. The Real Seed Catalogue is a good place to start.

sor 1    sor 2     sor 4

sor5     sor 3
You can read a PDF of the article here or even better subscribe to the magazine! I will return to the general issue of seeds and open pollinated seeds in the summer when I’ll be back to my bees.

Biodiversity and More Bee Flower Notes: Flowers 10 to 20

It’s the last day of January and next week I have to seriously start my work for the “20 British Bees”.

For this next project I will be making some simple paintings of plants/flowers too and writing about them as I go.

They really do go hand in hand. The pencil and colour drawing of lovely “Lili” was a try-out for the bee series, as I will aim for a bit more of a sense of place to these next paintings.

Five a Day for Bees.

So here are some more flowers which bees like. I am learning that some they use for nectar and some for pollen and how important it is to keep a supply of bee friendly flowers as mixed as possible and spread throughout the seasons.

Earlier this month there were some interesting findings from French researchers showing that, just like us needing our 5 fruit and veg, bees are healthier if they have a mixed diet of five different pollens.

For a bee, foraging on just one crop is rather like us being fed exclusively on big Macs devoid even of the token bits of green stuff.  It’s a very interesting read..here from the BBC. David Aston, who chairs the British Beekeepers’ Association technical committee says this:

“If you think about the amount of habitat destruction, the loss of biodiversity, that sort of thing, and the expansion of crops like oilseed rape, you’ve now got large areas of monoculture; and that’s been a fairly major change in what pollinating insects can forage for.

As a consequence,  bees often do better in urban areas than in the countryside, because city parks and gardens contain a higher diversity of plant life. “

Go.. City Gardeners.. go!!.. my balcony is important. Elaine Hughes, expert gardener for the London Wildlife Trust says this!

“Would-be urban gardeners without a front or back lawn need not despair. Gardening in areas as small as windowsills or balconies is essential in that it creates sheltering areas and provides stop off points for insects and birds as they weave their way through neighbourhoods.” from the Ecologist, on creating a Wildlife Garden here

I have a feeling that bees are something of a “fashionable” cause at the moment.

I just hope the eco luvvies will not move onto something else too soon, because I don’t think reversing the decline in bee species will be a quick fix.

Someone said to me the other day. “Oh.. I thought bees were ok now”.

I don’t think they are quite yet.

Ten more Flowers

I did not sketch these flowers in any particular order or category,  just as I read about them. I should have been a bit more organised, but it will be nice to fill up the sketchbook, only ten more pages to go.

For flowers 1 to 10 see here.

Clarkia/Godetia  and  Borage Borago officinalis


Harebells Campanula rotundifolia  and  Purple Cone Flower Echinacea purpurea

Cotoneaster and Hawthorn, Crataegus oxyacantha

Kidney Vetch Anthyllis vulneraria and Sea Holly Eringium maritimum

Wallflower Cheiranthus /Erysimum and Cranesbill Geranium


Also, I have just received a wonderful pack of seeds from Hometown Seeds, with enough vegetables for more than half an acre and planting guides etc.

I am looking at the 6ft by 3 ft balcony and wondering where to start :).

Death by Jewelry? : Abrus precatorius

These pods with their innocent looking, pretty red and black seeds have been sitting on my desk for a couple of weeks now.
I had noticed the brilliant red dots shining out from the tangled remains of a decaying creeper which was twining over the chain link fence of the dog park opposite our apartment block.
I had no idea what it was and was astonished to find that, insinuating itself amongst the benign ivies and maypops, is one of the most deadly plants in the world!

abrus pre

Abrus precatorius Flowers and leaves at Gulfstream Park, Florida. September 24, 2009 photo”Forest & Kim Starr” from Plants of Hawaii  

The pretty leguminous vine Abrus precatorius (from the Latin precari to pray), has many names: Jequirity, Rosary Pea, ‘John Crow’ Bead, Precatory bean, Indian Licorice, Saga Tree, Lucky Bean, Giddee Giddee or Jumbie Bead, locally here they are called Crab’s Eyes.

