The Library of Obscure Wonders

art nature illustration botanical classes workshops

Stinging Nettles: Protection, Exorcism, Lust and A Soup Recipe

So I’ve agreed with some friends to help them out with their garden. I decide I’m going to do little pencil sketches of plants in the garden (see above) and write a blog about each.

The first thing I do is clear away some weeds. The place is covered in thick stinging nettles that go up to my knee. I dig them up, but it seems a shame to just throw them out so I make nettle soup. It’s nice once I get the hang of it, a little “textured” but I imagine that wouldn’t be the case if I had a food blender. The second day it tastes even better. I also make nettle tea in a lovely china teapot a friend gave me. It tastes of nettles, I would be pleased only I’m getting a bit nettled out now, my hands and arms are stinging permanently despite having worn gloves. I decide to lookup what benefit all these nettles might be doing me:

Nettle is very high in vitamins and iron. They stop bleeding and used to be ground into a fine powder and used as a snuff to stop nose bleeds, or used in an infusion. They are also good for treating colds. The leaves are said to improve ones complexion and circulation and can be used to clear the chest of phlegm.

As for magic, the nettle apparently has powers of exorcism, protection and lust. It is seen as masculine, comes under the planet Mars and the element of fire.  It belongs to Thor, the Norse god of thunder. To remove a curse and send it back carry a sachet of nettle around with you. Sprinkle nettle around the house to keep evil out. Throw it into the fire to avert danger or wear it as an amulet to keep ghosts and negativity away.

It has been used as a lust inducing herb, used in purification baths and the irritant within the hairs has been used as an aphrodisiac to stimulate the sexual organs.

I’m just sticking to the soup.


Nettle tips
Vegetable stock
Salt and pepper

Cut and wash nettles tips (whilst wearring gloves)
Boil in a saucepan of water for a couple of minutes. This removes most of the sting
Slice them into small pieces and remove tough stems
Fry some onions and garlic in a pan with butter till the onions go soft and golden (I love butter but I suppose you can use oil if you choose)
Add the nettles
Add some rice
Add a good amount of hot water with vegetable stock mixed in
Bring to the boil and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the rice is done
Add salt and pepper to taste (I add loads of salt, but then I’m addicted to the stuff and my blood pressure isn’t high)

And there you have it, very simple , tasty and good for you, just be careful not to get stung to pieces like I did.

Dung Beetle – The Lousy Watchman

dorbeetleThis picture is of a Dor beetle. The Dor beetle is a type of dung beetle under the family of Scarab. It looks very much like the ancient Egyptian symbol for the god Khepri. He was thought to roll the sun across the sky everyday in much the same way as a dung beetle rolls dung. For this reason the dung beetle represented recycling and reincarnation, the sun going each evening and coming back each morning.

I think the dung beetle is a good symbol for recycling and reincarnation anyway, for its use of dung helps return the nutrients  (for there are plenty in dung!) back to the soil for the plants to grow. The Dor beetle is known as an “earth-boring dung beetle”. They usually work in pairs, a male and a female will dig a passage in the earth under a pile of dung. They then dig side passages off of this and into each one a piece of dung is placed. An egg is laid into the dung and the passage is then closed off with more dung. The larvae hatch from the eggs and feed on the dung for a year until they pupate and adult beetles emerge.

I came across this beetle on the body of a recently deceased stag. It is not unusual to find dung beetles on carcasses, the “Beetles that eat bodies” webpage lists them as one of the beetles entomologists look for on cadavers to help determine the time of death. The one I watched was determined to get on the top of the stags shoulder, it kept trying then falling off, then trying again. Whenever it fell off it rolled over onto its body and then I could see its metallic blue and purple underbelly and legs. It really was a very beautiful creature. Unfortunately I did not take a photo so these drawings are done from memory and what I could find on google. The beetle’s determination paid off and eventually he climbed onto the shoulder and, seemingly proud of his accomplishment, strutted across the body.

The Dor Beetle is is also known as the Lousy Watchman because if often has small mites living on its belly. I couldn’t see any mites on the one I saw, this may have spoiled my vision of it as a lucky omen.



Brief History of Botanical Illustration PDF

As mentioned here is the pdf on the history of botanical illustration. The idea is that it will get you interested and you will perhaps research further.


“The ancient Chinese, Indians, Egyptians, Babylonians, and Native Americans were all herbalists. The oldest known list of medicinal herbs is Shen Nung’s Pen Ts’ao or Shennong Ben Cao Jing (c. 3000 B.C.), a Chinese herbal that is probably a compilation of an even older oral tradition.”

