Ellie Harrison visits a Bristol herb garden to find out about a plant that is on the front line in the fight against cancer.
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From hedgerow to meadow, field to fork,
we rely on plants.
They give nourishment to our bodies and even our souls.
Today, I'm in the West Country,
looking at just how much of our everyday lives depend on plants -
how they clothe us, help us when we're sick and of course feed us.
-Right, down the hatch, then.
-Down the hatch.
We've long harnessed the power of plants to feed and heal
and even steady the nerve.
They drank lots of this for its calmative effects
before they went into battle.
I think a lot of us know the calming effects of gin as well.
As well as plant historians, I'll also be meeting top chefs
and textile designers, all working their magic with plants and flowers.
-The yellow has come out really nicely.
And I'll also be looking back at some of the best times
we've featured plants and flowers in the past.
Like the time Anita met the farmer making a mint from herb oil.
-I am going to smell of peppermint for a long time.
-It's the nicest-smelling farm I've ever been on.
-I'm glad to hear it.
And when Matt turned his hand to a tea-time favourite.
And there you have it. My very first jar of mayonnaise.
We look again at James, finding out how
daffodils are helping in the fight against Alzheimer's.
So, a single pill a day has this huge impact on your life?
Oh, it's unbelievable! Unbelievable.
And we recall the time John met
the man known simply as Dr Smell.
Oh, goodness me, smell that!
I mean, it leaps out at you.
Charles Darwin said the origin of flowering plants
remained an abominable mystery.
But since the earliest times, we've attempted to unlock
their hidden secrets and release the healing power within.
A lot of our common drugs hail from the natural world.
Aspirin from willow, morphine is derived from opium poppies,
and aloe is used to treat sunburn.
Nature was the original medicine cabinet.
The Western Medicine Garden in Bristol
is just such a healing cabinet,
packed full of familiar plants that have all kinds of medicinal uses.
And according to curator Nicholas Wray, it's some of our
most ordinary that have the most extraordinary healing properties.
There's one over here which is the sage plant.
Which we recognise for food, that's how we use it these days.
Yes, it's a culinary herb, but also it's an important medicinal herb.
It has antiseptic properties.
Greek soldiers used to take this into battle
because you can dry the leaves and then transport them long distances.
But it's important if you get a cut or a wound
because it helps sterilise the cut and wound.
So they made a poultice or something like that.
Yes, exactly, that's right. And of course it's a culinary herb as well.
A lovely smell. Are there other foodie ones here?
-Yes, over here we have...
-I recognise this sign.
-Juniper for gin.
-That's right, this is a really important herb for gin.
In fact, actually, you can't have gin
unless it's been flavoured with juniper berries.
What's the history with juniper and medicine?
Well, juniper, er... Gin, effectively,
was first made by the Dutch.
They call it genever.
And that begins with the letter G.
And English couldn't actually pronounce that,
so of course in English that G is a hard sort of G.
And so the drink became gin.
And English soldiers drank genever,
or gin, as they called it, before they went into battle.
They were helping the Dutch fight the Spanish in the 80-year war
and they drank lots of this for its calmative effects
before they went into battle.
And that's where you get the phrase "Dutch courage".
Oh, that's a good history!
I think a lot of us know the calming effects of gin as well.
-Without juniper berries, there's no gin.
-That would be a sad day.
Modern science is now showing that there may be more
to these old remedies than we think.
So, this is an important herb, this is a rosemary.
For centuries, this has been known as a memory herb.
And recent studies have shown that it increases circulation,
increases blood supply to the brain.
So, all the while we're eating these herbs with our food, we've no idea
they've got all these additional health-related benefits going on?
Yes, science is understanding and unravelling now
what has been understood for many centuries.
We're now actually putting some hard science into this
and finding out the molecules that are in here
and the effect they have on the body.
One of the most important medical compounds ever discovered
comes from one of our most familiar trees.
This is English yew, which is a really common conifer,
all the way across Europe.
But there's a really important drug that comes from this called Taxol,
which is used in the fight against ovarian cancer and certain tumours.
And it's actually distilled from the foliage.
-So there are gardeners all over the UK that are actually
collecting the clippings from their yew hedges each year
and then that's collected up to a central point
-and it all goes off to France to be distilled.
And they take a tiny amount of that out and use it in the drug.
Yes, it takes huge amounts of yew clippings
to get just a few millilitres of the drug.
But it's very, very powerful and really useful.
That's certainly been around for the last 20 or 25 years.
-So it's quite recent, then?
-Yes, it is.
The compound for this drug is now so important
as a treatment for cancers,
including lung, pancreatic and breast cancer,
that the World Health Organisation
has added it to its list of essential medicines.
The power of plants can be harnessed to aid serious medical conditions,
including some of our most life-threatening illnesses...
..as James Wong discovered when he visited a farm in Wales a while ago.
He went to find out how the humble daffodil is offering
a lifeline to people living with Alzheimer's.
What do you think of when you think of Wales? It might be dragons.
