The Travelling Botanist: There’s always time for EVEN MORE tea!

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baby-chrysanthemum-teaGuest blog by: Sophie Mogg

I know you’re thinking “hasn’t she already covered tea?” and yes you’re correct. I have. However, Camellia sinensis (and all of the wonderful varieties of said species) is not the only plant that tea can be made from.  In a more recent blog post you have seen that tea can be made from winter green (Gaultheria procumbens) and the same can be said for a lot of plants. Today I will be venturing into the world of Chrysanthemums – Chrysanthemum indicum and Chrysanthemum morifolium to be exact.

C. indicum is a perennial that grows to roughly 100cm tall and is native to China. Chrysanthemum originates from the greek “chryos” and “anthos” translating to golden flower.  C. indicum lives up to the name and typically produces a  beautiful array of small yellow flowers that flower from August through to October however a multitude of colours are available amongst varieties. One particular variety, C.indicum var. edule (Kitam), is grown and cultivated as a vegetable in China. C. indicum is also one of the main parents of C. morifolium. C. morifolium is less cold hardy than its parental species, often requiring to be stored in greenhouses in Britain when during the cooler weather. However C.morifolium is far larger than its parental species and so is often favoured as a garden ornamental plant. In 1630 over 500 cultivars were listed and in the centuries since numbers have continued to rise generating plants that range from 30 – 120cm tall, with large blooms again in a range of colours.

Chrysanthemum indicum

Aside from being beautiful garden plants Chrysanthemums have also been used in Chinese medicine dating back to 475 -221 BCE and the production of tea. The leaves from both species can be used to brew tea, with  cultivars of C. morifolium developed so that leaves are less bitter. The flowers, specifically the petals, of C. morifolium can also be brewed to produce a delicately sweet flavoured tea that is also very beautiful to look at. The tea itself is said to help improve vision by soothing sore eyes and headaches as well as reducing infection and inflammation. Chrysanthemums are said to have antibacterial, antifungal and anti-inflammatory properties and so flowers would often be collected in Autumn and dried so that they could be used later as an infusion. Chrysanthemum tea is also recommended as an alternative to tea from Camellia sinensis for reducing blood pressure.

Flower heads and leaves can also be used in a variety of dishes. Leaves can be battered and turned into fritters and the petals can be pickled or served with soy sauce alongside tofu and salad.  Why not try some Chrysanthemum tea or a sprinkling of petals in your salad next time you’re out in the garden?

As always, let me know in the poll below what you would like to see next and stay tuned for the next Travelling Botanists blog post.


If you’d like to find out more about Chrysanthemums check out the links below

Chrysanthemum care

Chrysanthemum indicum

Chrysanthemum morifolium 

Chinese medicine

#AdventBotany – Getting stuffed at Christmas: Sage

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Common sage specimen, seeds and illustration on a 19th century herbarium sheet from Leo Grindon's cultivated plant collection
Common sage specimen, seeds and illustration on a 19th century herbarium sheet from Leo Grindon’s cultivated plant collection

There are many more gastronomically interesting options available at Christmas time, but I’m still always drawn to the reassuringly traditional sage and onion stuffing. Nowadays, in addition to stuffing poultry, sage is most commonly used to flavour other meat dishes (particularly sausages in British cuisine). However, its scientific name, Salvia officinalis, shows its heritage as a medicinal herb. The species name ‘officinalis’ comes from the Latin word officina referring to a monastic storeroom for herbs and medicines. Sage was recommended for all kinds of ills, from wounds and sore throats to hair care and fertility problems. There’s something about this suggestion for ‘Great Sage’ from Gerard’s Herball, however, which seems especially appropriate for overindulgent holidays:

‘Sage is singular good for the head and braine, it quickeneth the sense and memory, strengtheneth the sinews….’ John Gerard, 1597

This year, perhaps an extra bit of sage with my turkey could give me the edge over my competitors in any after-dinner Christmas boardgames!

John Gerard's herball, 1597
John Gerard’s herball, 1597


Sage is in the mint family (also known as the Lamiacaea). Many of the plants in this family are aromatic, but sage also shows some other very recognisable characteristics such as a square stem, leaves in opposite pairs and flowers with bilateral symmetry with the five petals fused to give the appearance of an upper and a lower lip. Originating from the Mediterranean, sage enjoys plenty of sunshine and doesn’t like to get too wet over winter, but is quite tolerant of low temperatures. The furry leaves help to keep insect pests at bay, but cultivars which flower freely are very attractive to pollinating insects such as honeybees and many different bumblebees.


