South Asia

From Fashion Shows to Museum Trucks

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Getting creative in working towards our Heritage Lottery Fund action plan for the new Courtyard Development………

 

As part of our HLF Stage 2 submission for the Courtyard Project, Manchester Museum needs to produce an ‘Activity Plan’ – this is an essential document that sets out how we want to engage the public in 2020 and what we will do in the interim to make those activities a reality. This is a really exciting and creative period for us as an organisation – it’s a chance to take stock of what we do really well and to think about the kind of place we want to be in 3 years time – what do we want people to be able to do here? How might our communities, both local and further afield, shape these programmes and events? What kind of social impact might we make? These are big, exciting decisions and it’s fascinating to start to embrace change.

At the heart of this work is our…

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India, December 2016

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Menaka shares some of the sights from her recent trip to India……

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Last December, Stephen Welsh (Curator of Living Cultures) and I went on a research trip to India for the Courtyard Project, focusing on the South Asia Gallery – a partnership gallery with the British Museum. Neither of us had visited India before, although we were familiar with other parts of South Asia. It was an exciting and hectic schedule and in two weeks we visited Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi and Kochi – so more or less each compass point of what is an amazing country. The focus of our visit was to meet with museum professionals, artists and to get a real feel for both the historic and archaeological wonders, as well as the contemporary culture of a country that is fast becoming an emerging global superpower. We were joined in Kolkata and Kochi (where we attended the Kochi-Muziris Biennale) by Manchester Museum Director Nick Merriman.

It…

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The Poison Chronicles: Deadly Doping with Strychnos nux-vomica

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Strychnos nux-vomica‘s bumpy nuts

Guest post by Laura Cooper

Strychnine is an infamous poison. It is most well-known by its appearance in the novels of Agatha Christie as an effective but unsubtle method of murder. It was widely available in the 19th century from chemists as a rat poison, but this was taken advantage of by a number of real life serial killers including Dr Thomas Cream who gave disguised as a medicine and in alcohol. But strychnine had another side to it. Its caffeine- like stimulating effects means it has been used as a performance enhancing drug in competitive sports.

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Herbarium sheet of Strychnos nux-vomica

Strychnine, along with the toxin brucine, is present in the seeds of Strychnos nux-vomica. Though its name is lurid, it does not have anything to do with vomiting, “nux vomica” translates as ‘bumpy nut’. S. nux-vomica is in the family Loganiaceae and is native to South-East Asia and India. It is a medium-sized tree with large smooth oval leaves. The flowers have a repellent smell and the fruit is apple-sized with a hard shell that is orange when ripe. Inside, the seed are held in soft gelatinous pulp. The seeds are flattened disks covered with fine hairs, their flatness gives them the nickname ‘Quaker buttons’. The strychnine is concentrated in the seeds, but the wood also possesses poisons including brucine. Strychnine in the S. nux- vomica plays the same role as abrin in Abrus precatorius, it prevents herbivore species evolving which specialize in eating these seeds, as the poison is so general that it will likely kill any animal that eats the seed.

Strychnine poisons by blocking glycine from binding to specific neurons in the central nervous system. Strychnine prevents glycine from carrying out its inhibitory role, so causes the central nervous system to over-react to the smallest stimulus.

Initially the muscles become stiff, which is followed by hyperreflexia, where small stimulus trigger powerful reflex reactions. Later, increasingly frequent whole body convulsions occur. These resemble those in tetanus, an explanation often used to cover up strychnine poisoning. Eventually the respiratory muscles become paralysed and death by asphyxiation  occurs usually within a few hours. Strychnine cannot cross the blood-brain barrier, so the victim is fully conscious throughout, making strychnine poisoning one of the worst ways to die I can imagine.

The main method of treating strychnine poisoning is crude. The patient is given barbiturates and muscle relaxants and removed from stimuli to prevent convulsions until the strychnine is metabolised by the liver which takes a few days.

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Botanical illustration of Strychnos nux-vomica

However, S. nux-vomica extracts have been used in herbal and alternative medicine. It has been recommended for many different health issues from abdominal pain, heart disease and migraines though there is no evidence for its efficacy as a drug. However, a low dose of strychnine stimulates the central nervous system in a similar way to caffeine, but to a greater extent. This gives it great potential to act as a placebo, which is likely why it was reported to treat a wide range of illnesses, as well as to help spur athletes to victory.

S. nux-vomica‘s stimulating effects were used in 19th and early 20th century Europe and America in competitive sports as one of an arsenal of performance enhancing drugs, which were even deemed necessary for some endurance sports. Strychnine helped the American Thomas Hicks secure an Olympic Gold Medal. He was given strychnine and brandy during the 1904 Olympic marathon when he was flagging, though he collapsed after crossing the finishing line he later recovered. To this day, strychnine is on the list of banned stimulants in the World Anti-Doping Agency International Standard Prohibited List.

