Be the Botanist


Does it matter where you are, or what season of the year it is? 

Given the way global freight and food supplies work, seasonality and locality are not as critical as they have been to previous generations. When it comes to finding adequate nutrition or pleasing our tastebuds, it’s all there for us, pre-prepped and splayed out. All we have to do is purchase, like everyone else. 

In most modern cities, on a regular day, almost anything you desire of a material nature can be acquired, no matter where it was made. From online “remote” retail there is arguably even more choice, with a delay for delivery of a mere matter of days. 

And so we are divorced from our physical environment, independent of it. If it’s cold outside, we can put on the heating. If it’s hot, the air-conditioning. Brilliant, we’re immune!

But what, if anything, are we missing out on?

For us, the epiphany came when we, a whisky distillery, started to research making a gin. Juniper, which everyone knows is needed to make gin, grows wild on Islay, albeit in small quantities on the extreme edges of where grazing animals cannot reach.

But what we didn’t know was that there were many other edible, aromatic, flavourful plants growing all around us, phasing, marking the year. New birch leaves, a tiny-flowered high-summer bedstraw, meadowsweet from the roadside ditches, heather, bitter wood sage – a relay team of below-the-radar local flavour. They didn’t have the high status juniper had, or the track-record for use in spirits, but in their season, they were each magnificent. Collectively they were completely evocative of the flora here in Islay.  

Treating these common plants like herbs, applying some distilling expertise and a bit of engineering improvisation, and we were granted access to a richness and depth – not only of flavour, but of co-creativity, and connection, with the place we call home.

There is something so satisfying in strengthening that connection. It’s the sense of being part of your surroundings, of being a living thing in contact with a living world. Identity is relational, and identifying with a place, belonging to it, can get you right in the core.

In an applied way, when you find edibility, it is meaningful. You have agency, and the environment has function; you can matter to it as a grazing and seed-spreading animal, and it can matter to you as a source of sustenance.

Spring flowers for garnishes, South Africa

Local, seasonal flavours: nasturtiums, cornflowers, pelargonium varietals (rose, peppermint, nutmeg, lemon), wild dagga, confetti bush, Kapokbos, Spekbom…

When you look closely, underneath the layers of convenience and ubiquity and uniformity of supply, different places and seasons are not the same. Regardless of the built environment, or human presence, they show their variation through the plants they are putting out. The combination of those plants at any given moment may well be unique, as is your opportunity to access to them, personally, if you are right there. It’s a freely-available, richer experience of life that includes this level of nuance and self-actualisation.

As a species we are so wilfully or accidentally deaf and blind to nature’s signals. Yet, just recognising what plants are there, where you are, is allowing that place and that season to communicate with you. Some would say that being sensitive to that is an important step in the right direction if we aren’t going to wreck this most generous of planets!  Others would spot the potential, like we did. Out of making the discovery of source materials, you can produce something original but not egotistical, something that has the beauty and integrity that only comes from being part of a bigger picture. And so, hopefully, pay it homage.

Is time to see things differently, and to appreciate what’s there in front of you. Adorn your glass with something local, something seasonal. Raise a glass to wherever you are. Be The Botanist.

foraging gorse in Islay, Winter

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