Materia Medica

Saffron: the world’s most expensive spice (Part 2)

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by Jemma

This two-part blog post has looked at Crocus sativus, also known as saffron. Part 1 focused on the plant’s history in Europe (https://herbologymanchester.wordpress.com/2015/04/27/saffron-the-worlds-most-expensive-spice-part-1/). Part 2 will now focus on its genetics, harvest and uses.

 

Appearance

Saffron is a species of autumn-flowering plant that can grow up to 20-30 cm and produces around 4 flowers. These light- to dark-purple flowers each possess 3 bright crimson stigmas from which the spice saffron is obtained.

Saffron flowers.  Image taken from http://www.herbalencounter.com/2010/12/07/medicinal-spices-saffron-crocus-sativus/
Saffron flowers.
Image taken from http://www.herbalencounter.com/2010/12/07/medicinal-spices-saffron-crocus-sativus/

Genetics

Crocus sativus is a monomorphic clone, which means that almost every saffron plant is identical both physically and genetically. It is unknown in the wild and probably descends from Crocus cartwrightianus (also known as ‘wild saffron’), though Crocus thomasii and Crocus pallasii have also been suggested as saffron precursors. The species sativus probably arose through extensive selective breeding by growers after longer stigmas during Bronze Age Crete.

Crocus cartwrightianus - the plant from which the saffron crocus might be descended  Image taken from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Crocus_cartwrightianus
Crocus cartwrightianus – the plant from which the saffron crocus might be descended
Image taken from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Crocus_cartwrightianus

The saffron crocus is a triploid (possess 3 sets of each chromosome) that is male sterile and incapable of reproduction. Thus, the majority of propagation of Crocus sativus takes place by asexual reproduction.

 

Harvest

As mentioned previously, the plants crimson stigmas are the source of the popular spice. Due to the few produced per plant and the difficulty involved in manually extracting the minute stigmas, the saffron spice is the world’s most expensive spice by weight. Large quantities of flowers are required in order for marketable amount of saffron to be produced. Approximately 75,000 flowers, which give around 225,000 stigmas, are required to obtain a single pound (0.5 kg) of the spice. Each of these stigmas must be collected by hand and then immediately dried to prevent decomposition or mould from damaging them.

 

Medicinal uses

For as long as it has been cultivated by Homo sapiens, the saffron crocus has been used extensively for medicinal purposes. Even the paintwork by the Minoans hinted at the possibility of its use as a drug. Ancient Egyptian healers used Crocus sativus to treat a wide range of gastrointestinal problems; from stomach ache to internal bleeding. They also viewed it as an aphrodisiac, poison antidote and cure for measles. Alexander the Great was noted for having baths with saffron to help heal wounds after a battle. With its medieval revival, the medicinal uses of the crocus increased further. It was used to treat everything from coughs to smallpox, insomnia to heart diseases, and from stomach ache to gout. Saffron was even believed to be able to cure the Black Death.

Materia Medica jar containing saffron.
Materia Medica jar containing saffron.

Today, saffron is still used frequently in both alternative and modern medicine. Crocus sativus is included in the hematoxylin-phloxine-saffron (HPS) stain and Movat’s pentachrome stain, both of which are tissue stains used to make structures more visible under a microscope. This is because saffron stains collagen (most abundant protein and the main structural protein) yellow.

A tissue sample stained with HPS stain. Collagen is dyed yellow whilst muscle and cytoplasm are both pink. Image taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HPS_stain
A tissue sample stained with HPS stain. Collagen is dyed yellow whilst muscle and cytoplasm are both pink. Image taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HPS_stain

Use as a dye

For millennia saffron has been used to colour textiles and other items. It was traditionally reserved for nobles, political elites and important religious figures to emphasise their social standing. Even in small amounts, the sativus stamens produced a bright yellow-orange dye but with increasing amounts of saffron used, a richer shade of red was achieved. This led to these richer shades indicating those who were of particular importance. However, saffron is an unstable colouring agent over long periods of time, resulting in the vibrant colours to fade quickly. Over time there have been numerous attempts to replace saffron with a cheaper dye. Crocin, the main chemical in saffron that imparts the colour, has been discovered in other plants and is now extracted cheaper and easier from species in the Gardenia genus.

 

Culinary uses

Another use for saffron that dates back thousands of years is for cooking. A popular addition worldwide, saffron imparts a bright yellow-orange hue onto dishes and is included in everything from curies and soups to cheeses and baked goods. It is also sometimes added to liquors for flavour and colour. However, due to its high price, saffron is often substituted or combined with other spices in order to reduce the cost. Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius) and turmeric (Curcuma longa) are the most common replacements as they mimic the colour imparted by saffron. Though they can produce a similar colour to the pricey Crocus sativus spice neither safflower nor turmeric can replicate its distinctive taste (which is mainly due to the compound picrocrocin).

