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Modern Botany Medicinal Crop Growing

Posted by John Murray on
Chamomile - Modern Botany Medicinal Crop Growing

When Simon and I moved to West Cork in 2015 we were struck with the natural rugged beauty of the Mizen Peninsula, but more so its unspoilt environment that has for the most part escaped the Industrial Revolution and the effects of over-population through the years. In fact, what we were most struck with was the uncongested space of the peninsula and being so completely unpolluted; it made a stark contrast to our previous urban existence. It was for us the natural place to set up a ‘clean’ personal care company that would serve to be the DNA of our brand and its ethos. 

Chamomile in a vase.

It has been our long-held dream to have the opportunity to set up a natural personal care product company, but more so to grow some of the natural ingredients that could be utilised in the supply chain. In this way it would cut down our carbon footprint in reducing the importation of our current ingredients from overseas and have control over the quality and grade of the key plant extracts used in our formulations. Our current plant extract providers are gold standard in how they responsibly and ethically source their medicinal herbs and have all the requisite certifications to ensure that they are organic, responsibly farmed and high-quality pharmacy grade.  Quality being the key and the highest value to us in Modern Botany and for Simon the higher the quality of the plant extracts the greater efficacy and therapeutic effect will result in our skin preparations. 

When we launched Modern Botany in November 2016, we did so, featuring our signature Multi-Tasking Oil which includes key medicinal plant ingredients including, Borage, Flax Seed, Calendula and Chamomile. All of these have been used for centuries for their hydrating, anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties, and ingredients that Simon would have worked with over the years as a Doctor of *Pharmacognosy. We specifically selected these plants as they are European species and from our research, we understood that these varieties can be grown in Ireland with some indigenous to this region. We carried out an initial research project to understand, what if any, medicinal plants were being grown in Ireland by tillage farmers and discovered that outside of a couple of Flax farmers producing Flaxseed oil grown for tonics there were no commercial farmers growing the crops which we needed for our products.  

For the past 4 years we have used our small fields where we live to sow Borage, Flax Seed, Calendula and Chamomile (Roman and German varieties). Simon and I are not qualified gardeners or farmers for that matter, but would have learnt the basics and worked with our local neighbours (organic farmers Terry and Mary) to prepare the ground, fertilise it with organic fertiliser and sow the said varieties of herbs. The initial test beds were just to see if they would grow, that’s it, plain and simple. And indeed, they did and our first year proved to be a resounding success in that we had the right balance of rain and heat that Spring and Summer. The only plant that did not grow was the Roman Chamomile but the others including the German Chamomile grew well producing a great yield. What we discovered was that even though Roman Chamomile is indigenous to West Cork, growing naturally on the little highways and byways, it is not fussy about rich soil, but needs to be planted in well drained areas with high PH (6.5+); hence why it likes growing in the middle of the byways or ‘Boreen’s’ in West Cork. Fast forward 2 years later and we grew a bumper crop on a nearby Island which met the above conditions, despite being exposed to the elements. 

There were other issues that were a challenge including weed control, as we did not want to use herbicides and pesticides. So, the 3-year study was examining how and when to grow in the gardening calendar cycle, so as to best beat the weeds! 

We are delighted to say that we have started collaborating with a Horticulturist who is giving us sound advice from soil testing; knowing when and how to grow more effectively; best seed identification and weed management. We are excited about the trajectory of the project and what it will yield. We are working in 4 local testing areas so that we can see which soil types or terrain best suits individual plant growth as part of our pilot study.

We are very blessed to be part of a great community who have been involved with the projects including local farmers and our generous neighbour Adrian, also a retired Engineering Lecturer, who has built us a drying machine which will serve to be a prototype to use gong forward. Before extracting the oils, it’s imperative that the herbs contain no moisture at all. So, this part of the process is key to ensuring best outcomes.

Chamomile on the drying rack.

To date, we have collected enough plant material samples to carry out extensive testing from the past 4 years supply of the main varieties, comparing them to current commercial grade and against pharmacopoeia standard monographs. This will indicate if we are on the right road and mean that we can start bringing these extracts into our supply chain over the next 2 years. 

To summarise our journey so far, we have gone through an initial testing phase, both horticulturally and with scientific testing of the plant materials. We have worked with local farmers and neighbours who have generously given up their land and time to be part of this pilot study. We have standardised our organic and of course non-GMO seed collection. What we have learnt in simple terms is that the chosen plant species have grown well, and we have learnt and continue to learn gardening techniques and biodynamic methodology on how and when to best grow them while also understanding best geographical locations to do so. 

The plan is to now formalise this process and move to phase 2 of the study by being more scientific from a horticultural viewpoint in understanding and implementing a best practice model in growing the medicinal herbs (and new species) to ensure best outcomes that will be of pharmacy grade suitable for our Modern Botany supply chain. Depending on the success of the project the plan is as Modern Botany grows to bring in more local farmers who would

be willing to turn over an acre of land to supply demand and grow the much needed crops. Thankfully, we have a waiting list of local generous farmers who want to get involved. 

The overall aim for Modern Botany Medicinal Herb Growing Project is to ensure:

1.     Traceability of the plant extracts used in our supply chain

2.     Control of the quality and pharmacy grade of our extracts

3.     Local employment and offering farmers an opportunity to diversify

4.     Sustainability by reducing carbon footprint in reducing import of raw ingredients and ensuring responsible farming practice. 

We are very excited about next steps as we learn and grow together in our local community to empower and create a sustainable and viable enterprise that will be good for the environment and local economy. 

Author: John Murray (Modern Botany, Co-Founder)

 *Pharmacognosy is the study of drugs and medicines derived from natural origins found in plants and minerals.

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