Specimen of the Day

Advent Botany 2018: A botanical pick-me up for the bleak midwinter

Posted on Updated on

With five previous years of Advent Botany I was surprised that none of us have so far covered coffee. OK, it’s not a Christmassy spice, or a festive decoration, but by this time in the year I’m sure I’m not the only one feeling more than my usual need for this botanical pick-me-up. As we approach the shortest day of the year a good cup (or several) of coffee is pretty much all that’s keeping me from attempting to hibernate.

New crop Costa Rica coffee. Imported last week. Sold in London sale yesterday. Undated. #CuratorialCrimes

Not only that, but as this snippet from the magazine ‘The Hospital’ from January 1889 suggests, there is also coffee’s reputation for counteracting the effects of alcohol. Although, rather than allowing people to deal with the morning after the night before, this article also seems to suggest that if people can get their hands on good coffee, then they won’t bother drinking the alcohol in the first place.

Cutting in the Leo Grindon herbarium – Everybody’s Page, The Hospital, January 19th, 1889 https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/0f90/3c30f74c3fc07e34bbeb10a3db5b3668e6a0.pdf

Caffeine is found in several other plants such as tea and kola, but it is coffee that has earnt the reputation as the go-to drink for keeping us alert. In nature, caffeine has a protective function, deterring insect grazing through its bitter taste and toxic properties. It is found in all parts of the coffee plant, including the leaves, and in high concentrations in very young seedlings, but of course it is the roasted beans that we prepare for the drink. Coffee ‘beans’ are seeds which come in pairs in small fruits which turn red as they ripen. Known as cherries, the fruits are described botanically as called drupes. These are thin skinned fleshy berries with a hardcoated seed inside (much like an actual cherry, olives or dates) but coffee is a little uncommon for having two seeds rather than the more usual single seed.

Coffea arabica illustration in the Leo Grindon collection. Handcoloured lithograph by Hanhart after a botanical illustration by David Blair from Robert Bentley and Henry Trimen’s Medicinal Plants, London, 1880

Coffee is in the Rubiaceae, a diverse family including herbaceous plants such as the dye plant madder (Rubia tinctorial) and the quinine-producing Cinchona trees used for flavouring tonic water. The genus Coffea contains over 120 species of shrubs and small trees with opposite pairs of glossy dark green leaves and jasmine-scented flowers. Despite this, there are few species which are used commercially. Coffea arabica and C. canephora account for almost all the world’s coffee production with C. liberica coming a very distant third.

Lantern slide of Liberian coffee from the Manchester Geographical Society collections

C. arabica originates in Ethiopia and was the first coffee to be cultivated. Now it is considered the gold-standard of coffee, less bitter and less acidic than other species. It is the most widely grown, accounting for the majority of worldwide coffee production and Brazil is the biggest single exporter. However, C. canephora (known as robusta) is easier to grow and higher yielding. Vietnam is the world’s largest producer of robusta, after the French smuggled the plant in to the country in the 19th century. The beans contain twice as much caffeine as arabica and produce a more bitter, earthier-tasting coffee.  Robusta is particularly used for the production of instant coffees, and is also added into coffee blends (such as Italian expresso) as it is said to produce a better crema on top.

Promotional display box produced by Nestle containing coffee beans from different countries.

 

Well, looking out all these objects from the herbarium has given me a bit of a thirst, so I think it’s probably high time I stopped for a coffee break and sampled the blends at our new Museum cafe (perhaps with a little mince pie on the side). Anyone ready to join me?

ManCoCo coffees at Manchester Museum

Coffee or tea, madam?

Posted on Updated on

 

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.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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?

 

Further reading

https://publicdomainreview.org/2013/08/07/the-lost-world-of-the-london-coffeehouse/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_coffeehouses_in_the_17th_and_18th_centuries

David Grigg (2002). The Worlds of Tea and Coffee: Patterns of consumption. GeoJournal 57; 283-294

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_tea_in_India

https://www.teacoffeespiceofindia.com/tea/tea-origin

 

 

#AdventBotany Day 23: Rosemary, love and controversy – By Alastair Culham

Posted on

By Alastair Culham Rosemary makes a tasty addition to many savoury dishes. My favourite is a rub of salt and crushed fresh rosemary leaves put on potatoes before roasting but it’s also lovely with lamb and even with citrus based desserts. Rosemary was probably introduced to the U.K. in Roman times and it is reported…

via #AdventBotany Day 23: Rosemary, love and controversy — Culham Research Group

#AdventBotany Day 22: Put a cork in it. By Ali Ayres

Posted on Updated on

By Ali Ayres Wine corks. Composite (upper), cut (lower) (Photo A. Culham) It’s decided, 2017 is the year I finally contribute to this fine festive botanical blogging tradition. But what should I write about? Holly? Ivy? All the usual suspects have already been covered –and excellently to boot. Maybe a glass of wine would help…

via #AdventBotany Day 22: Put a cork in it — Culham Research Group

#AdventBotany Day 21: The qulliq brings light and heat to Canada’s Inuit Nunangat in the dark winter — By Dawn Bazely

Posted on

By Dawn Bazely Christmas day at the North Pole is dark. In Inuit Nunangat, the Inuit homelands of Canada, the Arctic Circle (66.6 degrees), marks the latitude where the noon sun is just visible on December 21st, the northern winter solstice. The sun rises above the horizon for about 2 hours. On Christmas day in…

via #AdventBotany Day 21: The qulliq brings light and heat to Canada’s Inuit Nunangat in the dark winter — Culham Research Group

#AdventBotany Day 20: Holly By Patricia Francis

Posted on

By Patricia Francis Christmas gift tags from Gallery Oldham collection. The Winter Solstice has been celebrated in many cultures for thousands of years. In our northern latitudes evergreens show how life continues even in the depths of winter. In pre-Christian times evergreen boughs were hung in winter to encourage the return of the sun gods.…

via #AdventBotany Day 20: Holly — Culham Research Group

#AdventBotany Day 19: Christmas Kalanchoe – Kalanchoe blossfeldiana — Culham Research Group

Posted on

By Will Simpson by Wildfeuer (own work) [GDFL + CC BY 2.5] via wikimedia commonsThe genus Kalanchoe (the preferred pronunciation is kal-un-KOH-ee(1)) belongs to the Crassulaceae family. Like other members of this family, such as Aeonium, Crassula, Echeveria and Sedum, Kalanchoes tend to be succulent evergreen perennials, come from arid environments and make popular houseplants.…

via #AdventBotany Day 19: Christmas Kalanchoe – Kalanchoe blossfeldiana — Culham Research Group