Safflower is sometimes used as a cheaper alternative to saffron
Safflower is sometimes used as a cheaper alternative to saffron

Other uses

In addition to the uses mentioned already, saffron was also a popular ingredient in perfumes in ancient Greece and Rome. They also included Crocus sativus in cosmetics, wine and potpourri. It was even considered a worthy offering for the gods. Queen Cleopatra of Egypt added saffron to her bathwater as she considered it an aphrodisiac.

Saffron: The world’s most expensive spice (part 1)

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by Jemma

 

This two-part blog post is going to focus on Crocus sativus, also known as saffron. Part 1 is going to focus on the plant’s history in Europe and part 2 (https://herbologymanchester.wordpress.com/2015/04/27/saffron-the-worlds-most-expensive-spice-part-2/) will focus on its genetics, harvest and uses.

 

Ancient Times

The cultivation and trade of the saffron crocus by humans has persisted for around 4 millennia; spanning cultures, continents and civilisations. The first recorded image of saffron appears in Minoan paintings. Though there is no written record of what they used the crocus for, suggestions have been made (mentioned in part 2) and it is clear that the plant held some significance for them. A powerful earthquake followed by a volcanic eruption resulted in the loss of this early settlement around 1,500 BCE. The Minoan herbal paintings survived over the next few millennia through being entombed by the volcanic ash, which preserved these early frescoes.

Minoan fresco depicting a saffron gatherer.  Image taken from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wall_Paintings_of_Thera
Minoan fresco depicting a saffron gatherer.
Image taken from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wall_Paintings_of_Thera

Saffron again became popular during the time of the ancient Greeks, when early documentation shows that they cultivated and harvested the plant for its spice. During this time, saffron began to be widely traded across the Mediterranean. The plant even had its own origin legend: the story of Crocus and Smilax. Crocus, a handsome young man, falls for the nymph (a female nature deity) Smilax. At first Smilax is flattered but she soon tires of his advances and turns Crocus into a saffron plant; the bright stigmas of the flower representing the glow of the undying and unrequited passion of Crocus. Possibly for this reason, saffron was widely associated with the class of professional courtesans and entertainers called the hetaerae. Though it remained a popular spice and medicine for many centuries, Crocus sativus cultivation in Europe went into decline following the fall of the Roman Empire.

 

It should be noted, however, that Crocus sativus cultivation was not limited to Europe. Whilst its popularity was still spreading, saffron began to be grown further and further from Greece. By the 3rd century AD, it had spread to China and was incorporated into their traditional medicinal practices.

 

Medieval Revival

For several centuries the cultivation of Crocus sativus was, for the most part, none-existent throughout Europe. This changed after the Moorish civilisation spread from North Africa around the 8th century and began reintroducing the spice. Saffron was rare, expensive and in high demand right up until the 14th century, when its use soared due to the medicinal applications of the plant in attempted treatments for the Black Death. However, many of the farmers that grew Crocus sativus had died from the disease and the demand far outstripped the supply. Thus large quantities of non-European saffron began to be heavily imported. The trade of saffron became of such significance that those found guilty of adulterating supplies were fined, imprisoned and even executed.

An image from La Francescina manuscript (1474) showing Black Death victims being treated. Image taken from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Medieval_miniatures_of_plague?uselang=en-gb#/media/File:Plague-st-francis-la-francescina-jacopo-oddi-c1474.jpg
An image from La Francescina manuscript (1474) showing Black Death victims being treated. Image taken from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Medieval_miniatures_of_plague?uselang=en-gb#/media/File:Plague-st-francis-la-francescina-jacopo-oddi-c1474.jpg

The Saffron War

As already mentioned, the Black Death during the 14th century drastically increased the demand for saffron in central and northern Europe to a level that local suppliers could not meet. The only other major producers at the time were Arab sources, who were unwilling to trade due to hostilities over the crusades. This left Greece as Europe’s primary supplier.

 

The sale of saffron quickly made merchants extremely wealthy and powerful, which disturbed the declining aristocracy. In an attempt to regain control, a group of nobles seized a large saffron shipment heading to Basel in Switzerland. The stolen cargo would be worth over £300,000 in today’s market. The theft triggered a 14 week long war, named the ‘Saffron War’ that lasted until the shipment was returned. Though the cargo was returned in this instance, the saffron trade was plagued with thieves for the majority of the 13th century. Pirates would target saffron bound for Europe, often ignoring ships loaded with gold in preference for this profitable spice.

