The Travelling Botanist
Guest blog by: Sophie Mogg
With the latest installment looking at the cotton industry, I thought that it might be interesting to follow up with a few snippets about natural dyes derived from plants. In today’s blog post I will be taking a closer look at turmeric (Curcuma longa), true indigo (Indigo tinctoria) and madder root or dyer’s madder (Rubia tinctorum).
Turmeric belongs to the Zingiberaceae family which also includes cardammon and ginger. It is a herbaceous perennial that produces underground modified stems known as rhizomes which acts as a store for starch, proteins and other valuable nutrients. Rhizomes are useful in other ways as new plants can be propagated from the rhizomes that are harvested each year. The rhizomes themselves would be boiled for up to 45 minutes before being dried in a hot oven and ground to form a powder which can be used as a beautiful yellow dye. Unfortunately turmeric is not colour-fast and so was often over-coloured with mustard or various pickles to help compensate for this. Medicinally turmeric has reported uses in Ayurvedic practices for treating colds and infections as well as the Siddha medicinal practice where it is used as an energy centre due to representing the solar plexus chakra. Several studies have shown that turmeric also has antibacterial and antifungal properties with studies suggesting that turmeric could be used as a preservative in the food industry. Turmeric is also used in cooking for savoury dishes as well as the predecessor of litmus paper to test pH.
The native location of Indigo tinctoria is unknown as it has been cultivated for centuries across Asia and Africa. Indigo is a shrub reaching approximately 2M tall that produces flowers in various shades of pink and violet. Depending upon the climate Indigo is grown in it can be an annual, biannual or perennial. The deep blue dye that is produced from this species is obtained through soaking and fermenting the leaves which allows conversion of glycoside idican into indigotin (the blue dye). The dye has also been used within paintings dating back to the Middle ages. Indigo tinctoria is part of the bean family (Fabaceae) and so is also used within crop rotation by farmers in order to improve soil quality for subsequent crops.
The madder root produces various different coloured dyes ranging from reds, to pinks and oranges depending upon the conditions the plant was grown in and how the roots were subsequently treated. It belongs to the family of Rubiaceae, the same family as coffee and is a relatively tall perennial plant with evergreen leaves reaching heights of 1.5M. The dye is extracted through the process of fermenting, drying or using various acids to treat the roots, that are commonly harvested during the first year of a plants growth. One of the more commonly known dyes is referred to as madders lake, a dark red produced by purpurin being mixed with alkaline solutions. These dyes can be used to colour leather, wool, cotton and silk but are typically used with a fixative or mordant such as alum to help the dye fix to the material.
Tea can also be used as a dye, with different varieties of tea producing their own unique shades. With any kind of dye the colour will fade with time but it can be stabilised by using vinegar. As previously mentioned in my other posts both saffron and henna are used as dyes also.
Have your say in which species appear in future installments of the travelling botanist. Our journey will soon take us to South-East Asia where we explore some more intriguing plants.
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Guest blog series by: Sophie Mogg
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Guest blog series by: Sophie Mogg
To those of you who cook exquisite dishes using saffron, I am sure you are aware of its beautiful aroma and colour as well as its hefty price tag. The question I want to ask is, can you name the plant saffron is derived from?
Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world and is harvested from Crocus sativus, commonly referred to as the saffron crocus. C. sativus will grow to approximately 20-30cm and produce up to four flowers, the saffron itself being the stigmata of the plant and often referred to as strands. This domesticated crocus is in fact sterile and so bulbs must be divided and replanted in order for more crocuses to grow. This plant is sterile due to it’s triploid genome, meaning that it has three paired sets of chromosomes.
Saffron, like tea, is hand-harvested with each flower only yielding 3 strands. The flowers bloom at dawn, gradually withering throughout the day and the stigmata rapidly losing their aroma and colour hence the flowers must be collected quickly so that the saffron can be removed from the flower and dried. It is estimated that over 85,000 flowers would be required to produce 1 kg of saffron. These factors are what contribute to the high sale price of saffron. In order to keep your saffron fresh, buy it in small quantities and store it in an airtight container away from sunlight. This will ensure it stays in top condition for 3-6 months.
