With everyone staying close to home, this year the wildlife spotting for the City Nature Challenge has been really urban. If you have more images taken over the weekend, you can still upload them now into iNaturalist and your sighting will be added into the count. Otherwise, it’s time to try and identify all those finds! Let’s see how many we can push to be research grade records.
I suspect we’ve had far more pavement weeds this year than we did last year. Certainly, last year the top three organisms recorded where blackbirds, harlequin ladybirds and wood pigeons. So far this year, our top three are cuckooflowers, Herb Robert and dandelions. Of course, although the weekend of wildlife spotting is over, we’ve now got time to make sure as many records as possible are properly identified, so that list could change.
Happily, although everyone was limited to gardens and short walks, the weather was much kinder than last year allowing us to really enjoy our local wildlife. There have been plenty of bee and butterfly garden visitors and the occasional bird to watch as well as all the plants. If you have enjoyed a weekend of wildlife recording, check out Greater Manchester’s Local Record’s Centre so that you can continue putting nature on the map. There’s also advice from the Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside on how to improve your garden for wildlife. Click here to apply for a free downloadable booklet from the My Wild City Manchetser project.
The City Nature Challenge weekend has been popular across the country with over 4,000 people taking part and just under 60,000 observations made. If know of a city or region that would want to take part next year, then get in touch with the organisers. The City Nature Challenge was invented and is managed by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and California Academy of Sciences: https://citynaturechallenge.org/
A blog post from Hannah with the help of Rachel Webster, Campbell Price, Irit Narkiss and Emma Horridge At the end of January, a group of staff from across the Museum visited Derby to find out more about how Derby Museums have been working to put people and communities at the heart of their museum. […]
A trip to the Paris herbarium in the Jardin des Plantes, Paris.
I was given a guided tour of the Paris herbarium by Marc Jeanson: 8 million specimens, fully imaged and sorted into APG III order. Citizen science project Les Herbonautes encourages volunteers to catalogue the collection online photos.
Grandes Serres (Greenhouses) contain drought tolerant and tropical plants:
Systematic beds, alpine garden and historic trees
Gallery of Botany:
For several years we have taken the students on the Mallorca field-course to the strand-line along the Bay of Pollensa and the dune system near C’an Picafort. Both of these stretches of beach tend to collect odd, fuzzy balls of Neptune’s grass (Posidonia oceanica). Wave action breaks down the dead leaves and rhizomes of Neptune’s grass creating fibres which then become matted into dense spheres. I’ve written a previous blog post about Neptune’s grass on these shores of Mallorca.
Instead, this year we visited a different part of the coast where the material accumulates in sculpted waves along the beach edge. Previously I’ve seen this from the window of the coast, so it was interesting to experience it first hand. It is very soft, prone to collapsing and makes the shore edge difficult to walk on. There must be something different about the coastline here which makes the formation of the fibre balls less likely. Whether in balls or loose, the dried Neptune’s grass adds organic matter to the sand and helps to stabilise the dunes further up the beach.
This bit of beach was at the Finca de Son Real, an example of a traditional land-holding now managed by the Balearic Government as a nature reserve and archaeological site. There is a museum here which gives an insight into the lives of the rural people of Mallorca. Through displays of objects, room reconstructions, audio and projections, the museum explores the site from and from neolithic times into the 20th century including an explanation of how local farmers would have collected dry Neptune’s grass to use as animal bedding.
Guest blog by: Sophie Mogg
I’m taking a break from my travels to celebrate world soil day. World soil day celebrates the importance of soil in our natural environment and contributes enormously to human well-being through providing a place to grow crops and supporting all walks of life.
In many parts of the world soil is now contaminated with heavy metals and radioactive elements as a by product of mining and various other human activities. This renders the soil unusable and unsuitable for feeding livestock, growing crops and restoring natural habitats. However there are many plants, known as hyperaccumulators, that are able to absorb these heavy metals through their roots, often concentrating them in their leaves. This process is known as phytoremediation. These metals can be retrieved from the plants by burning them, a process known as phytomining. By using natural hyperaccumulators we can reclaim those areas affected by mining and hopefully restore some natural habitats in the process.
Here are some of those wonderful plants from our collection, enjoy!
Guest blog by: Laura Cooper
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.
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
What wondrously poisonous plant would like to find out about next? Leave your comments below.
By Berglind Kristjansdottir
The Herbarium has a lot of specimens collected by Joseph Dalton Hooker (f. 1817, d. 1911). Most of them are from his expedition to India were he collected plants in and around the Himalayas.
Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker and his Exploration of Nepal and Sikkim
Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker was born in Halesworth, Suffolk in 1817. He spent his childhood in Glasgow were he helped his father with his herbarium which nurtured his keen interest in plants. Later in his life he would become one of the key scientists of his age and the most important botanist of the nineteenth century.