 

Decline and Modern Revival

Trade of Crocus sativus began to dwindle for a second time during the 18th century. There have been a number of causes suggested for this decline, including fungal diseases destroying crops, cold winters and to traders offering steadily lower prices in an attempt to outcompete their rivals. By the middle of the 20th century, the crocus started to become primarily grown for ornamental purposes. The use of saffron as a spice fell out of fashion and the only areas in which it endured were southern France, Italy and Spain.

Materia Medica jar containing saffron.
Materia Medica jar containing saffron.

Since the turn of the millennia in 2000, saffron has been making a comeback. Today, rather than being predominantly grown in Greece and Europe, the majority of C. sativus is now grown in Iran and North America.

Sea squill, sea squill on the sea shore

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by Jemma

Earlier in the month Rachel went on a trip to Mallorca, with a group of 1st year undergraduates from the University of Manchester (for more information see her blog post: https://herbologymanchester.wordpress.com/2015/04/07/surviving-salt-and-waterlogging-on-the-albuferita-mallorca/). During her time there she saw a number of sea squills (Drimia maritima) so I thought I would write a post about this interesting plant.

Sea squill from Albuferita, Mallorca
Sea squill from Boquer Valley, Mallorca

Drimia maritima is a poisonous plant that grows in rocky coastal habitats across southern Europe, western Asia and northern Africa. It grows from a large bulb that can be up to 20 cm wide and a kilogram in weight. In the spring, the bulb produces a rosette of dark green, leathery leaves that can reach up to a metre long. The leaves die away by autumn, when a shoot containing the flowers grows from the bulb. This flower-bearing shoot can achieve a height of up to 2 metres. Pollination of the Drimia maritima flowers occurs by both insects (specifically the western honey bee, the Oriental hornet, and the paper wasp) and wind.

The flowers and bulb of Drimia maritima Image taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drimia_maritima
The flowers and bulb of Drimia maritima
Image taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drimia_maritima
Drimia maritimia flowers Image taken from http://www.xericworld.com/forums/attachment.php?attachmentid=6344&stc=1&thumb=1&d=1341359115
Drimia maritima flowers
Image taken from http://www.xericworld.com/forums/attachment.php?attachmentid=6344&stc=1&thumb=1&d=1341359115

Drimia maritima has been mentioned as far back as the 16th century BCE in the Ebers Papyrus (an ancient Egyptian medicinal text). In the 6th century BCE the Greek philosopher Pythagoras wrote about the uses of squill and, along with Dioscorides (1st century ACE and author of De Materia Medica), recommended hanging the bulb to protect against evil spirits.

Materia Medica jar containing sea squill bulb
Materia Medica jar containing sea squill bulb

One of the earliest medical applications of the sea squill came from the Greek physician Hippocrates (4th century BCE), who advocated its use to treat jaundice (yellowing of the skin), convulsions and asthma. Over the centuries, Drimia maritima was used as a common treatment for dropsy (abnormal accumulation of fluid in tissues) before the more effective foxglove (Digitalis sp.) became the standard treatment during the 18th century.  The plant has also been used in folk medicine as a laxative and to clear mucus build-up.

Materia Medica jar containing sea squill
Materia Medica jar containing sea squill

In addition to its medicinal use, squill has been employed as a poison. All parts of the plant contain toxic chemicals. Once such compound, called Scilliroside, was shown in 1942 to be an effective rodenticide that is avoided by most other animals. In the 20th century, Drimia maritima began to be experimented on to develop highly toxic varieties for use in rat poison. Though not the most common rodenticide, interest in squill’s rat killing abilities has increased dramatically since many rats became resistant to the coumarin-based poisons previously used.

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 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elaeis_guineensis
The parts of an Elaeis guineensis plant (African palm oil).
Image taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elaeis_guineensis

History

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 traders brought the palm to Egypt from elsewhere in 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.

 

Uses

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 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elaeis_guineensis
Elaeis guineensis in palm oil plantation.
Image taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elaeis_guineensis

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.

Specimen of the day – Amyl salicylate

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by Jemma

Amyl salicylate

Materia Medica jar containing Amyl salicylate
Materia Medica jar containing Amyl salicylate

Amyl salicylate is the registered trade name of the chemical pentyl ortho hydroxy benzoate, also known as pentyl salicylate, and has the formula C6H4(OH)COOC5H11. This colourless liquid is frequently used in perfumes for its ability to counteract and/or mask unpleasant smells. Amyl salicylate has often been referred to as having an odour similar to orchids. It has also been included in perfumes to help fix floral fragrances to the skin. In addition to perfumes, the chemical is often included in shampoo, soaps, deodorant, hair sprays and fabric softeners. Amyl salicylate is produced from salicylic acid by an esterification reaction (mentioned in later section).

