A Victorian Christmas card in our Nature’s Library Gallery, Manchester Museum
The Fern Madness!
“I wish it could be Christmas, every day…” So goes the popular song, but at Manchester Museum we do have a Christmas card on display 365 days a year, in the Nature’s Library gallery.
But what plants are those? Are they herbs for Christmas dinner? Are they plants grown in the house over Christmas? No, not at all – these are ferns, and they are here as a remnant of the Pteridomania or ‘Fern Madness’ that swept the nation in the Victorian era. The term ‘Pteridomania’ was coined by Charles Kingsley in 1855:
“Your daughters, perhaps, have been seized with the prevailing ‘Pteridomania’…and wrangling over unpronounceable names of species (which seem different in each new Fern-book that they buy)…and yet you cannot deny that they find enjoyment in it, and are more active, more cheerful, more…
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Specimen of Arenga listeri, endemic to Christmas Island. Herbarium collection, Manchester Museum
Christmas Island – A Festive Story…
Christmas Island sits in the Indian Ocean just off the Indonesian coast, and is mostly famous for the island’s millions of Red Crabs, not red noses or red breasted robins… so why does it have possibly the most festive name you could imagine?
Christmas Island red crabs (Gecarcoidea natalis) make an annual migration to the coast of the Indian Ocean for breeding. (Source)
The story begins in 1643, Captain William Mynors is aboard the Royal Mary, an East India Shipping company vessel, on a journey to trade for exotic cargo such as indigo dye, silks and teas never before seen in England. During this particular voyage he sees a curious island in the distance, assuming it to be undocumented and uninhabited already, he names it after the day…
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Specimen of domestic apple, collected by Charles Bailey in 1917, from Manchester Museum’s Herbarium Collection.
A Christmas Toast
Who doesn’t like to have a toast at Christmas?
The Anglo-Saxon tradition of Wassailing was most likely enjoyed throughout Britain many years before Christianity. The beginning of each year greeted by ‘the Lord of the manor’ with a toast of waes hael, meaning “be well” or “be in good health” and with his followers replying drink hael! And although it was traditionally done on New Year’s Eve, wassailing was also celebrated by some on the twelfth day of Christmas.
Old Christmas, Illustrated London News 24 Dec 1842 (source)
A Traditional Recipe
The wassail drink was originally made from a warmed ale or cider, blended with curdled cream, roasted apples, eggs, cloves, ginger, nutmeg and sugar (today a lighter version is more common with just added spices and honey); it…
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A selection of apothecary spice jars held in the herbarium at Manchester Museum. Left to right: ginger, black peppercorns, cardamom, fennel, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg (with mace) and star anise.
A Land of Many Spices
The Indian subcontinent is a land of spices. Many of them are indigenous to the area, while others have been introduced over the course of history and found their optimal growing conditions here. Once worth their weight in gold, today most spices from India and other parts of the world can be easily found on the shelves of any supermarket.
Some spices are known for their health benefits, which have been recognised in both Eastern and Western medical traditions. They have antimicrobial, antifungal and anti-inflammatory properties, are rich in antioxidants, increase metabolism, improve blood circulation and can help fight minor ailments like headaches, stomach pain, blocked nose, sore throat and cough.
An Ancient Blend and…
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Cones of all shapes and sizes – Displayed on the Third Floor, Manchester Museum.
An Evergreen Advent
When I was young, throughout the year, whenever we visited woods and forests, we used to collect cones – pine, fir, larch, even monkey puzzle! At Christmas, my dad used to paint the tips white, like snow, and attach wire to them so we could hang them on the Christmas tree…
A reminder of spring to come
During the festive season, cones are everywhere – table dressings, garlands, wreathes… In fact, evergreens have been used to celebrate winter festivals for thousands of years – the Romans used fir trees to decorate their temples for Saturnalia, pagans used branches to decorate their homes during the winter solstice, a reminder of the spring to come, while Christians have used evergreens to signify continuous life.
Io Saturnalia! Replica of Roman silverware found at Hildesheim…
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Common sage specimen, seeds and illustration on a 19th century herbarium sheet from Leo Grindon’s cultivated plant collection. Manchester Museum (source)
A History of Sage (& Onion) through time
Stuffing is often relegated to the status of ‘trimmings’ at the festive dinner table, but for me it’s a gourmet Christmas star. Whether tumbling out of a turkey, piled on a sandwich or rolled into a ball and smothered in gravy, sage and onion stuffing is the stuff of Christmas present.
But how did this combination of breadcrumbs, sausagemeat (sometimes) and age-old wonder herb become part of the traditional British Christmas dinner? Looking for answers led me on a surprising culinary journey, from Iraq and ancient Rome to an Edwardian butcher’s shop in Eccles.
Hidden Herbs – For some festive fun I’ve hidden the names of another ten herbs and spices below so happy foraging!
A Child’s Christmas Dinners…
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Vintage Newspapers: Manchester Museum’s Herbarium is not only an archive of trees and plants…
Christmas Treasures in the Herbarium
Many of the plant specimens stored in the herbarium in the Manchester Museum are pressed and mounted on A3 sheets of paper, called herbarium sheets. These are stored in acid-free, pest resistant boxes, in taxonomic order on open shelves.
Herbarium corridor, Herbarium Manchester Museum.
The herbarium sheet below is a pressed specimen of plant called Metrosideros tomentosa. It’s common name is New Zealand Christmas Tree, or fire tree, because of its vibrant red flowers from November to January.
Herbarium sheet with a Metrosideros excelsa specimen, Manchester Museum.
And here is what it looks like in flower:
Also known in New Zealand as pōhutukawa, it is one of twelve Metrosideros species endemic to New Zealand. Renowned for its vibrant colour and its ability to survive even perched on rocky, precarious cliffs…
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