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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.
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’!
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.
This blog post is going to focus on the genus Cinchona, which is the source of the antimalarial drug quinine.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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 (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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Elder, or Sambucus nigra, if found in woodlands and hedgerows throughout Europe, western Asia and North America. It is a short-lived shrub that can reach up to 6-9 metres tall. The plant has dark green, serrated leaves that possess a distinctive smell and flat-topped yellow-white flowers. These flowers bloom in May-July and are pollinated by insects, especially hoverflies. Following pollination, Sambucus nigra produces dark purple fruit that grow between September-October. These elderberries are mildly poisonous and grow in large clusters that often weigh down the branches of the plant.
For a long time Sambucus nigra has been used for a wide range of medicinal applications. It has been mentioned as far back as the Hippocratic Corpus (a collection of medical works from Ancient Greece) and Pliny (23-79 ACE), who both suggest the use of elderberry as a laxative and diuretic.
The flowers and fruit are still used in herbal medicine today for a wide range of remedies. They are used as a diuretic, to reduce inflammation, and to treat coughs and constipation. Sambucus nigra is also a popular flavouring agent used in laxatives.
Studies have shown that elderberries can be used to boost the immune system. This effect has been suggested to be caused by the high levels of anthocyanidins, which are chemical compounds that are known to stimulate the immune system, found in the berries. Other studies have suggested that the plant is effective against diabetes. Extracts from elderflower has been shown to stimulate the breakdown of glucose and increase secretion of insulin, both of which lower blood sugar levels.
Sambucus nigra has a wide range of culinary uses, despite being toxic in its raw form. The plant contains low concentrations of cyanogenic glycosides, which are toxic, but these are destroyed by heat. Thus the elder is safe to consume after cooking. One of the primary uses of elder is the production of an anise-flavoured Italian liqueur, called Sambuca, which is made from the plants berries. Elder is also involved in the production of cordials, wines and teas. In addition, it is used to make various other products such as jams, jellies, chutneys, elderflower fritters and other baked goods.
Other uses and interesting facts
Elder has been found in prehistoric archaeological sites across Europe. The stems were used by the ancient Greeks to make musical instruments called sambuke, whilst Native Americans used them for whistles and to make arrows. Traditionally, elder has also been included in the production of perfumes and dyes. The leaves are often used as a natural insect repellent. For a long time it was believed to be the tree from which Judas supposedly hanged himself in the Bible. However, this is unlikely since Sambucus nigra is not native to the Palestine region.
One of the most well-known animals in medicine is the leech, Hirudo medicinalis. Found over almost the whole of Europe and part of Asia, the leech has been collected from muddy freshwater pools and ditches for hundreds of years.
Fully mature leeches can reach up to 20 cm in length and are hermaphrodites that reproduce sexually. Leeches have suckers on each end, called the anterior and posterior suckers. The posterior (back) one is mainly used for leverage whilst the anterior (front) sucker has the jaw and teeth for feeding. Large adults can consume 5-15 ml in a single meal, which is about 10 times their body weight. After feeding, they can live up to a year before requiring another feed.
After biting but before sucking out blood, Hirudo medicinalis secrete saliva containing about 60 different proteins. These include anticoagulants (such as hirudin), platelet aggregation inhibitors (to prevent clotting), anaesthetics and vasodilators (to widen blood vessels and increase blood flow).
Bloodletting was used by many ancient peoples, including the Egyptians and Greeks, and is one of the earliest known medical techniques. The first described use of leeches was in 800 BC by the ancient Indian surgeon Sushruta, who recommended their use for skin diseases and muscle pains.
Ancient Greek physicians Nicander, Hippocrates and Galen all advocated the use of bloodletting. Bloodletting was modelled on menstruation as they believed it purged women of bad humours (excess bodily fluid). The humours were blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile, and each represented air, water, earth and fire respectively. Those agreeing with this theory believed that any sickness that caused the patient’s skin to become red, such as fever and inflammation, must have been caused by too much blood in the body. Thus, removal of blood was supposed to balance the humours, allowing the body to function properly.
The popularity of bloodletting rose through the centuries until it reached its peak in the early 19th century. In the 1830s, the French imported as many as 40 million leeches a year for medicinal purposes. By this time, bloodletting was used to treat almost every disease, from asthma to cholera, gangrene to epilepsy, smallpox to tuberculosis and beyond. Some of the ailments leeches were employed caused more harm than good. For example, after America’s first president George Washington developed a throat infection in 1799, he was bled for 10 hours and lost 3.75 litres of blood before dying of a throat infection.
The use of leeches fell drastically towards the end of the 19th century as knowledge of the bodies systems increased. However, they made a medical comeback in the 1970s. Leeches began to be used to stimulate circulation following skin grafts, particularly in finger reattachment. The therapeutic value of Hirudo medicinalis was no longer in bloodletting, but rather in the anticoagulants and anaesthetics in the saliva. Leeches are still used today but ‘mechanical leeches’ have been developed that perform the same function, though they are not yet commercially available.