Month: December 2018

#AdventBotany 2018, Day 20: Once upon a time: A tale of fairies from the RHS herbarium — Culham Research Group

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By Yvette Harvey I am still pondering why a pagan spirit of the dead, or, more recently a demoted angel, should play such a big part in Christmas – for Christmas certainly wouldn’t be the same without a fairy at the top of the tree or strings of fairy lights illuminating more than you thought…

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Advent Botany 2018: A botanical pick-me up for the bleak midwinter

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With five previous years of Advent Botany I was surprised that none of us have so far covered coffee. OK, it’s not a Christmassy spice, or a festive decoration, but by this time in the year I’m sure I’m not the only one feeling more than my usual need for this botanical pick-me-up. As we approach the shortest day of the year a good cup (or several) of coffee is pretty much all that’s keeping me from attempting to hibernate.

New crop Costa Rica coffee. Imported last week. Sold in London sale yesterday. Undated. #CuratorialCrimes

Not only that, but as this snippet from the magazine ‘The Hospital’ from January 1889 suggests, there is also coffee’s reputation for counteracting the effects of alcohol. Although, rather than allowing people to deal with the morning after the night before, this article also seems to suggest that if people can get their hands on good coffee, then they won’t bother drinking the alcohol in the first place.

Cutting in the Leo Grindon herbarium – Everybody’s Page, The Hospital, January 19th, 1889

Caffeine is found in several other plants such as tea and kola, but it is coffee that has earnt the reputation as the go-to drink for keeping us alert. In nature, caffeine has a protective function, deterring insect grazing through its bitter taste and toxic properties. It is found in all parts of the coffee plant, including the leaves, and in high concentrations in very young seedlings, but of course it is the roasted beans that we prepare for the drink. Coffee ‘beans’ are seeds which come in pairs in small fruits which turn red as they ripen. Known as cherries, the fruits are described botanically as called drupes. These are thin skinned fleshy berries with a hardcoated seed inside (much like an actual cherry, olives or dates) but coffee is a little uncommon for having two seeds rather than the more usual single seed.

Coffea arabica illustration in the Leo Grindon collection. Handcoloured lithograph by Hanhart after a botanical illustration by David Blair from Robert Bentley and Henry Trimen’s Medicinal Plants, London, 1880

Coffee is in the Rubiaceae, a diverse family including herbaceous plants such as the dye plant madder (Rubia tinctorial) and the quinine-producing Cinchona trees used for flavouring tonic water. The genus Coffea contains over 120 species of shrubs and small trees with opposite pairs of glossy dark green leaves and jasmine-scented flowers. Despite this, there are few species which are used commercially. Coffea arabica and C. canephora account for almost all the world’s coffee production with C. liberica coming a very distant third.

Lantern slide of Liberian coffee from the Manchester Geographical Society collections

C. arabica originates in Ethiopia and was the first coffee to be cultivated. Now it is considered the gold-standard of coffee, less bitter and less acidic than other species. It is the most widely grown, accounting for the majority of worldwide coffee production and Brazil is the biggest single exporter. However, C. canephora (known as robusta) is easier to grow and higher yielding. Vietnam is the world’s largest producer of robusta, after the French smuggled the plant in to the country in the 19th century. The beans contain twice as much caffeine as arabica and produce a more bitter, earthier-tasting coffee.  Robusta is particularly used for the production of instant coffees, and is also added into coffee blends (such as Italian expresso) as it is said to produce a better crema on top.

Promotional display box produced by Nestle containing coffee beans from different countries.


Well, looking out all these objects from the herbarium has given me a bit of a thirst, so I think it’s probably high time I stopped for a coffee break and sampled the blends at our new Museum cafe (perhaps with a little mince pie on the side). Anyone ready to join me?

ManCoCo coffees at Manchester Museum

#AdventBotany 2018, Day 19: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; a spot of medieval Advent Botany — Culham Research Group

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By Alex Mills So, it’s Christmas time. You’re having a bit of food with your friends and family. Well, a lot of food. It’s Christmas, isn’t it? It’s all very convivial and jolly and all that. Suddenly, there’s a commotion at the door. A big chap has come in. He’s on a horse. He’s a…

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#AdventBotany 2018, Day 18: Advent VLOG — Culham Research Group

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By Dawn Bazely Dawn is one of our long-standing contributors and has contributed: poinsettias, cranberries, red-osier dogwood, amaryllis, white cedar, balsam fir, paperwhites, ivy, candy cane chrysanthemums, and less traditional plant species associated with the British festive season, such as arctic cotton grass and willow, and gourds. This year, to celebrate the 5th Anniversary of…

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#AdventBotany 2018 Day 17: The Chestnut Song — Culham Research Group

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By Katherine Preston Today’s blog is the second by a Botanist in the Kitchen, this time Katherine. It is a revisit of the sweet chestnut, last featured in 2015 when we heard about the devastating chestnut blight. In today’s blog we hear tell of the rather grown up flavour of the chestnut and a need…

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#AdventBotany 2018, Day 16: The snowiest of white — Culham Research Group

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By Tomos Jones Dreaming of a white Christmas? Well, the plant for today’s blog is Symphoricarpos albus, the Snowberry. It’s a member of the Caprifoliaceae or Honeysuckle family, native to North America. It was originally described in Linnaeus’ Species Plantarum in 1753 as Vaccinium album L. (Ericaceae). Since 1914 it has been referred to as…

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#AdventBotany 2018, Day 15: Angelica: Holiday fruitcake from a sometimes toxic family — Culham Research Group

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By Jeanne D. Osnas Candied Angelica That tendency for a deliciously aromatic and edible plant species to be closely related to an insanely toxic thing is a recursive tendency for the entire charismatic plant family to which angelica owes its existence: the Apiaceae. With 3780 species in 434 genera (according to the Missouri Botanical Garden’s…

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