This morning I stumbled across an 18th Century manuscript containing a recipe for ‘alchemical fertilizer,’ which I have transcribed below. The ‘chemical symbols‘ that are used have been changed into capital letters in order to accommodate the blog. A list of their meanings is given at the end of the manuscript.
It is not just the recipe that is of interest – but also remarks given towards the end of the manuscript on value of the fertilizer – on the value of the (newly being developed) scientific method:
… by this means thy land will be so impregnated, as to become its own magnet, as will magnetically attract from the air, the fructifying, animating, nitrous particles, to such a degree as to qualify the seed sown therein that every particle thereof may be put into such motion, that the seminating, germinating property will so grow and increase, that the owner thereof will have great cause to praise God, and return Him true and hearty thanks for his goodness and declare the wonders as He hath done for the Children of Men: when he experimentally seeth how that from so little cost, labour, and trouble, so great an increase is had, quite different from common method; so that there need not be any barren land in England, or elsewhere, if this be righly put into practice…
What a wonderful advertisement for the value of experimentation!
The method of making and using an organic fertilizer in the 18th century, as described here, is quite similar to what is used today by smallholders in many non-industralized areas of the world. An example is given at the end of the blog from here in Burundi, where slurries made of goat leavings are commonly used.
The procedure is complicated and I have to wonder if it was, in fact, ever used!
[I have contacted the Special Collections Div. at Glasgow University to clarify several aspects of the manuscript, and will revise accordingly.]
A Recipe for an alchemical fertilizer from an
Eighteenth Century Manuscript No. 274 in the
A fructifying alias vegetable Liquor.
1. All, or any sort of wood, whether it be the whole tree, or whether it be the boughs, branches, or leaves, etc. Also thou mayest take all, or any sort of woods. Moreover, any sort of turf may do.
2. But principally Oak, Ash, Apple tree, Pear tree, Plum tree, Cherry tree, Whitethorn, Sloe trees, Beech Trees, Elms. Also all sorts of thistles, but principally bean stalks and bean shells, and fern etc.
3. To every cartload of any of the above mentioned vegetables (whether green or dry, but green is best) take viii bushels of A and ii bushels of common B, and of Man’s C* as much as is required.
* Why ‘man’s uringe’ is required, and not animal urine, is not explained.
4. Also have in readiness as much as is required of man’s C. N.B.
And then proceed thus.
5. Put any of the aforementioned vegetables described in #1 into the D and intermix therewith something dry, for the benefit of kindling the same: and then kindle these; so will the smoke as it ascends, condense in the E [vapours] into an acid liquor.
6. Now whilst these are thus preparing thou mayest take an opportunity to prepare the A and B and C at fig 3 as followeth. N.B. Mix the A and B together (the A being first pounded) and then temper them with the C to such a consistency, as to make up into balls of about the size of a goose egg, which keep for further use.
7. When the vegetables at fig 5 are kindled, and the D begins to be hot, then cast in now and then some of the balls at fig 6 even so many as the magnitude of the E and D can contain, so as not to extinguish the E , but that they may be well burnt with the vegetables, etc.
N.B. When thou perceivest the balls to be well burnt, i.e. when they are of a white heat through, then thou must stir up the E , to cause the G [ashes] to fall down with the other G, which when they are thoroughly burnt (as that they will be if they lie long enough in the G hole), they must be kept carefully, etc.
N.B. Thus thou must continue the burning of the vegetables, and balls, even till all the intended quantity is thus burnt, etc.
N.B. Then keep the acid liquor carefully also.
8. Then take the G at #7 and if they are in lumps, or cakes, then pound them: and then spread them in a shed as is so covered as to keep out the rain, but not the air.
9. Then imbibe the G at #8 with some of the acid liquor at #7 even till they are of the consistency of pap and then let them dry. They must be often stirred in the drying. And when they are pretty dry, then imbibe with some more of the acid liquor, and then let it dry again. Reiterate these imbibings and dryings so often, even till all the said liquor is drunk up, and the G remain pretty dry, etc.
10. Then imbibe with the at #4 and let it dry as was done above. Then imbibe, and let it dry again. This operation of Imbibing and drying, must be 5 times more repeated, i.e. 7 times in all. When all this is done, then let these imbibed G lie to be vivified, or animated from the air, which they will be in about a philosophical month, etc.
They must be often stirred in this time.
