The Travelling Botanist
Guest blog by: Sophie Mogg
Cinnamon is a spice that we have all had the opportunity to try, whether in fancy coffees, liqueurs or delicious buns. Whilst the “true” cinnamon species is Cinnamomum verum, the most common source of cinnamon is Cinnamomum cassia. Both species originate in Asia, with C. verum being native to Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon) and C. cassia originating in southern China. In order to distinguish the cinnamon produced by the two species in the spice trade, cinnamon refers to C. verum whilst cassia refers to C. cassia. This is because, C. verum is more expensive of the two due to its sweeter taste and aroma as less than 30% of cinnamon exports come from Sri Lanka.
Cinnamon has been traded for many thousands of years, with the imports into Egypt reported as early as 2000 BCE so it is no surprise that there are countless tales and historical events that surround this spice. From Sieur de Joinville believing cinnamon was fished from the Nile at the end of the world and Herodotus writing about mystical giant birds (such as a phoenix) that used cinnamon sticks to build their nests, the history of cinnamon is rich in legends of its origin as it wasn’t until 1270 that it was mentioned the spice grew in Sri Lanka. However as sweet as this spice may be it also appears to have a bloody history. Aside from the countless wars raged over the right to trade cinnamon, it was also used on the funeral pyre of Poppaea Sabina, the wife of Nero, in 65 AD. It is said that he burned over a years supply as recompense for the part he played in her death.
There are a total of 5 species (C. burmannii, C. cassia, C. citriodorum, C. loureiroi and C. verum) that produce cinnamon however C. verum and C. cassia are where the majority of international commerce is sourced from. Production of cinnamon is fairly straight forward albeit time-consuming. The outer bark of the tree is shaved off exposing the inner bark which is the cinnamon layer. This inner bark is also shaved off and left to dry, naturally curling as it does. By comparison the cinnamon of C. verum has a more delicate flavour than that of C. cassia as well as having thinner bark that is more easy to crush and produces a much more smooth texture.
Cinnamon is prominent in the practice of Ayurveda medicine as well as traditional Chinese medicine, being one of the 50 fundamental herbs. Traditionally it has been used to treat a wide variety of ailments from digestive problems, respiratory problems, arthritis and infections. In traditional Chinese medicine it is believed that cinnamon is able to treat these ailments through it’s ability to balance the Yin and Wei as well being a counterflow for Qi. These terms are aptly explained here for those who are interested. While there is little scientific evidence for the treatment of digestive and respiratory disorders, cinnamon does appear to possess antibacterial, antifungal and antimicrobial properties which may help to fight infections although at this moment in time it is inconclusive in studies trialled on humans. Cinnamon produced from C. cassia coumarin, which thins the blood, can be toxic to the liver in high concentrations so it is advised that only a few grams per day be consumed.
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The Aristolochia genus is particularly close to the heart of the Manchester Herbarium, its name provides us a unique Twitter nom de plume. But it is also a plant with a considerable body count. It contains a carcinogen which may be responsible for a larger number deaths than more notorious plant poisons like cyanide and ricin.
A number of species in the Aristolochia genus are known as birthwort. The genus name is derived from the Greek for “good for childbirth”, so both the common and scientific names suggests its medical use. It was noted by Roman doctors that the flowers of Aristolochia clematitis were somewhat womb-shaped. The Doctrine of Signatures, a major concept within the medicine of the time, stated that plants were designed to resemble the body part they could treat. Therefore A. clematitis roots were used for over two thousand years to trigger delayed menstruation, speed up a labour and help deliver a placenta. The plant continues to be used in Traditional Chinese Medicine and more rarely in homeopathy to treat a wide variety of diseases, despite the risks.
The roots of all Aristolochia sp. contain the carcinogen aristolochic acid, which for anyone can produce more mutations in the genome than tobacco smoke or UV light, but in the 5-10% of people who are genetically susceptible can cause kidney and urinary tract cancers. This was discovered when, in the late 1950s, localised epidemics of kidney disease and urinary tract cancer in certain rural villages in Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Romania were noted. The condition was described as Balkan Endemic Nephropathy (BEN) but it’s cause was not found. However, in the 1990s a group of women with End Stage Renal Disease were all found to have taken the same herbal mixture for weight loss contaminated with Aristolochia fangchi, and their condition was described by researchers as Aristolochic Acid Nephropathy. When Prof Arthur Grollman from Stony Brook University learned this, he saw the similarities with BEN, and wondered if there was a similar cause. He found A. clematitis in the wheat fields of affected villages and the imprint of aristolachic acid damage in the DNA of BEN patients’ kidneys cells, showing a causal link between chronic exposure to Aristolochia and these cancers.