It could be male voice choirs. Nice!
It might be rugby, which I was always a little bit rubbish at.
And of course there's always...the sheep.
But to me, as a confirmed plant geek,
the one thing I think of is the humble daffodil.
But there is more to this Welsh icon than meets the eye.
Or, in this case, the mind.
The daffodil produces many chemicals,
one of which is galanthamine.
The drug, originally found in wild snowdrops, combats Alzheimer's,
the most common cause of dementia.
But it's expensive and difficult to make.
The Stephens family farmed predominately sheep until 2004,
when they decided to trial growing daffs
as an alternative source of the drug.
My son decided he wanted to be a farmer when he grew up
and hill farming is not a really commercial,
viable alternative, going forward.
So I was looking for diversification opportunities for a Welsh hill farm.
We're off the beaten track, there's no passing trade,
a farm shop wouldn't work.
We needed a crop that had an industrial application.
And presumably the conditions up here mean
the things you can grow are quite limited.
It's full of stones, high altitude, so it's cold.
-Not the easiest place to plough and cultivate.
-You're absolutely right.
Some of the daffodil-growing experts I've spoken to
consider me to be completely mad.
But I'm not growing daffodils, I'm growing galanthamine.
What's the market like for the product?
Currently, the market is worth about 8 billion.
The problem with Alzheimer's disease is it's increasing
at a terrific rate, and that's set to double in the next 20 years,
then double again in the following 20 years.
Anything that can tackle those numbers has to be a good thing.
Galanthamine is only found in a few varieties of daffodil,
and only in significant quantities when it's grown at altitude.
This stresses the plant and causes it to produce the chemical.
The smell of some of these varieties is really intoxicating.
The thing is, though, I wouldn't be tempted
to start knocking up a home remedy out of these
because they are extremely toxic.
Armed with my daffodils, I'm off to a trial site
high in the Brecon Beacons to meet Professor Trevor Walker.
His research has gone a long way in treating
some of the 465,000 people affected by Alzheimer's in the UK.
It looks like we've got a picnic set up here, Trevor.
What are we going to do?
We're going to see if there's any galanthamine in these varieties
-that you've picked for us.
-We'll cut these bulbs off.
We'll squeeze some juice out of them
and take that juice back for filtration.
So you're already looking for the presence of galanthamine
in different plants. What sort of sparked off that hunt?
We had a eureka moment when the wife of one of my colleagues
was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease at the age of 58
and we decided we'd do something about it.
We'd make galanthamine available as an anti-Alzheimer's drug
to do something about the extortionate costs
and the tremendous cost of care.
If you could delay someone going into a home for a few years,
then you've made a great saving.
-You've got a lovely collection there.
-Look at that!
That's absolutely perfect.
We'll take that back to the girls at the labs.
-And that's enough?
-You'd never think
that bit of plant juice would contain such an important drug
that can really transform people's lives.
Now, for the first time,
the daffodil fields are able to commercially supply galanthamine.
Currently, people like Keith get the drug elsewhere.
He was diagnosed two years ago.
Totally gutted in the beginning.
You think it's the end of the world.
But time passed and you realise that life will carry on.
I'm living a full life...
..thanks to the... the medication that I'm taking.
How do you think you'd feel if you didn't take the medication?
My quality of life would drop a lot.
I would forget things in a big way.
..it's just one or two things that I get wrong.
So, how do you take the galanthamine?
Is it a pill or is it an injection?
-No, it's a pill, only a little thing, that big.
Right, so a single pill a day has this huge impact on your life?
Oh, it's unbelievable! Unbelievable.
The work that these guys are doing here, growing all these daffodils,
you think they'd just look pretty,
but it's so important to so many people.
It is, especially me!
Who'd have thought that the humble daffodil could be such a giant
at treating such a debilitating disease?
And I'm happy to say that since we first showed this film,
Keith is still living a full life
and, as he put it, he's still on the daffs.
From fields of daffodils in Wales to the wild woods of Derbyshire now,
where a couple of years ago Anita met a craftsmen who didn't
chop down trees to make chairs, he just grew his furniture from seed.
Every tree tells a story.
Every fork, every twist, every knot is a life history written in wood.
A tale of seasons, scars and sunlight.
But it's a slow tale.
You might not notice it grow, but over time, months and years,
a tree is shaped by its surroundings.
Like this derelict mill, slowly reclaimed by woodland -
roots and branches twisting over stones,
long abandoned by man.
But what if you could tame this process?
Bend it to your will, train the tree into a very specific shape?
Well, one man here in Derbyshire is doing just that.
Gavin Munro is an artist and furniture designer.
After years in California making pieces from driftwood, he returned
to his home county of Derbyshire to become a farmer of furniture.
-Lovely to meet you.
-Right, so you're growing furniture.
You'll have to explain this to me. What is going on?
What do you mean by that?
Well, what it means is we're neatly organising woodland
and shaping trees as they grow into the shapes of chairs and tables.
