Month: December 2009

Happy New Year

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Since starting this blog at the end of November we have been delighted to see how much interest it has received – we have had nearly 700 views in the last month!  In 2010 we will continue to bring you news and stories from the herbarium, however, if there are any parts you find particularly interesting or you would like to hear more of, please let us know in the comments form as it is always great to get feedback.

New Year is a time when many of us make resolutions for the coming year.  If you haven’t decided on one yet maybe you might consider planting a tree in 2010.  The Woodland Trust is appealing to people to plant a native tree to mark the beginning of the new decade and as 2010 is the International Year of Biodiversity it makes even more sense.  I’m thinking of planting a Hazel tree, although I think any nuts will be taken by the many grey squirrels that invade my garden.  Here’s some Hazel from our collection that was growing in Botany Bay Wood in Salford in 1866 and collected by John Barrow (1822- 1890).

For more information and a selection of native trees available for planting, see

www.woodlandtrustshop.com/native-trees

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Specimen of the Day: 22/12/2009 – Myrrh

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Bombay myrrh

Congratulations to those of you who guessed correctly… today’s Specimen of the Day is myrrh (Commiphora myrrha).

Specimen from the Herbarium's Materia Medica collection
Illustration from the Leo Grindon Collection

This specimen of myrrh has come from our Materia Medica collection, in fact the label on the jar says it once belonged to the Materia Medica Museum, Victoria University.  The Materia Medica collection contains over 800 specimens of medicinal plants in the form of leaves, roots, juices, gums, resins, flowers, herbs etc.  The collection, most of which are kept in glass jars like the one pictured above, look like the contents of an old apothecary’s shop.

Myrrh is indigenous to eastern Mediterranean countries, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Yemen, and South Arabia. The herb comes from a spiny, deciduous, bushy tree that grows to about fifteen feet, producing yellow-red flowers and pointed fruits. Myrrh is the resin that is a pale, yellow, granular secretion which discharges into cavities in the bark when it is wounded. The exudate hardens to a reddish-brown mass about the size of a walnut. It is harvested from June to August and dried for medicinal use. Myrrh should not be confused with British Myrrh, which is from a different plant family.

Myrrh has been used for it’s medicinal properties for thousands of years.  In the bible myrrh was brought by Caspar, one of the Magi or  three wise men, to the infant Jesus.

Specimen of the Day: 21/12/2009 – Frankincense

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It’s so nearly christmas and there’s snow in Manchester (falling off the roof like an avalanche) and on the Herbology Manchester blog too (silently and not half so cold).

Unfortunatley this article has neither the date nor details of the publication it came from.
Illustration from the Leo Grindon collection

Frankincense is our specimen of the day.  Had a rummage and found this specimen and newspaper clipping in our Grindon collection, and  then found a jar of the stuff in the Materia Medica.  The blurb in the paper makes no mention of  the gifts given to baby Jesus, of which frankincense was one.  Maybe it wasn’t a big deal in 1850.

Frankincense is an sweet smelling resin from trees in the genus Boswellia, mainly found in North Africa. 

Guess what the specimen will be tomorrow?

Sticks and bones: Tree study to help orthopaedic surgeons

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As part of  the Manchester Museum’s Charles Darwin: Evolution of a Scientist programme of events,  all the staff  in the herbarium were recently trained to take museum objects connected with Charles Darwin out to community groups.   During the training we were discussing what it meant to be a scientist, and how it was not necessarily about having the all answers but more about asking the right questions.

I was reminded of that discussion today when, looking at the University of Manchester website, an article about a new tree study caught my eye.  The study, being undertaken at the University by Dr Roland Ennos, is looking at why tree branches buckle or split, rather than break cleanly, and how this could help orthopaedic surgeons do a better repair job on children’s broken bones.

What I found particularly interesting is how Dr Ennos came up with the idea for the study.  He said: “I was walking through our local wood and breaking twigs off trees and wondering why they were breaking in these two particular ways. I remembered how difficult it was to break branches for firewood as a cub scout – you can’t break fresh branches, you need to find dead wood.”

It’s all about the questions!

Finally, here’s Dr Ennos singing the praises of trees: 

“…wood is a marvelous material, the best in the world, better than steel or plastic. It is stiff, strong and tough, all combined, and that’s very rare in a material. Steel is stronger but it’s heavier and both that and plastic take a lot of energy to make, which is important when we are facing climate change.

“We ought to return to an age of wood, in my opinion. We have a feel for wood that goes back to our early ancestors, when we used to cut branches off trees to make into spears and other tools. Understanding precisely how it works should help us design the tools of the future.”

Read the full article here.

Specimen of the Day: 15/12/2009 – New Zealand Christmas Tree

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Metrosideros excelsa

Keeping with the Christmas theme, todays specimens are seeds from Pōhutukawa (Metrosideros excelsa/Metrosideros tomentosa) aka. the New Zealand Christmas Tree.

Brilliant crimson flowers cover this tree between November and January, peaking in mid to late December (summertime  in the southern hemisphere).  In New Zealand the native Pōhutukawa is under threat by the introduced common bushtail possum which strips the tree of its leaves.  The possum was introduced to New Zealand in the 1800s to establish a fur industry but it has now become a major pest.

These seeds are one of  many specimens collected in New Zealand by Miss Jessie Heywood (1852-1947).  Jessie regularly sent packages of specimens from New Zealand to the Manchester Museum.   As Jessie is one of my favourite collectors I’ll devote separate post to her story later on.

Specimen of the Day: 14/12/2009 – Mistletoe

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Brendel Plant Model of Mistletoe (male)
Brendel Plant Model of Mistletoe (female)

We are getting all Christmassy with today’s Specimen of the Day.

These models of  Mistletoe were made in Germany by the model makers R Brendel and Co.  They came to the Manchester Museum in 1917 when we acquired the herbarium of Charles Bailey.  The models are made of wood, wire and paper mache.

Specimen of the Day: 11/12/2009 – Black Spleenwort

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Manchester Museum Specimen collected by Robert Lloyd Praegar

On this day in 1892 Robert Lloyd Praegar collected this specimen of Black Spleenwort (Asplenium adiantum-nigrum var. acutum).  Praegar was an extraordinary man and one of my all time botanical heroes.  He practically surveyed the whole of Ireland single handedly at weekends.  I didn’t know we had any Praegar specimens in the collection at all.  So I was delighted to find this one.