Latest Event Updates

High Tea in Wonderland

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The last cake has been served and the last crumbs hoovered up. It’s been top secret, but now we can tell. Yes, we hosted a Manchester International Festival Event in the herbarium: High Tea in Wonderland. The lovely MIF staff transformed our little workspace into a world of quirk and wonder.
Before: Corridor with green boxes. An open box on the bench shows pressed plant specimens inside, in species folders

After: Queen of Hearts Garden Party, with playing card bunting. White crystallised rose petals to be painted red by the guests!
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Before: plain green boxes

After: decorated with brown paper trees and leaves from old books, in the ‘Eat Me’ room

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Before: European vascular plant collection

After: 1,000 paper mushrooms, camo netting and birch fragrance

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Before: Volunteer Priscilla hard at work on a side bench

After: The same bench, piled high with MIF stuff

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Before: volunteer Paddy, remounting specimens on herbarium sheets

After: granny tat, bunting and pompoms

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Before: plain green boxes

After: Chef Mary-Ellen Mc Tague serving rabbit pie (no boxes because of the blow torch)

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We had some lovely reviews:

manchester evening news

creative tourist

Did you go down the rabbit hole? What was your favourite bit?

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Graphene’s high-rise meadow

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Green roof on the roof terrace of the Graphene Institute

Back in June, perhaps some of the Graphene Week 2015 attendees spotted this little patch of wildness on the roof of the National Graphene Institute at the University of Manchester. This green roof was installed as the building was nearing completion in 2014 and is part of the commitment to improving the University’s campus as a habitat for wildlife. The University’s green roof policy can be found here, along with the other University policies about environmental sustainability.

Bee on Birdsfoot trefoil

Ahead of Graphene Week, the Biodiversity Working Group put together some information about pollinators, their requirements and the urban environment in order to have a sign in place for the delegates to read. This roof is particularly designed to attract bees, both wild bees and the honey bees from hives on roofs of the Manchester Museum and Whitworth Art Gallery.

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The roof was created with a ‘sedum and wildflower’ mat made up with 21 different species. The low-growing sedums are now most visible around the sloping edges of the meadow, and taller species seem to dominate towards the middle. However, perhaps that’s not true; the sedums may be just hidden by the taller growing plants.

Maiden pink flower

This summer, the Faculty of Life Sciences has arranged for a student to survey the roof to see how the plants are distributed.  The Biodiversity Working Group will be continuing to monitor the roof’s progress to see how the composition of plants changes from this baseline. Some plants are likely to thrive, some will struggle and other’s will arrive as seeds blow over the roof or fall off people’s clothing.

Ladybird pupa on Sedum reflexum

Say no to the mow!

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For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been watching a patch of ground on my way to work. The soil is thin (I suspect it mainly consists of brick rubble) and consequently the grasses don’t grow very well. Instead it’s been growing a selection of plants with more insect-friendly flowers. Nothing rare or unusual, but a selection of wildflowers which thrive in an urban area and can attract plenty of pollinators.

Last week it was a foot tall, with red and white clover and buttercups already in flower. The buds of the oxeye daisies were getting ready to burst and the birdsfoot trefoil and common knapweed  and were growing vigorously. This week, it’s been mown. I was expecting it to be a riot of colour by the end of the week, but instead it’s a green desert.

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It already had a margin mown around the edge to allow visibility for traffic and a path through the middle to let people cut the corner. It’s near a busy road and no-one uses it as a lawn to sit or play games on. I think it would have been much better left to become a flower meadow over the summer (and the museum bees would certainly have liked it) and mown later in the season. I agree with Plantlife and Springwatch: ‘Say no to the mow’!

Secrets of the Natural World. Thurs 11 Jun, 6-8pm

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Join us on for an evening in the Museum on Thursday 11th June to uncover secrets from the natural world.

Curiosity drives scientists to try to understand complexity in the natural world. Join us for an evening of science conversation with scientists from The University of Manchester, Richard Bardgett, Reinmar Hager, Jon Pittman and Giles Johnson. Each scientist will be on hand to share their passion for their research, with lightening talks and hands-on demonstrations of their work in understanding complex natural systems, both above and below ground.

“A Journey into the Underworld” will illustrate research around soil ecosystems and carbon cycling, using exhibits of soil profiles and their vast biological diversity. “Mother Knows Best” will illustrate work around the genetics of social behaviour in animals using live invertebrates and choice chambers. “A Clean Sweep” will examine the adaptations of plants to natural radiation and their use in bioremediation. Here visitors will be able to investigate bioremediation of natural radiation using Geiger counters in simulated scenarios. The “The Light Fantastic” will explore how plants respond to their environment, including changing climate, by extracting chlorophylls, measuring chlorophyll absorption spectra and photosynthesis.

