Editor’s Note: This is the second post in the Environmental Histories of Foraging series edited by Nicole Miller. You can read other posts in this series here.
Seaweeds are omnipresent in the coastal landscapes of Britain. There, we may encounter different varieties of green, brown, and if we are lucky, red seaweeds. They grow on rocks and on sand. They wash off the beach, are covered and uncovered to the rhythm of the tides. There are many reasons for foraging seaweeds. They can be eaten in salads or as laverbread, a dish made of cooked purple sea lettuce and originating from South Wales. They can be used to supplement diets. They can also be picked, observed, and kept as souvenirs, which this post examines in the context of nineteenth-century Britain. Where the sea and land merge, the act of foraging gives life to a particular form of engagement with the coast. One experiences an environment that is unstable, ever-changing and, to many nineteenth-century seaweed-seekers, unfamiliar.
The number of people visiting the coast increased with the development of seaside tourism in the nineteenth century, and so did first-hand experiences of the coastal environment and its constituents. Seaweeds were part of the spaces that visitors in search of seaside leisure visited. They encountered seaweeds when they strolled along the shore; when they went rock-pooling to observe the plants and animals living in the pools of water left by the sea on rocky shores; when they bathed in the sea; or simply when they sat down on the beach. Some visitors, however, actively sought seaweeds.
Publications dedicated to their collection, identification, and preservation, which were aimed at broader audiences, emerged. Margaret (Mrs Alfred) Gatty’s British Sea-Weeds (1863, 1872) was one such guidebook that provided advice to amateur foragers. She presented seaweed foraging, or “shore-hunting”, as an activity accessible to many, because “riches are not necessary to it, and a moderate amount of bodily health and strength will suffice.”1 The recommended equipment was also relatively simple: a knife to cut off seaweeds; a basket or canvas bag to keep them; a bottle to store “more delicate” specimens; and a stick to help with climbing on rocks.2 Seaweeds could be foraged in several locations. Some could be collected while strolling on the beach and picking them along the way, and some required foragers to climb on rocks or to walk far into the sea at low tide.
Where the sea and land merge, the act of foraging gives life to a particular form
of engagement with the coast. One experiences an environment
that is unstable, ever-changing and, to many
More than the mere removal of seaweeds from their natural environment, foraging seaweeds drew together educational, aesthetic, and scientific appreciation of nature. The 1868 novel for children, The Holidays at Llandudno, encapsulates these entanglements. The novel tells the story of a family holiday in the Welsh seaside resort of Llandudno. One day, some of the children, whose interest in seaweeds had already been aroused, decide to explore some local rocks. During the expedition, one of them finds “some bright-coloured seaweed” while another one becomes “busy with a bunch of seaweed”.3 Here, seaweeds are presented as beautiful but hidden specimens that only those who carefully explore the shore can discover. Yet, at the same time that the seaweeds captured the children’s attention, the tide was rising. Although they “saw that the seaweed left at high-water mark was still some way above their heads”, they realised the danger in which they found themselves: “The waves were covering up one rock after another, and by-and-by their rock would not be safe.”4 The children used the elements of the landscape as measurements to assess the situation: they knew that the tidemark was an indicator of the level of the tide and that they needed to go back up quickly. This passage, which starts with the beautiful marine flora encountered by the children on their adventure, turns into an educational lesson to the readers. It points to the risks that rock-pooling and other exploratory activities presented and highlights the knowledge that was necessary to possess: be aware of the tide, do not forget about your surroundings, and go back up at the first signs of the incoming tide.
The educational aspect of the story is strengthened by the provision of key information about collecting seaweeds, which showcases the potential that foraging presented for the intellectual enrichment of children through leisure. The novel goes beyond the narration of fictional events, and turns into a practical guide to the coast for children. Foraging seaweeds was thought to have body and mind improving properties. Through exercising the body in the open air and developing knowledge in natural history, those who engaged in the activity were seen to understand nature better and to improve their physical and intellectual condition. Not only did foraging enhance individuals’ abilities to appreciate the coastal landscape, its riches, and its risks, but it also improved their knowledge of the environment. Foragers become familiar with the ebbing and flowing tides, while their “eye accustoms itself to see what it is searching after, and to ignore everything else”.5
Foraging seaweeds was thought to have body and mind improving properties.
