Captivated by Natural Beauty

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They may be of flower-visitors rather than the flowers themselves, but these butterfly paintings by Robin Gregson-Brown are definitely worth sharing! I look forward to the next set of works which include the botanical scenery for his moths and butterflies.


About 30-40% of the visitors to the Manchester Museum’s Entomology Department are art or design students and professionals, who come over to get inspired by the variety of insect shapes, colours and patterns, and to talk to the museum curatorial staff about what interests them. Museum’s curators are especially pleased when such visits result in […]

via Captivated by natural beauty: Robin Gregson-Brown and Lepidoptera — Entomology Manchester

Alien Plant Invasions and the Extinction Trajectory

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This is a really interesting post on the Awkward Botany blog about alien species and the possibility of plant extinction.
In our current ‘Extinction or Survival?’ exhibition we have illustrated this potential threat to species using the stories of the red squirrel and the white-clawed crayfish in the UK, but of course competition with invasive species is a potential risk for plants too.

awkward botany

One of the concerns about introduced species becoming invasive is that they threaten to reduce the biodiversity of the ecosystems they have invaded. They do this by spreading rampantly, using up resources and space, altering ecosystem functions, and ultimately pushing other species out. In the case of certain invasive animals, species may be eliminated via predation; but plants don’t eat each other (generally), so if one plant species is to snuff out another plant species it must use other means. Presently, we have no evidence that a native plant species has been rendered extinct solely as a result of an invasive plant species. That does not mean, however, that invasive plants are not doing harm.

In a paper published in AoB Plants in August 2016, Paul O. Downey and David M. Richardson argue that, when it comes to plants, focusing our attention on extinctions masks the real impact that invasive…

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Baking botanists in the Cala de Bocquer

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Yesterday saw a group of first-year undergraduates braving the baking Mediterranean sun for the first day trip of the Comparative and Adaptive Biology field course. The Bocquer Valley near the town of Pollenca is a great place to look for Mallorcan endemic ‘hedgehog’ plants Teucrium subspinosum and Astragalus balearicus. While the students investigated the distribution of these small spiny shrubs, the staff took the opportunity to do a little more plant hunting.

One beautiful plant we regularly see in flower is the Balearic cyclamen (Cyclamen balearicum). It has very marbled leaves and delicate white flowers and hides in the shade of the larger shrubs. We also find the leaves of the Mallorcan peony (Paeonia cambessedessii). We visit far too late to see it in flower, but we’ve never found fruit either, suggesting that these plants didn’t flower in February or March. Perhaps these are young plants, or perhaps this is an indication of the difficult environment in the valley. This peony is named for the French botanist Jacques Cambessedes (1799-1863) who studied the plants of the Balearic Islands in 1825 and published the account of his travels and his work on the flora in 1826 and 1827.

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One plant we’ve not spotted on our previous visits is the Dead-horse arum  (Helicodiceros muscivorus). Given that it was behind a tree, under a shrub and in the bottom of a drainage channel, it’s not too surprising that we’ve not found it before. This plant has striking arrow-shaped leaves (sagittate leaves) and a flower spike (spadix) enclosed in a sheath known as a spathe. This specimen had not yet opened, and the geometrically patterned spathe was still closed shut. I’m not sure that I was too disappointed as the plant attracts pollinating flies with heat and rotting carcass smells.

Graphene’s high-rise meadow

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Green roof on the roof terrace of the Graphene Institute

Back in June, perhaps some of the Graphene Week 2015 attendees spotted this little patch of wildness on the roof of the National Graphene Institute at the University of Manchester. This green roof was installed as the building was nearing completion in 2014 and is part of the commitment to improving the University’s campus as a habitat for wildlife. The University’s green roof policy can be found here, along with the other University policies about environmental sustainability.

Bee on Birdsfoot trefoil

Ahead of Graphene Week, the Biodiversity Working Group put together some information about pollinators, their requirements and the urban environment in order to have a sign in place for the delegates to read. This roof is particularly designed to attract bees, both wild bees and the honey bees from hives on roofs of the Manchester Museum and Whitworth Art Gallery.

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The roof was created with a ‘sedum and wildflower’ mat made up with 21 different species. The low-growing sedums are now most visible around the sloping edges of the meadow, and taller species seem to dominate towards the middle. However, perhaps that’s not true; the sedums may be just hidden by the taller growing plants.

Maiden pink flower

This summer, the Faculty of Life Sciences has arranged for a student to survey the roof to see how the plants are distributed.  The Biodiversity Working Group will be continuing to monitor the roof’s progress to see how the composition of plants changes from this baseline. Some plants are likely to thrive, some will struggle and other’s will arrive as seeds blow over the roof or fall off people’s clothing.

Ladybird pupa on Sedum reflexum

Say no to the mow!

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For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been watching a patch of ground on my way to work. The soil is thin (I suspect it mainly consists of brick rubble) and consequently the grasses don’t grow very well. Instead it’s been growing a selection of plants with more insect-friendly flowers. Nothing rare or unusual, but a selection of wildflowers which thrive in an urban area and can attract plenty of pollinators.

Last week it was a foot tall, with red and white clover and buttercups already in flower. The buds of the oxeye daisies were getting ready to burst and the birdsfoot trefoil and common knapweed  and were growing vigorously. This week, it’s been mown. I was expecting it to be a riot of colour by the end of the week, but instead it’s a green desert.

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It already had a margin mown around the edge to allow visibility for traffic and a path through the middle to let people cut the corner. It’s near a busy road and no-one uses it as a lawn to sit or play games on. I think it would have been much better left to become a flower meadow over the summer (and the museum bees would certainly have liked it) and mown later in the season. I agree with Plantlife and Springwatch: ‘Say no to the mow’!