But its most fascinating “attribute” is that the hard red and black seeds, which are still used for jewelry in central America and Mexico, contain a poison which is really deadly.

So much so, that just one thoroughly chewed seed can cause fatal poisoning. The poison is “Abrin”, a relative of “Ricin” which was used in London in 1978, to dispatch Georgi Markov, in the famous umbrella killing.
Jewelry making accidents sometimes do happen when the makers prick a finger while handling the seeds, but apparently if swallowed whole the seeds are harmless..
The ever useful, excellent and entertaining site Waynesword has this to say and gives more info about its deadly qualities.

In spite of their reputation as one of the world’s most deadly seeds, precatory beans are certainly one of the most beautiful seeds on earth. They are sometimes called prayer beans or rosary beans and have been used for rosaries. Because of their remarkably uniform weight of 1/10th of a gram, seeds of Abrus precatorius were used by goldsmiths of East Asia as standard weights for weighing gold and silver. In fact, the famous Koh-i-noor diamond of India, now one of the British crown jewels, was reportedly weighed using seeds of Abrus precatorius.”

It’s another unwelcome invasive species here in Florida given category 1 status. A thorough explanation of the plant and its toxicity can be found here.

I am left wondering what being so toxic does for the plant? Of course it will repel some animals grazers, but interestingly it appears that birds are not affected by abrin and they are largely responsible for dispersing the seeds.

It is also another of those strange plants that quite likes being burnt. Seeds are readily available from seed suppliers, some of whom do not mention its deadly properties, but then as a funny article about the possibility of terrorist uses of Abrus says,

Somehow mankind has muddled through, managing not to exterminate itself with rosary peas” ………read more from the Register here

Whatever its problems it is lovely to draw, the shiny seeds contrasting with the dark twisted pods which have a thin papery lining. I think I may do a couple more studies and find out a bit more about this interesting plant which also has some medicinal uses… apart from the fatal ones of course!

Abrus Precatorius,

The “Lucky” (for some but not others) Bean.

abrus sm

Watercolour on Arches HP 12 x 7 inches

Leaf of the Day: Squirrels and Tabebuia Pods

Here the relentlessness of growth never stops. When one thing is dormant another is bursting into life. Not to have those regular quiet, dormant times of northern regions sometimes seems exhausting. So, despite it being early in the year and to both my delight and frustration, there are lots of seed pods around. I can’t possibly keep up with them all. In a confusion of life cycles there are trees with flowers but no leaves, trees with new leaves but without flowers and then trees with flowers, leaves and fruit all at the same time.

The golden trumpet tree Handroanthus chrysotricha whose beautiful flowers were with us for only a few days, is one which gets to shows off its flowers before the distraction of leaves. The overwhelming yellow of this tree set against a clear blue Florida sky is breathtaking.

The flowers are gone now but just over a week ago when I went to the Gardens I stood under one of the many “Tabebuia’s” as they are known here, admiring these very nice furry pods which seem to have appeared from nowhere, instantaneously and in profusion.. amazing.

However I also realised I was being was showered with seeds and bits of debris because above my head 3 squirrels were busy methodically stripping the tree of its fruit. I watched as they grabbed the pods and then daintily nibbled all the flesh from the pod leaving ribbons of the outer skin and discarding the seeds. They were voracious and determined. Yesterday I went back and only ribbons of the stripped pods remain but the ground is carpeted with the silvery seeds.

I did save one pod because the little, flat, winged seeds are so attractive, but today I only have time for a quick pod sketch and a study of 3 seeds which are looking a bit like strange owls.
For the next submission we are required to make a proper botanical study and I am supposed to be using a magnifying glass for a bit of dissection and being more methodical about recording accurately what size things are drawn. The seeds are drawn at 3 x their original size so are a massive 2.75″ long, but I neglected to write that on the drawing..Hmm well it has been a long week.

