Scotland is home to over 28 varieties of seaweeds, which are categorised into four types:
- Chlorophyceae (greens)
- Phaeophyceae (browns)
- Rhodophyceae (reds)
- Cyanophyceae (blues)
Most of the seaweeds are edible, although they require a certain pallete to truly enjoy them! However, all have extremely beneficial properties when taken internall or applied topically. They are a rich source of protein, fibre, vitamins, minerals and trace elements which all promote good health and well-being.
Actually, when compared to land-based botanicals, seaweeds are 10 to 20 times higher in vitamins, minerals and amino acids. With specific seaweeds, such as the Japanese variety Hijiki, Arame and Wakame contain up to 10 times the calcium of milk. Then in comparison with red meat, seaweeds can contain from 4 times up to a staggering 25 times more iron. Also according to the noted herbalist, Dr. Ryan Drum, you would have to consume up to 40lbs of fresh vegetables and/or fruits to get the equivalent volume of iodine that 1g of whole leaf kelp can provide.
A fact about seaweed I thought particularly interesting was that it is a fantastic fat metaboliser, breaking down excess fat in the body and "flushing" it out of your system, by putting it in a position for the body to burn it easily as energy, allowing you to lose weight and maintain it. As an allergy sufferer myself, it was also interesting to note that seaweed, due to its active constituents helps to boost your immune system, not only relieving you from irritating colds and sniffles but alleviating allergy systems also.
However, each species of seaweed has an optimum time when the vitamin content is at is most potent, and as it is only really exposed at low tides, this has to be well monitored. Jim and Elspeth harvest fresh seaweed primarily from the waters between the Isle of Mull and the Isle of Jura, and from the coastline of North Uist, an island in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. They remove the "living" ends of the seaweed, i.e. the leafy part away from the base, as the new cellular growth occurs near the base, otherwise known as the holdfast. Jim and Elspeth took us through the seaweeds most often used:
Ascophyllum nodosum, commonly known as Knotted Wrack, is a very commonly found brown seaweed in the Phaeophyceae group. It has long fronds with large egg-shaped air-bladders set in series at regular intervals in the fronds and not stalked, which can reach up to 2 metres in length.
Knotted Wrack is rich in iodine, calcium and potassium, and also contains oils with high concentrations of vitamin B12. It also contains a variety of macronutrients, including nitrogan, sulphur and phosphorus and a variety of micronutrients, including manganese, copper, iron and zinc. It is generally dried and then used in a powdered form, and can then be used as a bath soak or in body creams. Extracts of this seaweed act as a natural sunscreen and promote topical tissue repair.
Laminaria digitata, commonly known as Kelp, is the most commonly known brown seaweed, in the Phaeophyceae group, is found growing in dense "forests" and is usually only seen at very low tides. Compared with other algae, Kelp has a fairly high intrinsic growth rate at 5.5% per day, with a carrying capacity of about 40kg wet weight per square metre, where it may grow to a length of up to 4 metres per botanical.
The fronds are rich in a natural version of sodium glutamate and it is high in iron and iodine. The stalks, however, are used more commonly as the key ingredient to help to smooth and cool the skin topically. Also granules of the dried stalk may also used as a gentle skin exfoliate.
Chrondus crispus, commonly known as Carragheen moss or Irish moss, is a member of the Rhodophylaceae group. Reaching up to little over 20cm in length, the Irish moss branches four or five times from the holdfast in a fan-like manner. The branches are 2-15mm broad, firm in texture and range from a dark reddish brown to a pink-purple, however the colours bleach to yellow in sunlight.
The principal constituent of Irish moss is a mucilaginous body, made of the polysaccharide carrageenan of which it contains 55%. The botanical also consists of nearly 10% protein and about 15% mineral matter, and is rich in iodine and sulphur. When softened in water it has a sea-like odour, and because of the abundant cell wall polysaccharides it will form a jelly when boiled, containing from 20 to 100 times its weight of water.
It is harvested at the end of the summer when the natural carrageenan content is at its highest. It is used in creams as an emulsifier, and has been used for centuries as a thickening agent in milk puddings, however it needs to be counteracted with a significant sweetness to be palatable.
Palmaria palmata, commonly known as Dulse, a member of the Rhodophyceae grouping, is a pink, nearly transparent seaweed, that has been an important source of fibre for centuries. The fronds are variable in length, and vary in colour from a deep-rose to a reddish-purple, and are rather leathery in texture. The flat foliose blade gradually expands and divides into broad segments ranging in size to 50cm long, and 30-38cm in width.
It's found in deeper water, attaching itself to tall kelp stems and can survive harsh ocean conditions. Dulse provides an excellent source of vitamin A and C, while also containing all the trace elements needed by humans and has a high protein content. It is used in creams and lotions as it has been proven to increase cellular activity and improve skin elasticity.
Even from these few examples you can see that each seaweed offers its own range of benefits, and dependent on where it is found and harvested, the range of these benefits can alter as the location will determine the qualities which the seaweed will have been absorbed in i.e. minerals, macro and micronutrients, and what organisms interact with the botanical. Seaweed is a natural detoxifier, aiding the absorption and removal of toxins from the body when taken internally or applied topically. It has been used for centuries to ease joints, improve circulation, moisturise skin and detoxify the system, and with a recent downturn in its use in Britain, you have to really wonder why! Maybe with the move back toward organic, freshly made products, such as those sold in Lush, we may see a new increase in the usage of seaweed - even if it is only externally!