Month: March 2015
Specimen of the day – Tamarind
Tamarind is a tropical, frost-sensitive, long-lived, busy tree that can reach over 20 metres in height. It is an evergreen tree but Tamarindus indica’s bright green, fern-like leaves can fall off if exposed to prolonged periods of hot, dry weather. The sweet-scented, five-petal flowers are yellow with pink/red streaks and resemble small orchids. The tree produces edible, pod-like fruit that start off green in colour before maturing to reddish-brown. The fruits seeds are surrounded by a sticky sweet pulp that is edible. Tamarind trees will produce fruit for 50-60 years before declining productivity.
The genus Tamarindus, to which this tree belongs, is a monotypic taxon. This means that the genus contains a single species: T. indica.
Tamarind has been used by humans as far back as the ancient Greeks in the 4th century BC.
The mature fruit of the tamarind tree has a tangy sweet flavour and is used in cooking. It is particularly associated with Asian and Latin America cuisine. The green immature fruit is also used in cooking but for different purposes as it has a sour taste. The young pod is often used in Worcestershire and HP sauces. Both mature and immature plants contain a number of chemicals that are beneficial to human health, including tartaric acid, Vitamin B and calcium.
As well as its culinary applications, Tamarindus indica has been used in traditional medicines throughout Southeast Asia. It has been used to combat fevers, aid digestive problems and sooth sore throats. In a recent study, it has been suggested that tamarind may delay the progression of skeletal fluorosis by increasing fluoride excretion. Skeletal fluorosis is a bone disease caused by excessive accumulation of fluoride in the bones so, by assisting with the expulsion of this compound, tamarind could slow down the rate at which fluoride accumulated. Though promising, further research is needed to confirm these results.
The wood of the tree is a bold red colour and durable, making it a popular choice of wood in carpentry (particularly in for furniture and flooring).
Specimen of the day – Atropa belladonna
Atropa belladonna, commonly called deadly nightshade, is a herbaceous perennial (which means it lives for over 2 years and its stems die down back to the soil level at the end of the growing season) in the Solanceae family. This flowering plant produces shiny black berries that are extremely toxic. There is also a second version, Atropa belladonna var. lutea, which produces pale-yellow fruit rather than the iconic black berries.
Atropa belladonna is well known for being one of the most toxic plants in the Eastern Hemisphere. All parts of the plant contain toxic tropane alkaloids that target the nervous system, causing increased heart rate and inhibited movement of skeletal muscle. The symptoms of belladonna poisoning are often slow to appear and include dilated pupils, sensitivity to light, tachycardia (increased heart rate), headache, hallucinations and delirium. The symptoms often last for several days, before coma and convulsions occur, followed by death. Belladonna poisoning is caused by disruptions in the regulation of involuntary activities (such as heart rate) due to the tropane alkaloids.
History of belladonna
In the middle ages, belladonna was sometimes used to make Dwale, which was an early form of herbal anaesthetic. Other ingredients in this early anaesthetic included bile, hemlock, lettuce, opium and vinegar. In addition to its use as an anaesthetic, belladonna was said to be one of the key ingredients, along with hemlock and wolfsbane, in the witches flying ointment. This magic potion supposedly allowed witches to fly on their brooms.
For centuries, small doses of belladonna have been used as a pain reliever, muscle relaxer and anti-inflammatory. Eye drops made from the plant were also used cosmetically as a method for dilating the pupils, which was considered attractive and seductive in women. To combat the toxicity of the plant, morphine from the opium poppy Papaver somniferum was used. The two plants act against each other, and were used to produce the ‘twilight sleep’. This was a dreamlike state that was utilised as a way to deaden pains and consciousness during labour. Queen Victoria famously used the ‘twilight sleep’ during childbirth. However, despite their pain relief, the drugs could affect the nervous system of the baby, resulting in a poor ability to breathe. Belladonna is still used by pharmaceutical industries today as well as in various homeopathic medicines.
Use as a poison
The most famous use for belladonna throughout history was its use as a poison. In ancient Rome, the Emperor Augustus (who defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra) was rumoured to have been poisoned by his wife Livia in 14 AD. This resulted in her son Tiberius from a previous marriage to become the next Emperor. Another Roman Emperor supposedly murdered by belladonna was the Emperor Claudius, who was said to be killed by the poisoner Locusta on the orders of his wife Agrippina the Younger. King Macbeth of Scotland, whilst still one of the lieutenants of King Duncan I, used belladonna during a truce in order to stop the troops of the invading Harold Harefoot, who was king of England. Agatha Christie also featured belladonna in a number of her works, including The Caribbean Mystery and The Big Four.
