cooking

A Travelling Botanist: A plant worth its weight in gold!

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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?

Crocus sativus
Crocus sativus

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.

For more information:

Grow your own saffron crocus 

Interesting facts about Crocus sativus

BBC Recipes using Saffron

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!

Palm oil: The Good, the Bad and a History

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by Jemma

 

Elaeis guineensis is a single-stemmed palm tree in the Arecaceae family that can reach up to 20 metres in height. It is native to West and Southwest Africa and thrives on open, flat land with plenty of water. The palm’s plum-sized palm fruit grow in bunches of around 1,000 and are reddish in colour. The fruit is a drupe, which means it has a fleshy outer layer surrounding a single seed. Both the flesh and seed are rich in oil, which can be extracted. Elaeis guineensis is the primary source of palm oil and is closely related to the American species Elaeis oleifera.

The parts of an Elaeis guineensis plant (African palm oil). Image taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elaeis_guineensis
The parts of an Elaeis guineensis plant (African palm oil).
Image taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elaeis_guineensis

History

In the late 1800s, archaeologists showed that humans have used Elaeis guineensis for the past 5,000 years. They found the plant in a tomb dating from 3,000 BCE in the ancient Egyptian city of Abydos. It is widely believed that Arab traders brought the palm to Egypt from Africa.

Fruit and seeds of Elaeis guineensis oil palm
Fruit and seeds of Elaeis guineensis oil palm

Europeans were introduced the palm sometime during the 16th-17th centuries. They originally traded for palm oil in the ‘palm oil coast’ (the southern coast of Nigeria) before growing the plant in their colonies. One such colony was the British-occupied Malaysia. Elaeis guineensis became established in Malaysian plantations in the early 1900s. For the most part, these plantations were owned and run by the British until the late 1900s when the Malaysian government took control.

Materia Medica jar containing Elaeis guineensis seeds
Materia Medica jar containing Elaeis guineensis seeds

The government set up the Federal Land Development Authority (Felda) in 1956 to operate their plantations. The main aim of Felda was to use the plantations as a means of eradicating poverty in the area. Those wishing to be involved were given 10 acres of land in which to plant oil palms or rubber plants and 20 years in which to pay off the debt for the land. In the 1960-70s, the Malaysian government expanded the project to include other crops so that they had an economic ‘cushion’ for when the price of rubber fell. Soon the land dedicated to rubber became more palm oil plantations. By the end of the 20th century, Felda had given rise to other organisations, such as the Federal Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority (FELCRA) and the Sarawak Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority (SALCRA). These additional organisations had the same primary aim as Felda; to eliminate poverty through the cultivation of crops. Today Felda is the world’s largest palm oil producer, with around 900,000 hectares dedicated to growing the palm.

 

Uses

Palm oil can be extracted either from the flesh of the fruit or from the seed. As mentioned previously, some of the earliest findings of Elaeis guineensis were in Egyptian tombs. The vast quantities of oil found have suggested that they used it for culinary rather than cosmetic purposes. The unrefined oil is still a common cooking ingredient in West Africa today, but elsewhere is always refined before use. Palm oil is high in saturated fats, making it solid at room temperature and able to withstand higher temperatures compared to many other cooking oils. For these reasons, as well as a rise in popularity for naturally saturated fats, palm oil has become a cheap and popular substitute for butter. Due to its ability to withstand high temperatures, palm oil is second only to the soybean in its use as vegetable cooking oil. Oil from Elaeis guineensis is often also included in many other foods, such as ice cream, crisps and chocolate.

Materia Medica jars containing palm oil
Materia Medica jars containing palm oil

Although around 90% of palm oil is used in food, its use is not limited to culinary purposes. It is also added to cosmetics, shampoos and soaps. In recent years, palm oil has become a popular biofuel. Traditional African medicine have used Elaeis guineensis as a laxative, to stimulate the production of urine, as a poison antidote, to cure gonorrhoea and to treat skin infection – to name but a few uses. However, it may not be entirely harmless as some studies have linked palm oil with cardiovascular diseases.

