Guest post from James Dowling, PhD Student (Biochemistry)
There I was, sorting through the endless piles of old papers and journals that made up the stockroom of the Herbarium.
I was tasked with searching for ‘interesting’ things, which is a very enigmatic term; it suggested, first of all, that there was something interesting to be found, which after hours of unloading boxes I was starting to think was a bit of a pipedream. But more so, it hinted that there was a very real possibility of finding treasure. A glimmering light in the proverbial rubble.
Treasure, from the pirate stories of olde, has always been gold and silver. Never has it been blue. This made it all the more surprising when, beneath the dusty pages of so-and-so journal from 1905 number 27, I spotted something rather peculiar…….
The jacket was remarkably decorated, and clearly designed with great tact and care, bearing the date 1880 prominently near the bottom. I opened the little book up, and inside was something truly remarkable….
Bleached into the blue pages were a series of ghostly white silhouettes. When you gaze upon them, they appear to gaze right back at you – eternal imprints in time of what Dante might have believed to be a close-up of an angel’s wing.
Returning to the front cover, I could see that, sadly, they weren’t evidence of the divine lurking in Herbarium, but instead they were images of ferns from New Zealand.
I brought the little oddity to Rachel, the curator of Botany at the Museum, and she was just as taken by it as I was. Whereas I would have left it on the side as something ‘cool’ to look at every once in a while, she was much more astute in getting to the bottom of this mystery – what exactly is this thing?
That’s when we came across this paper, which described this book in great detail, along with matching photographs.
As it turns out, in 1880, a botanist called Herbert Dobbie produced something known as ‘The Blue Books’. In this category are also included books from a couple of years later by another botanist, Eric Craig.
Apparently, in very vague fashion, Dobbie said 40 years after publication that he made them using “the blue-print system which has just reached New Zealand”. In brief, this involves exposing sensitised mounting paper to sunlight an then washing with potassium bichromate, leaving the characteristic white-on-blue visual effect.
The question still remained, however – why make these little books? Well, that part isn’t so romantic – he stated that he literally wanted to make some money. Out of all the ways to make some cash, this is one of the most creative I’ve come across. To produce pretty books of hauntingly beautiful plants.
The amount of labour that went into making one ‘Blue Book’ was enormous, and combined with no evidence to the contrary, there probably weren’t many of these things made. In fact, only 14 copies are known to have survived, 11 of which are in New Zealand libraries.
Maybe that means there are 15 known to exist now?
Currently, the fate of the little blue treasure has yet to be decided. It will either continue to reside in the Herbarium, though from now on much more appreciated than before, or it will be passed onto another collection.
It was such a treat to unearth this thing, some 140 years after it’s creation, in near-perfect condition. It begs the question as to what else lies lurking in the back of the Herbarium. We’ll see soon enough, but for now, it’s time to close the book on this one.
By Eirini Antonaki
The herbarium of Manchester itself is a collection of some 750,000 specimens of preserved plants. Most are in the form of pressed specimens on flat sheets. Some are in small packets such as the mosses and lichens and some are even 3D e.g. our collection of fruits and seeds. Apart from them it has also books, plant illustrations , slides projector, microscopic slides, plant models and many more to explore.
Finally something that you can’t miss is our brand new modern greenhouse. You should definitely check out!
The Greenhouse is a hidden gem, located on the third floor of Manchester Museum. It accommodates plants from all over the world in an artistic installation that has been realised with the collaboration of Nonsense_indoor_plants , Jeanette Ramirez founder of The Clorofilas (@Theclorofilas) and our Curator of Botany Rachel Webster.
It is next to Sylvia’s study room, which is a multi purpose room near the new third floor cafe. What a wonderful idea to study or have a meeting with a view of ferns, cacti and tropical plants in the middle of the winter in Manchester!
Want to see more about the Greenhouse?
Then you can follow our instagram profile @mcrmuseumgreenhouse and you can upload your own photos with the #mcrmuseumgreenhouse.
A guest blog post from Hannah, Learning Manager, on our upcoming collaborative PhD that is part of the Courtyard Project at Manchester Museum:
The Courtyard Project is a great opportunity for us to reflect on, research and develop our work, and as part of this, we are keen to gain a better understanding of the impacts of cultural engagement on our audiences. In spite of our best efforts, we often to struggle to get to grips with the impact of our work and tend to rely on teacher feedback, questionnaires and anecdotal evidence. Take, for example, our work with young children; we know that young children benefit from visiting the Museum because teachers and practitioners tell us this, but precisely how young children benefit, how long such benefits actually last, and whether there are knock-on effects for caregivers or teachers are questions that have tended to be beyond our capacity…
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For the past few weeks I have been back at the herbarium returning the materia medica collection to their cupboards following work undertaken by estates.
