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A Breif History of Seaweed Uses

Most people call the plants that you commonly see under your feet washed up on the beach or on rocks below the waterline all along the coast; seaweeds. Personally, I prefer the term sea vegetables, they are not weeds (as implied by the name sea-weed) or necessserily an invasive specis that we do not want, for example, in the garden, but they as a group without exception, a valuable nutritious and healthy seafood, that rarely if ever causes problems for us. They are rapidly becoming a rediscovered supergreen superfoods.

Seaweeds grow in every sea and ocean around the world, from the equator to the Artic, vast beds of seaweeds grow from just above the beach line to the absolute limits that light can reach. They are a vast and diverse group of ancient aquatic plants known as algae. It is no wonder then that mans use of seaweeds and the impact they almost certainly have made on our ancestors lives, is ancient, extensive and considerable.

Earliest Records of Seaweed Usage

The use of seaweeds by man enjoys a long rich heratige, where man has used seaweeds for thouands of years, and hand-in-hand with modern science, we will continue to find uses for these extroadinary plants. We know through archiological evidence that man in Monte Verde, Southern Chile has harvested, preserved seaweed for long term storage and used seaweeds for food and medicinal purposes for upwards of 20,000 years (1). This fact becomes more amazing when you consider that archaeologists can only demonstrate that people of the pre-Neolithic era at around 11,500 or so years ago were storing grain on the banks of the river Jordan in silos before they had even discovered domesticate these plants by 1,000 years (2) . Arable farming in the UK, for example, only began 5,000 years ago during the neolithic period (27), arable farming can be traced back to 7,500 BC with millet in china (28), or even 4,800 years utilising cattle farming in the UK (29).

Seaweeds and Folklore

As a child here in Ireland, I was told that you can predict the weather by observing changes in seaweeds (e.g Fucus serratus or F. vesiculosis) hung on the porch or in the barn etc., this can be said of many other countries I am sure. When dry and crisp and left outside, the strand (or frond) will remain rigid and dry when the weather is to remain good. Then, before it rains or a rare thunderstrom develops here, the frond of seaweed will become wet and moist long before such events. This suggested ability probably stems from the fact that seaweeds become wet immersed in the sea and susequently dryout when the tide retreats, this occurs several times a day. Therefore, seaweeds can indeed demonstrate the weather !

Seaweeds have sometimes been used as a luky charm, Irish moss for example, is carried or placed beneath rugs to increase luck and to ensure a steady flow of money into the house or pockets of the person who uses it (42), this stems to all forms of good luck with regard to money associated with this sea vegetable (43).

Seaweeds Used For Fertiliser

Some of the earliest records denote the usage of seaweeds as fertiliser, this use stems from the high vitamin and mineral content of these algae. Indeed many companies still produce seaweed fertiliser to this day (as Ocean Fresh SeaweedsTM will do routinely from this season onwards), I have used seaweeds myself for this purpose while growing my own food myself in a local allotment. The use of seaweed as fertilizer stems from the high mineral content of these plants, which means arable crops tend to flourish where grown in. This was easily observed by early farmers before the advent of the Haber-Bosh process used to fix nitrogen for the industrial production of fertiliser.

This was common parctise during the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuaries where the ash of brown seaweeds or kelps was produced from burning this sea vegetable, indeed the name kelp is an archaic term that has since been retained for various brown seaweeds ranging from Acophyllum nodosum to Fucus serratus (25).

Seaweeds Used as Food

Throughout the world, aside from agriculture, the widest use of algae has been that as food, either as fodder for animals or cullinary fashion for humans.

Many ancient records exist of sea vegetables being used throughout Europe. Laver bread made from purple laver (or Porpyhra spp.) has been consumed in Wales, United Knigdom for hundreds of years, for so long infact it has become a traditional dish there (20).

Industrial Use of Seaweed

One of the earliest accounts of seaweed harvesting and processessing occured along the Brittany coast, France, in the seventeenth centuary (26).

Future Prospects

Algae Used as Biofuels

Finally, we come to the modern day, without doubt one of the major developments in the use of seaweeds by man wil be the production of biofuels...