Month: November 2016

A Travelling Botanist: Ricecapades

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Guest blog by: Sophie Mogg

I’ll soon be crossing the border into Southeast Asia and exploring the many wonderful plants there but there’s time for one last post!

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Oryza sativa

Oryza sativa, which translates to “rice” and “cultivated”, remains a staple for half of the worlds population. It is a widely cultivated plant, growing in over 100 countries and on all continents with exception of Antarctica. There are currently 40,000 varieties of rice of which over 100 of these are grown globally. Oryza rufipogon grows through South and Southeast Asia, it is the wild relative of Oryza sativa. The earliest recorded cultivation of rice has been documented to be in China around 6000 BC.

Within the species sativa, two subspecies have been classified: japonicaindica.
 Japonica varieties are short-grained and sticky, often grown in higher altitudes such as the uplands of Southeast Asia. Indica on the other hand are long-grained and non-sticky varieties grown in the lowlands and often submerged. Javanica, now known as tropical japonica, is a subgroup to japonica and is made up of broad-grained varieties grown in tropical conditions. However classification of rice has changed numerous times due to differing basis of classification such as the types of enzymes present or short sequence repeats in the DNA.

Oryza sativa can grow either 1M tall in dry conditions or 5M long in submerged conditions.  The stem is composed of several nodes and from each node grows a long, slender leaf. The seeds, like other grass species, grow on long spikes which have the tendency to arch over with the weight of the seed. It is the endosperm of these seeds which we consume. Whilst rice can be found in many colours such as white, brown, red, purple and black we commonly eat either the white or brown rice. White rice is typically polished (milled) to remove the bran layer, where as wholegrain “brown” rice has the bran layer intact. The bran layer, present in all cereal crops, is rich in essential amino acids, dietary fibre and antioxidants.

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Oryza sativa field

96% of the rice that is grown worldwide is consumed by the same countries that grow it however these countries also suffer from Vitamin A deficiency. Scientists have tried to improve the nutritional quality of rice by introducing  enzymes from other plants via genetic modification that are needed to synthesise beta-carotene. Beta-carotene is converted into Vitamin A in the intestines. The Golden Rice Project aims to reduce the incidence of Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) syndrome which is prevalent in these countries.

Generally rice is steamed or boiled however it can also be used to produce several other products. Rice can be pressed in order to produce rice milk, which is an excellent alternative for those avoiding dairy products who may also have a nut allergy however it is rich in carbohydrates and low in protein and so is not necessarily the best option for diabetics or the elderly. In Japan, sake is made from brewing milled rice somewhat similar to beer however the conversion of starch to sugar and then sugar to alcohol occurs simultaneously. Sake is customarily sipped from a small cup known as a sakazuki on special occasions.

Rice is also used in many traditional medicines such as Ayurveda such as in the treatment of diarrhea. Rice would be boiled and then strained, allowing the water to cool. The patient would then drink the rice water which would stop the diarrhoea or ease the stomach upset as well as re-hydrating them. Congee is a traditional dish made using a single grain, often brown rice, and slowly cooking it on low heat with a 1:5 or 1:6 ratio of rice to water. Congee is said to be very beneficial to those with low energy and issues regarding weight loss/gain and is made across India and China. Several studies such those using rice callus and extracts have shown that rice also has anticancer properties by inhibiting growth of human cancer cells.

If you have any suggestions for the types of plants you wish to learn about please fill in the poll below or if you have any specific queries please leave a comment.

 

If you are interested in learning more about rice follow the links below:

Oryza sativa 

Rice association – varieties 

Oldways whole grain council – types of rice (with pictures)

Brown rice in medicine 

Vitamin A Deficiency syndrome (VAD)

A Travelling Botanist: International Year of the Pulses

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Guest blog by: Sophie Mogg

2016 marks the international year of the pulses, decided back in 2013 at the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly. The Food and Agriculture Organization nominated pulses in the hope that this would raise awareness of their importance in providing a sustainable source of plant protein.