The chemical structure of the ester amyl salicylate.  Image taken from http://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/Amyl_salicylate#section=Top

The chemical structure of the ester amyl salicylate.
Image taken from http://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/Amyl_salicylate#section=Top

 

Isoamyl salicylate

The term ‘amyl salicylate’ is not solely used for pentyl salicylate as it is sometimes used to refer to its chemical isomer. An isomer is a substance with the same molecular formula that differs in the way that its atoms are arranged. In this case, the molecular formula is still C12H16 O3 but the structural formula is C6H4(OH)COOCH2CH­­2CH(CH)2 (see image below). In fact, the amyl salicylate used commercially is often the isomer form of the compound. The isomer form of amyl salicylate is a clear liquid that is insoluble in water and has an orchid-like scent. The commercial use of the isomer is similar to that of the above substance, as both are used for the same purpose. Though not used particularly for medicinal applications, studies into the two isomers have also suggested that they can reduce pain, fever and inflammation.

The chemical structure of isoamyl salicylate.  Image taken from http://www.chemspider.com/Chemical-Structure.6612.html
The chemical structure of isoamyl salicylate.
Image taken from http://www.chemspider.com/Chemical-Structure.6612.html

 

Salicylic acid and aspirin

Salicylic acid has a chemical formula of C6H4(OH)COOH and is the precursor of both isomers of amyl salicylate. For a long time, this acid was obtained from the bark of the willow tree in the genus Salix. Medicinally useful in its own right, salicylic acid has been used for pain relief, reducing fevers and as an anti-inflammatory. Due to its fungicidal properties, the acid is sometimes included in treatments for fungal skin infections, such as tinea (commonly called ringworm). Salicylic acid is also effective at breaking down keratin. Keratin is one of the key structural materials found in the body, including in the outer layer of human skin, hair and nails. By breaking down keratin, the acid can be used to treat a number of disorders, such as hyperkeratosis (abnormal levels of keratin), dandruff and ichthyosis (dry, thickened, scaly or flaky skin). Salicylic acid and many of its derivatives are used in pharmaceuticals to fight viral infections (like the flu), in dyes, as a flavouring and as a preservative. Unlike its amyl salicylate derivatives, the acid is not a liquid. It is a white, crystalline powder that possesses a sweet taste.

The structure of salicyclic acid.  Image taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salicylic_acid
The structure of salicyclic acid.
Image taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salicylic_acid

As mentioned above, salicylic acid is a precursor for the production of many chemical compounds including amyl salicylate. Two other derivatives of note are aspirin (also known as acetylsalicylic acid) and methyl salicylate, which is used to sooth joint and muscle pain. Aspirin, methyl salicylate and amyl salicylate are all produced through esterification of the precursor acid. Esterification reactions are those in which an –OH (hydroxyl) group is replaced by an –O–R group, where R is any alkyl group. An alkyl is a hydrocarbon consisting only of carbon and hydrogen atoms. The basic equation for this reaction is shown below. In the case of amyl salicylate synthesis, the R group is C5H11.

General esterification reaction for salicylate.  Image adapted from http://www.scielo.cl/scielo.php?pid=S0717-97072009000100009&script=sci_arttext
General esterification reaction for salicylate.
Image adapted from http://www.scielo.cl/scielo.php?pid=S0717-97072009000100009&script=sci_arttext

Though the synthesis of aspirin is also an esterification reaction, it takes place on a different hydroxyl group to amyl salicylate. Aspirin production also involves the R group being donated not from an alcohol, like with amyl salicylate, but from acetic anhydride (two acetic acids already joined by an esterification reaction). The esterification of salicylic acid by acetic anhydride results in two products: aspirin and acetic acid.

Synthesis of aspirin from salicylic acid and acetic anhydride.  Image taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aspirin
Synthesis of aspirin from salicylic acid and acetic anhydride.
Image taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aspirin

Specimen of the day – Tamarind

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by Jemma

Tamarind is a tropical, frost-sensitive, long-lived, busy tree that can reach over 20 metres in height. It is an evergreen tree but Tamarindus indica’s bright green, fern-like leaves can fall off if exposed to prolonged periods of hot, dry weather. The sweet-scented, five-petal flowers are yellow with pink/red streaks and resemble small orchids. The tree produces edible, pod-like fruit that start off green in colour before maturing to reddish-brown. The fruits seeds are surrounded by a sticky sweet pulp that is edible. Tamarind trees will produce fruit for 50-60 years before declining productivity.

