Mother of the Sea

Kathleen Mary Drew-Baker (1901-1957), Photo credit: Smithsonian Institution

Kathleen Mary Drew-Baker (1901-1957), Photo credit: Smithsonian Institution

Let’s talk about another type of seaweed you may be familiar with – nori. If you’ve eaten sushi rolls then you have almost certainly eaten nori, the thin sheet of seaweed wrapped between rice and the contents of the roll. Sheets of nori are best eaten when they’re crisp so it has to be stored in an air-tight container. As soon as it’s exposed to air, it starts to lose its crispness. Although one can put the crisp back into nori by carefully passing the sheets over a heat source such as a stove element two times each side. We personally love having a package of sheets on hand to dip into hummus or some mashed avocado for a delicious and nutritious snack!

Kathleen Mary Drew-Baker

Nori is scientifically known as porphyra, a species of red algae grown mostly in Japan and Korea. It has an interesting history. The nori industry in Japan was in decline after the Second World War as farmers were having issues with its cultivation. Harvests were unpredictable due to being particularly susceptable to pollution in ocean waters as well as typhoons. British phycologist (a term for a person who studies algae) Kathleen Mary Drew-Baker researched porphyra laciniata, a type of nori found off the coast of Wales, United Kingdom, and her findings were published in an academic paper in 1949. She uncovered the fact that the blades of nori are actually sex organs with some being male and some being female. When they get together they produce offspring called conchocelis which then bores into a seashell where it grows into a crust capable of producing spores which then develop into more nori blades. Japanese growers knew nothing about the lifecycle of nori up until this point.  Japanese phycologist Sokicki Segawa took Drew-Baker's discovery and found an ideal solution for his country's growers - providing oyster shells taken from oyster fisheries for the sea plant's offspring to produce more spores.

Drew-Baker is credited with saving commercial cultivation of the seaweed in Japan. Her work is so appreciated, Japanese refer to her as Mother of the Sea and, in 1953, a monument in her honour stands in Uto, Kumamoto, Japan.

If you’d like to read more about Drew-Baker’s work, here’s a great story in online technology magazine Ars Technica.

We hope you found this piece of seaweed history as fascinating as we did. Just another reason to love what the ocean gives us!