Generosity Plates

5 June 2014

Wellcome Collection’s foyer and café have become home to small miracles of nature with a newly commissioned intervention of artworks, sculptures and plant propagation by the artist John Newling. The

It seems the Moringa tree is a fantastic food source high in necessary nutrients. Are there any other foodstuffs that compare?

There are many remarkably nutritious plants but Moringa oleifera has amongst the most known nutriments within its leaves. It is a natural food supplement and is used in areas of famine or very low nutrient diets. With the rise of a renewed interest in plants and trees through plant biology research I suspect and hope species as generous as the moringa tree will be discovered.

 Photo © John Newling.

Photo © John Newling.

Do you grow Moringa oliefera at home? Have you eaten it?

Yes, I have grown many Moringa trees at home in a grow tent I have in my studio. These are grown in very sandy soils with the tent set to replicate sub-tropical climate conditions. What is brilliant is the close observation I can have with these remarkable trees.

I have eaten the leaves of the tree in salads and separately. They have a very strong flavour, somewhere between cabbage and peppers. I have also made Moringa tea which did not taste very good. I suspect this is why Moringa tea recipes on the internet all suggest vast dollops of honey in them. In the main, the leaves are harvested, dried and made into a nutrient supplement powder that is very effective in aiding better nutrition.

What’s your favourite recipe for these?

I did enjoy the leaves in salads; mainly because they were so difficult to grow and I was so pleased to have geminated and grown a tree to be able to eat a few leaves.

 Photo © John Newling.

Photo © John Newling.

What’s the best way we can look after the plants whilst they growing in the café, next to the Euston Road?

In many ways the attempt to grow these trees at  Wellcome Collection is an experiment with all the risks that are inherent in such work. They are being grown in a hydroponic environment that gives them the soil pH of 6.2 – 6.5 and enough sunlight equivalent to give them excellent growing conditions. Someone from Wellcome will keep an eye on them particularly in the first couple of weeks when there are adjusting to the new environment and are very fragile.

Because these trees are not growing in soil, they are getting their nutrients from the waters that flood and drain the roots every three hours. It does mean that the water’s nutrient and ph level is checked regularly. From previous attempts to grow these I think a few trees will be weak whilst a few will dominate the ecology so to speak. If we manage to keep the trees alive it will be an achievement in close observation and learning for all of us.

 Photo © John Newling.

Photo © John Newling.

Does the Moringa plant feel more spiritual to tend to than any other plant?

I think it’s not necessarily the plant itself but the process of working with a plant that creates an intimacy of wonder that is, I guess, close to a spirituality. I am not a great grower of stuff but I learn so much about us and the world through trying to grow plants like the Moringa. This approach of close observation and learning, for me, came from a project called The Lemon Tree and Me”: I attempted to grow a lemon tree in compost which I had made of 85% printed paper.

I wrote an account of the learning, reflections and thoughts through the 688 days of the work. I think that it is in careful, thoughtful observation that we can both find spirituality of a kind and new understanding.

John talks more about the spiritual here.

 Photo © John Newling.

Photo © John Newling.

What is your next project?

In July I have work at the Ikon Gallery Birmingham and will also be beginning a new project: “21st Century Eden” in York. Later in the year I hope to work (funding dependant) with the John Innes laboratory developing ideas, learning and making through collaborations with the brilliant plant Biological Chemistry team.

Kate is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.