 

Materia Medica jar containing palm oil
Materia Medica jar containing palm oil

 

Social and environmental concerns

Despite its wide range of uses, there are many social and environmental impacts of cultivating the palm. Growing the plant is a source of income for governments – particularly in Malaysia – as well as a major provider of employment. However, there have been many unfavourable social effects of this. Many palm oil plantations have appropriated lands for cultivation without consulting or compensating the local residents. In some cases, the plantations do not even employ the locals but rather import labour or illegal immigrants.

Elaeis guineensis in palm oil plantation. Image taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elaeis_guineensis
Elaeis guineensis in palm oil plantation.
Image taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elaeis_guineensis

Along with the social concerns that accompany the plantations, there are also substantial environmental impacts. Cultivation of the plants has caused irreversible damage, including deforestation, habitat loss and increased greenhouse gas emissions. Large areas of tropical rainforests have been cleared for plantations and the resulting biodiversity loss could result in the extinction of species of potential medicinal importance. In some areas where enforcement of environmental legislations is lax, plantations have had little regulation to stop tem encroaching into protected areas and releasing pollutants into the environment.

 

Other states have implemented environmentally-friendly practices to try to limit the damage. These have included the use of waste products as sources of ‘renewable’ methane production to generate electricity. However, palm oil plantations are still environmentally damaging as many rainforest are above peat bog that store vast amounts of carbon. The deforestation and bog draining involved in setting up the plantations releases this carbon into the atmosphere, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. Many environmental groups have pointed out that the environmental impacts of running plantations are far more damaging to the climate than the benefits gained by the biofuel produced.

Specimen of the day – Tamarind

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by Jemma

Tamarind is a tropical, frost-sensitive, long-lived, busy tree that can reach over 20 metres in height. It is an evergreen tree but Tamarindus indica’s bright green, fern-like leaves can fall off if exposed to prolonged periods of hot, dry weather. The sweet-scented, five-petal flowers are yellow with pink/red streaks and resemble small orchids. The tree produces edible, pod-like fruit that start off green in colour before maturing to reddish-brown. The fruits seeds are surrounded by a sticky sweet pulp that is edible. Tamarind trees will produce fruit for 50-60 years before declining productivity.

Tamarind flower. Image taken from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tamarindus_indica_(Emli)_flowers_W_IMG_9164.jpg
Tamarind flower.
Image taken from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tamarindus_indica_(Emli)_flowers_W_IMG_9164.jpg

The genus Tamarindus, to which this tree belongs, is a monotypic taxon. This means that the genus contains a single species: T. indica.

 

Tamarind has been used by humans as far back as the ancient Greeks in the 4th century BC.

Materia Medica jar containing tamarind
Materia Medica jar containing tamarind

The mature fruit of the tamarind tree has a tangy sweet flavour and is used in cooking. It is particularly associated with Asian and Latin America cuisine. The green immature fruit is also used in cooking but for different purposes as it has a sour taste. The young pod is often used in Worcestershire and HP sauces. Both mature and immature plants contain a number of chemicals that are beneficial to human health, including tartaric acid, Vitamin B and calcium.

Mature tamarind fruit pod. Image taken from http://www.karthikexim.com/Tamarind.aspx
Mature tamarind fruit pod.
Image taken from http://www.karthikexim.com/Tamarind.aspx

As well as its culinary applications, Tamarindus indica has been used in traditional medicines throughout Southeast Asia. It has been used to combat fevers, aid digestive problems and sooth sore throats. In a recent study, it has been suggested that tamarind may delay the progression of skeletal fluorosis by increasing fluoride excretion. Skeletal fluorosis is a bone disease caused by excessive accumulation of fluoride in the bones so, by assisting with the expulsion of this compound, tamarind could slow down the rate at which fluoride accumulated. Though promising, further research is needed to confirm these results.

 

The wood of the tree is a bold red colour and durable, making it a popular choice of wood in carpentry (particularly in for furniture and flooring).

Tamarind tree Image taken from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tamarind_tree.jpg
Tamarind tree
Image taken from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tamarind_tree.jpg