It’s rather strange to think about it, but I suppose I have been living through something of a revolution in hot drinks in the UK. Traditionally, we are considered to be a nation of tea drinkers, but now on my way to work, I suspect that the majority of travel mugs clutched by my fellow commuters contain a more stimulating coffee instead. In 2008, the UK started to import more tonnes of coffee (green and roasted) than tea. Of course, you get more cups out of a kilo of tea than you do out of a kilo of coffee, but the upward trend for coffee importation continues (FAOSTAT).
It used to be that the nearest my coffee drinking came to any kind of ceremony was if I happened to be the lucky person who got to pop the seal on a new jar of instant. Now, however, even if there isn’t a gadget in the kitchen, then there’s ususally a coffee shop nearby to provide you with your morning ritual and your perfect brew. In 17th and 18th century London and Oxford, coffeehouses were also the place for men to go and read the news, make financial deals, reason about academic subjects and perhaps even discuss something a little seditious. By the end of the 18th century, these coffeehouses had all but disappeared. Many factors have been suggested for their decline, including that printed news was easier to come by, and the development of gentleman’s clubs. Tea drinking was on on the rise as it became fashionable at court, as women could participate in a way that they couldn’t in coffeehouses, and of course, through the promotional of the British East India Company’s trading interests in tea from China and particularly from India. Names such as Assam, Darjeeling, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Kangra and Niligri became familiar in the UK through the tea gardens established there by the British in the 19th century.
Easier to prepare, tea remained the hot drink of choice in the UK for about two centuries providing warmth, comfort and calories (with milk and sugar) with every cup. Many countries favour either tea or coffee at the expense of the other, and in the UK a 2012 YouGov poll still showed more people still rate a cuppa as their favourite hot drink (52% tea/ 35% coffee). The coffee shop sector is one of the strongest businesses in the UK economy, turning over £9.6 billion in 2017. So when you next get to the counter of a coffee shop, what will it be – coffee or tea?
David Grigg (2002). The Worlds of Tea and Coffee: Patterns of consumption. GeoJournal 57; 283-294
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. […]
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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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.
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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.
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.
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.
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)
“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)
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.)
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.
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.