-All sorts, yeah.
So this is our prototype, this is the thing that kind of
got the ball rolling and proved to us that it will work.
This was grown as four trees brought together,
which is why it was quite hard to make the seat.
-This branch here was from one tree.
This is from another and these here are brought together here
and you can see where they've grafted together into one piece.
This was the thing that gave us the confidence
to then plant the rest of this.
Gavin remembers when his inspiration struck.
It was one of those eureka moments where I realised that
instead of chopping trees down and making them into smaller bits
just to stick back together again,
we could grow these into the shapes we want.
-It made so much sense.
-How long does it take?
It takes between four and eight years for a chair.
-That's a long time for a chair.
-It is a long time for a chair,
but we're making stuff from wood.
Wood is basically solid air and sunshine.
This is a kind of... It's kind of like 3-D printing.
Today, Gavin is experimenting with everything
from fast-growing willow to oak, sycamore and hazel.
The chairs start life upside down.
-Well, it looks impressive.
And I think I can see how this is starting to take shape.
-This is the chair back. These will form the seat.
And these will come along here,
and then the four legs will come out the back.
It's brilliant. And how do you get a tree to do what you want it to do?
You can't force a tree to do something it doesn't want to do,
because the branch will die and it will start again somewhere else.
So, actually, we've got to make a pretty nice life for the tree.
For every hundred pieces that we have,
we want to keep control over a thousand branches that we want,
and there's 10,000 branches that we don't want,
and we've just got to make sure that we're doing the rounds,
making sure that we spot the right moment to bend the right branch.
Growing chairs is hard graft.
Gavin's team is here in all weathers,
making sure the trees are flourishing.
It won't be long before the first batch of chairs
is ready to harvest.
-I can see it!
-It's all becoming so clear.
-Is it absolutely finished, this?
-Well, the shape is finished.
Now we're just waiting for this one to thicken up.
Then we'll plane off some of the outer edges,
-so it'll look a little bit like this that you can see here.
-This is a projection
of one of the ones further down the row.
The time it takes to grow a chair means each will sell
for around £2,500.
What's the benefit of having one of these over a shop-bought wood chair?
Well, there's the environmental benefit to start with, of course,
but one of the main aspects is the kind of aesthetic quality.
Each one of these is a kind of art piece.
And because there's no joints, like regularly made stuff,
everything's grafted into one solid piece,
these could last for hundreds of years.
Making them an heirloom for any BRANCH of the family.
I've travelled to the foot of the Mendip Hills in Somerset
to visit a traditional kitchen garden that's packed, wall to wall,
with all manner of colourful plants and flowers.
But, as beautiful as this garden is, it's not just about the visual
but also the edible.
At one restaurant, they're not only growing their own seasonal produce,
they're fermenting it,
preserving this summer larder for the lean winter months.
The Ethicurean restaurant is true to its sense of place.
Its owners, Matthew and Iain Pennington, grow all their own veg.
It's all local and seasonal.
And they've come up with a novel way of feeding diners
during the hungry gap, those few months in the spring
when nothing comes out of the ground.
How many different types of fruit and veggies do you grow?
It's quite difficult to quantify, but pretty much everything
that you can imagine to be grown in a walled garden, we grow it.
Loads of different varieties, maybe 20 to 30 different
-varieties of things we've got growing at any point.
And what are we having? These today?
Yeah, we're going to harvest some beetroot today.
I love beetroot, I absolutely love beetroot.
And you pickle everything?
We ferment a lot, we pickle a lot.
Come summertime, we've got a lot of fresh produce to use
so we will ferment everything there
-to kind of see us through the harder times.
Fermenting is the latest red-hot foodie trend.
It's like pickling but you leave the vegetables for longer.
-Shall we take them indoors, then?
And eating fermented veg is said to have added health benefits.
Right, let's ferment beetroot. What have I got to do?
It's only going to involve some salt, some water,
and we're going to use a little bit of yoghurt whey this time.
-Yoghurt whey? So, we chop it up, I presume?
-Yes, tear off the leaves.
-Tear off the tops.
-Keep it rustic on the top, do we?
-Yeah, why not?
These are chunky pieces
because we're going to make a slow ferment.
-What are we making out of this?
-We're making a beetroot kvass.
Kvass? What does that mean?
It's normally a fermented bread drink but, in this case,
we're going to use vegetables, because they contain lactobacillus,
and it'll do the same thing as a bread yeast would.
So, it's a bit like those yoghurt-y drinks you buy that are healthy...
Yes, it's packed with lactobacillus, which is
what we will naturally find in our gut anyway.
And it's one that is really beneficial to us.
I guess most people think of sauerkraut when they think of
this fermenting thing. We're not that used to it
-in this country, are we?
-There are so many types of things
that can be made. You could have kefirs, which are fermented milks,
all the vegetable ferments.
We need to catch on, don't we, in this country a little bit.
We're getting there, absolutely. It's getting more and more popular.