University of Virginia



The first tree that particularly fascinated me was the Oak. I have always felt a certain warmth for Oak, as many people do. They are strong deciduous trees found in British woodland and indeed in many other parts of the world.

Today I walked through the local park looking for an Oak. I found a large one up against the wall. I sat myself down to draw it , but I could not get far enough away to see the whole tree and it was so criss-crossed with its branches and the falling leaves that I soon got lost trying to draw it. I feel that this tree was going to take a lot more investigation than just a quick sketch. Then, with some amusement, the thought came into my head to look for the Green Man in it’s trunk. The Oak is often associated with the Green Man. At first I noticed nothing, the trunk looked the same ridgety complication all over. Then I flippantly asked the tree where the Green Man was, I looked again and there he was! Clear as anything, with a strong nose and brow.

The Oak has been called the “king of the woods”. A symbol of strength, protection and longevity, it was the tree sacred to Zeus in Greek mythology. Priests would read the pronouncements of the gods by reading the rustling of the Oaks leaves.

It was also sacred to the Norse God Thor, the god of thunder. Curiously the Oak is struck by lightning more than any other tree – unlike the Holly which detracts it – so much so that people would collect blackened pieces of Oak tree for good luck. I read recently that the Druids would not meet for rituals unless an Oak tree was present, so important was the Oak to their belief system. The old name for Oak is Duir and the name Druid is thought in part to be connected to the Oak, meaning “people of the oak”.

The Oak has been seen as the gateway to the Otherworld. In folklore the Oak is linked to the sacrificed king whose ritual death happens in midsummer. An old story about the Oak, popular in the medieval period, had the Oak as the king of the summer. Each year the Oak King fights the Holly King of the winter, each new spring the Oak King wins the battle, each new fall the Holly King wins.

An Oak can live to a thousand years old. Their powers of protection are thought to be great. Two twigs of Oak, bound with a red thread so that they form an equal armed cross, makes a safeguard against evil. It should be hung in the home. If someone is sick in your home and you have a fireplace make a fire of Oak wood to draw out the sickness. Carry an acorn against sickness and pains and to give you longevity. Carrying any piece of the Oak brings good luck. Carrying an acorn can increase fertility and increase sexual potency.

In spring Oaks produce both male catkins and small female flowers , their fruit is the acorn. It is a keystone species in many habitats, a number of types of truffle have symbiotic relationships with Oaks, and the small bird known as the European pied flycatcher builds it nest solely in Oak trees. Acorns and Oak leaves are poisonous to cattle, horses and sheep, but pigs can live off them and were often reared in oak forests. Indeed acorns formed an important food source for many early human cultures.

The other night i slept under the Oak tree in the park. It felt like a very safe place to be, though the knat stings were dreadful!



Garlic cloves

Garlic cloves allowed to grow. Limited edition print by Jo Fisher Roberts

Garlic, Allium ursinum, has been used by people for over 7000 years. It grows in Asia, Africa and Europe. It’s planet is Mars and its element fire, it’s deity is Hecarte. Garlic was eaten at festivals to Hercarte, and left at crossroads to her name. Often planted in the garden or worn around the neck to protect against evil spirits garlic has also been used to help  boost the immune system, protect against hepatitis, to guard against foul weather and as an antiseptic. It was used in Ancient Egypt to give the builders of the pyramids energy and strength.

Moon Poo, Wolf Milk, Tree Hair And other types of Slime

slime moulds

An illustration of slime moulds

“There is only one rule to life” said my biology teacher on one of his more whimsical days “for every rule you find you can always find something that breaks it”.

Ignoring the obvious contradiction he preceded to educate us in a creature that was not animal or plant, not multi-cellular or single cellular, but very possibly alien.

In 1973 in Dallas, Texas, firefighters were called out because a strange yellow blob was attacking a telephone pole. The firefighters tried to subdue it with hoses, but the creature grew bigger and climbed up the pole. Locals feared an alien invasion. Yellow blobs had recently been appearing on their lawns and now this giant blob was seemingly eating the telephone pole. Luckily, a local university scientist identified the oozing slime as F. septica. a harmless slime mould.

It is unusual for slime moulds to be this large, they are usually tiny, very slimy and not a mould. Having been banished from the fungi class in recent history for having very little relation to a fungi, they now have their very own kingdom, yet still perplex scientists as to where exactly they fit in. They come in many different colours – yellow, pink, white, green, brown, black – and have many different common names such as Tree Hair, Bubble Gum, Chocolate tubes, Wolf Milk , Dog Vomit and Caca de Luna (Moon Poo) which I’m informed is delicious when fried.