The sage flower has an interesting mechanism for getting pollinated. As pollinator enters the flower looking for nectar it has to push past the base of the stamens which are blocking the way. This acts as a lever, so that the stamens tip forwards and leave pollen on the back of the insect. When it visits another flower, the insect can brush against the female stigma depositing the pollen. Some bees have learnt to cheat, however, and you can find small holes at the base of flowers where a bee has bitten through and drunk the nectar from the outside.

19th century botanical teaching model of a sage flower produced by Brendel, Germany.
19th century botanical teaching model of a sage flower produced by Brendel, Germany.

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

Spoke too soon….

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Common butterwort in flower
Common butterwort in flower

….when I said that the Common butterwort had finished flowering in Iceland in August and had set seed.

Pinguicula vulgaris
Pinguicula vulgaris

Today we went to the site of the Krafla fires eruption at around 650m above sea level and there were still a few early summer flowers to be found. Mountain avens (Dryas octopetala) is the national flower of Iceland and all the other locations we’ve visited have been covered with it’s beautiful fluffy seedheads.

Mountain avens
Mountain avens (with vapour from the hydrothermal power station)
Mountain avens seedhead

I was also delighted to find the pretty purple bells of the Alpine bartsia (Bartsia alpina)  which had gone to seed in other localities we’d visited.

Alpine bartsia flower
Alpine bartsia flower
Alpine bartsia after seed set
Alpine bartsia after seed set

While butterworts rely on carnivory, alpine bartsia has different specialist lifestyle which can help it to succeed in difficult environments:



Stratgies for low fertility soils

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As a member of the pea family, the Nootka lupin has root nodules for nitrogen fixation. We’ve also seen other peas, clovers and vetch plants capable of fixing nitrogen as we’ve travelled around Iceland.


Nodules on a lupin root
Nodules on a lupin root

Carnivorous plants, however, have a unique way of gaining nutrients which are not available in the soil. The butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris) is quite common in a lot of the damp environments that we’ve visited. The succulent leaves are covered with tiny glands which secrete fluids containing digestive enzymes. Small insects are trapped on the sticky surface of the leaf, and are digested by the enzymes. The fluid is then absorbed back into the leaf along with essential nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus which have been released from the insect corpse.

Butterwort rosette with small insects on leaves
Butterwort rosette with small insects on leaves

Common butterwort has a pretty purple flower held on a long stalk to keep pollinating insects away from the danger of the leaves. At this time of year plants have mature seed capsules.

Seed capsule
Seed capsule

However, as well as producing seed, the Common butterwort can also reproduce vegetatively, producing offshoots and new plantlets.

Spreading colony of butterworts
Spreading colony of butterworts

Beautiful Lady’s Slipper Orchids

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by Rachel

Stream bed

The Passo Pura in the Carnic Alps was awash with summer flowers when we visited for our Field Course in Alpine Biodiversity and Forest Ecology in July. One interesting walk took us up this seasonal stream bed on the side of Monte Tinisi and rewarded us with some beautiful Lady’s Slipper Orchids (Cypripedium calceolus).

Lady's slipper orchid

The flowers in the hot Italian sun were fading and drying up, but the plants in the shade were perfect.


I’d only ever seen this plant in cultivation before, so it was a treat to see it growing wild. In the UK it is very rare having been lost from many sites through 19th century collecting for the horticultural trade. The lady’s slipper orchid was thought extinct in the UK until a plant was found growing at one site in Yorkshire. This plant has been the focus for conservation and re-introduction programmes.


We also have pressed examples of this species in the herbarium collection and one sheet is on display in the Living Worlds gallery. This example was collected in the same area of the Carnic Alps in 1897 by James Cosmo Melville. He didn’t do a very good job of pressing the intricate 3D flowers, which is one reason why orchid flowers are often preserved in spirit collections.


This specimen collected from neighbouring Austria does a much better job of showing the structure of the flowers. However, the person who picked it also included the roots (not just examples of the leaves and flowers) which could have had consequences for the population of plants at that site. Like other orchids, germination needs the presence of a symbiotic fungus and  the lady’s slipper orchid can take many years before it reaches flowering size.