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 https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/0f90/3c30f74c3fc07e34bbeb10a3db5b3668e6a0.pdf

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 Day 23: Rosemary, love and controversy – By Alastair Culham

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By Alastair Culham Rosemary makes a tasty addition to many savoury dishes. My favourite is a rub of salt and crushed fresh rosemary leaves put on potatoes before roasting but it’s also lovely with lamb and even with citrus based desserts. Rosemary was probably introduced to the U.K. in Roman times and it is reported…

via #AdventBotany Day 23: Rosemary, love and controversy — Culham Research Group

#AdventBotany Day 22: Put a cork in it. By Ali Ayres

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By Ali Ayres Wine corks. Composite (upper), cut (lower) (Photo A. Culham) It’s decided, 2017 is the year I finally contribute to this fine festive botanical blogging tradition. But what should I write about? Holly? Ivy? All the usual suspects have already been covered –and excellently to boot. Maybe a glass of wine would help…

via #AdventBotany Day 22: Put a cork in it — Culham Research Group

#AdventBotany Day 21: The qulliq brings light and heat to Canada’s Inuit Nunangat in the dark winter — By Dawn Bazely

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By Dawn Bazely Christmas day at the North Pole is dark. In Inuit Nunangat, the Inuit homelands of Canada, the Arctic Circle (66.6 degrees), marks the latitude where the noon sun is just visible on December 21st, the northern winter solstice. The sun rises above the horizon for about 2 hours. On Christmas day in…

via #AdventBotany Day 21: The qulliq brings light and heat to Canada’s Inuit Nunangat in the dark winter — Culham Research Group

#AdventBotany Day 20: Holly By Patricia Francis

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By Patricia Francis Christmas gift tags from Gallery Oldham collection. The Winter Solstice has been celebrated in many cultures for thousands of years. In our northern latitudes evergreens show how life continues even in the depths of winter. In pre-Christian times evergreen boughs were hung in winter to encourage the return of the sun gods.…

via #AdventBotany Day 20: Holly — Culham Research Group

#AdventBotany Day 19: Christmas Kalanchoe – Kalanchoe blossfeldiana — Culham Research Group

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By Will Simpson by Wildfeuer (own work) [GDFL + CC BY 2.5] via wikimedia commonsThe genus Kalanchoe (the preferred pronunciation is kal-un-KOH-ee(1)) belongs to the Crassulaceae family. Like other members of this family, such as Aeonium, Crassula, Echeveria and Sedum, Kalanchoes tend to be succulent evergreen perennials, come from arid environments and make popular houseplants.…

via #AdventBotany Day 19: Christmas Kalanchoe – Kalanchoe blossfeldiana — Culham Research Group

#AdventBotany Day 18: Cyclamen persicum: a Christmas misnomer? By Karen Andrews

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By Karen Andrews Photo by Karen Andrews They say that you should never judge a book by its cover. Walter C. Blasdale’s ‘Cyclamen persicum: Its Natural and Cultivated Forms’ is an unassuming, concise volume that normally sits in the restricted access section of the University of Reading Library. In an age of print or e-books…

via #AdventBotany Day 18: Cyclamen persicum: a Christmas misnomer? — Culham Research Group

#AdventBotany Day 17: A tough nut to crack! — by Alastair Culham

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By Alastair Culham A single tree of the brazil nut Filling your lap with the sharp fragments of nut shells as you work through a bowl of shell-on nuts is one of the pleasures of Christmas. Less fun is later treading on the sharp fragments that have pinged across the room unnoticed. The, sometimes, superhuman…

via #AdventBotany Day 17: A tough nut to crack! — Culham Research Group

#AdventBotany Day 16: Cardamom: The Queen of Spices By Maria Christodoulou & Kalman Konyves

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By Maria Christodoulou & Kalman Konyves With Christmas approaching quickly, many of you are braving the cold and crowds to complete your Christmas shopping. If you do have time for a break you may enjoy one of the most popular lattes on the high street, a Chai latte. Before we go off at a tangent…

via #AdventBotany Day 16: Cardamom: The Queen of Spices — Culham Research Group

#AdventBotany Day 15: A holiday pineapple for the table by Katherine Preston and Jeanne Osnas (The Botanist in the Kitchen)

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By Katherine Preston and Jeanne Osnas (The Botanist in the Kitchen) This deep dive into pineapple anatomy is our contribution this year to the very fun Advent Botany essay collection, a celebration of plants that are at least somewhat tangentially connected to the winter holidays. In previous years we’ve contributed essays on figs, peppermint, and…

via #AdventBotany Day 15: A holiday pineapple for the table — Culham Research Group

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A holiday pineapple for the table