There are two main types of Slime Mold, the Plasmordial – basically one great big cell with many nuclei – and the Cellular – these spend most of their life as single celled amoeba but when food gets short a chemical signal is released and they come together to form “slugs”, with head part, body and tale, that go wondering off to find somewhere better.

At some point they then turn into fruiting bodies, with some of them being sacrificed in order to do this. Their life cycle intrigues scientists for the questions it raises about altruism.

A fairly recent Slime Mould discovery is that although they don’t have a brain, or anything even approaching, they do use a type of external memory. Hansel and Gretal style. Build a small maze in a petri dish, on one side of the maze put your Slime Mould, on the other put a delicious food supply. The Slime mould will work its way round the maze leaving behind a slime trail so it knows where it has been before and doesn’t return there.

Life Cycle of Slime Mold

Life-cycle of a Slime Mould

Whats more these things are all around, everyday, lurking in the corners of your life, in the garden, in the town, maybe in your house. So with their ability to exist as both single and multi-celluar organisms, their altruism,  being able to find their way through mazes, and most of all their ability to still completely baffle humans, slime moulds are fantastic!  (And are the future)

The Snake Amongst Rubbish.

Art work - Snake painting

Watercolour and Gouache on handmade paper, with bed springs and litter.

This beast has just successfully got to America, much to my relief. I could see the authorities objecting to rusting bed springs in a package arriving from across the continent, but it got there safely. It is one of my earliest experiments in embedding and painting on handmade paper. It is an incredibly lengthy process with a high possibility of it going wrong at any stage – the paper-making, the drying, the embedding, and when it comes to the image, well you can’t rub out on handmade paper! The error possibilities are enormous, quite crazy in fact, but it is very rewarding once finished. There is also the curious thing that because it’s created from recycled materials the materials and the making process play a role in how the final image turns out, almost tell their story by influencing my decisions as I make it.

I found the bed springs in my garden, when I was trying to build a pond. An entire mattress is buried under the ground, rotten away so that it is just a huge bunch of strings and wire. I thought I saw a snake slithering amongst the strings, but it was probably my eyes playing tricks on me again.

The snake is a fascinating animal. The word snake comes from the term “to creep”. The forked tongue smells as well as tastes, and is constantly in motion sampling particles from the air. Many snakes also have infrared-sensitive receptors to detect the heat given off by warm blooded creatures. Most impressive, from a visual point of view, is their  jointed skull and highly mobile jaw which enables them to eat prey far larger then their heads, and often live.

Dr. BoBo Chaplin’s Cabinet of Curiosities

481px-PhrenologyPixThese photographs are of the notable Cabinet of Curiosities belonging to charismatic phrenologist “Dr. BoBo” Chaplin (1792-1864?) born in Zion House, Twickenham, London.

Phrenology is a process that involved observing and feeling the skull to determine an individual’s psychological attributes. Dr. BoBo believed that the brain was made up of 27 individual organs that determined personality. He would run his fingertips and palms over the skulls of his patients to feel for enlargements or indentations. He would often take measurements with a tape measure of the overall head size and more rarely employ a craniometer, as displayed in the cabinet.
The contents of the cabinet were dispersed in 1968 after disagreements over its rightful ownership (Chaplin vs. Adams, June 1967). It is thought that many of the pieces were lost during this period. The relatively small collection of exhibits which remained in England are currently on display as part of the Library of Obscure Wonders at The Hundred Years Gallery until the 2nd March 2014.

Inside Dr.BoBo's cabinet

Inside Dr.BoBo’s cabinet

A photo of the insides of Dr BoBo's cabinet.

A photo of the insides of Dr BoBo’s cabinet.

At the Hundred Years Gallery

ImageThe Library will be having an exhibition at the end of February. This time at the Hundred Years Gallery in Shoreditch. The exhibition will show the Libraries Cabinets of Curiosity, donated by various artists, scientists and explorers. It will also show the work of Giles Leaman and Jo Fisher Roberts, two artists that make their work from recycled materials, a soundscape by Cos Chapman and three nights of performance. Here are the details:

‘The Library Of Obscure Wonders’: Jo Roberts & Giles Leaman. 19th of February to 2nd of March

Private view involving a Sin Eating Ritual on the 20th of February

Jo Fisher Roberts is an artist and illustrator. Interested in the natural world, she combines traditional illustrative techniques with experimentation and found materials; the carnivalesque and the surreal.

The Woods: “When I was about the age of 10 I was with my family on a walk in woods in west Wales. As usual on such walks I had fallen behind the group. Dawdling along daydreaming I suddenly froze. Just couldn’t move.

