A FORGOTTEN Scot who found a way to thrive in difficult times is remembered in a free online event on Tuesday. Storyteller Amanda Edmiston had been scheduled to take her new show to the British Library in London, which holds an original copy of Elizabeth Blackwell’s A Curious Herbal – the first herbal reference book by a woman. However, with that event cancelled due to the coronavirus, she will instead perform live online from her home near Stirling.

Born in Aberdeen in 1707, Blackwell went on to introduce generations to exotic plants from the New World with her meticulous illustrations, drawn from life at Chelsea Physic Garden. With her husband Alexander in debtor’s jail, the self-taught artist provided for her young family by publishing parts of A Curious Herbal episodically in the late 1730s.

Although revenue from the book helped secure his release, Alexander was executed in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rebellion.

Entitled A Very Curious Herbal, the show weaves plant folklore with tales from an era when a woman’s interest in plants could still attract the wrong kind of attention: Scotland had legally burned its last “witch” just a decade before Blackwell’s landmark book.

It wasn’t until a full century later that Victorian women began to negotiate a socially-acceptable route to science via botany.

In Blackwell’s day, being a well-to-do woman hanging out with plant collectors, gardeners and – God forbid – medics such as Scottish obstetrician William Smellie, would have taken considerable guts. Her glorious illustrations, many of which feature in Edmiston’s show, have a sensual, vivacious quality to them: these plants live and breathe, and are even depicted with the odd pollinating insect.

“We don’t see that as scandalous with our modern eyes, but I suspect she was doing something massively dangerous for her era,” Edmiston says. “If you’re a middle-class woman, piano and needlework are acceptable pursuits, not botany and art – and definitely not being in the company of all these men. With her husband in jail, she was effectively a single parent, and that’s never been a good look, no matter the time.”

Writing about Mary Wollstonecraft, born a year after Blackwell’s death in 1758, a church minister condemned the author of A Vindication Of The Rights Of Woman for her “sinful” interest in plants.

The idea of men and women “botanising together”, as he put it, was against God.

Only in recent years has the reputation of Blackwell fared better, says Edmiston, who is currently writing a book about the fascinating pioneer. “The last academic I know to write about her was back in the 1970s,” Edmiston says. “And there she is dismissed as an illustrator, and not a very exciting one at that.

“And every academic claims her husband wrote the words for the book from jail. I don’t think that’s true. She’s the one going to Chelsea Physic Garden, who is friends with its owner, the plant adventurer Sir Hans Sloane – the man whose recipe for drinking chocolate was used by Cadbury.”

Sloane’s collection of more than 70,000 items formed the basis of the British Museum, the Natural History Museum and the British Library, where Edmiston was due to perform.

The two Aberdeen-born women first “met” while Edmiston delivered a workshop at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons in Glasgow, also owners of an original Curious Herbal.

“It smelled amazing, this beautiful old book,” says Edmiston, a formal student of herbal medicine. “It was open showing a picture of larch, a remedy about having confidence in what you do. I discovered how she created this work to support her first child when she found herself alone as a single mum.”

She continues: “When I found myself alone with my eldest child, one of the first places I started working as a professional herbal storyteller was Chelsea Physic Garden. I walked those same paths as Elizabeth, dreaming up how I was going to earn a living in a new and creative way. We had been inspired on our creative career in the same place for similar reasons.”

Edmiston was soon back in Aberdeen, telling a story about Saint Luke, the Syrian refugee doctor credited with bringing lavender to Britain.

“Near the sculpture of Saint Luke, there’s a memorial to Elizabeth Blackwell,” she says. “She had gone from being someone I’d never heard of to someone who kept coming up. There comes a point where you have to stop listening and actually do something.”

Edmiston’s “something” currently has three major strands: a forthcoming book, the Very Curious Herbal live show and an online project involving aspects of history and remedies associated with the plants in Blackwell’s herbal – a digital copy of which can be accessed for free via the British Library.

Acclaimed for her mix of traditional and multisensory techniques, Edmiston suggests a visit to the Facebook event for a note of items you might have at home.

“I would love it if people had a cup of mint tea and a fresh tomato,” she says. “That adds more layers of experience, of taste and smell and touch.”

Stimulating the senses helps supercharge the imagination back to Blackwell’s time. But just as she was centuries ahead of her time, her writings have relevance for us too.

“She talks about turmeric, from the ayurvedic, Indian tradition,” says Edmiston. “She mentions rosemary being good for the memory, something being researched into today for dementia at Newcastle University.

“From a health perspective, there’s much she writes of we’d do well to consider. She’s also sharing knowledge from other countries and cultures in a way that’s not judgemental and presenting new ideas in a simple, accessible way which was useful to people. In the morass of information and misinformation, the value of a simple fact, easily given – often in a beautiful and surprising way – shouldn’t be forgotten about.”

March 31, 7.30pm, free, donations welcome. Event page: bit.ly/TheVeryCuriousHerbalMar31

Access Elizabeth Blackwell’s Curious Herbal via bit.ly/CuriousHerbalBook www.botanicafabula.co.uk