Golden Trumpet Seed Pod and Seeds

Leaf of the Day: Crucillo Sprig and Seedling Update

Today I am having a studio and balcony sort-out day. In my “studio” which is the other bedroom I have the small nature table which is now covered with bit of pods and twigs and leaves. They are all getting out of hand and occasionally a seed pod explodes and seeds ricochet around the room. It is Ant’s perfect adventure playground of course. Yes, Ant is still here. Why? The balcony door is open day and night. He must just prefer to be inside I suppose, yesterday he was mountaineering in my jar of brushes.

I also have a few pots on the balcony where I optimistically plant things, sometimes bits of stem that I have drawn, sometimes small cuttings and the occasional seed. Many are doing well. I am particularly delighted that the “leaf” of the beautiful Red Rhipsalis here is growing, my Soapberry seedling is a now a tiny tree, the Crown of Thorns and Stapelia which Pedro gave me are thriving and all the leaves of the various Sansevierias are sprouting roots and the piece of Devil’s Backbone here is beginning to zig zag its way to heaven.

My seedlings are doing well too. The tiny Desert Rose seedlings look like little plants already. There were 6 but I managed to knock the head off one of them.

And to my amazement the Silky Hakea here seeds have sprouted. On one of my visits a few weeks ago I noticed that the Hakea I like so much is dying. All the beautiful pods had opened up and almost all the seeds had gone. This may be a natural part of its life cycle as it has to be damaged in some way for the pods to open, but I did manage to find three intact seeds and wondered if they might germinate for me. My methods are haphazard to say the least and because I like to see how things grow I just use damp kitchen towel in an old upside down plastic fruit container. After only a week they had sprouted and here they are just shrugging off their seed coats, looking happy and relatively healthy I think.

But my favourites for the moment are the two spindly and comical Gout plant seedlings. They sprang out of their pots within a few days of planting and I am entranced by their elegance and vigour.

Bill and Ben… not quite twins, but related.

I´m afraid I have called them Bill and Ben .. well, a little silliness has to creep in every now and then. My American readers were probably spared the much loved UK 1950’s children’s TV programme with the two flower pot men puppets and the very annoying Little Weed..

Image from Whirligig TV here

I need some more time and a better sample to continue the cotton drawings so today I drew the little crucillo sprig that has been waiting for a couple of days now . It seemed happy enough in some wet oasis but the leaves are just beginning to droop.

It is labelled as “Randia laetevirens” Crucillo Bush, the name meaning “little cross” for obvious reasons. It was the cross formation of the white stems that caught my eye and the leaves are dainty but there are some very sharp spikes on the ends of the twigs. I have not been able to find out very much about this particular variety but Austin and Honychurch writing about the Randia aculeata (White Indigoberry) in “Florida Ethnobotany” say it is described as the “little cross” in South American countries and the branches sold as small Christmas trees in the winter.. so this must be a close relative. I will amend this post if I find out.


Leaf of the Day: The Tipu Tree

Today has been dull and rainy and cold. It was the sort of Sunday that you dread as a child, confined to the house with homework to do. So apart from watching endless Election coverage on the TV it was a good opportunity to get on with some computer filing. I have been trying to make a list of all the plants I have photographed so far at Leu. There are many, many, more than I have drawn. My choice of which plants to draw is completely random, and haphazard. I walk a different way every time I go. The changing light over the months highlights different things and of course the gardeners rearrange things too. I get occasional prompting from Pedro or Susan who tell me to go and look at this or that but otherwise it is just what comes my way that day. Sometimes I have wanted to ask for a plant list to see what they really do have, but this is far more enjoyable way to discover things and I really never know what I will find from one day to the next.

I found the seeds I have drawn today, on the ground last week and now, at last, can identify the mystery trees which were planted around the side streets of San Pedro seafront, where we lived in Spain. They are from the Tipu tree, Tipuana tipu. I had taken this photograph in July in Spain just over a year ago, so these are the young seeds developing.

