At this time of year, there is always that one person who is impossible to buy a gift for. What do you get a botanist who has everything? Well, how about some microscope slides?
As we’ve been working our way through Manchester Museum’s 15,000 microscope slide collection, I can’t help but imagine some of these as presents. For starters, there’s all that beautiful paper; no gift is complete without the careful wrapping. Early microscope slides were wrapped in paper to keep the coverslip in place on top of the specimen. Other methods for attaching the coverslip were developed, but some slide preparators continued to use the papers for decoration.
Just imagine the fun your botanical friend could have looking at the finer details of the fruit and veg and sharing their findings over the Christmas dinner. While the word ‘fruit’ in English is used for many sweet-tasting plant parts, its use is much more specific in botany. There are a considerable number of ways by which any aspiring botanist can learn to describe their fruits and distinguish one kind from another. They might offer a slice of soft, juicy, pickled pepo (cucumber) with the cheese, warn fellow diners to take care with the hard stone in their delicious drupe (date), join in the struggle to break into a true nut (walnut) and, my personal favourite, uncover the zesty heperidium (tangerine) at the bottom of their Christmas stocking. Not forgetting, of course, there is always the chance to put people off their dessert by explaining the intricate way that the highly specialised fig flower structure is visited by wasps and develops into the culinary fruit (technically known as a synconium; I wonder if that would get a good score in Scrabble?) .
A set of slides could be an opportunity to escape another round of charades and escape to some quiet contemplation! Perhaps of the Christmas tree in extraordinary detail. Just imagine the pleasure getting lost for hours in the patterns created by slicing the timber in different directions, with or across the grain. Or maybe a close investigation of a local nativity scene – is that really hay in the manger? Or is it a much scratchier bed of straw?
The fortunate recipient of your microscopical gifts can follow in the footsteps of Mr George Wilks, who was clearly snipping bits off the decorations in 1903. Perhaps he needed to test out a new microscope from Santa.
Microscope slides http://www.victorianmicroscopeslides.com/history.htm
It seems only right to devote the Christmas Day blog for Advent Botany to a plant that has brightened my winter garden for many years, Erica x darleyensis. This hybrid heath was first reported from a nursery in Darley Dale, Derbyshire in the late 1800s. It is a hybrid between the smaller winter heath, Erica…
By DrM Vernon and Christine Heywood (photo: Stephen Jury) Dr M introduced to #adventbotany this year, #adventbotanists, botanists whose birthdays fall within advent. The first featured Erasmus Darwin a great botanical mind from a bygone age. Dr M’s second #adventbotanist features Vernon Heywood, born on 24th December 1927, widely recognised as a world authority on…
I’m not one for cream on my Christmas pudding, it just has to be custard or ice cream and so what I’m really admitting to is a love for vanilla. Vanilla is the quietest spice at Christmas but there is so much more to vanilla than merely two scoops of icecream.
Natural vanilla is the fruit and seeds from a tropical, climbing orchid. There are other edible orchids (e.g. Dendrobium flowers and salep tubers), but it is certainly the most commonly used in food preparation. Some orchids are harvested from the wild to eat (such as Orchis mascula and O. militaris for salep), but given the demand, luckily this isn’t true for vanilla. There are over 100 orchid species in the Vanilla genus, but the most commonly cultivated species is Vanilla planifolia (more commonly known as Madagascan or Bourbon vanilla).
V. planifolia is native to Central and South America, and was first domesticated by the Totonac people of east Mexico, who used it exclusively until Aztec conquerors demanded vanilla as a tribute. The Spanish conquistador Cortez brought vanilla to Europe, where initially it was only mixed with cocoa and drunk, but later was used in other deserts. Vanilla was very expensive during the 16th to 19th century, as Mexico had a monopoly on this luxurious spice. The reason for this was discovered by the French botanist Charles Morren who in 1836 observed Melipona bees pollinating the flowers, which have a range limited to Mexico. Therefore, the only way to cultivate vanilla elsewhere is by hand pollination. Morren experimented with hand pollination methods but the method still used today was devised by Edmond Albius, aged 12, in 1841. A twig or blade of grass is used to lift the rostellum, separating the stigma and anthers, and the thumb is used to transfer pollen to the stigma. The process is further complicated by each infloresence only lasting for 24 hours.
Vanilla is labour intensive to produce, so natural vanilla is still the second most expensive spice (after saffron). Albius’ method allowed vanilla to be grown in what is now Madagascar, Reunion and the Comoros Islands, which today account for 80% of the world’s vanilla pod production. You can find more about vanilla from the National Geographic website and an interesting site dedicated to vanilla.
For centuries vanilla has been used to flavour our foods, drinks and even pharmaceuticals but the main extract from the vanilla pod, vanillin, wasn’t isolated until 1858. Nicolas- Theordore Gobley obtained it by completely evaporating the vanilla extract and then recrystallizing it from hot water in order to separate it out from all of the several hundred other components found in the extract. Since the 1870’s companies have competed to produce synthetic vanillin from clove oil, lignin, guaiacol and glyoxylic acid. More recently, Rhodia has marketed a “natural” vanillin which is prepared using microorganisms. You can find out more about the structure of vanillin here.
Around 2% of the dry weight of the cured pods of Vanilla planifolia is vanillin. When the seed pods are first harvested, they are green and lack the vanilla flavour and aroma. Curing of the vanilla pods consists of just four steps. “Killing” often entails the pods being frozen or blanched in hot water to initiate reactions which develop the aroma. Sweating involves stacking pods within layers of wool for 7-10 days in a very hot (45–65 °C) and humid environment. Drying occurs to reduce the remaining moisture content to around 25% in order to prevent rotting. Conditioning is the final step where the pods are left in the box for several months before being graded. It is after this curing process that vanillin develops the aroma and flavour that we have come to know and love.
To get into the Christmas spirit I’ve found some very Christmassy treats for you to make at home yourself:
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Advent Botany 2016 – Day 20: Virgin birth and hidden treasures: unwrapping some Christmas figs — Culham Research Group
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By Dawn Bazely Prince Albert, the father of the Victorian Christmas Prince Albert, who moved to England from Germany, to marry the young Queen Victoria, led the Victorians in inventing much of today’s Christmas aesthetic that dominates Britain and North America. But, the Nativity is celebrated by diverse cultures throughout the world, and is much…