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The Poison Chronicles: Deadly Nightshade

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Atropa belladonna model from the Manchester Museum Herbarium

Guest Post by Laura Cooper

Binomials can be a pain to learn, but they often have a hidden poetry. Deadly nightshade’s common name stresses its notoriety as a poison. But it’s binomial, Atropa belladonna, is far more beautiful and apt. The genus name is derived from Atropus, one of the three Fates of Greek Mythology, whose shears could cut the threads of life. The species name belladonna is the Italian for beautiful woman, named so because of the plant’s use in giving pleasingly dilated pupils. A figurative translation of the name could be femme fatale, appropriate for a plant whose main danger to humans is to the forager lured to pick and eat the glossy black berries.

The Herbarium has a large model of these berries displayed on a cabinet in the main room. It caught my eye as I was returning the gloves I wore to find Atropa belladonna Herbarium sheets. Compared to the shriveled fruits I had just seen, this was a regal fruit with the sepals like a ruff and a grandly arching stem. A belladonna indeed.

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Finding Atropa belladonna Herbarium sheets in the Manchester Museum Herbarium

Atropa belladonna is one of the most common plants involved in poisoning throughout most of Europe and central Asia, but is still no minor threat. For example, the plant topped the list of plants causing severe poisoning in Switzerland between 1966-1994. Of a total of 24,950 cases of contact with poisonous plants, 135 cases (0.6% of total) were serious poisonings with sufficient information. Atropa belladonna was involved in 42 of these cases, but no deaths were reported. This doesn’t mean the plant should be treated lightly though. It has the potential to be quite dangerous.

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Atropa belladonna Herbarium sheet showing the fruit, from the Manchester Museum Herbarium

As with many poisonous plants, it is very difficult to get an accurate measure of the lethal dose. Some report that an adult would be killed by 10-20 berries, whilst others report a case of children who had eaten eaten up to 40 berries and survived after hospitalisation.

A. belladonna‘s deadly potential is principally derived from three toxins, the tropane alkaloids hyoscine, hyoscyamine and atropine. The toxins have an anticholinergic effect, which means they affect neurones by competing with the neurotransmitter acetylcholine for muscarinic receptors. After a delay, this leads to an inhibition of the parasympathetic nervous system. This produces anticholingeric syndrome, whose symptoms are remembered by the mnemonic, “dry as a bone, blind as a bat, red as a beet, mad as a hatter, hot as a hare”. If the dose is high, this can lead to psychosis, convulsions, respiratory failure and death.

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Atropa belladonna Herbarium sheet showing flowers, from the Manchester Museum Herbarium

 A. belladonna and its derivatives were favoured tool for the poisoner. In the late 19th century, the psychopathic American nurse Jane Toppan used atropine in concert with morphine to kill over 31 people. As atropine and morphine produce opposite responses, atropine “speeds up” the system whilst morphine slows down the body, Toppan balanced the doses of both drugs to prolong her victims’ struggle until a fatal dose was given.

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Atropa belladonna poster from the Manchester Museum Herbarium

However, atropine in the right hands can be a very useful chemical, even a lifesaver. It is the standard antidote for nerve gas poisoning, as it blocks the excess acetylcholine the nerve gas produced. It is also used to dilate eyes for examination by an ophthalmologist and is given to patients after cardiac arrest. Ironically, the very “poison” that Jane Toppan used to kill a victim whose death was originally recorded as heart disease is now used to help save patients from dying from a heart attack. There can always be a useful side to the proverbially deadliest of plants.

Upcoming Exhibition: Object Lessons

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For the past few months I’ve been working on a really exciting exhibition opening on the 20th of May: Object Lessons #MMObjectLessons Object Lessons celebrates the scientific model and illustration collection of George Loudon. Each of these finely crafted objects was created for the purpose of understanding the natural world through education, demonstration and display. […]

via Object Lessons exhibition: coming soon — Palaeo Manchester

India, December 2016

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Menaka shares some of the sights from her recent trip to India……

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Last December, Stephen Welsh (Curator of Living Cultures) and I went on a research trip to India for the Courtyard Project, focusing on the South Asia Gallery – a partnership gallery with the British Museum. Neither of us had visited India before, although we were familiar with other parts of South Asia. It was an exciting and hectic schedule and in two weeks we visited Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi and Kochi – so more or less each compass point of what is an amazing country. The focus of our visit was to meet with museum professionals, artists and to get a real feel for both the historic and archaeological wonders, as well as the contemporary culture of a country that is fast becoming an emerging global superpower. We were joined in Kolkata and Kochi (where we attended the Kochi-Muziris Biennale) by Manchester Museum Director Nick Merriman.

It…

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The Travelling Botanist: Cinnamon, a spice of many tales

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Guest blog by: Sophie Mogg

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Cinnamomum cassia

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. citriodorumC. 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-comparison

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.

For those avid tea lovers out there I’ve found instructions to brew your own cinnamon tea.

For more information check out the links below

Cinnamomum verum

Cinnamomum cassia in Chinese medicine

Rainforest Alliance – Cinnamon farms

Leave a comment below to tell me what you think or what you’d like to see next!

The Poison Chronicles: Aristolochia -Childbirth Aid and Carcinogen

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Aristolochia clematitis Herbarium sheet from Manchester Museum Herbarium

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.

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Aristolochia clematitis Herbarium sheet from Manchester Museum Herbarium

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.

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Aristolochia clematitis flowers. Source.

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.

For more information, see:

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/05/160503130532.htm

http://herbaria.plants.ox.ac.uk/bol/plants400/profiles/AB/Aristolochia

The Travelling Botanist: A Berry Good Day!

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Lycium chinense

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.

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Goji berries and flower

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.

For more information follow the links below

Lycium chinense

Lycium barbarum 

Chinese medicine – goji berry

Health benefits and side effects

Alien Plant Invasions and the Extinction Trajectory

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This is a really interesting post on the Awkward Botany blog about alien species and the possibility of plant extinction.
In our current ‘Extinction or Survival?’ exhibition we have illustrated this potential threat to species using the stories of the red squirrel and the white-clawed crayfish in the UK, but of course competition with invasive species is a potential risk for plants too.

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One of the concerns about introduced species becoming invasive is that they threaten to reduce the biodiversity of the ecosystems they have invaded. They do this by spreading rampantly, using up resources and space, altering ecosystem functions, and ultimately pushing other species out. In the case of certain invasive animals, species may be eliminated via predation; but plants don’t eat each other (generally), so if one plant species is to snuff out another plant species it must use other means. Presently, we have no evidence that a native plant species has been rendered extinct solely as a result of an invasive plant species. That does not mean, however, that invasive plants are not doing harm.

In a paper published in AoB Plants in August 2016, Paul O. Downey and David M. Richardson argue that, when it comes to plants, focusing our attention on extinctions masks the real impact that invasive…

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