This event is supported by the Natural Environment Research Council as part of their Summer of Science.

Book online at mcrmuseum.eventbrite.com or phone 0161 275 2648, free, adults.

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Cinchona and Treating Malaria

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by Jemma

This blog post is going to focus on the genus Cinchona, which is the source of the antimalarial drug quinine.

Cinchona officinalis Image taken from Image taken from http://pixshark.com/cinchona-officinalis-tree.htm
Cinchona officinalis
Image taken from Image taken from http://pixshark.com/cinchona-officinalis-tree.htm

History

The Quechua peoples of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador were the first to realise the medicinal properties of Cinchona. Though now famous as a cure for malaria, the Quechua used the tree’s bark as a muscle relaxant to treat shivering. Since shivering can be one of the symptoms of the disease, the bark was coincidently used to treat malaria. The Quechua’s use of Cinchona was observed by Jesuit missionaries, who introduced the plant to Europe by the 1630s.

Materia Medica jar containing Cinchona officinalis bark
Materia Medica jar containing Cinchona officinalis bark

In 1677, the use of the bark as a treatment for malaria was first noted in the London Pharmacopoeia, a reference text of different medicines. During his reign, the English King Charles II contracted malaria. He was treated by Robert Talbor, who used Cinchona bark mixed with wine to fight off the disease. He later went on to treat the son of Kind Louis XIV of France of the same disease.

 

In 1738, Charles Marie de La Condamine produced a paper that identified three separate species of Cinchona from his travels from Ecuador. This paper and a specimen from La Condamine were then used by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, who named the tree Cinchona. The name was based on a 16th century Spanish Countess of Chinchon, who contracted malaria and was cured with bark from the tree by the Quechua people. Linnaeus’ species was later named as Cinchona officinalis after he established his binomial system for classifying plants.

 

Medicinal properties

The bark of the Cinchona tee contains a number of medicinal compounds, including quinine and quinidine. Quinidine is used in pharmaceuticals as an antiarrhythmic agent, suppressing abnormal rhythms of the heart and regulating the heartbeat. Cinchona has been used in folk medicine to stimulate appetite, promote discharge of bile and treat mild influenza infections.

Small Materia Medica jar containing powdered Cinchona calisaya bark
Small Materia Medica jar containing powdered Cinchona calisaya bark

However, the most well-known use of Cinchona is as a source of the antimalarial compound quinine. Quinine is a crystalline salt that has antimalarial, fever-reducing, painkilling and anti-inflammatory properties. Though it is frequently found in antimalarial drugs, the compounds mechanism of action is still not fully understood. Even so, the bitter tasting quinine compound is included in many drugs treating malaria. Cinchona bark is still the most economically viable source of the compound, despite it being possible to synthesise quinine in a laboratory. Quinine has not been the primary treatment for malaria since 2006, when the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended that the drug artemisinin become the standard cure. Now quinine is used when artemisinin is not available.

 

Despite being an effective malarial treatment, quinine is not entirely safe. It can cause a condition called cinchonism, which can range from mild to severe. Mild conditions mainly involve reversible symptoms, such as skin rashes, dizziness and vomiting. Severe symptoms of cinchonism can involve temporary deafness, paralysis, blindness and death. Death is usually by pulmonary oedema, which is fluid accumulation in parts of the lungs.

Cinchona bark in a Materia Medica jar
Cinchona bark in a Materia Medica jar

 

Cinchona and homeopathy

It is said that the birth of homeopathy came about from Cinchona. Homeopathy is a form of alternative medicine in which it is believed that a substance that causes the symptoms of a disease in healthy people will cure similar symptoms in sick people. Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843), the founder of homeopathy, came across the tree when he was translating William Cullen’s work on the Materia Medica. In it, Cullen documented that the bark could be used to treat intermittent fevers and shivering. Hahnemann began taking a large dose of Cinchona daily for two weeks. He started to develop symptoms that resembled malaria. Though he attributed the symptoms to a hypersensitivity to the bark, this experiment gave Hahnemann the idea that ‘like cures like’, which he later developed into the idea of homeopathy.

 

Gin and Tonic

Quinine extracted from Cinchona is they key ingredient in tonic water, a carbonated soft drink. The dissolved quinine gives tonic water a distinctive bitter flavour, which is often used to compliment the alcoholic drink gin. The quinine content gives tonic water fluorescent properties under ultraviolet (UV) light. It can even fluoresce in direct sunlight as quinine is extremely sensitive to UV.

Tonic water fluorescing under UV light Image taken from http://chemistry.about.com/od/photogalleries/ig/Glowing-Things/Tonic-Water-Glow.htm
Tonic water fluorescing under UV light
Image taken from http://chemistry.about.com/od/photogalleries/ig/Glowing-Things/Tonic-Water-Glow.htm

Tonic water was first produced in the early 19th century, when British officials stationed in tropical colonial outposts began mixing quinine with carbonated water and sugar to alleviate the bitterness of quinine. They later started mixing this medicinal tonic with gin to create the classic ‘gin and tonic’ combination.

