A History of Botanicals in the UK

When thinking about the history of Great Britain a lot of things spring to mind - royalty, William Shakespeare, the treaty of Versailles and more recently the creation of the world wide web (just to name a few). However, many of you might be surprised to learn that the UK also has a rich history in botany. But, for those of us who don’t have a green thumb, what are botanicals and what is botany?

In fact, a botanical is a substance that is derived from plants while botany is the study of the plants. For centuries, botanical products were a staple of people’s diets all around the globe due to their well-known health benefits; in the modern world, their consumption has only increased. Cinnamon, pepper, tea, soy, and various herbs can be found virtually in all the households around the world, and a lot of botanicals and their derivatives are also regularly used in medicine and in cosmetics. So, how exactly did this come to be? To answer that we’re going to take you on a little history trip!


Since what feels like the beginning of time, people have been using herbs for food and remedies. William Turner, often known as the father of British botany, wrote what is likely the earliest known work describing British flora and fauna, called Libellus de Re Herbaria (The Names of the Herbs) which was published in 1538. The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI) was formed in 1836 and is now a world leader in carrying out scientific research in the fields of botany and biology.

Tea

Drinking tea has now become synonymous with British identity, in fact, the average tea supply per person in the United Kingdom is a whopping 1.94kg. That’s a lot of tea. So go on, put the kettle on, grab your mug, and let’s dive into how tea fits into a history of botanicals. 


Tea is brewed from leaves of the Camellia sinensis, a small evergreen shrub which is native to the region of East Asia. The earliest credible mention of drinking tea dates all the way back to the 3rd century AD China and the first signs of tea in Europe appear around the 16th century, initially in Italy and Portugal. Modern British tea-lovers should be thankful to one particular person - Catherine of Braganza, a massive tea addict who also happened to be a Portuguese Princess and the wife of Charles II. It was her love for a cuppa that ultimately led the British East India Company to place an order for 100 lbs of Chinese tea in 1664, bringing tea to Great Britain. Initially regarded as an upper-class beverage (due to its royal associations), prices gradually fell and tea started to be consumed first by the middle classes in the 18th century, and by the 19th century, it was being consumed universally in Great Britain and was even considered a key part of British patriotism. In the second half of the 19th century, the consumption of tea kept on soaring due to the expansion of the railway to the east, and, eventually, London became the centre of the international tea trade.


Milk and sugar started to become a vital part of the tea break in the late part of the 17th century, as a way to improve the taste of tea but also largely as a status symbol, given that tea and sugar were expensive luxury items.  Milk was also used by sneaky employers to shorten tea breaks of their employees, as adding milk cools the tea so workers would drink up quicker and get back to work. 


There are three main types of tea, which are produced by distinct methods of processing the leaves: 

  • Black - fermented
  • Green - non-fermented
  • Oolong - semi-fermented

The longer the fermentation process, the darker the leaves become and it's the fermentation that gives black tea its notorious bold and malty taste. Green tea, on the other hand, doesn’t undergo this process which leads to retention of the leaves’ green colour and the tea itself has a more natural, grassy flavour while oolong tea offers an in-between option.


A major factor which contributed to tea’s rise in popularity is the health benefits associated with it.  As early as 5000 years ago, tea plants were used to treat certain diseases. Green and black teas are even said to contain 10 times the amount of antioxidants found in vegetables and fruit! This is due to a large number of bioactive ingredients known as polyphenols present in the tea leaves. Apart from possessing antioxidant properties, polyphenols are also antiviral and anti-inflammatory and stimulate the immune system. Modern medical studies have shown that regular tea consumption is even associated with a reduction in the risk of developing different types of cancer, cardiovascular diseases, arthritis and diabetes. For example, a study has shown that a daily dosage of 2 to 6 cups of green tea can support cardiovascular health.


Coffee

Although coffee is not considered as important a part of British culture as tea certainly is, it is still hugely popular in the UK and abroad. Coffee has become a key part of our morning rituals, and whether you’re an espresso person, a latte maniac, or if you’re a hardcore americano drinker, we all know what it’s like to crave that caffeine fix. 


Coffee is prepared from roasted coffee beans (surprise!) which in turn come from different Coffea species, the most common of which are Coffea arabica and Coffea robusta. Originating in the middle east in the early 15th century, coffee spread to Europe by the 16th century. Although tea has actually been around a lot longer than coffee, it was the latter that reached the shores of the British Isles first, with an account of a German physician Leonhard Rauwolf stating that the coffee was available in England no later than the 16th century, while the first coffeehouse opened in Oxford in 1652. With the typical price of a coffee set at a penny (Starbucks - take note) coffeehouses became places to meet and exchange ideas. Not surprisingly, coffeehouses became popular spots for academics and thinkers, such as Isaac Newton, and the first stokes and shares were traded in a coffeehouse as well. However, not everyone was fond of them, including - unfortunately - Charles II, who attempted to get rid of them completely in 1675. Thankfully, he was not successful, and it wasn’t until the 18th century when the coffeehouses started to fade in popularity and tea began its takeover of the nation. Remaining coffeehouses started to charge membership fees to try and reduce the loss of revenue and this led to the creation of many Gentlemen’s Clubs around the country which still operate to this day. But this certainly wasn’t the death of the coffee industry; currently, there are around 24,000 coffee shops with an average consumption of 2.8kg of coffee per person annually in the UK.