Tamarind flower. Image taken from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tamarindus_indica_(Emli)_flowers_W_IMG_9164.jpg
Tamarind flower.
Image taken from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tamarindus_indica_(Emli)_flowers_W_IMG_9164.jpg

The genus Tamarindus, to which this tree belongs, is a monotypic taxon. This means that the genus contains a single species: T. indica.

 

Tamarind has been used by humans as far back as the ancient Greeks in the 4th century BC.

Materia Medica jar containing tamarind
Materia Medica jar containing tamarind

The mature fruit of the tamarind tree has a tangy sweet flavour and is used in cooking. It is particularly associated with Asian and Latin America cuisine. The green immature fruit is also used in cooking but for different purposes as it has a sour taste. The young pod is often used in Worcestershire and HP sauces. Both mature and immature plants contain a number of chemicals that are beneficial to human health, including tartaric acid, Vitamin B and calcium.

Mature tamarind fruit pod. Image taken from http://www.karthikexim.com/Tamarind.aspx
Mature tamarind fruit pod.
Image taken from http://www.karthikexim.com/Tamarind.aspx

As well as its culinary applications, Tamarindus indica has been used in traditional medicines throughout Southeast Asia. It has been used to combat fevers, aid digestive problems and sooth sore throats. In a recent study, it has been suggested that tamarind may delay the progression of skeletal fluorosis by increasing fluoride excretion. Skeletal fluorosis is a bone disease caused by excessive accumulation of fluoride in the bones so, by assisting with the expulsion of this compound, tamarind could slow down the rate at which fluoride accumulated. Though promising, further research is needed to confirm these results.

 

The wood of the tree is a bold red colour and durable, making it a popular choice of wood in carpentry (particularly in for furniture and flooring).

Tamarind tree Image taken from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tamarind_tree.jpg
Tamarind tree
Image taken from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tamarind_tree.jpg

Specimen of the day – Atropa belladonna

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by Jemma

Atropa belladonna, commonly called deadly nightshade, is a herbaceous perennial (which means it lives for over 2 years and its stems die down back to the soil level at the end of the growing season) in the Solanceae family. This flowering plant produces shiny black berries that are extremely toxic. There is also a second version, Atropa belladonna var. lutea, which produces pale-yellow fruit rather than the iconic black berries.

Belladonna flowers and berries. Image adapted from: https://auntiedogmasgardenspot.wordpress.com/tag/belladonna/ and http://naturephotocloseup.eu/main.php?g2_itemId=1948&g2_jsWarning=true
Belladonna flowers and berries. Image adapted from: https://auntiedogmasgardenspot.wordpress.com/tag/belladonna/ and http://naturephotocloseup.eu/main.php?g2_itemId=1948&g2_jsWarning=true

Toxicity

Atropa belladonna is well known for being one of the most toxic plants in the Eastern Hemisphere. All parts of the plant contain toxic tropane alkaloids that target the nervous system, causing increased heart rate and inhibited movement of skeletal muscle. The symptoms of belladonna poisoning are often slow to appear and include dilated pupils, sensitivity to light, tachycardia (increased heart rate), headache, hallucinations and delirium. The symptoms often last for several days, before coma and convulsions occur, followed by death. Belladonna poisoning is caused by disruptions in the regulation of involuntary activities (such as heart rate) due to the tropane alkaloids.

A Brendel model showing the fruit of a belladonna plant.
A Brendel model showing the fruit of a belladonna plant.

History of belladonna

In the middle ages, belladonna was sometimes used to make Dwale, which was an early form of herbal anaesthetic. Other ingredients in this early anaesthetic included bile, hemlock, lettuce, opium and vinegar. In addition to its use as an anaesthetic, belladonna was said to be one of the key ingredients, along with hemlock and wolfsbane, in the witches flying ointment. This magic potion supposedly allowed witches to fly on their brooms.

Materia Medica jar containing belladonna leaves.
Materia Medica jar containing belladonna leaves.

For centuries, small doses of belladonna have been used as a pain reliever, muscle relaxer and anti-inflammatory. Eye drops made from the plant were also used cosmetically as a method for dilating the pupils, which was considered attractive and seductive in women. To combat the toxicity of the plant, morphine from the opium poppy Papaver somniferum was used. The two plants act against each other, and were used to produce the ‘twilight sleep’. This was a dreamlike state that was utilised as a way to deaden pains and consciousness during labour. Queen Victoria famously used the ‘twilight sleep’ during childbirth. However, despite their pain relief, the drugs could affect the nervous system of the baby, resulting in a poor ability to breathe. Belladonna is still used by pharmaceutical industries today as well as in various homeopathic medicines.