Partial solar eclipse over Manchester
The Manchester Museum came to a standstill this morning as the staff stood transfixed watching the partial solar eclipse over Manchester’s cloudy skies. Only a few hours to go until our next spectacle as the British Museum’s Moai Hava arrives from Liverpool World Museum ahead of our next temporary exhibition ‘Making Monuments on Rapa Nui‘. An exciting day for us all!
Botany in Ancient Egypt – Part 2
Part 1 of this blog post (https://herbologymanchester.wordpress.com/2015/03/17/botany-in-ancient-egypt-part-1/) focused primarily on how the ancient Egyptians acquired their extensive botanical knowledge. This second blog post will now look more closely at some of the plants that they commonly used – some of which you may know!
One of the most well-known plants associated with ancient Egypt is Cyperus papyrus. The most famous use for this plant was to make an early form of paper. However, papyrus was used by the Egyptians for multiple purposes and was not limited solely to the production of paper. Other common uses of papyrus include the production of ropes, mats, baskets, sandals and chairs. The plant was also used to hold together bouquets of flowers and eaten as food. The open head of a papyrus plant was also a hieroglyph called ‘wadj’, meaning ‘green’, or ‘to be renewed’.
Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius) is a brightly coloured flowering plant that has heads of yellow, orange or red. From these colourful flowers, different coloured dyes can be extracted. Twelfth dynasty (1991-1803 BC) Egyptian textiles used these dyes to colour fabrics a red, yellow and orange colour. The dyes were sometimes even used on mummy wrappings to give them colour. It wasn’t only the flower’s dye that was used by the ancient Egyptians. Seeds from the flower have been found in temple offerings. Safflower garlands have been found sewn onto both papyrus and cloth wrapped around the mummies. These garlands were found in the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun. Oil derived from safflower seeds was also used for medicinal purposes as a means to treat insect and scorpion bites.
Ancient Egyptian tombs often contained baskets of juniper berries (Juniperus communis). Oil from the berries was used for anointing the body during the mummification process. The plant was not only used with the dead as both Egyptian cosmetics and medicine sometimes contained J. communis. Juniper was employed medicinally in the treatment of headaches, asthma, indigestion and aching joints.
Allium sativum, commonly called garlic, was used for both culinary and medicinal purposes by the Egyptians. It was used to treat a range of problems, including parasites, respiratory problems, poor digestion, and low energy. Garlic also featured in many dishes and it has been estimated that 1 ½ million lb (680,000 kg) to feed the slaves and workers building the pyramids at Giza. It appears that the ancient Egyptians revered the plant as images and sculptures have been found in many tombs, including that if Pharaoh Tutankhamen.
Believed to have been made by the god Thoth, Papaver somniferum (opium poppy) was used medicinally as an early form of painkiller and in cooking to add flavour to baked goods like bread. (For a more detailed history of the opium poppy check out my blog post https://herbologymanchester.wordpress.com/2015/01/23/powerful-poppies/ ).
Ricinus communis (castor oil plant) was used extensively by the Egyptians; being employed as lamp oil, anointing oil and in medicine. The Ebers Papyrus, a medicinal text from ancient Egypt, has a whole section dedicated to the plant and its derivatives (particularly the oil). Castor oil extracted from the seeds was said to cure stomach illnesses, constipation, skin diseases, head-lice and hair restorer. They also believed that the oil was an effective treatment for treating diseases caused by demons.
I hope you have enjoyed this post and a huge thank you Campbell Price (the museum’s Curator of Egypt and Sudan) for all your help with this post! Check out Campbell’s Egypt blog at https://egyptmanchester.wordpress.com/ for more fascinating posts about ancient Egypt!
Botany in Ancient Egypt – Part 1
During my research into the Materia Medica collection (plant, animal and mineral based medicines used in from the 1800s) at the Manchester Museum, I have notice a recurring feature; many of the plants had in fact been used by humans for thousands of years and a large portion of these by the ancient Egyptians!
Plants featured heavily in Egyptian culture: in food, medicine, religion, perfumes and beyond. Early medicinal texts, such as the Ebers Papyrus from 1550 BCE, provide detailed insight into their extensive herbal knowledge. Unfortunately no complete record has yet to be found, but the fragments that have survived show just how knowledgeable these ancient peoples were when it came to plants and their uses. Many of the applications documented are the same used right up until the introduction of modern medicinal practices. Even today, large portions of herbal remedies used as ‘alternative’ medicines feature plants used for similar purposes as those used by the ancient Egyptians.