The use of saffron is not limited to South Asia and is often used to impart a pale orange-yellow hue to foods such as rice but it also features in Swedish baked goods, soups and Italian liqueurs such as Strega and Fernet. Kashmiri saffron, produced in Pakistan, is commercially sold for use as both a dye and a folk remedy for melancholy. Saffron has also had notable references made to it in the treatment of scarlet fever, measles, Alzheimer’s disease and is currently being investigated for its potential to treat to asthma and insomnia. If you’re interested in the research conducted into the use of saffron you can find all the relevant links here.
Please complete the poll to have a say in the type of plant that features in the series. If you choose other, please specify what you would like to see.
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Did you know you can request a guest blog on a plant of your choice? 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!
Guest series by: Sophie Mogg
Continuing on from last weeks post, I will be continuing my exploration into plant species within South Asia. This particular blog post will feature the otherwise ordinary shrub known for its highly pigmented dye, Lawsonia inermis.
Lawsonia inermis L., commonly referred to as Henna, is a tall shrub or small tree ranging in height from 1.8-7.6m tall. Native to Africa and South Asia, L. inermis thrives at high temperatures and cannot survive the milder climate (below 11°C) found within the UK. At 35-45°C is when the most dye, referred to as Lawsone or hannotannic acid, is produced. It is this dye that produces the dark red-orange pigment that Henna is known for.
Harvested leaves are ground into a fine powder and often mixed with a mild acidic liquid such as tea, lemon juice or lime juice to produce the paste used in the traditional practice of mehndi/mehendi. Mehndi is the art of piping the henna past onto the skin in beautifully intricate patterns often containing floral and geometric designs. Mehndi is typically applied in the nights before a wedding, with a tradition of hiding the groom’s name amongst the bride-to-be’s mehndi.
Aside from mehndi, henna is also used holistically in the Ayurveda practice of medicine. It is often mixed with essential oils and applied topically to treat headaches, stomach pains and burns as well as open wounds and fever. Henna can also be used as a form of sunblock. Henna would also be applied to colour the hooves, paws and tails of particularly favoured horses, donkeys and salukis.
To learn more about henna please follow the links below:
Guest blog series by: Sophie Mogg
Manchester Museum is currently planning a brand new HLF funded South Asia exhibit and held a fantastic Big Saturday with a South Asian theme. There were plenty of wonderful experiences to be had from traditional South Asian food to Bhangracise lessons that featured throughout the museum. You can find more about the event here.
We shared some beautiful specimens from our herbarium and Materia Medica collection depicting several culturally and economically important plant species from South Asia. This blog post will focus on the beautiful beverage, tea.
Originating in China during the Tang dynasty (618-907), the practice of drinking tea quickly spread to other parts of South Asia. Camellia sinensis var. assamica is typically a small evergreen shrub that will grow on to produce a small tree if left undisturbed. Native to the state of Assam, India, this variety produces a full-bodied black tea with a malty flavour.
Within the Assam state, this variety of tea is grown on plantations operating on a separate timezone (IST +1) to the rest of India. The first harvest occurs in March, typically referred to as the first flush. The second flush producing much fuller flavoured tippy tea occurs much later in the season. Following harvesting, leaves must first must undergo several labour intensive processes involving: fermenting, curling and drying. Subsequently leaves are graded by size and shape before being exported to other countries. The bud and smaller surrounding leaves are often graded the highest, with hand-picking of these leaves being repeated every few weeks. Larger leaves are graded lower, due to their chemical composition differing to the young leaves.
Tea is not only the second-most widely consumed beverage across the world, it is also involved in the Ayurveda practice of medicine. Tea would be mixed with a variety of herbs such as rooibos, rosehips and chamomile for their medicinal benefits.
In the upcoming weeks I will be following the silk and spice trade routes from Asia to the UK so stay tuned to learn more about fantastic plants of the past and present and where you might find them. If you have any suggestions not listed below, please leave a comment!
If you would like to find further information on Camellia sinensis and the production of tea please follow the links below: