Monday, 12 April 2021

Geranium harvesting and 'ten acres of drugs' at Westerfield, Baxter

I came across these photos from 1929 of germanuim harvesting at Westerfield, at Baxter. Westerfield was a property owned by Russell Grimwade (1). He was the son of Frederick Shepherd Grimwade (2) who established the Company Felton, Grimwade & Co. They were manufacturers of drugs and perfumes and they also established a Chemical Company and the Melbourne Glass Bottle Works. Given that liquids, powders and potions were all packaged in glass bottles and jars at the time, this was logical move.

Geranium harvesting at Westerfield, Baxter, December 1929. Photographer: Russell Grimwade.
University of Melbourne Archives

was in Robinsons Road in Baxter (3), most of which was in the old Shire of Cranbourne, even though it is now part of the City of Frankston, but as I had never heard of harvesting geraniums before it is a story worth telling. The property also grew drugs for the pharmaceutical industry during World War Two, you can read about that below.

Geranium oil was used in the manufacture of perfume. Russell Grimwade gave an address on essential oils in 1924. It was reported on in The Age - The art of the perfumer, Mr. Grimwade said, was to gather from all possible sources the essential oils, and blend them in the proportions that gave the most beautiful perfumes. The oils generally known as essential oils were not really what they were called, because they were not pure oils, though they contained pure oils in various proportions. They were really volatile, or ethereal, oils, and were obtained in all forms of growing plants (4).

Geranium harvesting at Westerfield, Baxter, December 1929. Photographer: Russell Grimwade.
University of Melbourne Archives

It makes the process sound easy, however a large quantity of plants were required to produce the oil. An 1886 report in the Weekly Times on the Manufacture of Perfumery said that half an acre will sustain 800 geranium plants, giving 2,250lb. of geranium leaves. That's 1020kg of leaves. As a comparison jasmine requires about a third of an acre to produce, during the entire season, 30,000 plants, which will furnish 2,2501b. of flowers...the orange tree at ten years of age will require an acre to grow 100 trees, producing 2,2501b. of flowers (5).

Geranium harvesting at Westerfield, Baxter, December 1929. Photographer: Russell Grimwade.
University of Melbourne Archives

Geraniums were not the only plants grown at the Grimwade farm. I found this very intersting article about ten acres of drugs being grown there during the Second World War for the pharmaceutical industry. It is from The Herald, August 24, 1946 (6) and reproduced here in full.

Ten acres of drugs by Angas Brammall

On a secluded pine-sheltered hillside three miles from bustling Frankston are 10 privet-hedged acres of herb garden which through the war provided all Australia with drugs formerly coming from abroad. This garden even provided the drug used in the AlF's invasion anti-sea-sickness pills. The rows of purple, red and white blooms are the result of the enterprise and foresight of Mr Russell Grimwade.

Thousands of pounds worth of digitalis, heroin, hyoscine, opium, and other deadly, but life-saving drugs were produced during the war from the 10 acres, which are part of Mr Grimwade's beautiful estate. More than 20 years ago Mr Grimwade made a hobby of cultivating small patches of herbs and drug-yielding plants. When the Second World War started he foresaw a shortage of certain essential drugs. Immediately the war started he cabled an English firm for a pound each of five drug seed varieties. Within a few months rows of plants were showing their heads above the fertile, sandy loam.

The deadly leaf harvest was gathered and sufficient seed extracted to make a hundred-fold crop the following, season. Meanwhile, engineers, architects and industrial chemists had been busy. Drying rooms, were built which; could handle 700 pounds of leaves in a single day. Choppers and desiccators were designed, and the whole vast resources of the drug industry co-opted.

The next crop was bumper. Mr Grimwade's Welsh farm manager (Mr W. Griffiths) watched with pride the steady growth of the "deadly nightshade," or Atropa belladonna, from which atropine is extracted. He saw the dark-leaved foxglove, or digitalis, flourish in the summer sunshine. He beheld the tossing red or white heads of the popples from which came opium and morphine. That harvest, too, was gathered. The new drying-rooms worked perfectly, and soon the pungent bales of drug leaves were being transformed at a city ware-house into the drugs for which military and civil hospitals had been pleading so desperately.

Assay and analysis proved Mr Grimwade's digitalis and atropa superior to the imported drugs, and, with hyosclne and colchicum, they were soon in use in hospitals throughout Australia and on every battlefront in the North.

Although a deadly poison, hyoscine in minute doses, is an antidote to sea and air-sickness, and hundreds of pounds' worth was extracted by Mr Grimwade's company from Australian-grown plants. Hyoscine tablets were issued to troops before all major landings.

Digitalis contains four important glucosides, of which three are invaluable heart stimulants; but it is an extremely poisonous drug and a lethal dose causes almost instant death. Colchicum is an amazing substance derived from a bulb. It has an immediate depressant effect on the heart and speedily causes death from collapse if an over-dose is taken, It is used, medicinally, for gout patients. Its most extraordinary property is its effect on plant life. Injected into trees or shrubs it causes giantism and the tree will grow to many time's its normal size.

Russian scientists evolved perennial wheat by soaking hybrid seed grains in a solution of colchicum before planting. The digitalis and hycscyamus leaves are treated in very much the same manner as tobacco leaves. They are strung on poles and quickly dried off at a temperature of 150 degrees Fahrenheit. They are then baled under great pressure and sent to the Melbourne warehouse for the extraction of the drugs. Each bale weighs 130lb.

Atropin is extracted from the root of the belladonna plant. Dahlia-like in appearance, the root is first sliced in a chopper, then dried off and crushed. Opium and morphine normally come from the white latex which is taken from poppy heads before they have ripened and dried. But by a new Australian process morphine is now extracted directly from the poppy capsules. This eliminates the laborious scraping of latex from the poppy heads.

Other products of Mr Grimwade's farm are nicotlana rustica, from which nicotine is derived, and the squill plant, which yields a valuable expectorant. Geranium oil is extracted from the Pelargonium radula, and lavender oil from carefully selected strains of the ordinary lavender plant. 

(1) Sir Wilfred Russell Grimwade (1879-1955). Read his Australian Dictionary of Biography entry, here.
(2) Frederick Sheppard Grimwade (1840-1910). Read his Australian Dictionary of Biography entry, here.
(3) I found the address from this advertisement in the Frankston Standard, December 1, 1949 

(4) The Age, November 28, 1924, see here.
(5) Weekly Times, March 13, 1886, see here.
(6) The Herald, August 24, 1946, see here.

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