Throughout the the year there have been many conferences, discussions and workshops held in order to promote a better understanding and public awareness on topics surrounding sustainable food production, food security and nutrition as well as improvements in crop rotation and how we can work towards improving trade connections of pulses and utilization of plant based proteins. Whilst none of these events are taking place in the UK many resources are available online at their website including recipes and videos for you to watch.

As with all my other blog posts I have found some specimens within our collection to show you.

The Chick Pea (Cicer arietinum)

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Cicer arietinum

“This interesting little leguminous plant has been an object of cultivation from time immemorial & grows wild at the present day in the cornfields”

C. arietinum is one of the earliest cultivated legumes dating back around 7,500 years ago in the Middle East. Production is rapidly increasing across Asia as superior cultivars are developed and released. Many country farmers depend upon this legume for a source of income however legumes also enrich the soil through the addition of nitrogen.

This small plant, reaching heights of 20-50 cm, may not look like much but the seeds pack a punch. Approximately 100g of these seeds provides ~20% of protein, dietary fibre and other minerals needed, thereby providing a cheaper alternative to those who cannot afford meat or choose not to eat it. Leaves are also consumed providing essential micro-nutrients which are significantly higher than in cabbage and spinach.

A study has also shown that the chickpea can also be used as an animal feed, with many groups of animals benefiting.

The Pigeon Pea (Cajanus cajan)

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Cajanus cajan

The pigeon pea often grows between 1-4M tall with a tap root reaching around 2M. This legume is also a major source of protein for those living in South Asia and has been consumed across Asia, Africa and Latin America since it was first domesticated in India around 3,500 years ago.

It is a perennial plant that is harvested for between 3-5 years however after the second year the yield drops and so annuals are more often used as a means to harvest the seed. Like the chickpea, the pigeon pea is also able to enrich soils with nitrogen and its leaves are often used to feed cattle whilst the woody stem is used for firewood.

 

 

 

 

Black Lentil (Vigna mungo aka Phaseolus mungo L.)

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Vigna mungo

Vigna mungo can be found in various forms ranging from a fully erect plant to one that trails growing between 30-100cm. It produces large leaves which are hairy and seed pods that are approximately 6cm long.

It is very popular in India where the seed is split and made into dal.  The Black Lentil is very nutritionally rich containing 25g of protein per 100g of seed as well as many other important micro-nutrients and therefore plays a huge role in the diets of those from India.

The Poison Chronicles: Death by Pea

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Guest blog by: Laura Cooper

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Abrus precatorius seed necklace on display in the Study.

Whilst volunteering at the herbarium I came across several small boxes containing bewitchingly bright red seeds and an equally garish TOXIC sign. They were labelled Abrus precatorius seeds, and that one of their common names is the rosary pea suggests that I am not the first to be taken in by their beauty. The seeds of Abrus precatorius have the eye-catching red of hawthorn berries capped with a black spot at the hilum, but glossy and sturdy enough to be drilled to make beads for jewellery.

The contrast between the beauty of the seeds and their toxicity inspired us to begin a blog series on toxic plants called The Poison Chronicles. We want to look at how they can kill, but also why they have evolved this ability and if the plant has any other products that are medicinally useful.

Abrus precatorius is a vine in the Legume family native to the Old World Tropics, but was introduced to the Neotropics for it’s ornamental value, but is now an invasive species. It proliferates after a forest fire so can out-compete slower growing plants, it’s suckering ability makes it difficult to remove.

But these seeds are more than just beautiful. They have earned their TOXIC label as they contain the toxin abrin, which has a very low fatal dose, reported in the literature as around 0.1 – 1μg/kg, making it one of the most toxic known plant products. Abrin acts by inhibiting protein synthesis, so can affect all cells in the body. A few hours after a person has ingested a lethal dose of abrin, they may experience severe vomiting, gastrointestinal bleeding, dehydration, multi-organ damage and death often within 36-72 hours. The incredible toxicity of abrin was occasionally used to secretly kill people in 19th century Bengal. The seeds were ground into a paste, shaping into a point known as a sui and left to harden in the sun. This was then mounted on a handle and stuck through the person’s skin by a surreptitious slap to the cheek.

