Month: December 2016

Advent Botany 2016 – Day 25: Erica x darleyensis — Culham Research Group

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It seems only right to devote the Christmas Day blog for Advent Botany to a plant that has brightened my winter garden for many years, Erica x darleyensis. This hybrid heath was first reported from a nursery in Darley Dale, Derbyshire in the late 1800s. It is a hybrid between the smaller winter heath, Erica…

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Advent Botany 2016 – Day 24: Professor Vernon Heywood — Culham Research Group

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By DrM Vernon and Christine Heywood (photo: Stephen Jury) Dr M introduced to #adventbotany this year, #adventbotanists, botanists whose birthdays fall within advent. The first featured Erasmus Darwin a great botanical mind from a bygone age. Dr M’s second #adventbotanist features Vernon Heywood, born on 24th December 1927, widely recognised as a world authority on…

via Advent Botany 2016 – Day 24: Professor Vernon Heywood — Culham Research Group

#Advent Botany Day 23: Vanilla – nothing plain about this flavour!

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I’m not one for cream on my Christmas pudding, it just has to be custard or ice cream and so what I’m really admitting to is a love for vanilla. Vanilla is the quietest spice at Christmas but there is so much more to vanilla than merely two scoops of icecream.

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Natural vanilla is the fruit and seeds from a tropical, climbing orchid. There are other edible orchids (e.g. Dendrobium flowers and salep tubers), but it is certainly the most commonly used in food preparation.  Some orchids are harvested from the wild to eat (such as Orchis mascula and O. militaris for salep), but given the demand, luckily this isn’t true for vanilla. There are over 100 orchid species in the Vanilla genus, but the most commonly cultivated species is Vanilla planifolia (more commonly known as Madagascan or Bourbon vanilla).

V. planifolia is native to Central and South America, and was first domesticated by the Totonac people of east Mexico, who used it exclusively until Aztec conquerors demanded vanilla as a tribute. The Spanish conquistador Cortez brought vanilla to Europe, where initially it was only mixed with cocoa and drunk, but later was used in other deserts. Vanilla was very expensive during the 16th to 19th century, as Mexico had a monopoly on this luxurious spice. The reason for this was discovered by the French botanist Charles Morren who in 1836 observed Melipona bees pollinating the flowers, which have a range limited to Mexico. Therefore, the only way to cultivate vanilla elsewhere is by hand pollination. Morren experimented with hand pollination methods but the method still used today was devised by Edmond Albius, aged 12, in 1841. A twig or blade of grass is used to lift the rostellum, separating the stigma and anthers, and the thumb is used to transfer pollen to the stigma. The process is further complicated by each infloresence only lasting for 24 hours.

Vanilla is labour intensive to produce, so natural vanilla is still the second most expensive spice (after saffron). Albius’ method allowed vanilla to be grown in what is now Madagascar, Reunion and the Comoros Islands, which today account for 80% of the world’s vanilla pod production. You can find more about vanilla from the National Geographic website and an interesting site dedicated to vanilla.

For centuries vanilla has been used to flavour our foods, drinks and even pharmaceuticals but the main extract from the vanilla pod, vanillin, wasn’t isolated until 1858. Nicolas- Theordore Gobley obtained it by completely evaporating the vanilla extract and then recrystallizing it from hot water in order to separate it out from all of the several hundred other components found in the extract. Since the 1870’s companies have competed to produce synthetic vanillin from clove oil, lignin, guaiacol and glyoxylic acid. More recently, Rhodia has marketed a “natural” vanillin which is prepared using microorganisms. You can find out more about the structure of vanillin here.

Around 2% of the dry weight of the cured pods of Vanilla planifolia is vanillin. When the seed pods are first harvested, they are green and lack the vanilla flavour and aroma. Curing of the vanilla pods consists of just four steps. “Killing” often entails the pods being frozen or blanched in hot water to initiate reactions which develop the aroma. Sweating involves stacking pods within layers of wool for 7-10 days in a very hot (45–65 °C) and humid environment. Drying occurs to reduce the remaining moisture content to around 25%  in order to prevent rotting. Conditioning is the final step where the pods are left in the box for several months before being graded. It is after this curing process that vanillin develops the aroma and flavour that we have come to know and love.

To get into the Christmas spirit I’ve found some very Christmassy treats for you to make at home yourself:

A tropical Christmas pudding with a vanilla glaze and  beautiful danish cookies (vaniliekager) recipe.