This project is somewhat reminiscent of my placement year over two years ago at the herbarium when I photographed, databased and organised the collection into their current system.
The materia medica collection at the Manchester Museum contains over 800 specimens of plants, animals and minerals that were used for medicinal purposes. It dates from the latter half of the nineteenth century and was originally used as a teaching tool for medical and pharmacy students at Owens College.
Following the 1858 Medical Act, anyone wishing to be a practicing physician first had to be included on the medical register. This required them to pass at least one of the qualifications recognised by the General Medical Council – such as those by the Royal College of Physicians – and the majority of these involved some form of examination into materia medica. As such, materia medica was an essential subject for any medical student during the nineteenth century.
The role of the materia medica collection as a teaching resource, therefore, meant that it was a vital part of medical education at Owens College. This was particularly evident given that the collection at the time had its own dedicated museum at the medical school!
The building that housed this museum no longer exists so the collection no longer has its own museum, but instead resides in the tower of the Manchester Museum as part of the herbarium.
A few images from the herbarium recently
Archives and labels are a gold mine of information in Herbarium collections #botanicMonday @Nat_SCA
It’s #BotanicMonday and also #chocolateweek! Here’s a German teaching poster of the plant that produces the cocoa bean
Plant models aplenty #BotanicMonday
106 years old and still living up to its name – Showy pink oregano (Origanum sipyleum) #BotanicMonday
Joanne B Kaar @Joannebkaar Oct 15
More back rooms of @McrMuseum in herbarium @Aristolochia
photos from my recent research visit
For several years we have taken the students on the Mallorca field-course to the strand-line along the Bay of Pollensa and the dune system near C’an Picafort. Both of these stretches of beach tend to collect odd, fuzzy balls of Neptune’s grass (Posidonia oceanica). Wave action breaks down the dead leaves and rhizomes of Neptune’s grass creating fibres which then become matted into dense spheres. I’ve written a previous blog post about Neptune’s grass on these shores of Mallorca.
Instead, this year we visited a different part of the coast where the material accumulates in sculpted waves along the beach edge. Previously I’ve seen this from the window of the coast, so it was interesting to experience it first hand. It is very soft, prone to collapsing and makes the shore edge difficult to walk on. There must be something different about the coastline here which makes the formation of the fibre balls less likely. Whether in balls or loose, the dried Neptune’s grass adds organic matter to the sand and helps to stabilise the dunes further up the beach.
This bit of beach was at the Finca de Son Real, an example of a traditional land-holding now managed by the Balearic Government as a nature reserve and archaeological site. There is a museum here which gives an insight into the lives of the rural people of Mallorca. Through displays of objects, room reconstructions, audio and projections, the museum explores the site from and from neolithic times into the 20th century including an explanation of how local farmers would have collected dry Neptune’s grass to use as animal bedding.
Hi I’m Megan Jones current student, I previously posted about a project where I was granted access to photograph a section of the extensive herbarium collection at the museum. https://herbologymanchester.wordpress.com/2016/03/29/contemporary-photography-ferns/ As promised I have an update on the project now it has come to an end, after visiting the museum I took my images and wanted to experiment more with them.
I decided to experiment with screen printing for those who aren’t aware of this process, your image is transferred onto a ‘screen’ you then place a piece of paper underneath the screen placing ink at the top of the screen you spread the ink across the screen and this causes the ink to be pushed through creating a copy of your image on to the paper. I repeated this with all of the most successful images from my visit at the museum until I had a great collection, I then bound these into a handmade book using a long stitch wrap around style. Included in this book was my images once they had been processed with the screen printing technique and also some information on global warming as this was the theme at the museum during my visits, I felt it necessary to include some information in the finished project as this is where my inspiration seemed from at the start.
Thank you for taking the time to catch up on the development of my project.
Guest blog by: Sophie Mogg
Seasons greetings from the travelling botanist, I’m taking a break from my travels to bring you a special blog post featuring in the advent botany. Today’s advent features Cornus mas. More commonly known as the cornerlian cherry, it is a medium-large deciduous tree of the dogwood family. Linnaeus referred to this species as both Cornus mas and Cornus mascula, translating to “male” cornel in order to distinguish it from the “female” cornel, Cornus sanguinea. It is native to South Europe as well as many parts of South Western Asia. It was thought not to be in the UK until 1551 whereby William Turner, a keen natural historian and friend of Conrad Gessner, heard that Hampton Court Palace had one in its gardens.
Cornus mas has a cold-hardiness rating of zone 4-8. The fact that it is so cold-hardy means that it is able to survive at temperatures between -25 to -30°C Celsius and is still able to flower at -20°C. The cold-hardiness has also meant that Cornus mas has been successfully introduced to countries outside of its native range such as Norway, Denmark and Sweden as well as across the UK.