Jar full of beetroot - what goes in next?
So, this is a live organic yoghurt.
We're also going to introduce a little bit of lovage.
So, this is a herb from the garden which is a really distinct
-It's like celery.
-It's like celery on steroids.
We need to add salt.
It's going to allow the lactobacillus to thrive.
And that's that, and you leave it for how long?
-We're going to leave that one for a month.
-A month? So a fair old while.
-At room temperature, yeah.
-Can I sample what it will taste like?
-Yeah. We've got some glasses there, have we?
-Look at the colour of that!
-It's incredible, this.
-Straight out of nature.
-This is from October last year.
-A vintage year!
When the beetroot was at its finest.
And this is how you'd have it, you'd have it as a drink like this?
-Look at that colour! Wild.
Everyone take your glass.
I love the way we're swilling it like a great single malt.
-Right, down the hatch, then. Cheers to you guys.
Ooh! It's got a really clean flavour, still a hint of beetroot
but that tanginess in the background.
-It's got a nice acidity to it, yeah, absolutely.
I had no idea fermented beetroot could be such a tonic.
You live and learn.
Plants don't just feed us.
They appeal to all our senses,
their bright colours a real feast for the eyes.
In the shadow of the Highlands, John went to stimulate a different sense.
Rather than feed his appetite, he followed his nose.
This led to an encounter with renowned biochemist George Dodd,
known in chemistry circles as Dr Smell.
How are you, George?
Fancy meeting on a beach like this!
Welcome to the Highlands.
Thank you very much. And what's it like to be known as Dr Smell?
-In the nicest possible way.
-You just get used to it.
In truth, I was born downwind of Guinness's brewery in Dublin,
and I always say it's the wonderful tangy aroma
that stimulated my sense of smell.
And what a perfect place here to smell the ocean.
In the spring, the ocean warms up very quickly here,
and the algae, the green seaweed, begins to bloom.
And that emits a very telltale aroma of spring, particularly for birds.
Literally, you have the cleanest air in the world.
It's coming across 3,000 miles of Atlantic Ocean from America,
and it's filtered and cleaned. You can't beat it, John.
We were designed to smell the world.
George is also a master perfumer and his triad of smells has
inspired him to create a scent that captures spring in the Highlands.
First up, it's the green smells.
Pluck a little bit and have a sniff.
Put it up to your nose.
That's one of the most important biological molecules for humans.
That's the smell of spring, as the Earth warms up.
That tells us the vitality of life is coming back.
Along with the green... You get the green note on top of the Earth?
-That's a much softer smell, isn't it?
A magical molecule called geosmin, "geo" from Earth,
the Greek for Earth, and "osmic", the Greek word for smell.
Natural green smells are happy.
We're biologically engineered to respond. It's a feel-good feeling.
I must say, I feel quite happy now. Where shall we go next?
Next, it's the smell of Highland wood, although
I discover that this time my nose isn't as finely tuned as George's.
So, what am I supposed to be smelling?
It's a very faint but very deep woody smell.
Nothing at all there, George, I'm afraid, for me.
-We'll have to give you some smell training lessons!
Overlooking Loch Ewe lies the last component
in George's trio of spring smells.
This is unique. This is Highland myrtle.
-These are miniature myrtle.
-These are only found, these plants, here?
Only found in the Highlands. They grow wild. Oh, goodness me!
Smell that. Smell that! It leaps out at you.
-It's a lovely, green, resin...
-It does, doesn't it?
A lovely, green resin-y smell.
But, you know, George, the frustration, I think,
is that people at home can't smell all the aromas that we're smelling.
Give them two or three years, we're working on it.
In my research group at the University of Warwick, we are
-putting the age-old dream of smelly television into practice.
So, that could really happen, could it?
Smelly telly is just around the corner?
-Yes, it's going to revolutionise Countryfile.
Down by the loch, it's time to put to the test
whether those three distinctive smells of spring can be bottled.
Adrian Hollister was one of George's biochemistry students in the 1970s.
-How are you? Good to see you.
-So, this is the final product?
-This is the final product.
Springtime in the Highlands. In a jar.
-Yeah, I'd buy that.
-You'd buy that?
I'd buy that as the Highlands in a bottle.
Here's a bottle I bottled earlier for you.
Oh, thank you!
From the heady fragrances of the Highlands
to the exotic scents of the Himalayas.
I'm not in a Nepalese jungle but in a school glasshouse in the Mendips.
In here are some of the rarest orchids in the world.
But, in the wild, many are foraged for medicine
so face the threat of extinction.
Orchids like these are highly prized in traditional medicine
for their healing properties, but this trade is
doing terrible damage to wild populations across the world.
The pupils at Writhlington and Mendips Studios School
are combating this problem by growing rare varieties
from seed in their greenhouse.
And they each have their own particular favourites.
Well, it's an orchid.
It has a rather pungent odour that smells a bit, to me, like cheese.
It smells a bit like...
This is Sobralia macrantha.
We call it Samantha.