Lemongrass

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by Jemma

 

Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) is a dense, clump-forming grass that is found in tropical and subtropical grassland  throughout southeast Asia. It can reach a height of around 2 metres with leaves that are white on the top and green on the underside. Lemongrass flowers are red to reddish-brown in colour.

Lemongrass Image taken from http://www.gardensonline.com.au/GardenShed/PlantFinder/Show_2229.aspx
Lemongrass
Image taken from http://www.gardensonline.com.au/GardenShed/PlantFinder/Show_2229.aspx

 

Culinary uses

Cymbopogon citratus is abundant in the Philippines and Indonesia, where it is known as tanglad or sereh. Lemongrass leaves are too tough for the body to digest, so they either need to be removed before eating or chopped vary finely. Both the stems and leaves feature in Asian, African and Latin American cuisine in teas, soups and curries. It has a subtle citrus flavour that complements poultry, fish, beef and seafood dishes in particular.

Materia Medica jar containing Cymbopogon citratus
Materia Medica jar containing Cymbopogon citratus

 

Medicinal uses

Lemongrass is sometimes used in folk medicine, particularly in India and Brazil. The plant is believed to have a range of medicinal applications with its supposed hypnotic, anticonvulsant, antibacterial and antifungal properties. Though many of these believed effects have not been supported scientifically, some studies have shown that it does have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antifungal properties.

 

Citronellol, one of the essential oils that can be made from the plant, has antihypertensive properties. In other words it can lower blood pressure by relaxing the muscles of blood vessels, which results in increased blood flow and decreased tension. Hydrosol, a by-product of the distillation process used to extract the essential oils from lemongrass, is used in skin care products as a weaker alternative to the oils. In some individuals Cymbopogon citratus oil can cause contact dermatitis, whereby the skin is irritated and becomes swollen and sore.

Materia Medica jar containing oil of lemongrass
Materia Medica jar containing oil of lemongrass

Other uses

The oil extracted from Cymbopogon citratus is a popular insect repellent. It is particularly favoured for use against the stable flies that bite domesticated animals. Though it repels most insects, beekeepers are very fond of lemongrass oil as it can be used to attract honey bees when they swarm.  In addition to these, lemongrass oil is also used in perfumes and is a popular houseplant as it gives a room a ‘fresh’ fragrance. The plant is also grown on embankments in South and Southeast Asia as a means of soil conservation.

Chamomile

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by Jemma

 

Today’s blog post is going to focus on Matricaria chamomilla, which is more commonly known as chamomile or scented mayweed.

 

It is a highly aromatic shrub native to Europe and Western Asia. Chamomile grows up to 0.5 metres tall and possesses yellow daisy-like flowers that bloom in early- to mid-summer. Sometimes viewed as a weed, this plant is found near roadsides, landfills and in cultivated fields. It needs open soil to survive.

Chamomile flowers  Image taken from http://calphotos.berkeley.edu/cgi/img_query?enlarge=0000+0000+0207+0114
Chamomile flowers
Image taken from http://calphotos.berkeley.edu/cgi/img_query?enlarge=0000+0000+0207+0114

 

Medicinal uses

Chamomile has been used as far back as the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. They used it to treat fevers, digestive and menstrual problems, and as an insecticide.

 

In herbal medicine today it is used as a mild laxative, a sleep aid, an anti-inflammatory, and to treat digestive problems. In large doses, Matricaria chamomilla can cause nausea and vomiting due to small amounts of the toxin coumarin it contains, though this is extremely rare.

Herbarium sheet showing chamomile
Herbarium sheet showing chamomile

The plant has been studied extensively using pharmacological models, animal experiments and clinical tests. These studies showed that chamomile has anti-inflammatory, muscle relaxing, ulcer-protecting, bactericidal and fungicidal activity. Chamomile’s properties arise from the interaction of many different chemical compounds, such as bisabolol, chamzulene, matricin and apigenin. Bisabolol, a complex alcohol, seems to be partially responsible for the majority of chamomile’s medicinal effects. Recent studies have also reported that Matricaria chamomilla extracts could have some anti-cancer effects.

Materia Medica jar containing chamomile
Materia Medica jar containing chamomile

 

Other interesting facts

Garlands of this plant were found on Tutankhamun’s mummy along with chamomile traces being found on the body of Rameses II. Chamomile produces a strong yellow dye that has been used to dye textiles and is now a popular all-natural hair dye. Matricaria chamomilla is a relative of ragweed that can cause allergic reactions in some people.