Aristolochia has been taken by many people as medicine or accidentally throughout history. As recently as between 1997 and 2003, an estimated 8 million people in Taiwan, were exposed to it in herbal medicine. This has lead some to suggest that it may be the most deadly plant in terms of number of fatalities rather than outright toxicity. Whether or not this claim could be quantified, it highlights that plants can be dangerous if used unwisely, so herbal medicines should not be taken blithely.
A. clematitis itself is a common weed, with creeping rhizomes and cordate (heart shaped) leaves. The distinct yellow flowers lack petals and form a tubular structure with a rounded base. Hardly notably uterine. The strange shape of the flower is due to it’s peculiar method of pollination. The hermaphroditic flowers begin first with the female stage and attract and trap flies within the flower, where they feed and spread pollen. In a few days the male stage produces the pollen that covers the trapped flies, which are released to pollinate again.
The native range is around the Mediterranean into central Europe, but was cultivated in the UK and USA. In the UK, it can be found as the survivors of the medicinal gardens of ruined nunneries and monasteries, a reminder of health care’s past and present mistakes.
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Guest blog by: Sophie Mogg
Lycium chinese, and its close relative Lycium barbarum, are both native to China although typically found to the Southern and Northern regions respectively. Part of the Solanaceae (Nightshade) family, they are also related to tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, chili peppers, tobacco and of course belladonna. Both L. chinese and L. barbarum produces the goji berry, or among English folk commonly known as the wolfberry believed to be derived from the resemblance between Lycium and the greek “lycos” meaning wolf. Both species are decidious woody perennials that typically reach 1-3M tall however L. barbarum is taller than L. chinense. In May through to August lavendar-pink to light purple flowers are produced with the sepal eventually bursting as a result of the growing berry which matures between August and October. The berry itself is a distinctive orange-red and grape-like in shape.
In Asia, premium quality goji berries known as “red diamonds” are produced in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region of North-Central China where for over 700 years goji berries have been cultivated in the floodplains of the yellow river. This area alone accounts for over 45% of the goji berry production in China and is the only area in which practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine will source their goji berries as a result of their superior quality. The goji berry has a long history in Chinese medicine, first being mentioned in the Book of Songs, detailing poetry from the 11th to 7th century BC. Throughout different dynasties master alchemists devised treatments centering around the goji berry in order to improve eyesight, retain youthfulness and treating infertility. However it must be noted that because of the goji berry being high in antioxidants those on blood-thinning medication such as Warfarin are advised not to consume the berries.
As a result of their long standing history in Chinese medicine and their nutritional quality Goji berries have been nicknamed the “superfruit”. Many studies have linked the berries being high in antioxidants, vitamin A and complex starches to helping reduce fatigue, improve skin condition and night vision as well as age-related diseases such as Alzheimers. However, there has been little evidence to prove these claims and the evidence that is available is of poor quality.
In the 21st century the goji berry is incorporated in to many products such as breakfast biscuits, cereals, yogurt based products as well as many fruit juices. Traditionally the Chinese would consume sun-drief berries with a wide range of food such as rice congee, tonic soups, chicken and pork. Goji berries would also be boiled alongside Chrysanthemums or tea leaves from Camellia sinensis as a form of herbal tea. How would you like your berries?
I hope you have enjoyed reading about Lycium chinense and Lycium barbarum. Please complete the poll below to tell me more about what you would like to see more of.
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I know you’re thinking “hasn’t she already covered tea?” and yes you’re correct. I have. However, Camellia sinensis (and all of the wonderful varieties of said species) is not the only plant that tea can be made from. In a more recent blog post you have seen that tea can be made from winter green (Gaultheria procumbens) and the same can be said for a lot of plants. Today I will be venturing into the world of Chrysanthemums – Chrysanthemum indicum and Chrysanthemum morifolium to be exact.
C. indicum is a perennial that grows to roughly 100cm tall and is native to China. Chrysanthemum originates from the greek “chryos” and “anthos” translating to golden flower. C. indicum lives up to the name and typically produces a beautiful array of small yellow flowers that flower from August through to October however a multitude of colours are available amongst varieties. One particular variety, C.indicum var. edule (Kitam), is grown and cultivated as a vegetable in China. C. indicum is also one of the main parents of C. morifolium. C. morifolium is less cold hardy than its parental species, often requiring to be stored in greenhouses in Britain when during the cooler weather. However C.morifolium is far larger than its parental species and so is often favoured as a garden ornamental plant. In 1630 over 500 cultivars were listed and in the centuries since numbers have continued to rise generating plants that range from 30 – 120cm tall, with large blooms again in a range of colours.