It doesn't really smell. It smells a bit like toast.
By looking after the plants, the pupils here are learning
all about their breeding and propagation.
-Thank you. This place is amazing!
It's all the brainchild of teacher and orchid-lover Simon Pugh-Jones.
-Wow. It's wild in here.
-Yes, so this is our Cool Asia section,
so we've got a lot of the Himalayan species that mostly flower
in the spring, but they're in their growth season at the moment.
Where did your passion for orchids come from?
Well, I've been passionate about orchids since I was a teenager.
So, I started growing them when I was 13.
And I've kind of been addicted ever since.
I just knew when I became a teacher that they had potential,
in terms of the stories they tell about the places
they come from, the ecosystems that they're part of.
And now this is a nationally important collection, isn't it?
It's kind of become that way. We've been doing it now for 27 years,
which means the little plants we had 27 years ago
are now real monster orchids.
This is Renanthera imschootiana.
It's identified as one of the most threatened plants in the world.
It's rare, it's very attractive,
so it's been mostly stripped from its habitat.
All these exotic beauties started out as microscopic organisms,
grown in their thousands in jam jars.
So, in there, you've got probably 50,000 orchids.
And they are complicated to raise from seed
but I was convinced we could do it in a school,
and having proved that, we're now sharing that model around the world.
This is Coelogyne nitida, which comes from the Himalayas.
This is used to treat fevers and also burns.
So, it's not the medicinal use that's the problem.
-It's the fact they're collected unsustainably.
-Taken from the wild.
But if these can be grown, if people can develop the knowledge to grow
them themselves, then they don't need to take the wild specimens.
So, if you look at... There's one plant,
there's 10,000 plants in a jar,
you can turn these into these without too much problems,
once you've been taught the skills and the techniques.
One of the rarest species in here is Pseudolaelia corcovadensis -
easier to grow than to say.
They're a busy bunch in here.
Even so, it hasn't been recorded in its native Brazil since 1935.
Hi, Jess. How's it going?
But student Jess is poised to reintroduce it back into the wild.
This could be one of the only plants of the species in the entire world.
-It just makes it so special.
And makes it incredibly important,
and the fact that we may have the opportunity to reintroduce it
and to get its numbers back up,
-it just makes it an incredible plant, really.
This school project shows
that if you grow and manage orchids sustainably,
then it might just be possible to harvest them for medicine
without threatening their survival.
And growing medicinal plants can also be a sustainable business
for UK farmers.
It can be a bit of a risk
moving away from traditional arable farming
in favour of more unusual crops.
Last summer, Anita visited a farm
where the scent of camomile and peppermint filled the air.
Here at this farm, they're in the business
of creating something rather special,
by taking crops like this and turning it into this.
The farm specialises in creating top-quality essential oils.
From lavender to camomile,
the oil is cooked up right here on the premises.
But there's an ancient crop that's at the heart of the harvest here.
Sir Michael Coleman, of the famous Coleman dynasty, is the owner.
20 years ago, he decided to revive a once much-loved British crop -
Britain was once at the forefront of growing world-class mint.
But during the Second World War,
land used to grow the mint was reclaimed
for farming essential produce, and the crop fell out of favour.
-Lovely to see you.
-Hello, lovely to see you too.
Sir Michael decided to grow
traditional Black Mitcham peppermint,
originally produced in Surrey.
So, what was the eureka moment where you thought,
this is it, we have to do peppermint?
I was very fortunate.
A lovely lady, she asked if she could come and see me.
She came along and she said, "My grandfather had a farm in Surrey
"growing peppermint and he showed me pictures of the still."
He used to sit with it all night, putting steam through it.
And she still had a bottle of oil off his still.
She very kindly gave me a bit. There you are.
-Ah, it's lovely!
-It's amazing, isn't it?
That's really strong, for 100 years old.
It is amazing how it's kept its punch.
And it's a heritage product, isn't it?
-That you're bringing back.
The farm's manager, Ian Margetts,
has spent 20 years getting to grips with his crop.
There is a wonderful smell in the air, Ian. It's fantastic.
We're in this field of Black Mitcham peppermint.
We've got Derek in the background there mowing the crop down.
So what you can smell is the vapour that's coming off that as we mow it.
It really does smell fantastic. Can we take a closer look?
-Of course we can, yes. Indeed.
-If I tasted it...
-A lot more potent than you would get in your garden mint.
-Totally different beast to the garden mint.
Is it very different to grow than the mint in our back gardens?
Because that just grows like a weed, doesn't it?
This is a very difficult crop to grow.
I classify it as a lazy crop. It only roots in about this much soil,
so it is one that wants a lot of nurturing.
So, how have you mastered it?
I knew that the Americans were growing very fine peppermint crops
in the Willamette Valley.
They'd already got a good system of distillation,
so I thought I'm not going to reinvent the wheel,
so we imported the equipment back here.
So, once the mint has been cut, what happens next?