Everything became super-real, bright and overwhelming, the noises were intense. Tiny details such as fungus, mud, leaves seemed god-like, immense and all powerful. There was no time. There was no separation between myself and the trees, the plants, the mud, and the water around me. They knew me, were me and I was them. I tried to hang on to normal reality, but that seemed distant, a thin theatre played on top. Even the thought “I” didn’t make sense any more. The experience was beautiful, incredible, ecstatic and horrific all at the same time. Terrifying.

“After what must have been just a few minutes I came round, heard my family calling for me and ran to catch up with them.

“Episodes similar to this were repeated and sometime later I was diagnosed with a type of epilepsy, but this experience, no matter what its causes, has always been important to me and my artwork can’t help but explore that “other” interconnected world. My work uses recycled materials. There is so much manufactured stuff in the world it can feel good to find the beauty in that which is used and thrown out: the constant dying and renewing process reminds me of the woods and the cycle of life.” JFR

The soundtrack is a collaboration between Jo Fisher Roberts and Cos Chapman. Constructed from extended vocal improvisations and processed using electroacoustic techniques to cerate a soundscape out of clearly human utterance.

The exhibition on the 1st March will also host the first phase of Spletza Martin Adventures. Storytelling, ritual performance, film and contemporary cabaret meet to create an exciting new cross-artform collaborative enterprise.

“Painting with paper, drawing with sound. Collages, sound sculptures and other explorations”.

Giles Leaman is a London based artist, musician and arts practitioner whose work traverses sound, installation, performance, sculpture and 2D artforms. His interest in found objects and the challenge set by using them, informs the process in which he works, ”It is as if the material creates a spark to a hitherto unexpected wave of energy, which then in turn consumes everything”. This spark or connection can sometimes be between two materials or a technique and a material or an idea looking for a framework in order to exsist.

The work ranges from collage, using found fragments, printing, drawing and painting, sculpture and assemblages to sound sculptures and experiments with diverse materials.

As a maker, and art enabler for art workshops for 25 years, a vast range of techniques and materials have been tested, manipulated explored and played with, and it is this playful air has lead to a demystifica\tion of “Art” or creativity being out of touch for most people, and more of an energy that can be encouraged and tapped into.

This show is an opportunity to combine new experiments with exsisting works, to break down barriers and put them up again.

Giles Leaman has worked as a printer, Designer of sound environments, a musician with various groups and with Puppeteers, dancers, artists Carnival Arts and as an art enabler for young people.

Events during the exhibition include:
February 23rd – Masks and drums Workshop with performances by The Librarian, KMAT, Cos Chapman, Giles Leaman
March 1st – Chutney Preserves present Mad March Tea Party late afternoon
March 1st -EP launch of Rude Mechanicals in the evening
Closing workshops and performances on the 2nd March


Blithe Nook – Bethnal Green

Litter mosaic

A mosaic of a leaf created from street litter in Bethnal Green park.

Bethnal Green is a district in East London, England.

This was a site specific installation about the origins of Bethnal Green in the Belfry at St Johns in London on 5 September until 3 October 2013

“the earliest form of Bethnal Green is derived from the Anglo-Saxon healh (‘angle, nook, or corner’) and blithe (‘happy, blithe’).
A settlement’s dependence upon water suggests that the ‘happy corner’ was cleared next to the natural spring… Over time, the name became Bethan Hall Green, which, because of local pronunciation as Beth’n ‘all Green, had by the 19th century changed to Bethnal Green.” Wikipedia

Blithe Nook takes its starting point from this description on the origins of Bethnal Green. Imagining the area as a clearing next to a spring, and how special it must have been to the local residents, it tries to capture the ghost of this and connect it to the busy metropolitan area it has now become. The piece includes botanical mosaics made from recycled street litter, cabinets showing aspects of the area that have caught the curiosity of residents and passers by, a soundscape comprising of sounds from the Green and an opportunity for visitors to contribute their own items of curiosity or wonder. There will also be live art performances on the opening night. St John on Bethnal Green 200 Cambridge Heath Road, E2 9PA London, United Kingdom

Lead Artist : Miss Roberts. Participating artists and performers: Cos Chapman, Emma Harvey, Tracey Holloway, Jude Cowan Montague, Jill Rock, Calum F. Kerr, Mick Frangou, Ed Boucher, Lee McFadden, Tracey Holloway, Phillip Raymond Goodman, Punkvert, Gardyloo Spew, Django Bates, Bitten By A Monkey, Matt Scott, Jowe Head and DemiMonde