Here they are looking beautiful and golden in the Mediterranean evening sun! They are lovely things when young, with a sort of waxy feel to them. They were smallish street trees in Spain but at Leu the Tipu is tall and set back from the avenue of stately camphor trees.
The interesting thing about the tipu is that it does not have the usual “pea” pods of the legume family, but develops these single winged seeds which are known as samaras. They have a great whirling helicopter action and I spent a happy few moments of displacement behaviour throwing these up in the air, discovering just how well they do spin.

The term samara is given to a winged seed, we would call them keys too in the UK. Maples, ash and sycamores have samaras and to be even more correct they are really winged achenes, as the seed is contained within the outer husk the achene. The seed can be positioned in the middle of the wing, like the hop or at one end.

The tree is native to Brazil and Bolivia and is also called the Pride of Bolivia but now happy in many other climates and was certainly very happy in San Pedro. It is also known as the Brazilian rosewood, its timber being used as a substitute for real rosewood.
The flowers of the Tipu come in long loose sprays of orangy yellow blossoms, they are very pretty and the compound leaves are light and airy. I didn’t have time to draw the leaf today but may get round to it later this week.

Tipu Tree

Leaf of the Day: Seedling Diagrams and a Cool Seed Pot.

The Buddha Belly ( Jatropha podagrica) seedling is growing very fast. In 4 days it has gone from just showing above the soil, to a magnificent 5 inches long with two gorgeous brilliant green seed leaves. I don’t think I have ever seen anything grow quite so fast. I wanted to just remind myself of the different parts of the seedling. It’s knowledge that has lain well and truly shrouded in the mists of the years that have elapsed between the school broad bean experiments and now. The excitement of the experiments remained, though and I do love diagrams, so here are some bits of basic knowledge.

The seed:
Seed coat – (testa) the outer, protective layer that covers the seed. It is shed after the plant sprouts.
Embryo – developing plant still inside the seed. The embryo has cotyledons and the start of the radicle, which will become the root and the hypocotyl which becomes the stem.
Hilum – the scar on a seed coat at the location where it was attached to the plant’s stalk during development
Micropyle – the small pore in a seed that that allows water absorption.

The seedling. based on the soapberry tree seedlings that I have.
Cotyledon – also called seed leaves the first to show and containing some food for the plant and bearing very little resemblance to the plant which will follow.
First true leaves – the first two leaves of the plant that emerge from the cotyledon which will begin photosynthesis.
Primary root – the main, thick part of the root and the first part to grow.
Secondary root – small roots that grow from the primary root.

Looking after these little seedlings is a responsibility and I have to move some of the Desert Rose seedlings this weekend. I wish I had had one of these.
This is an article from SustainableDesignUpdate.com here
Seedling” by Brett Duncan “is a biodegradable pot you can layer into larger ones when the plant out grows it. It stresses the plant less because you don’t have to dig up its root structure and less mess because you just place one Seedling in the next size up. “

The designer Brett Duncan talks about his elegant creation.
” The psychology behind the everyday object is what intrigues me, especially the possibilities that designers have to create better and exciting experiences for others while also maintaining a level of respect for the cultures and environments in our world.
I am excited about creating new opportunities for people that will inspire wonder and curiosity, and a greater appreciation for the unusual that is found in our everyday lives.
Just to help explain some of the questions of the project Seedling, the seed starts in a sphere so that it can be surrounded by soil and nutrients, as well as moisture when it is watered to help simulate how seeds germinate naturally. Each pot has nutrients and soil combined with the biodegradable plastic.

The user can also tell if the plant needs to be watered by picking up the pot. The plastic absorbs a certain amount of the water so the elasticity changes depending on the saturation of the soil.
I believe that plants have been adapting to us for far to long, maybe it’s time we reciprocated the gesture.”

I did a quick pastel sketch of my seedling for a change.

Buddha Belly Seedling Sketch