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.
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
Guest blog by: Sophie Mogg
I’m taking a break from my travels to celebrate world soil day. World soil day celebrates the importance of soil in our natural environment and contributes enormously to human well-being through providing a place to grow crops and supporting all walks of life.
In many parts of the world soil is now contaminated with heavy metals and radioactive elements as a by product of mining and various other human activities. This renders the soil unusable and unsuitable for feeding livestock, growing crops and restoring natural habitats. However there are many plants, known as hyperaccumulators, that are able to absorb these heavy metals through their roots, often concentrating them in their leaves. This process is known as phytoremediation. These metals can be retrieved from the plants by burning them, a process known as phytomining. By using natural hyperaccumulators we can reclaim those areas affected by mining and hopefully restore some natural habitats in the process.
Here are some of those wonderful plants from our collection, enjoy!
Guest blog by: Sophie Mogg
I’ll soon be crossing the border into Southeast Asia and exploring the many wonderful plants there but there’s time for one last post!
Oryza sativa, which translates to “rice” and “cultivated”, remains a staple for half of the worlds population. It is a widely cultivated plant, growing in over 100 countries and on all continents with exception of Antarctica. There are currently 40,000 varieties of rice of which over 100 of these are grown globally. Oryza rufipogon grows through South and Southeast Asia, it is the wild relative of Oryza sativa. The earliest recorded cultivation of rice has been documented to be in China around 6000 BC.
Within the species sativa, two subspecies have been classified: japonica, indica.
Japonica varieties are short-grained and sticky, often grown in higher altitudes such as the uplands of Southeast Asia. Indica on the other hand are long-grained and non-sticky varieties grown in the lowlands and often submerged. Javanica, now known as tropical japonica, is a subgroup to japonica and is made up of broad-grained varieties grown in tropical conditions. However classification of rice has changed numerous times due to differing basis of classification such as the types of enzymes present or short sequence repeats in the DNA.
Oryza sativa can grow either 1M tall in dry conditions or 5M long in submerged conditions. The stem is composed of several nodes and from each node grows a long, slender leaf. The seeds, like other grass species, grow on long spikes which have the tendency to arch over with the weight of the seed. It is the endosperm of these seeds which we consume. Whilst rice can be found in many colours such as white, brown, red, purple and black we commonly eat either the white or brown rice. White rice is typically polished (milled) to remove the bran layer, where as wholegrain “brown” rice has the bran layer intact. The bran layer, present in all cereal crops, is rich in essential amino acids, dietary fibre and antioxidants.
96% of the rice that is grown worldwide is consumed by the same countries that grow it however these countries also suffer from Vitamin A deficiency. Scientists have tried to improve the nutritional quality of rice by introducing enzymes from other plants via genetic modification that are needed to synthesise beta-carotene. Beta-carotene is converted into Vitamin A in the intestines. The Golden Rice Project aims to reduce the incidence of Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) syndrome which is prevalent in these countries.
Generally rice is steamed or boiled however it can also be used to produce several other products. Rice can be pressed in order to produce rice milk, which is an excellent alternative for those avoiding dairy products who may also have a nut allergy however it is rich in carbohydrates and low in protein and so is not necessarily the best option for diabetics or the elderly. In Japan, sake is made from brewing milled rice somewhat similar to beer however the conversion of starch to sugar and then sugar to alcohol occurs simultaneously. Sake is customarily sipped from a small cup known as a sakazuki on special occasions.
Rice is also used in many traditional medicines such as Ayurveda such as in the treatment of diarrhea. Rice would be boiled and then strained, allowing the water to cool. The patient would then drink the rice water which would stop the diarrhoea or ease the stomach upset as well as re-hydrating them. Congee is a traditional dish made using a single grain, often brown rice, and slowly cooking it on low heat with a 1:5 or 1:6 ratio of rice to water. Congee is said to be very beneficial to those with low energy and issues regarding weight loss/gain and is made across India and China. Several studies such those using rice callus and extracts have shown that rice also has anticancer properties by inhibiting growth of human cancer cells.
If you have any suggestions for the types of plants you wish to learn about please fill in the poll below or if you have any specific queries please leave a comment.
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Guest blog by: Sophie Mogg
2016 marks the international year of the pulses, decided back in 2013 at the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly. The Food and Agriculture Organization nominated pulses in the hope that this would raise awareness of their importance in providing a sustainable source of plant protein.
Throughout the the year there have been many conferences, discussions and workshops held in order to promote a better understanding and public awareness on topics surrounding sustainable food production, food security and nutrition as well as improvements in crop rotation and how we can work towards improving trade connections of pulses and utilization of plant based proteins. Whilst none of these events are taking place in the UK many resources are available online at their website including recipes and videos for you to watch.
As with all my other blog posts I have found some specimens within our collection to show you.
The Chick Pea (Cicer arietinum)
“This interesting little leguminous plant has been an object of cultivation from time immemorial & grows wild at the present day in the cornfields”
C. arietinum is one of the earliest cultivated legumes dating back around 7,500 years ago in the Middle East. Production is rapidly increasing across Asia as superior cultivars are developed and released. Many country farmers depend upon this legume for a source of income however legumes also enrich the soil through the addition of nitrogen.
This small plant, reaching heights of 20-50 cm, may not look like much but the seeds pack a punch. Approximately 100g of these seeds provides ~20% of protein, dietary fibre and other minerals needed, thereby providing a cheaper alternative to those who cannot afford meat or choose not to eat it. Leaves are also consumed providing essential micro-nutrients which are significantly higher than in cabbage and spinach.
A study has also shown that the chickpea can also be used as an animal feed, with many groups of animals benefiting.