Use as a poison

The most famous use for belladonna throughout history was its use as a poison. In ancient Rome, the Emperor Augustus (who defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra) was rumoured to have been poisoned by his wife Livia in 14 AD. This resulted in her son Tiberius from a previous marriage to become the next Emperor. Another Roman Emperor supposedly murdered by belladonna was the Emperor Claudius, who was said to be killed by the poisoner Locusta on the orders of his wife Agrippina the Younger. King Macbeth of Scotland, whilst still one of the lieutenants of King Duncan I, used belladonna during a truce in order to stop the troops of the invading Harold Harefoot, who was king of England. Agatha Christie also featured belladonna in a number of her works, including The Caribbean Mystery and The Big Four.

Herbarium sheet depicting belladonna leaves.
Herbarium sheet depicting belladonna leaves.

Botany in Ancient Egypt – Part 2

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by Jemma

 

Part 1 of this blog post (https://herbologymanchester.wordpress.com/2015/03/17/botany-in-ancient-egypt-part-1/) focused primarily on how the ancient Egyptians acquired their extensive botanical knowledge. This second blog post will now look more closely at some of the plants that they commonly used – some of which you may know!

An Egyptian mummy wrapped in garlands of unidentified plants.
An Egyptian mummy wrapped in garlands of unidentified plants.

 

Papyrus

One of the most well-known plants associated with ancient Egypt is Cyperus papyrus. The most famous use for this plant was to make an early form of paper. However, papyrus was used by the Egyptians for multiple purposes and was not limited solely to the production of paper. Other common uses of papyrus include the production of ropes, mats, baskets, sandals and chairs. The plant was also used to hold together bouquets of flowers and eaten as food. The open head of a papyrus plant was also a hieroglyph called ‘wadj’, meaning ‘green’, or ‘to be renewed’.

An amulet in the form of the ‘wadj’ hieroglyph. On top of the papyrus plant, there is a falcon head, representing the god Horus or the sun-god Ra. Suspension hole at the back, for stringing.
An amulet in the form of the ‘wadj’ hieroglyph. On top of the papyrus plant, there is a falcon head, representing the god Horus or the sun-god Ra. Suspension hole at the back, for stringing.
A fragment of a pottery vase that depicts a papyrus plant.
A fragment of a pottery vase that depicts a papyrus plant.

 

safflower

Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius) is a brightly coloured flowering plant that has heads of yellow, orange or red. From these colourful flowers, different coloured dyes can be extracted. Twelfth dynasty (1991-1803 BC) Egyptian textiles used these dyes to colour fabrics a red, yellow and orange colour. The dyes were sometimes even used on mummy wrappings to give them colour. It wasn’t only the flower’s dye that was used by the ancient Egyptians. Seeds from the flower have been found in temple offerings. Safflower garlands have been found sewn onto both papyrus and cloth wrapped around the mummies. These garlands were found in the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun. Oil derived from safflower seeds was also used for medicinal purposes as a means to treat insect and scorpion bites.

A Materia Medica jar containing safflower
A Materia Medica jar containing safflower
Mummy wrappings. Some wrappings found have been dyed bright colours using safflower.
Mummy wrappings. Some wrappings found have been dyed bright colours using safflower.

 

juniper

Ancient Egyptian tombs often contained baskets of juniper berries (Juniperus communis). Oil from the berries was used for anointing the body during the mummification process. The plant was not only used with the dead as both Egyptian cosmetics and medicine sometimes contained J. communis. Juniper was employed medicinally in the treatment of headaches, asthma, indigestion and aching joints.

A Materia Medica jar containing juniper berries
A Materia Medica jar containing juniper berries
A box found at Kahun (c. 1800 BC) that contains juniper berries
A box found at Kahun (c. 1800 BC) that contains juniper berries (with lid)
A box found at Kahun (c. 1800 BC) that contains juniper berries
A box found at Kahun (c. 1800 BC) that contains juniper berries (without lid)

 

garlic

Allium sativum, commonly called garlic, was used for both culinary and medicinal purposes by the Egyptians. It was used to treat a range of problems, including parasites, respiratory problems, poor digestion, and low energy. Garlic also featured in many dishes and it has been estimated that 1 ½ million lb (680,000 kg) to feed the slaves and workers building the pyramids at Giza. It appears that the ancient Egyptians revered the plant as images and sculptures have been found in many tombs, including that if Pharaoh Tutankhamen.