Through exercising the body in the open air and developing knowledge in natural history,
those who engaged in the activity were seen to understand nature better
and to improve their physical and intellectual condition.
Later in The Holidays at Llandudno, a group of older children, having perhaps grown more curious about the natural world of the coast over the course of their holiday, went off to the nearby Conway Bay, where seaweeds, they hoped, would be more plentiful. There, they foraged a “bright crimson weed, with the ends of each little feathery spray shading into scarlet”.6 After returning home, their mother taught them how to press and preserve the beautiful specimen: “how to spread it on paper, by putting it first in a soup plate filled with water; when the little branches were thoroughly spread out, she slipped a piece of paper under the seaweed, and lifted it gently out of the water. It sometimes required a little arranging with the point of a needle, and if this was done carefully, it dried very nicely, and looked very pretty.”7 Once pressed, the seaweed could be brought back home to keep as a souvenir, to display in the home, or add to a collection.
Specific varieties of seaweeds were given aesthetic values that made them worth preserving and keeping. In the story, the mother teaches the children how to press their find, its delicate feather-like branchlets and its colours spanning a palette of reds and pinks. Foraging transcended national borders, and in France too, guidebooks such as P. Benoist’s Les Algues d’Eau douce et d’Eau de mer (1890) presented the pressing of seaweeds as a way “to leave them as natural as possible”.8 With their original colours and features preserved, seaweeds were elevated to the rank of art, as being able to “compete with the most delicate watercolours”.9 The beauty of the seaweeds was not, however, the only rationale behind foraging and pressing. The preservation of seaweeds in a manner that emulated conventional practices in the natural sciences was also important. Guidebooks recommended that amateur foragers included in their collection the scientific name, habitat, and synonyms for each seaweed, and that they kept the specimens from each family (green, red, brown) in distinct sections.10 Seaweeds were not only objects to be gazed at for their aesthetic value, but also specimens to be understood in scientific terms. In the context of seaweeds, the foraging excursion became inextricably entangled with the naturalist exploration, and the preservation of beauty with scientific accuracy.
With their original colours and features preserved, seaweeds were elevated to the rank of art, as being able to “compete with the most delicate watercolours”.9
Foraging seaweeds has changed very little since the nineteenth century. Like my contemporary foragers, I comb the beach for seaweeds, store them in a container, keep an eye out for the tide, rejoice at the sight of a red seaweed that has found its way onto the beach, use a sheet of paper and a bowl of water to press specimens, and strive to record details about them in my alguier.11
This post is adapted from a chapter of my doctoral thesis, provisionally entitled “The Many Lives of Seaweeds: Human-Seaweed Relationships in Brittany and Wales, 1870s-1930s” (University of Liverpool, funded by the North West Consortium Doctoral Training Partnership, Arts and Humanities Research Council, UK).
1 Mrs Alfred Gatty, British Sea-Weeds. Drawn from Professor Harvey’s “Phycologia Britannica.” With Descriptions, An Amateur’s Synopsis, Rules for Laying out Sea-Weeds, An Order for Arranging Them in the Herbarium, and an Appendix of New Species (London: 1863, 1872), VIII. On Margaret Gatty, see https://snailseyeview.medium.com/margaret-gatty-a-life-of-seaweed-and-stories-535683bd0142
2 Gatty, British Sea-Weeds, IX.
3 The Holidays at Llandudno (London: 1868), 85, 88. [no author given].
4 The Holidays at Llandudno, 90.
5 Gatty, British Sea-Weeds, XI.
6 The Holidays at Llandudno, 122.
7 The Holidays at Llandudno, 122-123.
8 P. Benoist, Les Algues d’Eau douce et d’Eau de mer. Classification, culture, récolte, matériel. Formation et rangement de l’herbier, conservation des algues (Paris: 1890), 13.
9 Benoist, Les Algues, 6.
10 Benoist, Les Algues, 19.
11 An alguier is a seaweed herbarium.
Note: The content of this series should not be taken as advice for edible or medicinal uses of specific species. We do not advise consuming the species discussed. Incorrect identification of species and incorrect preparations can be toxic and sometimes deadly. Foraging should be done only with adequate education, instruction, and caution. If you are interested in foraging it is highly advised for safety (and to gain experience) that you should take a course with an expert if you would like to learn more.