Not all of the plants known to and used by the Egyptians were native to their homeland. Their extensive knowledge on the topic can partly be attributed to trade. Caravan and water routes connected Egypt to trade routes around the world, allowing the exchange of tradable items like spices and fabrics. Silk traded from China has been found on Egyptian mummies dating from around 1000 BCE. As well as the benefit of trade, this connection to the rest of the world also made it possible for botanical knowledge to spread to Egypt from distant countries like China and India.
Another notable factor that played a role in the vast accumulation of plant knowledge was that the Pharaoh’s actively sent out plant exploration parties. These parties, such as those sent by Queen Hatshepsut around 1500 BCE and by Pharaoh Sankhere in 2500 BCE, were sent to discover more plant resources that could be exploited.
There is one particular Pharaoh that is worth mentioning in regard to the mass accumulation of botanical knowledge in Egypt: Thutmose III. He was an 18th dynasty Pharaoh who reigned between 1479–1425 BCE (part of which was as co-regent with Queen Hatshepsut). During his rule, Thutmose led numerous military expeditions, from which many foreign plants and animals were brought to Egypt.
It was during his reign that the ‘Botanical Garden’ was erected in the temple of Akh-menu at Karnak. This ‘garden’ is a chamber whose walls depict carved representations of the plants and animals collected by Thutmose. Because of its physical isolation from the rest of the temple, the ‘Botanical Garden’ of Akh-menu is a particularly sacred chamber and believed to be the place in which the priests of the god Amun were initiated.
For part 2, click on the following link: https://herbologymanchester.wordpress.com/2015/03/17/botany-in-ancient-egypt-part-2/
My week at the Natural History Museum, London
I spent a wonderful week at the Natural History Museum, London (NHM) on a placement. The aim of the scheme is to exchange knowledge, aid professional development and enable lasting change.
I learnt and experienced so much – here are some highlights.
My host was Ranee Prakesh, Curator of Flowering Plants. After my induction, she gave me a tour of the herbarium and Darwin Centre gallery, both housed in a purpose built cocoon:
In the afternoon I learnt about NHM’s Digital Collections project, and then got to work. I scanned herbarium sheets on a Herbscan machine – an upside down scanner. Some of the sheets had writing on the back so both sides had to be scanned. The images would be added to the museum’s database later.
On the second day, I was shown how NHM staff use Emu, the museum’s database, and learnt about the current rapid digitisation project. Herbarium specimens are shipped to The Netherlands for imaging on a conveyor belt / camera system called Digistreet, then the data from the images will be transcribed in Suriname. The NHM staff were waiting to find out the quality of the data.
I shared ideas with the plant mounting team, demonstrating ‘Manchester style’ (strapping) and having a go at the NHM way (glueing and pressing). They were surprised I cut my own straps from archival quality paper: sometimes the best way is not always the most expensive way. That’s one of the many things I love about curatorial work.
I was shown how loans were documented and packed in the afternoon, and how the NHM staff process a loan on Ke Emu.
Day 3 was spent in the herbarium store. Ranee explained how the herbarium sheets are arranged taxonomically according to APG, and filed geographically within this system. I spent some time sorting specimens to family and genus level in preparation for laying-in. The open plan workspace was visible through a window in the gallery so I had the public watching me at work!
Later that day I had a tour of the Specimen Preparation Area to see the V-Factor volunteers at work. They were sorting through sediment from a quarry, looking for tiny fossils, and a different project is run each weekday in this area visible from the museum gallery.
The fourth day was spent in The Cryptogamic Herbarium. I had a short tour of the bryophyte collection then got to work repackaging mosses into individual capsules:
I was showed round the historical collections and the fern herbarium in the afternoon. We discussed Integrated Pest Management and preventative conservation in relation to historic botany collections.
I also worked alongside Ranee laying out specimens ready for the plant mounters. This involved placing the pressed specimen and label on a sheet of mounting paper and enclosing any loose material in a capsule. There was a large amount of newly donated material to be mounted and filed in the herbarium sent in from researchers and staff on expeditions.
On the fifth day I had a tour of the Linnean Society. Carl Linnaeus’s personal herbarium in particular was amazing to see.
Next, I learnt about citizen science at the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity. This is where the public gather or analyse data for research or curatorial purposes, such as transcribing data from a bird register, which is an NHM project called ‘Notes from Nature’ currently running on Zooniverse.
To wrap it all up there was a tea party at the end of my last day. It was lovely to see the staff I had met during the week and thank them all for giving up their time and making me feel so welcome. I am intending that some lasting change will happen at Manchester Museum as a result of my week at the NHM, particularly better storage for our type specimens and some changes to volunteering.
Many thanks to all the curators and collections managers at the NHM who allowed me this fantastic opportunity.