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Abrus precatorius seeds

Despite this toxic plant being widespread, there have been very few cases of abrin poisoning. The thick indigestible coat of mature seeds meaning that if seeds are swallowed whole, they are unlikely to release much abrin and symptoms are mild. Chewing the seed releases the toxin, and it has been reported that a single well chewed seed could kill. However, a case of a patient attempting suicide through ingesting 10 crushed A. precatorius seeds survived after swallowing activated charcoal. Except when used or taken deliberately, it is surprisingly difficult for humans to be poisoned by A. precatorius, so for most this plant poses more of a threat to your garden as an invasive than your health.

An obvious question is why these seeds contain such a deadly toxin. I have been unable to find any research on this. But it may be that the thick seed coat means the toxin isn’t a defence against herbivores ingesting the seeds at all. As it has been reported that the seed is dispersed by birds who would not chew the seed and would instead disperse them in faeces, it is possible it is a defence against mammals chewing the seeds.

A. precatorius has not always been seen as a deadly beauty, and has been used a traditional medicine. Extracts of the seeds have been used in the Pothohar region of Pakistan as a purgative and an aphrodisiac and in rural Bangladesh to treat erectile dysfunction. The symptoms of poisoning by abrin suggests very low doses could work as a purgative, there is a high risk of administering a lethally high dose.

A. precatorius‘ entire biochemical system makes it toxic, so single chemical plucked out of this network can have very different properties from the plant as a whole. In contrast its traditional uses, experiments have been done which show that abrin injected into laboratory mice damages the DNA and reduces production of sperm cells, though the long time period needed for DNA repair to occur means it is unlikely to be used in commercial birth control.

Abrus precatorius demonstrates the multi-faceted nature of plants: at once a beauty and a (potential) killer; a toxin and used as a medicine.

We hope you have enjoyed our first installment of The Poison Chronicles.  You can find more information following the link below

Poison Garden – Abrus precatorius 

What wondrously poisonous plant would like to find out about next? Leave your comments below.

A Travelling Botanist: Botanical Rainbow

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Guest blog by: Sophie Mogg

With the latest installment looking at the cotton industry, I thought that it might be interesting to follow up with a few snippets about natural dyes derived from plants. In today’s blog post I will be taking a closer look at turmeric (Curcuma longa), true indigo (Indigo tinctoria) and madder root or dyer’s madder (Rubia tinctorum). 

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Curcuma longa ground powder and rhizomes

Turmeric belongs to the Zingiberaceae family which also includes cardammon and ginger. It is a herbaceous perennial that produces underground modified stems known as rhizomes which acts as a store for starch, proteins and other valuable nutrients. Rhizomes are useful in other ways as new plants can be propagated from the rhizomes that are harvested each year.  The rhizomes themselves would be boiled for up to 45 minutes before being dried in a hot oven and ground to form a powder which can be used as a beautiful yellow dye. Unfortunately turmeric is not colour-fast and so was often over-coloured with mustard or various pickles to help compensate for this. Medicinally turmeric has reported uses in Ayurvedic practices for treating colds and infections as well as the Siddha medicinal practice where it is used as an energy centre due to representing the solar plexus chakra. Several studies have shown that turmeric also has antibacterial and antifungal properties with studies suggesting that turmeric could be used as a preservative in the food industry. Turmeric is also used in cooking for savoury dishes as well as the predecessor of litmus paper to test pH.

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Indigo tinctoria ground powder

The native location of Indigo tinctoria is unknown as it has been cultivated for centuries across Asia and Africa. Indigo is a shrub reaching approximately 2M tall that produces flowers in various shades of pink and violet. Depending upon the climate Indigo is grown in it can be an annual, biannual or perennial. The deep blue dye that is produced from this species is obtained through soaking and fermenting the leaves which allows conversion of glycoside idican into indigotin (the blue dye). The dye has also been used within paintings dating back to the Middle ages.  Indigo tinctoria is part of the bean family (Fabaceae) and so is also used within crop rotation by farmers in order to improve soil quality for subsequent crops.

