The Chimera Plantarium Weekend

Chiara Dellerba‘s Chimera Plantarium project culminated with a weekend of public engagement workshops for local people to discover the wonder and beauty of our urban plants and to create wilder streets where we live.

The first workshop was led by carpenter and green builder Tim Allman, a botanist for wild.NG. Tim led a walk around the local area to learn about plants and trees growing in the neighbourhood. Beginning in Corby Town Centre the walk would incorporate Hazel and Thoroughsale Woods, an established area once part of Rockingham Forest and now thought to be one of Europe’s largest urban woodlands. As the town expands around the 76 hectare wood the forest remains at the heart of the town centre.

However before we reached this rich and biodiverse site the group spent some time investigating a seemingly plain and manicured stretch of grass outside Corby Pool. Armed with Tim’s knowledge and collection of hand lenses we are able to determine the grass actually had an abundance of plant species such as yarrow and broadleaf plantain which we harvested for use in the afternoon workshop. The site of our group investigating the grass also attracted the attention of passers by who brought their own cultural knowledge of medicinal plant uses.

Entering Hazel and Thoroughsale Woods presented even greater diversity, but no birch trees which a member of our group had hoped for. Tim explained that as these woods were an ancient woodland it would be unlikely to now contain birch as they are a “pioneer species” that grow relatively fast before the more established and long living oaks take root. After learning botanist tricks for identifying species such as bud formations in opposite or alternating patterns Tim described plant knowledge as like recognising people’s body language on a pre-verbal level. All of the group recognised oak trees because “we just know them as familiar friends”.

In the afternoon session we relocated to the nearby KHL Community Workshop, a new community led and voluntary run space. Here artist Rebecca Beinart led a session exploring the healing properties of common local plants where we made our own balms to soothe aches, pains and injuries. Rebecca set an intention that we would work with plants that linked to Corby’s industrial and pre-industrial history. Where our morning walk began at Corby’s Steelman statue we learned from local participants many examples of connections between plants and industry. Corby’s population is famous for the migration of Scottish workers to the town which led to conversations in our group about seed dispersal and the perception of “invasive” species or weeds. Amusingly we even heard a story about workers walking from Scotland to Corby actually sleeping in hedgerows. All of this knowledge infused our “Corby Balm’s” which might use plant properties to treat many industrial injuries such as burns, scrapes and bruises.

The second day again began in Hazel and Thoroughsale Woods where Chiara led a sensory mapping walk with participants exploring and revealing alternative relationships with plants, facilitating structures of care and revealing our co-dependencies with other organisms.

Ending up back at KHL Community Workshop for the final session participants brought their knowledge and gathered plant specimens to make new recipes for tinctures and perfumes of the neighbourhood. Where smell can evoke powerful memories of experiences and emotions associated with events, the tinctures also used alcohol to extract the active nutrients from the plant specimens to form concentrated liquids with physical medicinal properties.

Chiara explained that these combinations of alcohol, bark, herbs and “weeds” allow a greater part of the plant to be extracted whilst preserving the medicine for longer use. The name tincture is derived from the Latin tinctus, meaning moistened or topped, which later in Middle English became tincture. The first use of alcohol for extracting and preserving medicines is believed to have been by Persian and Arabian physicians and alchemists and we probably owe the wide use of tinctures to the apothecaries of the late medieval period.

Thank you to Chiara and special guests for a fantastic project which made and revealed so many connections between people and plants. Catch up on the entire project here.

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