What we do, we leave it on the ground for, say, 24, 48 hours,
depending on the weather. We want it to wilt.
In the leaf is where the oil capsules are,
and that's what we're after.
So we're not interested in the moisture within the plant,
we need the oil capsules that are in the leaf.
So we can pick it up, chop it, put it into the distillation unit,
then take it down there and plug it into the steam.
Now it's my turn to get to grips with gathering in the mint.
Off we go.
Whoo-hoo, this is fun!
I'm going all over the shop here.
I don't want to make a mess of Sir Michael's fields.
No, you'll be all right.
Once the harvest is gathered, it's off to the distillery.
Just like the peppermint,
the distillery equipment has been brought over from America.
So, we've harvested the peppermint, Ian,
what's the next stage of the process?
Well, this is where the separation takes place, in this container here.
It comes in at the bottom, then floats off
and the oil floats on the water
-so we've got the pure oil floating up here.
We've got waste water running away here, and this is the pure oil here.
-That's pure oil?
-That is pure oil.
-There it is.
-The magic. And it's distilled to here.
And how does it compare in profitability to a cereal crop?
If we get this right and we do our job correctly,
we end up with this lovely oil that we are getting, it can be worth
about six times the value of a cereal crop.
It really is that profitable.
-It's not hot, it's not that greasy.
I am going to smell of peppermint for a long time.
-Nicest-smelling farm I've ever been on.
I'm glad to hear it.
Here in the South West, the sheer beauty of the landscape
cascades down the rolling Mendip Hills.
Reds pop, yellows sing and purples dance,
all in a bid to attract the local pollinators.
But these vibrant colours attract OUR senses too.
Natural dyes from flowers, roots and berries
are enjoying a bit of a resurgence,
with designers like Vivienne Westwood and Stella McCartney
using these natural methods in their collections.
I'm meeting a local dye-maker who's turn her back on synthetic dyes
and toxic chemicals in favour of more natural ingredients.
-I've brought you a little gift.
I thought they were quite vivid.
-Yeah, I think those will work really well.
-It's like an apothecary here.
All these here, have you sourced them yourself?
Yeah, it's a complete mixture of some things
like the roses and the buddleia
I've just picked and gathered.
Some things I forage and then some things,
like onion skins, are just food waste.
And then some things I grow, like sunflower seeds and marigolds.
So it's a complete mixture of just seeing what's there
and where I can find things.
And how do you choose which one comes up with which colour?
You just experiment, really, cos some plants are obvious.
Like roses make pink, or whatever the colour of the rose is.
But some colours aren't obvious.
So, buddleia, it makes a yellow, although it's a purple flour.
Oh, really? That's a surprise.
-Can I have a go at doing some dyeing?
-Yeah. Let's have a go.
I use silk because silk is the most effective fabric to use
for natural dyeing, the easiest fabric to use,
cos it's made of protein.
Natural dye-making has a long and romantic heritage.
The earliest examples of plants
grown and cultivated for natural dyes dates back thousands of years.
Everything in nature is beautiful, so it's much easier to get
-colours that go together using natural colours.
This doesn't look very floral.
No, these are rusty nails, which you can also use.
You can see here we have some rusty nails in here.
And you can see how it changes the colour.
-So that's where the nails were.
-You get the lovely rusty colour.
-Lovely rust colour.
What's the hardest colour to create?
Green, funnily enough.
Because green is made from chlorophyll, which is living,
so in the autumn all the leaves die
and they go brown, so it's very unstable.
-So, what's in here?
-That is vinegar.
It's so difficult in this wind.
It does actually create quite a nice ripple,
it all adds to the artistry of the bees.
So, this helps us to fix the colour into the cloth as well.
So, now we just need to fold it in half.
-You can be quite random with it.
-Not even a neat fold. Look at that.
-So if you just hold that, I'll get some string.
-Like a little Christmas parcel there.
-So we're just going to steam this... with a clip.
And then we just...
Using the colours of nature is a magical and mysterious process.
You never know what you might get.
-So, the moment of truth.
-The yellow's come out really nicely.
-How about that? Oh, wow!
-That's come out really nicely.
-It's really vivid, isn't it?
-What do you love about doing this?
I find it's just that relationship with nature,
learning about different plants that grow at different times of year
and what you can use them for. Not just looking at things as weeds.
And for people who are worried about synthetic dyes
and toxic chemicals used, this is a much lighter touch on the planet.
-And also a thing of beauty.
From one natural yellow to another.
A while ago, Matt went to meet a farming family in the Chilterns
who are growing one of our most brightly coloured crops.
The oil it produces is one of the healthiest there is,
having less saturated fats than all other cooking oils.
Along with linseed, it's the only oil grown and bottled in the UK.
It is of course...
In recent decades,
fields of gold have become a familiar sight in our countryside.
Simon Mead's family have been growing rapeseed since the 1980s.
Eight years ago, they began transforming its tiny black grains
into the liquid gold of rapeseed oil.