For more information, see the Poison Garden’s page on the species and Ian Musgrave’s article on strychnine in sport.

A Travelling Botanist: International Year of the Pulses

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Guest blog by: Sophie Mogg

2016 marks the international year of the pulses, decided back in 2013 at the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly. The Food and Agriculture Organization nominated pulses in the hope that this would raise awareness of their importance in providing a sustainable source of plant protein.

Throughout the the year there have been many conferences, discussions and workshops held in order to promote a better understanding and public awareness on topics surrounding sustainable food production, food security and nutrition as well as improvements in crop rotation and how we can work towards improving trade connections of pulses and utilization of plant based proteins. Whilst none of these events are taking place in the UK many resources are available online at their website including recipes and videos for you to watch.

As with all my other blog posts I have found some specimens within our collection to show you.

The Chick Pea (Cicer arietinum)

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Cicer arietinum

“This interesting little leguminous plant has been an object of cultivation from time immemorial & grows wild at the present day in the cornfields”

C. arietinum is one of the earliest cultivated legumes dating back around 7,500 years ago in the Middle East. Production is rapidly increasing across Asia as superior cultivars are developed and released. Many country farmers depend upon this legume for a source of income however legumes also enrich the soil through the addition of nitrogen.

This small plant, reaching heights of 20-50 cm, may not look like much but the seeds pack a punch. Approximately 100g of these seeds provides ~20% of protein, dietary fibre and other minerals needed, thereby providing a cheaper alternative to those who cannot afford meat or choose not to eat it. Leaves are also consumed providing essential micro-nutrients which are significantly higher than in cabbage and spinach.

A study has also shown that the chickpea can also be used as an animal feed, with many groups of animals benefiting.

The Pigeon Pea (Cajanus cajan)

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Cajanus cajan

The pigeon pea often grows between 1-4M tall with a tap root reaching around 2M. This legume is also a major source of protein for those living in South Asia and has been consumed across Asia, Africa and Latin America since it was first domesticated in India around 3,500 years ago.

It is a perennial plant that is harvested for between 3-5 years however after the second year the yield drops and so annuals are more often used as a means to harvest the seed. Like the chickpea, the pigeon pea is also able to enrich soils with nitrogen and its leaves are often used to feed cattle whilst the woody stem is used for firewood.

 

 

 

 

Black Lentil (Vigna mungo aka Phaseolus mungo L.)

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Vigna mungo

Vigna mungo can be found in various forms ranging from a fully erect plant to one that trails growing between 30-100cm. It produces large leaves which are hairy and seed pods that are approximately 6cm long.

It is very popular in India where the seed is split and made into dal.  The Black Lentil is very nutritionally rich containing 25g of protein per 100g of seed as well as many other important micro-nutrients and therefore plays a huge role in the diets of those from India.

The Poison Chronicles: Death by Pea

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Guest blog by: Laura Cooper

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Abrus precatorius seed necklace on display in the Study.

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.

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Abrus precatorius seeds

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

Poison Garden – Abrus precatorius 

What wondrously poisonous plant would like to find out about next? Leave your comments below.

A Travelling Botanist: The worlds most used fibre!

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Guest blog series by: Sophie Mogg

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Gossypium aboreum flower

Cotton, we’ve all seen it, heard of it and probably worn clothes made from it too. In today’s installment we’ll be taking a look at Gossypium arboreum, the species of cotton native to India and Pakistan. This particular species was supplied as a single specimen by Carl Linnaeus for his herbarium and was recorded within his own book,  Species Plantarum 1753.

Cotton has been cultivated in South Asia from around 3300 BCE. It is a perennial shrub, reaching approximately 2M tall and grown more like an annual due to being harvested every year. The leaves of the cotton plant are lobed, typically having 3-5 lobes and bearing a close resemblance to maple leaves.  The seeds are contained within the boll, a small capsule and individual seeds are surrounded by two types of fibres known as staples and linsters. The former is produced into high quality textiles where as the latter produces lower quality textiles. Whilst Gossypium arboreum and its sister plant, Gossypium herbaceum (Africa) only form 2% of the world production of cotton, new varieties of these species are being bread for more desirable traits. One such variety is Gossypium arboreum var. neglecta grown along the Meghna river. This variety, known as “Phuti karpas” is used to make Muslin in Bangladesh as the cotton fibres  can be spun to produce threads are more resistant to breaking at higher counts.

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Specimens of cotton at different stages of processing. Gossypium herbaceum (Africa) bolls.

The fibres can be separated from the seeds either manually or by use of a machine known as the cotton gin. There are two types of cotton gins, the saw gin for the shorter fibres and roller gin for the longer fibres. The roller gin was invented in India and is used to prevent damage to the longer fibres. Once fibres are separated from the seed they are compressed  into lint bales and graded. Carding is the next step, where fibres are pulled so that align parallel to one another and eventually form a sliver which is a rope-like strand of cotton. The slivers are combed to remove impurities before being drawn out into thin strands (roving). The final processing step of cotton is the spinning, where the roving is drawn out and twisted for form yarns and threads for weaving to produce textiles.