11. Then put these prepared G into a tub, etc, of a fair size, and put boiling F thereon, and so stir all well together, till all is well mixed: and then let all stand to settle, and then stir again, etc. And this expect pretty often within the space of xii hours and then let it settle, and when all is very clear, then do the clear part and keep it for use. And then put on more boiling V and so proceed as above. This operation of putting on of boiling F and stirring and settling and … must be so often repeated, even till the G will give, or the F extract no more B
The sign of this may be known as followeth, take a little of the said lixivium, in a proper vessel, and … evaporate the humidity, and the B will remain. But when by this trial no more B (or at leastwise but little) remains, then leave off, for the work is finished.
So having put all these liquors together, thou must keep them carefully for use.
12.The sediment, or thick and muddy matter as will remain after the extract is made, must also be kept, to put to the roots of all sorts of trees, for it will make them very fruitful; yea much more fruitful than the best of common things, etc.
13. Of the way and means of using this fructifying liquor, etc:
1. Make choice of the worst barren land as thee hast (excepting such sort as is overflowed with water) and then plough it S.A. But if be such land as cannot be ploughed then it may be digged.
2. Then harrow it S.A.
3. Then water it with the watering cart described at #2 S.A.
The best way will be to water three times over the first year, intermitting a day between each watering. About a hogshead of this liquor will serve for an acre, i.e. a hogshead for each watering.
4. Then soak thy wheat, rye, barley, oats, peas, beans, or any other gain, in this liquor, for xii hours, and then draw the liquor therefrom, and put it to the other at #7. Then spread the grain on a floor, in a dry place, that it may be somewhat dried, which will be in about xxiv hours.
5. Then sow this prepared grain S.A. And afterwards harrow it S.A.
Thus by this means, through the Lord’s assistance, thou wilt have thy barren land made fruitful; yea more fruitfuller, than the best of land can be made, by the common way of dunging. Besides, this method is abundantly more commodious and nice, than the common way of dunging, and is a deal more easier done. Again, it is abundantly more profitable than the common way of dunging.
1. Because a hogshead of this liquor will go further that 20 loads of dung.
2. Because that if (as is before directed) thou waterst thy land 3 times over the first year. And once over the second year.
And once over the third year (all which then for 4 years after, there needs no watering must be granted by the conscientious and ingenious) to be very easily done, so that by this means thy land will be so impregnated, as to become its own magnet, as will magnetically attract from the air, the fructifying, animating, nitrous particles, to such a degree as to qualify the seed sown therein that every particle thereof may be put into such motion, that the seminating, germinating property will so grow and increase, that the owner thereof will have great cause to praise God, and return Him true and hearty thanks for his goodness and declare the wonders as He hath done for the Children of Men: when he experimentally seeth how that from so little cost, labour, and trouble, so great an increase is had, quite different from common method; so that there need not be any barren land in England, or elsewhere, if this be righly put into practice: excepting as before excepted, viz, watery ground, etc. for that except other means can be used to carry it off, will wash away the virtue of the fructifying liquor.
Symbols used in the manuscript:
Symbols used in the blog:
A Nitre, possibly saltpeter
D Furnace with distilling apparatus
E Air, vapour
G Ash, calx
Source: Alchemical Journal Vol. 45
University of Glasgow, Special Collections. MS. 274.
5 folios. 195x150mm. 17th or early 18th Century. In English.
Vegetani [?] On Vegetation.
[Series of recipes for applying alchemical methods to agriculture, to make barren land fruitful.]
Adam McLean, of Glasgow University, notes:
The main ingredients of this fertiliser recipe would appear to be wood ash (which is rich in soluble potash), with the distillate of wood saps; saltpeter or nitre (rich in nitrogen in the form of nitrates); and urine (which has significant amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus). This is distilled together and concentrated through the alchemical process and then made into a soluble fertiliser which is to be watered over the land or used as a pre-germination treatment for seeds. This results in a surprisingly modern formula for an artificial fertiliser.
There is no evidence for this fertiliser having ever been used in practice, though directions in the recipe seem practical enough, and were probably based on the author having actually performed the experiment, rather than merely on theoretical speculations.
This eighteenth century manuscript must be one of the earliest attempts to formulate a working artificial fertiliser. I have not come across any similar formulations in my study of alchemical manuscript material in Great Britain. – Adam McLean
Here in Burundi (as elsewhere in non-industralized smallholder agriculture) a similar although less complicated system of organic fertilizing is followed. Goat dung and urine are particularly good for fertilizing, as the dung does not burn the plants and the urine is high in uric acid.
A recent blog on Newton’s alchemical explorations can be found here: NEWTON AS ALCHEMIST.