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The Travelling Botanist: Belated Plant Fascination Day Special: Peppers!

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Guest blog by: Sophie

Hello everyone, the travelling botanist is finally back and today I’m doing a special for Plant Fascination Day. I thought I’d talk about something a little closer to home and how you can grow it yourself fairly easy, so without further ado, today’s awesome plant is peppers!

Peppers, like any fruit or vegetable, are something we see on a daily basis in our supermarkets, greengrocers and the like. Thanks to the thousands of years of cultivation of 5 species of Capsicum, the Latin genus name for peppers, they have been integrated into many different cuisines across the globe and become a staple in quick and easy meals such as stir-fry and salads.

“Square Fruited” Capsicums. Commonly known as Bell Peppers.

There are several possible origins of the name Capsicum, given to describe peppers. The Latin, meaning box, is thought to describe the peppers themselves which we consume whereas the Greek word translates to “to gulp”. “Pepper” itself is thought to come from black pepper, due to the similar “heat” that comes from them although black pepper (Piper Nigrum) isn’t actually related to the peppers we’re talking about today!


Originating from the Americas and migrating across the world as a result of the Columbian Exchange, it took over three centuries for Europeans to accept tomatoes, peppers and chilli peppers due to their resemblance with our native nightshade which at its best is known to cause vomiting and diarrhoea and at its worst, death. Nowadays the mild bell peppers we eat stem from a variety developed in Hungary during the 1920s.

Capsicum sp.

Of the ~27 species of Capsicum, only 5 are cultivated; C. annum, C. baccatum, C. chinense, C. frutescens and C. pubescens with annum being the most highly cultivated and chinense producing the hottest peppers. C. annum is also probably the better known of the Capsicum species due to the bell peppers, jalapeños, New Mexico chile, and cayenne peppers originating from this species. Unlike the name “annum” suggests these plants are not annuals but are instead perennials albeit being highly susceptible to even the slightest frost – so if you plan on growing them yourself remember to keep them warm during winter! They are relatively easy to grow even in our miserable climate, providing they get enough sun (20-29° is where they’re their happiest), and are able to self-pollinate in the absence of insects (although we all know this just makes fruiting plants produce bigger, better edibles) making them a fun and rewarding project to start in early spring and watch through summer!

For those pepper connoisseurs, I’m sure aware there’s a distinct difference between the mild bell pepper and the feisty hot chilli peppers, and I’m not talking about their shape either. Capsaicin, part of the capsaicinoid family, is the chemical responsible for that “heat” you feel whenever you eat something containing chilli peppers. This is because Capsaicin is actually an irritant to mammals, like you and I, and has evolved to be a deterrent, despite those of us that seem to be on a quest for the hottest chillies around. The seeds themselves do not contain Capsaicin, instead, it is most concentrated in the internal white, spongey part known as the “pith” which the seeds are attached to. Smaller quantities of Capsaicin are found in the rest of the pepper. Capsaicinoids aren’t just used in cooking – they have also been found to help manage pain in small doses in the form of topical creams or patches however they have also been implemented riot control agents for their irritant properties.

However! On to the more fun stuff! All you need to grow your own pepper plants are a pepper (one you’re preferably going to eat and not just throw away), some soil, a reusable pot and a sunny windowsill or balcony to put your pot out on.  Now I say pepper rather than store bought seeds because you’re able to get SO many seeds from the pepper which would otherwise be going to waste, and they work just as well as the ones from Wilkos. Scrape out the seeds carefully and pop a few about 1cm deep in the pot, you’ll want it to be around 10cm so you have enough space to scoop them out later when they get bigger, ensure the soil is damp but not soaking and just keep an eye on it over the next few weeks. They typically take a while to get going so don’t get disheartened. You’ll see below in the photos that they don’t take long once they do germinate!

Have fun and happy planting!!







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The botany staff will be supporting the Panama wildlife evening showing a selection of plant species from Panama, as well as talk about the City Nature Challenge 2019 – coming to both Panama City and Greater Manchester soon!

A night of Panamanian festivities not to be missed!
Manchester Museum welcomes Critically Endangered Harlequin Frogs to its collection and is the only institution in the world to house these striking animals outside Panama. We would like to mark the launch of the Harlequin Frog Project with a celebration of Panamanian culture and wildlife. The project is a unique collaboration with the Panama Wildlife Conservation Charity (PWCC) and the Ministry of the Environment in Panama. Come and enjoy the taste of Panamanian drink with latin music, see the wealth of rare frogs from behind the scenes, and find out more about the impact our research, environmental education, and conservation work is making in Latin America.

A Week in the Museum

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Stories from the Museum Floor

In today’s Story From the Museum Floor, after spending a week with us on a work experience placement, high school student Kipp Money-Muter shares some of his impressions of Manchester Museum.

For more about how you can get involved at the museum have a look at our website.

A Week at Manchester Museum

Museums are places that accumulate and share knowledge in an attempt to encapsulate in their displays what has happened on this planet in its long history. Manchester Museum is no different. If you have ever visited then you will know how breathtaking it is on every floor, from ‘Stan’ the T-Rex downstairs to a recording of U.S. President Jimmy Carter sent out into space with the Voyager spacecraft in 1977 on the top floor. Each display has something you can learn from and educate yourself on – I think this is the main reason why it…

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Something unexpected happened in the Manchester Museum!