Advent Botany 2016 – Day 22: Crataegus mexicana (Tejocote) — Culham Research Group

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By Megan Lynch A longitudinal cross-section of tejocote fruit Traditions are made by people. We do something at a certain time and then we repeat it when that time rolls around again. There are young traditions and old traditions, but the longer a tradition is around, the more it’s part of the culture and a…

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The Travelling Botanist’s #AdventBotany Day 21: Cornus mas

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Guest blog by: Sophie Mogg


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Seasons greetings from the travelling botanist, I’m taking a break from my travels to bring you a special blog post featuring in the advent botany. Today’s advent features Cornus mas. More commonly known as the cornerlian cherry, it is a medium-large deciduous tree of the dogwood family. Linnaeus referred to this species as both Cornus mas and Cornus mascula, translating to “male” cornel in order to distinguish it from the “female” cornel, Cornus sanguinea.  It is native to South Europe as well as many parts of South Western Asia. It was thought not to be in the UK until 1551 whereby William Turner, a keen natural historian and friend of Conrad Gessner, heard that Hampton Court Palace had one in its gardens.

Cornus mas has a cold-hardiness rating of zone 4-8. The fact that it is so cold-hardy means that it is able to survive at temperatures between -25 to -30°C Celsius and is still able to flower at -20°C. The cold-hardiness has also meant that Cornus mas has been successfully introduced to countries outside of its native range such as Norway, Denmark and Sweden as well as across the UK.

Typically used as an ornamental plant, it is a bright and cheerful tree amongst the cold greys of winter. During autumn the glossy green leaves turn purple and come winter the tree boasts beautifully bright yellow flowers.  The flowers appear around February to March and are typically very small (5-10mm in diameter) however they provide an important food source and a habitat for pollinators and other insects during those winter months. The flowers are replaced by green berries that ripen to a dark, rich red by mid-late summer. The berries swell to around 2cm long and 1.5cm in diameter and are very fleshy, containing just a single seed. The berries have been harvested and eaten for around 7000 years in ancient Greece, however as the small seed sticks to the flesh of the fruit it has been neglected by mass production and processing. Trees of this species are reported to live and still be producing fruit for over 100 years meaning that there are many years of bountiful harvests to be had if you find one near you.

When unripe the berries are often compared to olives however upon ripening they bear a tart flavour similar to that of cherries. Recipes from the 17th century detail pickling the berries in brine or serving them up in small tarts however the berries are also ideal for making into jams, sauces, syrups or even distilled into your own home-made liqueur or wine.  According to Granny, cornelian cherry jams make a great a great alternative to other condiments with your turkey, but also suits cheese and other savoury dishes for this festive season!

I have listed some of the recipes below in case you happen to come across some of the  cornelian cherry for yourself.

Turkish Cornelian cherry marmalade



Advent Botany 2016 – Day 20: Virgin birth and hidden treasures: unwrapping some Christmas figs — Culham Research Group

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By Katherine Preston & Jeanne Osnas Figs reach their peak in summertime, growing fat enough to split their skins under the hot sun. It’s nearly impossible to keep up with a bountiful tree, and many a neglected fig is extravagantly abandoned to the beetles. Beetles gorge on a fig@BitKblog But here we are, halfway around…

via Advent Botany 2016 – Day 19: Virgin birth and hidden treasures: unwrapping some Christmas figs — Culham Research Group

Advent Botany 2016 – Day 19: Christmas Gourds — Culham Research Group

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By Dawn Bazely Prince Albert, the father of the Victorian Christmas Prince Albert, who moved to England from Germany, to marry the young Queen Victoria, led the Victorians in inventing much of today’s Christmas aesthetic that dominates Britain and North America. But, the Nativity is celebrated by diverse cultures throughout the world, and is much…

via Advent Botany 2016 – Day 19: Christmas Gourds — Culham Research Group

Advent Botany 2016 – Day 18: The Madonna Lily — Culham Research Group

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By Robbie Blackhall-Miles Mary and the Lily Not realising the hope they give me, through their winter rosettes of green, the bulbs of the Madonna lily (Lilium candidum) sit snugly in the soil year on year producing an ever-widening clump. Naturalised across Europe, and finding a happy home in the gardens of the UK,…

via Advent Botany 2016 – Day 18: The Madonna Lily — Culham Research Group

Advent Botany 2016 – Day 17: Selaginella — Culham Research Group

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By Hans Olav Nymand Denmark’s position in Europe Denmark is a little land in Scandinavia, Northern Europe, but unlike the other Scandinavian countries, we have neither mountains (highest point 172m) nor vast boreal forests, and despite the relatively northern latitude, the Gulf Streams assure a cool temperate coastal climate with mild winters and cool summers.…

via Advent Botany 2016 – Day 17: Selaginella — Culham Research Group

Advent Botany 2016 – Day 16: Raphia: a string for all seasons — Culham Research Group

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By Yvette Harvey RHS Garden Wisley, Woking, Surrey, GU23 6QB Raffia hat Forget the gorgeous Madagascan bags, the baskets, the hats, the dates, the coconuts, the wine, the patterned mats and shoes, the most important product made from a palm has to be the string that holds the wrapping paper in place for your Christmas…

via Advent Botany 2016 – Day 16: Raphia: a string for all seasons — Culham Research Group