Typically used as an ornamental plant, it is a bright and cheerful tree amongst the cold greys of winter. During autumn the glossy green leaves turn purple and come winter the tree boasts beautifully bright yellow flowers. The flowers appear around February to March and are typically very small (5-10mm in diameter) however they provide an important food source and a habitat for pollinators and other insects during those winter months. The flowers are replaced by green berries that ripen to a dark, rich red by mid-late summer. The berries swell to around 2cm long and 1.5cm in diameter and are very fleshy, containing just a single seed. The berries have been harvested and eaten for around 7000 years in ancient Greece, however as the small seed sticks to the flesh of the fruit it has been neglected by mass production and processing. Trees of this species are reported to live and still be producing fruit for over 100 years meaning that there are many years of bountiful harvests to be had if you find one near you.
When unripe the berries are often compared to olives however upon ripening they bear a tart flavour similar to that of cherries. Recipes from the 17th century detail pickling the berries in brine or serving them up in small tarts however the berries are also ideal for making into jams, sauces, syrups or even distilled into your own home-made liqueur or wine. According to Granny, cornelian cherry jams make a great a great alternative to other condiments with your turkey, but also suits cheese and other savoury dishes for this festive season!
I have listed some of the recipes below in case you happen to come across some of the cornelian cherry for yourself.
For many years the students on the Comparative and Adaptive Biology field course in Mallorca have visited the strandline and salt marsh plant communities at the Albufereta Nature Reserve on the Bay of Pollença. This year, however, we went for a tour of the S’Albufera wetland (a Ramsar protected site of international importance) by Gaspar, one of the team who manages the reserve. The reserve has been protected since 1988 and is surrounded by the coastal tourist resorts and inland agricultural lands.
The land around the Bay of Alcudia is naturally marshy, with water from the seasonal rivers (torrents) held back by the sand bars at the coast. However, the marsh isn’t entirely fresh, but is brackish and salty in places as seawater infiltrates the sand to saturate the land behind. This winter was drier than average, leading to the marsh being saltier than usual for so early in the year. In the 19th century, the British civil engineer John Frederick Bateman carried out work to drain the marsh for agriculture, creating the infrastructure which is still visible today – a network of canals, ditches, bridges and old pumping houses. More recently the focus has been on retaining the water and so sluice gates have been added to maintain the wetland habitat for wildfowl. The reserve is a carefully managed mosaic of old reedbeds (dominated by Phragmites australis), open waters, scrapes and salt marsh. Horses are particularly important for managing the more open environments, keeping the reeds in check.
The human population around the reserve around 60,000, but over the summer season this can triple with the arrival of holidaymakers seeking some Mediterranean sun. This places a huge increase in demand for drinking water and wastewater treatment over the driest months in the Mediterranean. It is at these times when the reserve is at its most vulnerable from pollution (e.g. nitrates escaping from water treatment works) without the potential for a diluting influx of freshwater.
The wetland is used by some bird species all year round and by others who use it as a staging post on their migrations. With the background soundtrack provided by Cetti’s warblers, we watched black-winged stilts, avocets, egrets, a kingfisher, shelducks, crested coots and an osprey. Still, the zoological highlight happened later in the day as the flamingos treated us to a fly-by on the beach.
Yesterday saw a group of first-year undergraduates braving the baking Mediterranean sun for the first day trip of the Comparative and Adaptive Biology field course. The Bocquer Valley near the town of Pollenca is a great place to look for Mallorcan endemic ‘hedgehog’ plants Teucrium subspinosum and Astragalus balearicus. While the students investigated the distribution of these small spiny shrubs, the staff took the opportunity to do a little more plant hunting.
One beautiful plant we regularly see in flower is the Balearic cyclamen (Cyclamen balearicum). It has very marbled leaves and delicate white flowers and hides in the shade of the larger shrubs. We also find the leaves of the Mallorcan peony (Paeonia cambessedessii). We visit far too late to see it in flower, but we’ve never found fruit either, suggesting that these plants didn’t flower in February or March. Perhaps these are young plants, or perhaps this is an indication of the difficult environment in the valley. This peony is named for the French botanist Jacques Cambessedes (1799-1863) who studied the plants of the Balearic Islands in 1825 and published the account of his travels and his work on the flora in 1826 and 1827.
One plant we’ve not spotted on our previous visits is the Dead-horse arum (Helicodiceros muscivorus). Given that it was behind a tree, under a shrub and in the bottom of a drainage channel, it’s not too surprising that we’ve not found it before. This plant has striking arrow-shaped leaves (sagittate leaves) and a flower spike (spadix) enclosed in a sheath known as a spathe. This specimen had not yet opened, and the geometrically patterned spathe was still closed shut. I’m not sure that I was too disappointed as the plant attracts pollinating flies with heat and rotting carcass smells.