Towards the end of the 18th century Manchester had begun to build steam powered mills in order to work with cotton and by 1871 was using approximately 30% of the cotton produced globally. Over 100 cotton mills were built during this time and the industry was supported by The Exchange where over 10,000 cotton merchants would meet in order to sell their wares. The start of the cotton industry across Britain coincided with the Calico act of 1721 being repealed allowing British companies to use cotton in order to make calico, a cheaper and less refined cotton textile, into clothing. Cotton textiles soon became one of the main exports of Britain and is still one of the worlds most used fibres today.

If you are interested in finding out more about plants from Asia over the next few weeks please fill out the poll below.

 

If you would like to learn more about cotton and the cotton industry follow the links below:

Cotton Industry

Cotton Processing

Gossypium arboreum

Uses of Cotton Seed

I’ll soon be travelling to other parts of Asia so I hope you continue to join me. Look for future blogs exploring dyes, medicines and potentially poisons. As always, don’t forget to leave a comment about what you’d like to see from our collection.

A Travelling Botanist: The Miracle Tree

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Guest blog series by: Sophie Mogg

In this installment of A Travelling Botanist I will be focusing on Moringa oleifera, commonly referred to as the miracle tree.

Moringa oleifera is native to South Asia however due to the multitude of useful products it can provide its distribution has increased in more recent years and now covers the majority of Asia, Africa and Europe. M. oleifera is a hardy tree, requiring little in the way of compost or manure and being drought resistant it is well suited to the environment of developing countries. M. oleifera reaches heights of up to 3M within the first 10 months and initial harvests of leaves are able to occur between 6-8months, with subsequent yields improving as the tree reaches maturity at around 12M tall.

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Moringa oleifera specimens. Seeds, bark and pods.

Many parts of the Moringa tree are utilised in South Asian cooking. The young seed pods, more often referred to as drumsticks, are used in a variety of dishes such as curries, sambars, kormas and dals. The drumsticks can also be incorporated into soups such as the Burmese Dunt-dalun chin-yei. This is true also for the fruit of the drumsticks, the white seeds can either be cooked as you would green peas or incorporated into a variety of soups.  Flowers can also be used, generally being boiled or fried and incorporated into a variety of friend snacks such as pakoras and fritters or alternatively used in tea.

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Moringa oleifera herbarium sheet

The leaves of the Moringa tree  are considered to be very nutritional, with the suggestion that a teaspoon of leaf powder being incorporated into a meal three times a day could aid in reducing malnutrition. The leaves can be prepared in a variety of ways, from being ground into a find powder or deep-friend for use in sambals. They can also be made into a soup with the addition of rice, a popular breakfast during Ramadan.  The leaves of the Moringa also contain antiseptic properties with a recent study suggesting that 4g of leaf powder can be as good as modern day non-medicated soap. This provides some means of sanitation to people who would otherwise not be able to properly clean their hands.

The seeds of a single Moringa tree can be used to provide clean water for up to 6 people for an entire year. With their outer casing removed, the seeds can be ground to form what is known as a seed cake that can be used to filter water thereby removing between 90-99% of the bacteria present. This works on the basis of attraction whereby positively charged seeds attract negatively charged bacteria and viruses causing them to coagulate and form particles known as floc. This floc then falls to the bottom of the container leaving clean water above it. It is estimated that only 1-2 seeds are required for every litre of water.

Oil is a by-product of making the seed cakes, comprising of around 40% of the seed. This oil, often known as “ben oil” by watchmakers, can serve a variety of purposes due to its properties. Due to being light, it is ideal for use in machinery and produces no smoke when lit making it ideal for oil-based lamps.  The oil also contains natural skin and hair purifiers and is becoming more popular with well known cosmetic companies such as The Body Shop and LUSH thereby providing revenue to the farmers who grow the miracle tree. It also bears similarities to olive oil making it ideal for cooking and therefore another avenue for marketing this multipurpose oil.

Moringa oleifera and its close relatives are also known for their medicinal properties, containing 46 antioxidants which aid in preventing damage to cells. Due to containing benzyl isothiocyanate it has been suggested that Moringa may also contain chemo-protective properties.

I know that you may think I have completely forgotten the bark of the tree. But no, that too has its use. The tree bark is beaten into long fibres ideal for making strong rope.

I hope you have enjoyed reading about the Miracle tree as much as I have, if you wish to seek more information just follow the links below.

Medicinal uses

Trees for Life International

 

As always comment below with your favourite plant and if it’s in our collection and found within South Asia or Europe, I’ll be happy to feature it!