Latest Event Updates
With everyone staying close to home, this year the wildlife spotting for the City Nature Challenge has been really urban. If you have more images taken over the weekend, you can still upload them now into iNaturalist and your sighting will be added into the count. Otherwise, it’s time to try and identify all those finds! Let’s see how many we can push to be research grade records.
I suspect we’ve had far more pavement weeds this year than we did last year. Certainly, last year the top three organisms recorded where blackbirds, harlequin ladybirds and wood pigeons. So far this year, our top three are cuckooflowers, Herb Robert and dandelions. Of course, although the weekend of wildlife spotting is over, we’ve now got time to make sure as many records as possible are properly identified, so that list could change.
Happily, although everyone was limited to gardens and short walks, the weather was much kinder than last year allowing us to really enjoy our local wildlife. There have been plenty of bee and butterfly garden visitors and the occasional bird to watch as well as all the plants. If you have enjoyed a weekend of wildlife recording, check out Greater Manchester’s Local Record’s Centre so that you can continue putting nature on the map. There’s also advice from the Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside on how to improve your garden for wildlife. Click here to apply for a free downloadable booklet from the My Wild City Manchetser project.
The City Nature Challenge weekend has been popular across the country with over 4,000 people taking part and just under 60,000 observations made. If know of a city or region that would want to take part next year, then get in touch with the organisers. The City Nature Challenge was invented and is managed by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and California Academy of Sciences: https://citynaturechallenge.org/
Last year Greater Manchester competed in the City Nature Challenge for the first time. City Nature Challenge was started by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and California Academy of Sciences in 2016, and it has grown into a world-wide urban nature event. The challenge aims to get people around the world involved in wildlife recording and learning about nature in their local patch. It uses the wildlife app iNaturalist, which is great for people .
This year, however, with the world on lockdown things are a little different. Rather as a challenge with competing cities, this year is a celebration of the nature that we have living all around us. Spending time with nature has been shown to help our mental health, so this weekend, why not join us for the #CityNatureChallenge? Follow social distancing guidelines and try some birdwatching from the windows, spot the spiders in the cupboards, identify the insects visiting the garden or windowboxes, and share the plants you see in your local streets. You can also go online to help identify other people’s finds.
You might just find yourself catching the wildlife recording bug!
In the last few months many activities have taken place in and around our temporary exhibition on the top floor of Manchester Museum, ‘Beauty and the Beasts; falling in love with insects’. For example, children and young people, from under 5s to teenagers, were invited to send stories involving insects to help us create the next great Creepy-Crawly Chronicle, following in the footsteps of the Hungry Caterpillar. There is still time to enter the Children’s Story Competition, see here for more information.
Inspired by the amazing creatures in Beauty and the Beast Exhibition and the insects on the handling table, younger visitors created their very own creepy-crawly characters.
The exhibition has also been used as a space to relax and enjoy, for example, hosting one of the wellbeing sessions for Natural Sciences students at the University of Manchester…
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Guest post from James Dowling, PhD Student (Biochemistry)
There I was, sorting through the endless piles of old papers and journals that made up the stockroom of the Herbarium.
I was tasked with searching for ‘interesting’ things, which is a very enigmatic term; it suggested, first of all, that there was something interesting to be found, which after hours of unloading boxes I was starting to think was a bit of a pipedream. But more so, it hinted that there was a very real possibility of finding treasure. A glimmering light in the proverbial rubble.
Treasure, from the pirate stories of olde, has always been gold and silver. Never has it been blue. This made it all the more surprising when, beneath the dusty pages of so-and-so journal from 1905 number 27, I spotted something rather peculiar…….
The jacket was remarkably decorated, and clearly designed with great tact and care, bearing the date 1880 prominently near the bottom. I opened the little book up, and inside was something truly remarkable….
Bleached into the blue pages were a series of ghostly white silhouettes. When you gaze upon them, they appear to gaze right back at you – eternal imprints in time of what Dante might have believed to be a close-up of an angel’s wing.
Returning to the front cover, I could see that, sadly, they weren’t evidence of the divine lurking in Herbarium, but instead they were images of ferns from New Zealand.
I brought the little oddity to Rachel, the curator of Botany at the Museum, and she was just as taken by it as I was. Whereas I would have left it on the side as something ‘cool’ to look at every once in a while, she was much more astute in getting to the bottom of this mystery – what exactly is this thing?
That’s when we came across this paper, which described this book in great detail, along with matching photographs.
As it turns out, in 1880, a botanist called Herbert Dobbie produced something known as ‘The Blue Books’. In this category are also included books from a couple of years later by another botanist, Eric Craig.
Apparently, in very vague fashion, Dobbie said 40 years after publication that he made them using “the blue-print system which has just reached New Zealand”. In brief, this involves exposing sensitised mounting paper to sunlight an then washing with potassium bichromate, leaving the characteristic white-on-blue visual effect.
The question still remained, however – why make these little books? Well, that part isn’t so romantic – he stated that he literally wanted to make some money. Out of all the ways to make some cash, this is one of the most creative I’ve come across. To produce pretty books of hauntingly beautiful plants.
The amount of labour that went into making one ‘Blue Book’ was enormous, and combined with no evidence to the contrary, there probably weren’t many of these things made. In fact, only 14 copies are known to have survived, 11 of which are in New Zealand libraries.