 

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Rubia tinctorum root

The madder root produces various different coloured dyes ranging from reds, to pinks and oranges depending upon the conditions the plant was grown in and how the roots were subsequently treated.  It belongs to the family of Rubiaceae, the same family as coffee and is a relatively tall perennial plant with evergreen leaves reaching heights of 1.5M. The dye is extracted through the process of fermenting, drying or using various acids to treat the roots, that are commonly harvested during the first year of a plants growth. One of the more commonly known dyes is referred to as madders lake, a dark red produced by purpurin being mixed with alkaline solutions. These dyes can be used to colour leather, wool, cotton and silk but are typically used with a fixative or mordant such as alum to help the dye fix to the material.

Tea can also be used as a dye, with different varieties of tea producing their own unique shades. With any kind of dye the colour will fade with time but it can be stabilised by using vinegar.  As previously mentioned in my other posts both saffron and henna are used as dyes also.

Have your say in which species appear in future installments of the travelling botanist. Our journey will soon take us to South-East Asia where we explore some more intriguing plants.

 

You can find more information here:

Turmeric

Indigo

Madder root

 

Something Fishy

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An update from Luke about the glowing aquaponics systems on the Museum’s third floor.

Stories from the Museum Floor

Today’s post is by Luke Gleadall. Luke works with both the Visitor Team and Learning and Engagement, and he is also the project lead on Aquaponics at Manchester Museum. Here is a look at some of the work he has been doing over the last 12 months.

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Something Fishy

We have just past the one year mark of the opening of The Study at Manchester Museum – which was also the same time we installed our aquaponic system. It was a great year working with experts and taking part in lots of training, including a week in Wales at Humble by Nature on a weeklong aquaponic course.

If 20161103_145753you have visited the museum you may have seen the pink glow of the greenhouse on the 3rd floor that was home to our Mint and Carp. The water containing waste (poop) from the carp is pumped through the white towers…

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A Travelling Botanist: The worlds most used fibre!

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Guest blog series by: Sophie Mogg

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Gossypium aboreum flower

Cotton, we’ve all seen it, heard of it and probably worn clothes made from it too. In today’s installment we’ll be taking a look at Gossypium arboreum, the species of cotton native to India and Pakistan. This particular species was supplied as a single specimen by Carl Linnaeus for his herbarium and was recorded within his own book,  Species Plantarum 1753.

Cotton has been cultivated in South Asia from around 3300 BCE. It is a perennial shrub, reaching approximately 2M tall and grown more like an annual due to being harvested every year. The leaves of the cotton plant are lobed, typically having 3-5 lobes and bearing a close resemblance to maple leaves.  The seeds are contained within the boll, a small capsule and individual seeds are surrounded by two types of fibres known as staples and linsters. The former is produced into high quality textiles where as the latter produces lower quality textiles. Whilst Gossypium arboreum and its sister plant, Gossypium herbaceum (Africa) only form 2% of the world production of cotton, new varieties of these species are being bread for more desirable traits. One such variety is Gossypium arboreum var. neglecta grown along the Meghna river. This variety, known as “Phuti karpas” is used to make Muslin in Bangladesh as the cotton fibres  can be spun to produce threads are more resistant to breaking at higher counts.

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Specimens of cotton at different stages of processing. Gossypium herbaceum (Africa) bolls.

The fibres can be separated from the seeds either manually or by use of a machine known as the cotton gin. There are two types of cotton gins, the saw gin for the shorter fibres and roller gin for the longer fibres. The roller gin was invented in India and is used to prevent damage to the longer fibres. Once fibres are separated from the seed they are compressed  into lint bales and graded. Carding is the next step, where fibres are pulled so that align parallel to one another and eventually form a sliver which is a rope-like strand of cotton. The slivers are combed to remove impurities before being drawn out into thin strands (roving). The final processing step of cotton is the spinning, where the roving is drawn out and twisted for form yarns and threads for weaving to produce textiles.

Towards the end of the 18th century Manchester had begun to build steam powered mills in order to work with cotton and by 1871 was using approximately 30% of the cotton produced globally. Over 100 cotton mills were built during this time and the industry was supported by The Exchange where over 10,000 cotton merchants would meet in order to sell their wares. The start of the cotton industry across Britain coincided with the Calico act of 1721 being repealed allowing British companies to use cotton in order to make calico, a cheaper and less refined cotton textile, into clothing. Cotton textiles soon became one of the main exports of Britain and is still one of the worlds most used fibres today.

