Month: January 2014

Tillandsia sprengeliana: small plant, big flower

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Medicinal root, Sierra Leone

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It’s all about a specimen of medicinal wood which, last week, was selected by Museum volunteers for a handling table at the hospital in Manchester.  It started off as a mystery – just something i pulled out of the drawer – but has been a fascinating tale of where it came from and how it came to the museum.  Here are the notes for volunteers.

Bangba for kidney trouble. (EM536152)

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This was a bit of a mystery specimen as initially we didn’t know much other than what was written on the label, although this is common in museum stores.  Since then I have found out about the collector.   The label tells us 5 things.

  1. Bangba.  The box contains some lengths of wood – branches from a tree or shrub.  I don’t know what the name of the tree is that this wood comes from.  Bangba must be a common name for this wood in Sierra Leone.  It would probably have been used by healer (once known as a witch doctor) who would use traditional healing.
  2. The label tells us it is “for kidney trouble”.  We will have to guess how they would have used this specimen – to cure or ease symptoms?  The wood might have been chewed raw, or boiled and chewed, or crushed in a pestle and mortar to make a paste. They might have eaten the paste or spread it on their body! It might have been burned and the aroma inhaled.
  3. The date: 11/2/04 would be 11th Feb 1904.  It’s not likely to be 1804 because we have so few specimens that old and so many collected around 1904 (and the writing is the right style for that period).  It’s definately not 2004 as I’ve been working at the museum since before then!  It is important that collectors write the date in full on each item to prevent any confusion in years to come.  The date on a specimen is usually the date it was collected – that is, picked (in the case of a plant).
  4. Sierra Leone is the country in Africa that this specimen comes from.  It’s on the west coast of Africa.  We have about 30 other specimens of root, all collected in Sierra Leone by Ridyard: Igie Atah for toothache, Bubi water for piles, Ojo Ologbo for yellow fever or how about  Shacoo root for animal passion!
  5. “Coll.” stands for collected by.  The collector was Arnold Ridyard, a Liverpool merchant, who travelled the coast of West Africa from Sierra Leone to Angola accepting donations from, and making purchases from, local Africans in the different countries visited.  The World Museum Liverpool website says this about him: Between 1895 and 1916 Arnold Ridyard, a Chief Engineer with the Elder Dempster shipping line, transported over 2000 artefacts from West and Central Africa to the museum.  Many of Ridyard’s objects are at World Museum Liverpool.

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There is an entry in the botany register for this group of specimens. They seem to have been purchased from a Mr Entwistle by Ridyard, who then presented them to the museum in 1904.  (This means the date on the label was the date of donation, not the date of collecting).  There is also an entry in the Report of the Manchester Museum Committee 1904-1905: “Arnold Ridyard.- specimens of medicinal roots from Sierra Leone.” So – no longer a mystery! (Although I don’t think they are all roots.)

The wood is robust and can be handled, but visitors should wash their hands afterwards.  The box, especially the glass lid is quite delicate.  The card edges of the lid can sometimes bend and tear.

Contact the museum to find out where the handling table will be, and the dates.

Brassicaceae at Cambridge

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Last summer I spent a wonderful week in Cambridge, on the Flowering Plant Families course at the Cambridge University Botanic Garden.  It was a warm sunny week, and around 20 of us sat at microscopes in a classroom, the windows open to let in a summer breeze.  We had tea, biscuits and fresh plant material in jam jars around us.

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jars of fresh material and suggested reading

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This is the first in a series of plant identification blog posts, based on what I learnt at Cambridge.

One of the simplest plant families to start with is the cabbage family – Brassicaceae (pronounced brass ick ay see).

This is one of the simplest families to recognise as it has distinctive characteristics which are repeated.  The characters are

Sepals (calyx): 4

Petals (corolla): 4

Androecium (stamens): 6 (2 short, 4 long)

Gynoecium (carpels): 2 fused

The fruit is a siliqua – a pod like capsule with 2 united carpels.

I pulled the flower apart and laid it out so the parts are easy to see:

Rocket - Eruca sativa, Brassicaceae

This plant family is also called Cruciferae. This name comes from the cross (or crucifix) shape made by the four petals. It is easier to see in some species than others.

It is a family of annuals or perennial herbs, which contain mustard oils (glucosinolates) which give cabbage and Brussels sprouts their strong flavour.  Leaves are alternate and can be simple or toothed/lobed.

There are many economic uses – food like cabbage, rocket, broccoli and cauliflower, plus mustard and cress.  Oil is obtained from oil seed rape.  Other family members are grown as ornamental garden plants, such as honesty, stocks and wallflower.

eruca sativa

This is a herbarium sheet in the Manchester Museum of Eruca sativa (rocket). It was collected in St-Anne’s-on-the-Sea, Lancashire by Charles Bailey, one of our big collectors, in 1907. The handwritten number starting with EM, just above the printed label, is the database number we give each of our specimens.

This is a good, simple guide to the parts of a flower http://www.amnh.org/learn/biodiversity_counts/ident_help/Parts_Plants/parts_of_flower.htm