Maybe that means there are 15 known to exist now?
Currently, the fate of the little blue treasure has yet to be decided. It will either continue to reside in the Herbarium, though from now on much more appreciated than before, or it will be passed onto another collection.
It was such a treat to unearth this thing, some 140 years after it’s creation, in near-perfect condition. It begs the question as to what else lies lurking in the back of the Herbarium. We’ll see soon enough, but for now, it’s time to close the book on this one.
A Victorian Christmas card in our Nature’s Library Gallery, Manchester Museum
The Fern Madness!
“I wish it could be Christmas, every day…” So goes the popular song, but at Manchester Museum we do have a Christmas card on display 365 days a year, in the Nature’s Library gallery.
But what plants are those? Are they herbs for Christmas dinner? Are they plants grown in the house over Christmas? No, not at all – these are ferns, and they are here as a remnant of the Pteridomania or ‘Fern Madness’ that swept the nation in the Victorian era. The term ‘Pteridomania’ was coined by Charles Kingsley in 1855:
“Your daughters, perhaps, have been seized with the prevailing ‘Pteridomania’…and wrangling over unpronounceable names of species (which seem different in each new Fern-book that they buy)…and yet you cannot deny that they find enjoyment in it, and are more active, more cheerful, more…
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Specimen of Arenga listeri, endemic to Christmas Island. Herbarium collection, Manchester Museum
Christmas Island – A Festive Story…
Christmas Island sits in the Indian Ocean just off the Indonesian coast, and is mostly famous for the island’s millions of Red Crabs, not red noses or red breasted robins… so why does it have possibly the most festive name you could imagine?
Christmas Island red crabs (Gecarcoidea natalis) make an annual migration to the coast of the Indian Ocean for breeding. (Source)
The story begins in 1643, Captain William Mynors is aboard the Royal Mary, an East India Shipping company vessel, on a journey to trade for exotic cargo such as indigo dye, silks and teas never before seen in England. During this particular voyage he sees a curious island in the distance, assuming it to be undocumented and uninhabited already, he names it after the day…
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Specimen of domestic apple, collected by Charles Bailey in 1917, from Manchester Museum’s Herbarium Collection.
A Christmas Toast
Who doesn’t like to have a toast at Christmas?
The Anglo-Saxon tradition of Wassailing was most likely enjoyed throughout Britain many years before Christianity. The beginning of each year greeted by ‘the Lord of the manor’ with a toast of waes hael, meaning “be well” or “be in good health” and with his followers replying drink hael! And although it was traditionally done on New Year’s Eve, wassailing was also celebrated by some on the twelfth day of Christmas.
Old Christmas, Illustrated London News 24 Dec 1842 (source)
A Traditional Recipe
The wassail drink was originally made from a warmed ale or cider, blended with curdled cream, roasted apples, eggs, cloves, ginger, nutmeg and sugar (today a lighter version is more common with just added spices and honey); it…
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A selection of apothecary spice jars held in the herbarium at Manchester Museum. Left to right: ginger, black peppercorns, cardamom, fennel, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg (with mace) and star anise.
A Land of Many Spices
The Indian subcontinent is a land of spices. Many of them are indigenous to the area, while others have been introduced over the course of history and found their optimal growing conditions here. Once worth their weight in gold, today most spices from India and other parts of the world can be easily found on the shelves of any supermarket.
Some spices are known for their health benefits, which have been recognised in both Eastern and Western medical traditions. They have antimicrobial, antifungal and anti-inflammatory properties, are rich in antioxidants, increase metabolism, improve blood circulation and can help fight minor ailments like headaches, stomach pain, blocked nose, sore throat and cough.
An Ancient Blend and…
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Cones of all shapes and sizes – Displayed on the Third Floor, Manchester Museum.
An Evergreen Advent
When I was young, throughout the year, whenever we visited woods and forests, we used to collect cones – pine, fir, larch, even monkey puzzle! At Christmas, my dad used to paint the tips white, like snow, and attach wire to them so we could hang them on the Christmas tree…
A reminder of spring to come
During the festive season, cones are everywhere – table dressings, garlands, wreathes… In fact, evergreens have been used to celebrate winter festivals for thousands of years – the Romans used fir trees to decorate their temples for Saturnalia, pagans used branches to decorate their homes during the winter solstice, a reminder of the spring to come, while Christians have used evergreens to signify continuous life.
Io Saturnalia! Replica of Roman silverware found at Hildesheim…
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Common sage specimen, seeds and illustration on a 19th century herbarium sheet from Leo Grindon’s cultivated plant collection. Manchester Museum (source)
A History of Sage (& Onion) through time
Stuffing is often relegated to the status of ‘trimmings’ at the festive dinner table, but for me it’s a gourmet Christmas star. Whether tumbling out of a turkey, piled on a sandwich or rolled into a ball and smothered in gravy, sage and onion stuffing is the stuff of Christmas present.
But how did this combination of breadcrumbs, sausagemeat (sometimes) and age-old wonder herb become part of the traditional British Christmas dinner? Looking for answers led me on a surprising culinary journey, from Iraq and ancient Rome to an Edwardian butcher’s shop in Eccles.
Hidden Herbs – For some festive fun I’ve hidden the names of another ten herbs and spices below so happy foraging!
A Child’s Christmas Dinners…
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