 

poppy

Believed to have been made by the god Thoth, Papaver somniferum (opium poppy) was used medicinally as an early form of painkiller and in cooking to add flavour to baked goods like bread. (For a more detailed history of the opium poppy check out my blog post https://herbologymanchester.wordpress.com/2015/01/23/powerful-poppies/ ).

Pressed poppy flowers from Europe
Pressed poppy flowers from Europe

 

castor

Ricinus communis (castor oil plant) was used extensively by the Egyptians; being employed as lamp oil, anointing oil and in medicine. The Ebers Papyrus, a medicinal text from ancient Egypt, has a whole section dedicated to the plant and its derivatives (particularly the oil). Castor oil extracted from the seeds was said to cure stomach illnesses, constipation, skin diseases, head-lice and hair restorer. They also believed that the oil was an effective treatment for treating diseases caused by demons.

A Materia Medica jar containing castor beans
A Materia Medica jar containing castor beans

I hope you have enjoyed this post and a huge thank you Campbell Price (the museum’s Curator of Egypt and Sudan) for all your help with this post! Check out Campbell’s Egypt blog at https://egyptmanchester.wordpress.com/ for more fascinating posts about ancient Egypt!

Botany in Ancient Egypt – Part 1

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by Jemma

 

During my research into the Materia Medica collection (plant, animal and mineral based medicines used in from the 1800s) at the Manchester Museum, I have notice a recurring feature; many of the plants had in fact been used by humans for thousands of years and a large portion of these by the ancient Egyptians!

 

Plants featured heavily in Egyptian culture: in food, medicine, religion, perfumes and beyond. Early medicinal texts, such as the Ebers Papyrus from 1550 BCE, provide detailed insight into their extensive herbal knowledge. Unfortunately no complete record has yet to be found, but the fragments that have survived show just how knowledgeable these ancient peoples were when it came to plants and their uses. Many of the applications documented are the same used right up until the introduction of modern medicinal practices. Even today, large portions of herbal remedies used as ‘alternative’ medicines feature plants used for similar purposes as those used by the ancient Egyptians.

A page from the Ebers Papyrus. Image taken from http://www.crystalinks.com/egyptmedicine.html
A page from the Ebers Papyrus. Image taken from http://www.crystalinks.com/egyptmedicine.html

 

Not all of the plants known to and used by the Egyptians were native to their homeland. Their extensive knowledge on the topic can partly be attributed to trade. Caravan and water routes connected Egypt to trade routes around the world, allowing the exchange of tradable items like spices and fabrics. Silk traded from China has been found on Egyptian mummies dating from around 1000 BCE. As well as the benefit of trade, this connection to the rest of the world also made it possible for botanical knowledge to spread to Egypt from distant countries like China and India.

Image depicts the trade network known as the Silk Road (red – caravan routes; blue – water routes). Though the Silk Road was not established until the Chinese Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), trade routes during the time of the ancient Egyptians could have followed similar paths. Image taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silk_Road
Image depicts the trade network known as the Silk Road (red – caravan routes; blue – water routes). Though the Silk Road was not established until the Chinese Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), trade routes during the time of the ancient Egyptians could have followed similar paths. Image taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silk_Road

Another notable factor that played a role in the vast accumulation of plant knowledge was that the Pharaoh’s actively sent out plant exploration parties. These parties, such as those sent by Queen Hatshepsut around 1500 BCE and by Pharaoh Sankhere in 2500 BCE, were sent to discover more plant resources that could be exploited.

 

There is one particular Pharaoh that is worth mentioning in regard to the mass accumulation of botanical knowledge in Egypt: Thutmose III. He was an 18th dynasty Pharaoh who reigned between 1479–1425 BCE (part of which was as co-regent with Queen Hatshepsut). During his rule, Thutmose led numerous military expeditions, from which many foreign plants and animals were brought to Egypt.

 

It was during his reign that the ‘Botanical Garden’ was erected in the temple of Akh-menu at Karnak. This ‘garden’ is a chamber whose walls depict carved representations of the plants and animals collected by Thutmose. Because of its physical isolation from the rest of the temple, the ‘Botanical Garden’ of Akh-menu is a particularly sacred chamber and believed to be the place in which the priests of the god Amun were initiated.

A section of wall at the 'Botanic Gardens' in Karnak
A section of wall at the ‘Botanic Gardens’ in Karnak
Another section of wall at the 'Botanic Gardens' in Karnak
Another section of wall at the ‘Botanic Gardens’ in Karnak

For part 2, click on the following link: https://herbologymanchester.wordpress.com/2015/03/17/botany-in-ancient-egypt-part-2/

A history of cotton

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by Jemma

 

So after my blog on the opium poppy (https://herbologymanchester.wordpress.com/2015/01/23/powerful-poppies/) I have decided to write another; this time on Gossypium barbadense.