If you are interested in finding out more about plants from Asia over the next few weeks please fill out the poll below.

 

If you would like to learn more about cotton and the cotton industry follow the links below:

Cotton Industry

Cotton Processing

Gossypium arboreum

Uses of Cotton Seed

I’ll soon be travelling to other parts of Asia so I hope you continue to join me. Look for future blogs exploring dyes, medicines and potentially poisons. As always, don’t forget to leave a comment about what you’d like to see from our collection.

A Travelling Botanist: The Miracle Tree

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Guest blog series by: Sophie Mogg

In this installment of A Travelling Botanist I will be focusing on Moringa oleifera, commonly referred to as the miracle tree.

Moringa oleifera is native to South Asia however due to the multitude of useful products it can provide its distribution has increased in more recent years and now covers the majority of Asia, Africa and Europe. M. oleifera is a hardy tree, requiring little in the way of compost or manure and being drought resistant it is well suited to the environment of developing countries. M. oleifera reaches heights of up to 3M within the first 10 months and initial harvests of leaves are able to occur between 6-8months, with subsequent yields improving as the tree reaches maturity at around 12M tall.

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Moringa oleifera specimens. Seeds, bark and pods.

Many parts of the Moringa tree are utilised in South Asian cooking. The young seed pods, more often referred to as drumsticks, are used in a variety of dishes such as curries, sambars, kormas and dals. The drumsticks can also be incorporated into soups such as the Burmese Dunt-dalun chin-yei. This is true also for the fruit of the drumsticks, the white seeds can either be cooked as you would green peas or incorporated into a variety of soups.  Flowers can also be used, generally being boiled or fried and incorporated into a variety of friend snacks such as pakoras and fritters or alternatively used in tea.

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Moringa oleifera herbarium sheet

The leaves of the Moringa tree  are considered to be very nutritional, with the suggestion that a teaspoon of leaf powder being incorporated into a meal three times a day could aid in reducing malnutrition. The leaves can be prepared in a variety of ways, from being ground into a find powder or deep-friend for use in sambals. They can also be made into a soup with the addition of rice, a popular breakfast during Ramadan.  The leaves of the Moringa also contain antiseptic properties with a recent study suggesting that 4g of leaf powder can be as good as modern day non-medicated soap. This provides some means of sanitation to people who would otherwise not be able to properly clean their hands.

The seeds of a single Moringa tree can be used to provide clean water for up to 6 people for an entire year. With their outer casing removed, the seeds can be ground to form what is known as a seed cake that can be used to filter water thereby removing between 90-99% of the bacteria present. This works on the basis of attraction whereby positively charged seeds attract negatively charged bacteria and viruses causing them to coagulate and form particles known as floc. This floc then falls to the bottom of the container leaving clean water above it. It is estimated that only 1-2 seeds are required for every litre of water.

Oil is a by-product of making the seed cakes, comprising of around 40% of the seed. This oil, often known as “ben oil” by watchmakers, can serve a variety of purposes due to its properties. Due to being light, it is ideal for use in machinery and produces no smoke when lit making it ideal for oil-based lamps.  The oil also contains natural skin and hair purifiers and is becoming more popular with well known cosmetic companies such as The Body Shop and LUSH thereby providing revenue to the farmers who grow the miracle tree. It also bears similarities to olive oil making it ideal for cooking and therefore another avenue for marketing this multipurpose oil.

Moringa oleifera and its close relatives are also known for their medicinal properties, containing 46 antioxidants which aid in preventing damage to cells. Due to containing benzyl isothiocyanate it has been suggested that Moringa may also contain chemo-protective properties.

I know that you may think I have completely forgotten the bark of the tree. But no, that too has its use. The tree bark is beaten into long fibres ideal for making strong rope.

I hope you have enjoyed reading about the Miracle tree as much as I have, if you wish to seek more information just follow the links below.

Medicinal uses

Trees for Life International

 

As always comment below with your favourite plant and if it’s in our collection and found within South Asia or Europe, I’ll be happy to feature it!