Now, obviously, Simon, when you're growing this yourself
and trying to produce the finest oil you can, protection is the key.
And that's why we're carrying this stuff here.
Yes, the pigeons are starting to become a bit of a nuisance.
They've eaten all the beech mast up in the Chiltern Hills
and this is the next crop on the menu.
In a hard winter, when there's not much else for the pigeons to eat,
they can reduce even a crop like this down to ground level.
So we're going to set some up and see if we can scare them off a bit.
These are bird-scarers. Basically, you just light the end of the rope
and then, as time progresses, the bangers go off.
Every half an hour.
So they go off and it scares them off.
Establishing this crop initially, it's quite a tricky process, Simon.
Yes, it gets planted in August
and it's in the ground all the way through to the following July,
so it's in the ground for 11 months.
There's lots of opportunity for things to go wrong.
But once it's up and away, like this crop here,
we don't seem to have many problems.
In the spring, rapeseed produces yellow flowers
that turn into seed pods.
By mid-summer, the pods have dried out and the seeds turn black.
It's these seeds which are pressed to create the oil.
We get about 3½ to 4½ tonnes a hectare,
-which is about the size of a football pitch.
-That should produce about 2,000 to 2,500 bottles off a hectare.
So, off this field, we're getting about 32,000 bottles.
OK, right, let's get this sorted out so you can get rid of these pigeons.
Simon's crop has already become a buffet for the birds today.
So it's time to light the bangers.
-That's it, so we'd better get out of the way.
There must be 300 or so up there. I saw a flock as I came in.
Once harvested, the rapeseed grains are dried and stored,
then cold-pressed and bottled on the farm.
The result is 100% pure rapeseed oil.
Simon has recently started using the oil to create a new product.
Right, so the seasoning and the sugar has already gone in.
This is a bowlful of mustard.
And we're in the process of making some mayonnaise, then, Simon.
Yeah, it's a natural progression to go down, Matt.
There's lots of oil in it, 70% of a good mayonnaise is oil.
-Has it been quite a steep learning curve?
-We've split a few batches...
-..before we got it right.
-Yes, it's a free-range egg yolk.
Right, so that's all the ingredients in there now?
Yeah, all the main ingredients.
Just get it all mixed up nicely before we start introducing the oil.
Oh, yeah, look at the difference.
-Stir the outside into the middle, Matt.
-You've made and a nice mayonnaise there, Matt, well done.
And there you have it - my very first jar of mayonnaise.
But it's not just cultivated plants that provide for us.
Britain's wildflower meadows are also very much part of our diet,
our wellbeing and our language.
In Devon, John took a stroll through the history
and medicinal properties of some of our most remarkable meadow species.
Some of Britain's meadowland plants and flowers
have the most wonderful names.
How about sneezewort?
Or bee's bread? Or nosebleed?
Even granny's toenails?
But how and why did they get these amazing names?
Here in Devon, Bridget McNeil teaches people about the history
and medicinal properties of some of our remarkable meadow species.
This place is absolutely jam-packed with wildflowers, isn't it?
-A fantastic place to work.
-I know, I'm so lucky.
It's got so many varieties, habitats and medicinal plants,
edible plants, it's beautiful, really beautiful.
-You know this one?
-That's a nettle.
-That's a nettle.
-A beauty, this is my favourite plant.
-Why is that?
It's just so good for you.
I eat it, I use it as a medicine, it's food as medicine, really.
So, what do you do with all the wildflowers that you collect?
Well, I make salves, make tinctures, make oils and vinegars,
so it's really stepping between the worlds of food and medicine.
Plants growing on your doorstep or in these beautiful meadows
are so beneficial.
For Bridget, meadows are nature's medicine cabinet.
She's going to use some of what we've collected
to make a healing ointment.
This is a wound salve,
which has some of the things we picked earlier.
So, really wonderful for wounds and bruises and strains and muscle ache.
I've got a touch of tennis elbow at the moment. Will it work on that?
Yes. We shall give you some salve to take away with you.
Many herbs and plants were often named
for their medicinal properties or for the way they looked.
-What about a really common plant, like dandelion?
-Has that got more than one name?
-It's got so many names.
-In this country, there are about 90 different names.
Yeah, so here's a leaf of dandelion.
-Dent de lion, in French.
Lion's tooth. Can you see?
These names were like a gateway for ordinary folk
to be able to know what plants did what.
So you've got the woundwort here, staunch weed, nosebleed.
Of course, you've got to be very careful with some of them,
This is hemlock, one of the most poisonous plants in Britain.
This plant will kill you, if ingested.
So you've really got to know what you're doing when it comes to herbs.
Absolutely you do.
-And how's the salve doing, then?
-It's doing really well.
I'm going to add this beeswax. And that will melt in.
You know, modern medicine is taken from plants.
So, aspirin originated from meadowsweet and willow.
We all know camomile has that lovely calming effect.
These ancient remedies have a really important place in modern life.
-A really important place. I think this is ready to pour.
There we go.