Gossypium barbadense seeds from the Materia Medica.
Gossypium barbadense seeds from the Materia Medica.

 

G. barbadense is a small, tropical tree that produces cotton. The cotton fibres grow in a protective capsule, called a boll, around the seeds to increase seed dispersion. These fibres can be collected and spun into yarn or thread, which then have a variety of uses. These include making textiles, coffee filters and fishing nets. Cotton was even used in the 1890s in the manufacture of fire hoses.

A cotton boll encasing Gossypium barbadense seeds.
A cotton boll encasing the plant’s seeds.

Cotton has been used by humans for at least 7,000 years.  Archaelogists have found signs of G. barbadense domestication (based on cotton bolls found) from around 4,400 BC. It is believed that cotton spread throughout India between 2,000-1,000 BC. Following his invasion into India during 327–325 BC, the troops of Alexander the Great began to wear cotton clothes because they were more comfortable than the alternative woollen ones.

 

By the medieval period, cotton had spread to northern Europe and was imported in large quantities. It was extremely popular as it was a cheaper alternative to silk but could easily be imprinted on to make patterned textiles. At first there was a common misconception that cotton was produced by plant-borne sheep due to its woolly appearance. However, G. barbardense was soon cultivated in Europe and this misunderstanding corrected. After the introduction of inventions like the spinning jenny in the 1770s, cotton manufacture soared in Europe. The Midlands in England quickly became one of the most profitable production centres for cotton.

Image from the Leo Grindon collection. Inscription: Cotton from India: A Cotton convoy proceeding from Rewah towards to Ganges – night encampment under a Banyan tree
Image from the Leo Grindon collection.
Inscription: Cotton from India: A Cotton convoy proceeding from Rewah towards to Ganges – night encampment under a Banyan tree

From the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, textiles (particularly cotton) became their primary export. During this time, numerous inventions helped to dramatically increase cotton production. These included (but not limited to) Paul and Wyatt’s flyer-and-bobbin system for drawing cotton, Hargreaves’ spinning jenny and Crompton’s spinning mule. The invention of Whitney’s cotton gin for efficiently separating cotton fibres from the seeds reduced the time and cost of production, leading to cotton becoming one of the most widely used textile in the world. From the end of the 18th century onwards, Manchester became known as “Cottonopolis” due to its domination of the cotton trade.

Spun cotton thread
Spun cotton thread

The cotton trade continued to grow throughout the early 19th century and Britain had become one of the primary exporters. British factories imported vast quantities of fibres from India to produce cotton, but by the 1840s India could no longer supply the ever growing demand. British traders then instead turned to plantations in the United States, who quickly became one of Britain’s prominent suppliers. By the mid-19th century, cotton cultivation became one of the main occupations of slaves in the southern states of America.

 

During the American Civil War (1861-1865), the Union states blockaded the Southern ports so cotton export dwindled. This led to Britain once again needing a new source of the fibre; turning this time to Egypt. Egyptian cotton has a much higher thread count and is today viewed as a luxury brand of cotton. At the time the Egyptian government invested heavily in the trade and took large loans from European bankers to finance their fledgling cotton plantations. However, the boom in Egyptian cotton was short-lived. After the end of the America Civil War, traders abandoned Egyptian cotton in favour of the cheaper cotton supplied by the Americans. This crippled Egypt’s economy to the point that it declared bankruptcy in 1876.

 

The cotton industry in Britain reached its peak in 1912 when over 8 billion yards of cloth was produced. However, there was soon a drastic decline in trade with the onset of World War I. During the war, cotton could not easily be exported and other countries soon began developing their own industry. One such country was Japan who, by 1933, replaced Britain as the largest cotton manufacturer. The interwar period then completely destroyed Britain’s declining cotton industry. During this time over 345,000 workers became unemployed and more than 800 mills closed. Britain had become a net importer of cotton by 1958, rather than an exporter, and its remaining mills struggled to remain open. For the next few decades Britain’s cotton industry floundered and a mill closed approximately once a week. By the 1980s, Britain’s textile industry had all but disappeared.

 

The demand for cotton has doubled since the 1980s and today’s production occurs in lower-wage areas because production is cheaper. China is now the main producer of cotton, closely followed by America and India.

Cotton wool extracted from Gossypium barbadense.
A jar in the Materia Medica containing cotton wool