Mallorcan orchids

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Ophrys lutea


There’s still time for one final post before it’s time to say goodbye to the Mallorca field course for another year. With two orchid fans on the staff, it’s not surprising that a good few hours each day were spent orchid spotting, but this year we had an up-and-coming orchid specialist amongst the students too. Head over to the FrogBlog to check out Tom’s thoughtful account of his Mallorcan orchid-hunting experiences.


Sunset over the port of Alcudia
Sunset over the port of Alcudia



Palm oil: The Good, the Bad and a History

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by Jemma


Elaeis guineensis is a single-stemmed palm tree in the Arecaceae family that can reach up to 20 metres in height. It is native to West and Southwest Africa and thrives on open, flat land with plenty of water. The palm’s plum-sized palm fruit grow in bunches of around 1,000 and are reddish in colour. The fruit is a drupe, which means it has a fleshy outer layer surrounding a single seed. Both the flesh and seed are rich in oil, which can be extracted. Elaeis guineensis is the primary source of palm oil and is closely related to the American species Elaeis oleifera.

The parts of an Elaeis guineensis plant (African palm oil). Image taken from
The parts of an Elaeis guineensis plant (African palm oil).
Image taken from


In the late 1800s, archaeologists showed that humans have used Elaeis guineensis for the past 5,000 years. They found the plant in a tomb dating from 3,000 BCE in the ancient Egyptian city of Abydos. It is widely believed that Arab traders brought the palm to Egypt from Africa.

Fruit and seeds of Elaeis guineensis oil palm
Fruit and seeds of Elaeis guineensis oil palm

Europeans were introduced the palm sometime during the 16th-17th centuries. They originally traded for palm oil in the ‘palm oil coast’ (the southern coast of Nigeria) before growing the plant in their colonies. One such colony was the British-occupied Malaysia. Elaeis guineensis became established in Malaysian plantations in the early 1900s. For the most part, these plantations were owned and run by the British until the late 1900s when the Malaysian government took control.

Materia Medica jar containing Elaeis guineensis seeds
Materia Medica jar containing Elaeis guineensis seeds

The government set up the Federal Land Development Authority (Felda) in 1956 to operate their plantations. The main aim of Felda was to use the plantations as a means of eradicating poverty in the area. Those wishing to be involved were given 10 acres of land in which to plant oil palms or rubber plants and 20 years in which to pay off the debt for the land. In the 1960-70s, the Malaysian government expanded the project to include other crops so that they had an economic ‘cushion’ for when the price of rubber fell. Soon the land dedicated to rubber became more palm oil plantations. By the end of the 20th century, Felda had given rise to other organisations, such as the Federal Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority (FELCRA) and the Sarawak Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority (SALCRA). These additional organisations had the same primary aim as Felda; to eliminate poverty through the cultivation of crops. Today Felda is the world’s largest palm oil producer, with around 900,000 hectares dedicated to growing the palm.



Palm oil can be extracted either from the flesh of the fruit or from the seed. As mentioned previously, some of the earliest findings of Elaeis guineensis were in Egyptian tombs. The vast quantities of oil found have suggested that they used it for culinary rather than cosmetic purposes. The unrefined oil is still a common cooking ingredient in West Africa today, but elsewhere is always refined before use. Palm oil is high in saturated fats, making it solid at room temperature and able to withstand higher temperatures compared to many other cooking oils. For these reasons, as well as a rise in popularity for naturally saturated fats, palm oil has become a cheap and popular substitute for butter. Due to its ability to withstand high temperatures, palm oil is second only to the soybean in its use as vegetable cooking oil. Oil from Elaeis guineensis is often also included in many other foods, such as ice cream, crisps and chocolate.

Materia Medica jars containing palm oil
Materia Medica jars containing palm oil

Although around 90% of palm oil is used in food, its use is not limited to culinary purposes. It is also added to cosmetics, shampoos and soaps. In recent years, palm oil has become a popular biofuel. Traditional African medicine have used Elaeis guineensis as a laxative, to stimulate the production of urine, as a poison antidote, to cure gonorrhoea and to treat skin infection – to name but a few uses. However, it may not be entirely harmless as some studies have linked palm oil with cardiovascular diseases.


Materia Medica jar containing palm oil
Materia Medica jar containing palm oil


Social and environmental concerns

Despite its wide range of uses, there are many social and environmental impacts of cultivating the palm. Growing the plant is a source of income for governments – particularly in Malaysia – as well as a major provider of employment. However, there have been many unfavourable social effects of this. Many palm oil plantations have appropriated lands for cultivation without consulting or compensating the local residents. In some cases, the plantations do not even employ the locals but rather import labour or illegal immigrants.

Elaeis guineensis in palm oil plantation. Image taken from
Elaeis guineensis in palm oil plantation.
Image taken from

Along with the social concerns that accompany the plantations, there are also substantial environmental impacts. Cultivation of the plants has caused irreversible damage, including deforestation, habitat loss and increased greenhouse gas emissions. Large areas of tropical rainforests have been cleared for plantations and the resulting biodiversity loss could result in the extinction of species of potential medicinal importance. In some areas where enforcement of environmental legislations is lax, plantations have had little regulation to stop tem encroaching into protected areas and releasing pollutants into the environment.


Other states have implemented environmentally-friendly practices to try to limit the damage. These have included the use of waste products as sources of ‘renewable’ methane production to generate electricity. However, palm oil plantations are still environmentally damaging as many rainforest are above peat bog that store vast amounts of carbon. The deforestation and bog draining involved in setting up the plantations releases this carbon into the atmosphere, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. Many environmental groups have pointed out that the environmental impacts of running plantations are far more damaging to the climate than the benefits gained by the biofuel produced.