As coffee contains caffeine, which is a known stimulant, it is thought that an intake of 3 to 4 cups of coffee a day is the optimum amount of coffee to see the largest reduction in risks to health including cancer and cardiovascular diseases. In addition to antioxidants used to combat diseases mentioned, coffee also contains vital micronutrients such as vitamin B, magnesium and potassium. Vitamin B can support your health in many ways including keeping the skin healthy, improving digestion and stimulating the growth of red blood cells. Magnesium and potassium also play an important role; potassium regulates the water balance in the body and acid-base balance in the blood and tissues, and magnesium regulates blood pressure, blood sugar levels, nerve and muscle function.


Gin

Although gin is a spirit, its flavour comes from botanicals, mainly from juniper berries. This flavour is obtained by redistillation of gin with the botanicals to extract their aromatic compounds which give gin its unique flavour profile.


Gin was first created as a medicinal drink by Italian monks but by the 1600s became widely popular in the Netherlands with hundreds of distilleries producing gin on a daily basis in the nation’s capital, Amsterdam. The drink was known as ‘genever’ due to its main ingredient being juniper berries, known as ‘jeneverbes’ in Dutch. In 1585, as part of the Eighty Years’ War, British soldiers were fighting alongside Dutch soldiers in Antwerp against the Spanish army. That’s where the British soldiers first came in contact with gin, which the Dutch soldiers would drink before going into battles, and is where the term ‘Dutch Courage’ first originated. According to the legend, the British soldiers were too drunk to pronounce the full name and instead abbreviated it to ‘gen’ which later became ‘gin’. Restrictions and high taxes on the import of brandy to Great Britain from France were put in place at the start of the 18th century due to religious and political conflict between the two nations. During this time, gin production was encouraged as an alternative to brandy. In a crazy turn of events, the price of gin was eventually lower than the price of beer (if only this were true now!), and saw the start of what was known as the ‘gin craze’. Sounds like a dream come true, eh? At first glance, yes, but in reality, this led to unhealthy overconsumption of gin, to the point where cities were stormed with hordes of extremely inebriated individuals. For those keen on art, look up ‘Beer Street and Gin Lane’, two famous prints by William Hogarth that speak to the mood surrounding gin versus beer consumption at the time. Between 1725 and 1755 five different acts were passed in order to reduce gin consumption, and the beast was mostly tamed by the end of 1757.


After a big fall from grace, gin started to make its return in 1830. A French-born Irishman by the name of Aeneas Coffey revolutionised the process of distillation by improving the column first patented by the Cork County distillery in 1822. His improvements increased the alcohol volume and quality of the gin being produced.


Gin was actually also used by the British Royal Navy, who frequently travelled to destinations where malaria infections were common. The treatment for malaria is quinine, which has a strong and unpleasant bitter taste, which is where the gin comes in. In an attempt to mask this bitter taste, the quinine would be dissolved in carbonated water and mixed with gin. If this sounds at all familiar, it’s because this is the origin story of the gin and tonic cocktails that we know and love, though modern cocktails contain only a trace amount of quinine.  


Today,  gin is a very popular spirit and is used in all kinds of different cocktails. Here are some recipes for you to try out! 

Gin Tonic Twist


Tom Collins Courage


CBD

Cannabis has been used as a food source and herbal medicine for centuries. The Chinese also used hemp for its fibre, producing clothes, shoes and even an early form of paper. In later years, cannabis was also used for industrial reasons, and by 1533 King Henry VII actually made it mandatory for British farmers to grow hemp. As scientific progress continued, the medical use of cannabis also rose, and Queen Victoria even took it as a pain-reliever. However, the world view on cannabis started to change at the start of the 20th century, starting in 1928 at an international drug conference in Geneva where Britain was convinced to treat cannabis as a dangerous drug. Nevertheless, the NHS was still prescribing cannabis-based medicine until 1973, until this was ended following the introduction of the Misuse of Drugs Act. Despite this, the medical interests in cannabis were kept alive and it made a comeback as an appetite suppressant for AIDS wasting and treatment of asthma. A major breakthrough came in the 1990s when the endocannabinoid system was discovered - a pathway in a human body with cannabinoid receptors and self-producing cannabinoids. This discovery proved that not all cannabinoids are harmful and the presence of the receptors allowed further characterisation of cannabis’ effects on the body, beyond the intoxicating effects of THC. In 2010 Sativex became the first cannabis-based drug approved for use, and in November 2018 prescription of medical cannabis by a specialist doctor was legalised in the UK.


CBD (cannabidiol) is one of the many naturally occurring chemical compounds (cannabinoids)  in a Sativa plant. Unlike another cannabinoid known as THC, CBD is a non-intoxicating ingredient. Due to this, it has become legal in the UK as long as CBD products have THC levels below 0.2%.  


CBD is relatively new to the medical and supplement scenes, but scientific studies to date have already shown that CBD does, in fact, have multiple health benefits. Investigations have found CBD to be effective in treating chronic neuropathic pain, reducing sleep disturbances, treating Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, and for alleviating pain and inflammation due to arthritis. CBD has shown especial promise in treating epilepsy (such as Lennox-Gastaut syndrome), multiple studies on the impacts of CBD on seizure frequency showed that on average almost 66% of the patients experienced a reduction in seizure frequency, and, most notably, 6 out of a cohort of 11 studies demonstrated that over 80% of the patients reported an improvement to their condition. The National Cancer Institute has also reported that CBD can help reduce cancer symptoms and disease severity and that CBD can act to reduce side effects of severe treatments.


The mechanism of action of CBD in the body has not yet been fully decoded, in time more research will shine light onto the complex interactions of CBD with our bodies and how this drives its many positive effects. As we understand the science more, it’s likely we’re going to see more medical uses of CBD emerging, and we’ll be able to understand better how each of us could use CBD, whether that’s for managing stress, pain, sleep, anxiety, or one of the other many complaints that we experience in our day-to-day lives.