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By Eirini Antonaki

The herbarium of Manchester itself  is a collection of some 750,000 specimens of preserved plants. Most are in the form of pressed specimens on flat sheets. Some are in small packets such as the mosses and lichens and some are even 3D e.g. our collection of fruits and seeds. Apart from them it has also books, plant illustrations , slides projector, microscopic slides, plant models and  many more to explore.




Finally something that you can’t miss is our brand new modern greenhouse. You should definitely check out! 

The Greenhouse is a hidden gem, located on the third floor of Manchester Museum. It accommodates plants from all over the world in an artistic installation that has been realised with the collaboration of  Nonsense_indoor_plants ,  Jeanette Ramirez founder of The Clorofilas (@Theclorofilas) and our Curator of Botany Rachel Webster.

It is next to Sylvia’s study room, which is a multi purpose room near the new third floor cafe. What a wonderful idea to study or have a meeting with a view of  ferns, cacti and tropical plants  in the middle of the winter in Manchester!



Want to see more about the Greenhouse?
Then you can follow our instagram profile  @mcrmuseumgreenhouse   and you can upload your own photos with the #mcrmuseumgreenhouse.


#AdventBotany 2018, Day 20: Once upon a time: A tale of fairies from the RHS herbarium — Culham Research Group

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By Yvette Harvey I am still pondering why a pagan spirit of the dead, or, more recently a demoted angel, should play such a big part in Christmas – for Christmas certainly wouldn’t be the same without a fairy at the top of the tree or strings of fairy lights illuminating more than you thought…

via #AdventBotany 2018, Day 20: Once upon a time: A tale of fairies from the RHS herbarium — Culham Research Group

Advent Botany 2018: A botanical pick-me up for the bleak midwinter

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With five previous years of Advent Botany I was surprised that none of us have so far covered coffee. OK, it’s not a Christmassy spice, or a festive decoration, but by this time in the year I’m sure I’m not the only one feeling more than my usual need for this botanical pick-me-up. As we approach the shortest day of the year a good cup (or several) of coffee is pretty much all that’s keeping me from attempting to hibernate.

New crop Costa Rica coffee. Imported last week. Sold in London sale yesterday. Undated. #CuratorialCrimes

Not only that, but as this snippet from the magazine ‘The Hospital’ from January 1889 suggests, there is also coffee’s reputation for counteracting the effects of alcohol. Although, rather than allowing people to deal with the morning after the night before, this article also seems to suggest that if people can get their hands on good coffee, then they won’t bother drinking the alcohol in the first place.

Cutting in the Leo Grindon herbarium – Everybody’s Page, The Hospital, January 19th, 1889

Caffeine is found in several other plants such as tea and kola, but it is coffee that has earnt the reputation as the go-to drink for keeping us alert. In nature, caffeine has a protective function, deterring insect grazing through its bitter taste and toxic properties. It is found in all parts of the coffee plant, including the leaves, and in high concentrations in very young seedlings, but of course it is the roasted beans that we prepare for the drink. Coffee ‘beans’ are seeds which come in pairs in small fruits which turn red as they ripen. Known as cherries, the fruits are described botanically as called drupes. These are thin skinned fleshy berries with a hardcoated seed inside (much like an actual cherry, olives or dates) but coffee is a little uncommon for having two seeds rather than the more usual single seed.

Coffea arabica illustration in the Leo Grindon collection. Handcoloured lithograph by Hanhart after a botanical illustration by David Blair from Robert Bentley and Henry Trimen’s Medicinal Plants, London, 1880

Coffee is in the Rubiaceae, a diverse family including herbaceous plants such as the dye plant madder (Rubia tinctorial) and the quinine-producing Cinchona trees used for flavouring tonic water. The genus Coffea contains over 120 species of shrubs and small trees with opposite pairs of glossy dark green leaves and jasmine-scented flowers. Despite this, there are few species which are used commercially. Coffea arabica and C. canephora account for almost all the world’s coffee production with C. liberica coming a very distant third.

Lantern slide of Liberian coffee from the Manchester Geographical Society collections

C. arabica originates in Ethiopia and was the first coffee to be cultivated. Now it is considered the gold-standard of coffee, less bitter and less acidic than other species. It is the most widely grown, accounting for the majority of worldwide coffee production and Brazil is the biggest single exporter. However, C. canephora (known as robusta) is easier to grow and higher yielding. Vietnam is the world’s largest producer of robusta, after the French smuggled the plant in to the country in the 19th century. The beans contain twice as much caffeine as arabica and produce a more bitter, earthier-tasting coffee.  Robusta is particularly used for the production of instant coffees, and is also added into coffee blends (such as Italian expresso) as it is said to produce a better crema on top.

Promotional display box produced by Nestle containing coffee beans from different countries.


Well, looking out all these objects from the herbarium has given me a bit of a thirst, so I think it’s probably high time I stopped for a coffee break and sampled the blends at our new Museum cafe (perhaps with a little mince pie on the side). Anyone ready to join me?

ManCoCo coffees at Manchester Museum

#AdventBotany 2018, Day 19: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; a spot of medieval Advent Botany — Culham Research Group

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By Alex Mills So, it’s Christmas time. You’re having a bit of food with your friends and family. Well, a lot of food. It’s Christmas, isn’t it? It’s all very convivial and jolly and all that. Suddenly, there’s a commotion at the door. A big chap has come in. He’s on a horse. He’s a…

via #AdventBotany 2018, Day 19: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; a spot of medieval Advent Botany — Culham Research Group