Hooker was only 15 years old when he entered the Glasgow University to study medicine. There he met Charles Darwin, who became one of his closest friends, and Captain James Clark Ross. Ross was about to lead a British Association expedition to the Antarctic and Hooker was determined to join. His father helped his 22 year old son to get the position of assistant ship’s doctor and botanist. On 28 September 1839 Hooker sailed out of the Medway and didn’t return until four years later. During the trip he was able to botanize on three continents as the ship visited Madeira, the Cape of Good Hope, Tasmania, New Zealand, Australia, the Falkland Island and the Southern tip of South America. His discoveries led to the foundation for his authority on the geographical distribution of plants, which later would prove vital to Darwin and his theory of evolution.
When Hooker came back to England in 1841 he was determined to make a study of tropical botany to compare to the Antarctic and on 11 November 1847 he left for a two year plant hunting trip to Sikkim on behalf of Kew. He arrived at Darjeeling on 16 April 1848. Hooker wanted to travel to Sikkim’s high mountain passes but to do that he needed permission from the Rajah. It took Hooker almost a year to get Sikkimese authorities to approve his application and on 27 October 1848 he was finally able to set out for Sikkim with his party of fifty-five men. The trip to the passes wasn’t easy. There were no proper roads to follow and they had to travel by foot. As winter approached the conditions deteriorated. The expedition got more and more dangerous and Hooker and his party had various complications on the way like imprisonment by the Dewan of Sikkim and lack of supplies and food.
The Himalayan expedition took Hooker three years and made him the first European to collect plants in the Himalaya. He collected a lot of important and special plants while he was there but the discovery and introduction into English gardens of the numerous and gorgeous Sikkim Rhododendron was certainly one of his greatest achievements. Out of forty-three species he collected thirty who were considered new to botanists, and most of the others were yet unknown to them.
Rhododendrons of the Sikkim-Himalaya
In May 1848 Hooker first experienced the excitement of discovering a new rhododendron. He found the ivory-white-flowered Rhododendron grande (R. argenteum) at the top of Mt Sinchul south east of Darjeeling. In his book Himalayan Journals Hooker described this plant as a:
“…tree forty feet high, with magnificent leaves twelve to fifteen inches long, deep green, wrinkled above and silvery below, while the flowers are as large as those of R. Dalhousie and grow more in a cluster. I know nothing of the kind that exceeds in beauty the flowering branch of R. argenteum, with its wide spreading foliage and glorious mass of flowers” (Hooker, 2016).
Later in May when he was in Mt Tonglo he found Rhododendron falconeri which has reddish bark and beautiful bell-shaped yellow flowers. Hooker described it as:
“…in point of foliage the most superb of all the Himalayan species, with trunks thirty feet high, and branches bearing at their ends only leaves eighteen inches long: these are deep green above, and covered beneath with a rich brown down” (Hooker, 2016).
In the Yangma valley at the Yangma Pass (16,168ft) he found the graceful Rhododendron campylocarpum. In the book Rhododendrons of the Sikkim-Himalaya (1849-1851) Hooker described the plant as:
“A small bush, averaging six feet in height, rounded in form, of a bright cheerful green hue, and which, when loaded with its inflorescence of surpassing delicacy and grace, claims precedence over its more gaudy congeners, and has always been regarded by me as the most charming of the Sikkim Rhododendrons” (Hooker, 1849).
Rhododendron maddeni is one of the “original” rhododendrons first introduced from the Himalaya by Hooker in the mid-1800s. It was named for Lt.-Col. E. Madden, a member of the Bengal Civil Service. In Rhododendrons of the Sikkim-Himalaya Hooker wrote:
“I do myself the pleasure to name this truly superb plant in compliment to Major Madden of the Bengal Civil Service, a good and accomplished botanist, to whose learned memoirs on the plants of the temperate and tropical zones of North-west Himalaya, the reader may be referred for an excellent account of the vegetation of those regions. The same gentleman’s paper on the Coniferae of the north of India may be quoted as a model of its kind” (Hooker, 1849).
Rhododendron arboreum is an evergreen shrub or small tree with a showy display of bright red flowers. It is found in Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Rhododendron arboreum is the national flower of Nepal and in India it is the state tree of Uttarakhand and state flower of Himachal Pradesh and Nagaland. R. arboreum was first of the Indian Rhododendrons to be discovered. In Rhododendrons of the Sikkim-Himalaya it says:
“Towards the very close of the 18th century, namely in 1700, R. arboreum, the first of a new form and aspect of the genus, and peculiar to the lofty mountains of India Proper, was discovered by Captain Hardwicke, in the Sewalic chain of the Himalaya, while he was on a tour to Sireenagur. The species has since been found to have a very extended range” (Hooker, 1849).
Desmond, R. (1990). Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker Traveller and Plant Collector. Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Antique Collectors’ Club.
Hooker, J. D. (1849). Rhododendrons of the Sikkim-Himalaya. London: Reeve, Benham, and Reeve.
Hooker, J. D. (2016). Himalayan Journals (first published 1854). Oxon: Routledge.
Musgrave, T. Gardner, C & Musgrave, W. (1998). The Plant Hunters. London: Ward Lock.