#AdventBotany Day 10: Have yourself a microscopically Merry Christmas

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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.



Further reading

Fruit: and

Microscope slides

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
Tamarind flower.
Image taken from

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
Mature tamarind fruit pod.
Image taken from

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
Tamarind tree
Image taken from

Re-arranging the medicine cabinet….

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The herbarium possesses a wealth of botanical specimens in a special collection called the Materia Medica. The Materia Medica collection houses a huge variety of plant derivatives that were used in Victorian times for their therapeutic benefits. Stored in a confusing order in awkward cupboards in a room seldom visited, the collection was in need of a re-organisation. Each sample is stored in a glass jar. On each glass jar is a number in sharpie pen, this number represents the family the plant is a member of, using the Bentham & Hooker system of ordering. Previously the collection was ordered by what the sample was. For example there would be a shelf for seed samples, rhizomes, cortex samples, leaves etc. This system didn’t make much sense for a person who wanted to view all of the parts of one plant, or one genus of plant. This led to us deciding it would be best to do a complete overhaul of the system of ordering and start anew.

single jar  shelf left  shelf right

The first task in the project was to clear the cupboards of all of the samples. One morning Jamie the apprentice, Bernard the volunteer and I emptied the cupboards. Using the numbers written on the jars, we placed samples from the same family together on some temporary shelving. 578 jars of samples later and we had finally cleared the cupboards.
The next task was to write down what exactly was in each jar. What the sample was, the common name of the plant, the plant’s Latin name etc. This data is to be entered into a spreadsheet so that when people want to look specific items in the collection they will know where it is located or if there are any other parts of the plant in the collection. We will the re-house the collection back into the cupboards in the new order.

table   lists

Whilst the advent of modern medicine means the samples in the Materia Medica are no longer widely used, the samples are fascinating. The collection includes items such as: Poppy seeds (Papaver somniferum), Acacia Gum (Acacia sp.), Red Sandal Wood (Pterocarpus santalinus) , Grains of Paradise (Amomum melegueta) & Dragon’s Blood (Calamus draco).

red sandalwoodDragon's blood resinparadise grains

Blog post by Josh, FLS placement student

Challenging fruit

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Markets in the tropics offer a remarkable variety of fruit for sale; a lot of it unrecognizable to the UK based shopper! A recent enquiry from a Sudanese gentleman illustrates the point… he had four fruits in bag and wanted to know what they were.


This was the most difficult specimen to identify. It looks like a piece of white polystyrene with a few rootlets in it! It tastes acidic with a bit of an apple-ey note. And the word isn’t in any search engine. Gongoleze is the fruit of the Baobab tree, Adansonia digitata, which is found in sub-Saharan Africa. The Baobab fruits are filled with a pulp that dries and disintegrates into powdery white chunks. The Baobab is a traditional food plant in Africa. In Sudan, the tree is called Tabaldi. The fruit can be dissolved in milk or water and used as a drink. The seeds also produce an edible oil.

A difficult identification, part of the fruit of the African Baobab tree, fortunately it came with a sketch of the shape of the fruit!


The lalob is a fruit of the tree Balanites aegyptiaca, in English it is sometimes called the Desert Date and in Arabic it is also known as hidjihi or heglig. The fruit is edible, but bitter. In Africa; the leaves are eaten raw or cooked, the seeds are boiled to make them less bitter and eaten mixed with sorghum. The flowers are also edible. The tree has many medical uses, for example, the fruit is mixed into porridge and eaten by nursing mothers, and the oil is used to relieve headache.

Lalob fruit


The Doam fruit comes from a type of Palm tree, Hyphaene thebaica, which is commonly known as the Gingerbread tree. The tree was originally native to the Nile valley (it was sacred in ancient Egypt), and is common in sub-Saharan Africa. Tea made from Doum is believed good for hypertension. Doam also grows in southern India where it is known as Hoka.

The fruit of the “gingerbread tree” effectively a large date… wish I could get these in my local supermarket!


The Nabug was the only one I recognised immediately, it is commonly called jujube, and comes from the tree Ziziphus zizyphus which is in the buckthorn family and is able to tolerate very hot climates. The immature fruits taste a bit like apples. It ripens to a wrinkly and red or black. Jujube tea is used to treat sore throats. The fruits are boiled for several hours and the extract used to make herbal tea. Jujube fruit is eaten widely, in a lot of different dishes in Africa, India and southeast Asia.

Nabuq fruit, more commonly called jujube, these are slightly under-ripe and have an apple-ey taste. A very widespread tropical fruit. There is a good botanical story about the Latin name, but that’s for another day!