-So, here you go, John. One finished salve.
-Thank you, Bridget.
-Use it on your elbow.
-I'll let you know what happens.
For many centuries, people have had faith
in the healing properties of plants.
But before they can be used on an industrial scale,
they need rigorous testing.
At this laboratory in Plymouth,
Dr Jan Knight is carrying out important research.
This is the first time, Jan,
I've ever seen wildflowers in a laboratory.
What are they here for?
It's probably the first time they've been growing
in our laboratory as well,
but people bring us materials for us to test.
So, we do a lot of work for cosmetics, for the food industry,
for the supplement industry, and to the pharma industry as well.
It's difficult to use wild plants and flowers in commercial medicines
because their active compounds can vary a great deal.
So people are now taking it seriously, scientifically...
-..the claims some of these plants make.
But you have to prove it.
-You have to prove it in a laboratory.
The anecdotal results have given you feedback that this seems to be
good for this condition, but you daren't make the claim
until you've actually carried out clinical trials.
Jan's tests aim to make sure the wild plants used in medical
and cosmetic products are always at the same potency.
There is an enormous wealth of potential material in our plants.
You find the gems, then cultivate them
and then use those as your source for new ideas.
It's good to know that the ancient skills
of turning wildflowers into medicines still survive
and that modern science is now helping ensure their effectiveness.
Now, in a moment, I'm going to be up close
with one of the most powerful medicinal drugs in the world.
But first, do we need to water the flowers this week?
Time to find out with the Countryfile forecast.
I've been exploring the power of plants,
how they play a part in many aspects of our daily lives.
We've turned to their healing qualities for millennia.
And there's one plant above all others
whose medicinal power is without equal.
A couple of summers ago, I was given rare access to a top-secret site
in Dorset where they were growing this plant on an industrial scale.
It was to be the last crop grown here
before our rainy climate got the better of it.
The plant that I'm about to see is one of the most powerful
and valuable known to man.
These are opium poppies, the plant we use to get morphine from.
The stuff used to treat the very worst kind of pain.
The flowers look wonderful in full bloom,
but they need to die back and dry out before they can be harvested.
This crop belongs to pharmaceutical company MacFarlan Smith,
the only company allowed to produce morphine in the UK,
which they do under special licence from the Home Office.
Jonathan Gibbs is their head of production.
Jonathan, this is pretty incredible,
I've never seen anything like this before.
How many poppies do you think you've got growing here?
On this farm, we've got 120 hectares of poppies.
And that's out of 2,500 hectares that we've got growing in the UK.
This is just one of 45 sites
where the company is growing opium poppies.
Any day now, harvesting will begin.
It's done using a specially adapted harvester
which takes just the poppy head and the top of the stalk.
It cuts at about 11mph -
three times faster than a combine cutting wheat.
So, should you be harvesting now?
Yeah, unfortunately we'd love to be cutting today,
but the rain has stopped that.
So they need to be not squidgy like this?
No, the capsules need to be rock-hard like a walnut.
So you want a good few good days of dry before you can harvest.
Yes, maybe tomorrow afternoon we can get cutting.
-Constantly watching the weather at harvest time.
Morphine is derived from naturally occurring chemicals
found in the outer casing of the seed pod
and the top couple of inches of the stalk.
So, how do you go from these poppy-head maracas to the drug?
We get the crop to our initial processing facility
and it goes through a separator to separate the seeds from the straw.
And the straw gets hammer-milled and then pelletised.
And the pellets increase the density and make storing safer.
It looks like stock feed like this, doesn't it?
Yeah, it's exactly the same process.
Those pellets are then taken to a processing plant in Scotland,
where the morphine is extracted and prepared for medical use.
And what about these poppy seeds?
Once we've separated the seeds from the straw,
it's a valuable by-product that we sell to the culinary markets.
And if you buy bread with poppy seeds on,
it's quite likely, in the UK, that we've produced it.
How much value would you get from,
let's say, a hectare of these poppies?
Well, in terms of morphine production,
we'd be looking at around about the 15 kilo a hectare.
What does that turn into in money?
To the farmer, it's around about £1,000 a hectare.
This has to be one of the most unexpected crops I've ever seen,
and possibly one of our most important.
From painkillers to peppermint oil to gin...
..plants can repair, restore and revitalise.
We'd be lost without them.
Well, that's it from me
with the power of plants here in the South West.
Join us next week when we're in Dartmoor
exploring the many ways this rugged landscape
is inspiring artists and craftspeople.
See you then.
Ellie Harrison takes a look at the part flowers and plants play in people's everyday lives. She visits a herb garden in Bristol to find out about a commonplace plant that's on the front line in the fight against cancer. She heads to a high-end restaurant to hear about the latest foodie trend, fermentation, a kind of turbo-charged pickling. She meets a dye maker who's turned her back on synthetic dyes and uses only natural plants and flower dyes to create her colours. And Ellie also visits the school where pupils cultivate some of the rarest orchids in the world.