Aside from being beautiful garden plants Chrysanthemums have also been used in Chinese medicine dating back to 475 -221 BCE and the production of tea. The leaves from both species can be used to brew tea, with cultivars of C. morifolium developed so that leaves are less bitter. The flowers, specifically the petals, of C. morifolium can also be brewed to produce a delicately sweet flavoured tea that is also very beautiful to look at. The tea itself is said to help improve vision by soothing sore eyes and headaches as well as reducing infection and inflammation. Chrysanthemums are said to have antibacterial, antifungal and anti-inflammatory properties and so flowers would often be collected in Autumn and dried so that they could be used later as an infusion. Chrysanthemum tea is also recommended as an alternative to tea from Camellia sinensis for reducing blood pressure.
Flower heads and leaves can also be used in a variety of dishes. Leaves can be battered and turned into fritters and the petals can be pickled or served with soy sauce alongside tofu and salad. Why not try some Chrysanthemum tea or a sprinkling of petals in your salad next time you’re out in the garden?
As always, let me know in the poll below what you would like to see next and stay tuned for the next Travelling Botanists blog post.
If you’d like to find out more about Chrysanthemums check out the links below
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
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.
Guest blog by: Sophie Mogg
I’ll soon be crossing the border into Southeast Asia and exploring the many wonderful plants there but there’s time for one last post!
Oryza sativa, which translates to “rice” and “cultivated”, remains a staple for half of the worlds population. It is a widely cultivated plant, growing in over 100 countries and on all continents with exception of Antarctica. There are currently 40,000 varieties of rice of which over 100 of these are grown globally. Oryza rufipogon grows through South and Southeast Asia, it is the wild relative of Oryza sativa. The earliest recorded cultivation of rice has been documented to be in China around 6000 BC.
Within the species sativa, two subspecies have been classified: japonica, indica.
Japonica varieties are short-grained and sticky, often grown in higher altitudes such as the uplands of Southeast Asia. Indica on the other hand are long-grained and non-sticky varieties grown in the lowlands and often submerged. Javanica, now known as tropical japonica, is a subgroup to japonica and is made up of broad-grained varieties grown in tropical conditions. However classification of rice has changed numerous times due to differing basis of classification such as the types of enzymes present or short sequence repeats in the DNA.
Oryza sativa can grow either 1M tall in dry conditions or 5M long in submerged conditions. The stem is composed of several nodes and from each node grows a long, slender leaf. The seeds, like other grass species, grow on long spikes which have the tendency to arch over with the weight of the seed. It is the endosperm of these seeds which we consume. Whilst rice can be found in many colours such as white, brown, red, purple and black we commonly eat either the white or brown rice. White rice is typically polished (milled) to remove the bran layer, where as wholegrain “brown” rice has the bran layer intact. The bran layer, present in all cereal crops, is rich in essential amino acids, dietary fibre and antioxidants.
96% of the rice that is grown worldwide is consumed by the same countries that grow it however these countries also suffer from Vitamin A deficiency. Scientists have tried to improve the nutritional quality of rice by introducing enzymes from other plants via genetic modification that are needed to synthesise beta-carotene. Beta-carotene is converted into Vitamin A in the intestines. The Golden Rice Project aims to reduce the incidence of Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) syndrome which is prevalent in these countries.
Generally rice is steamed or boiled however it can also be used to produce several other products. Rice can be pressed in order to produce rice milk, which is an excellent alternative for those avoiding dairy products who may also have a nut allergy however it is rich in carbohydrates and low in protein and so is not necessarily the best option for diabetics or the elderly. In Japan, sake is made from brewing milled rice somewhat similar to beer however the conversion of starch to sugar and then sugar to alcohol occurs simultaneously. Sake is customarily sipped from a small cup known as a sakazuki on special occasions.
Rice is also used in many traditional medicines such as Ayurveda such as in the treatment of diarrhea. Rice would be boiled and then strained, allowing the water to cool. The patient would then drink the rice water which would stop the diarrhoea or ease the stomach upset as well as re-hydrating them. Congee is a traditional dish made using a single grain, often brown rice, and slowly cooking it on low heat with a 1:5 or 1:6 ratio of rice to water. Congee is said to be very beneficial to those with low energy and issues regarding weight loss/gain and is made across India and China. Several studies such those using rice callus and extracts have shown that rice also has anticancer properties by inhibiting growth of human cancer cells.
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