The Pigeon Pea (Cajanus cajan)
The pigeon pea often grows between 1-4M tall with a tap root reaching around 2M. This legume is also a major source of protein for those living in South Asia and has been consumed across Asia, Africa and Latin America since it was first domesticated in India around 3,500 years ago.
It is a perennial plant that is harvested for between 3-5 years however after the second year the yield drops and so annuals are more often used as a means to harvest the seed. Like the chickpea, the pigeon pea is also able to enrich soils with nitrogen and its leaves are often used to feed cattle whilst the woody stem is used for firewood.
Black Lentil (Vigna mungo aka Phaseolus mungo L.)
Vigna mungo can be found in various forms ranging from a fully erect plant to one that trails growing between 30-100cm. It produces large leaves which are hairy and seed pods that are approximately 6cm long.
It is very popular in India where the seed is split and made into dal. The Black Lentil is very nutritionally rich containing 25g of protein per 100g of seed as well as many other important micro-nutrients and therefore plays a huge role in the diets of those from India.
Guest blog by: Laura Cooper
Whilst volunteering at the herbarium I came across several small boxes containing bewitchingly bright red seeds and an equally garish TOXIC sign. They were labelled Abrus precatorius seeds, and that one of their common names is the rosary pea suggests that I am not the first to be taken in by their beauty. The seeds of Abrus precatorius have the eye-catching red of hawthorn berries capped with a black spot at the hilum, but glossy and sturdy enough to be drilled to make beads for jewellery.
The contrast between the beauty of the seeds and their toxicity inspired us to begin a blog series on toxic plants called The Poison Chronicles. We want to look at how they can kill, but also why they have evolved this ability and if the plant has any other products that are medicinally useful.
Abrus precatorius is a vine in the Legume family native to the Old World Tropics, but was introduced to the Neotropics for it’s ornamental value, but is now an invasive species. It proliferates after a forest fire so can out-compete slower growing plants, it’s suckering ability makes it difficult to remove.
But these seeds are more than just beautiful. They have earned their TOXIC label as they contain the toxin abrin, which has a very low fatal dose, reported in the literature as around 0.1 – 1μg/kg, making it one of the most toxic known plant products. Abrin acts by inhibiting protein synthesis, so can affect all cells in the body. A few hours after a person has ingested a lethal dose of abrin, they may experience severe vomiting, gastrointestinal bleeding, dehydration, multi-organ damage and death often within 36-72 hours. The incredible toxicity of abrin was occasionally used to secretly kill people in 19th century Bengal. The seeds were ground into a paste, shaping into a point known as a sui and left to harden in the sun. This was then mounted on a handle and stuck through the person’s skin by a surreptitious slap to the cheek.
Despite this toxic plant being widespread, there have been very few cases of abrin poisoning. The thick indigestible coat of mature seeds meaning that if seeds are swallowed whole, they are unlikely to release much abrin and symptoms are mild. Chewing the seed releases the toxin, and it has been reported that a single well chewed seed could kill. However, a case of a patient attempting suicide through ingesting 10 crushed A. precatorius seeds survived after swallowing activated charcoal. Except when used or taken deliberately, it is surprisingly difficult for humans to be poisoned by A. precatorius, so for most this plant poses more of a threat to your garden as an invasive than your health.
An obvious question is why these seeds contain such a deadly toxin. I have been unable to find any research on this. But it may be that the thick seed coat means the toxin isn’t a defence against herbivores ingesting the seeds at all. As it has been reported that the seed is dispersed by birds who would not chew the seed and would instead disperse them in faeces, it is possible it is a defence against mammals chewing the seeds.
A. precatorius has not always been seen as a deadly beauty, and has been used a traditional medicine. Extracts of the seeds have been used in the Pothohar region of Pakistan as a purgative and an aphrodisiac and in rural Bangladesh to treat erectile dysfunction. The symptoms of poisoning by abrin suggests very low doses could work as a purgative, there is a high risk of administering a lethally high dose.
A. precatorius‘ entire biochemical system makes it toxic, so single chemical plucked out of this network can have very different properties from the plant as a whole. In contrast its traditional uses, experiments have been done which show that abrin injected into laboratory mice damages the DNA and reduces production of sperm cells, though the long time period needed for DNA repair to occur means it is unlikely to be used in commercial birth control.
Abrus precatorius demonstrates the multi-faceted nature of plants: at once a beauty and a (potential) killer; a toxin and used as a medicine.
We hope you have enjoyed our first installment of The Poison Chronicles. You can find more information following the link below
What wondrously poisonous plant would like to find out about next? Leave your comments below.
Guest blog series by: Sophie Mogg
Cotton, we’ve all seen it, heard of it and probably worn clothes made from it too. In today’s installment we’ll be taking a look at Gossypium arboreum, the species of cotton native to India and Pakistan. This particular species was supplied as a single specimen by Carl Linnaeus for his herbarium and was recorded within his own book, Species Plantarum 1753.
Cotton has been cultivated in South Asia from around 3300 BCE. It is a perennial shrub, reaching approximately 2M tall and grown more like an annual due to being harvested every year. The leaves of the cotton plant are lobed, typically having 3-5 lobes and bearing a close resemblance to maple leaves. The seeds are contained within the boll, a small capsule and individual seeds are surrounded by two types of fibres known as staples and linsters. The former is produced into high quality textiles where as the latter produces lower quality textiles. Whilst Gossypium arboreum and its sister plant, Gossypium herbaceum (Africa) only form 2% of the world production of cotton, new varieties of these species are being bread for more desirable traits. One such variety is Gossypium arboreum var. neglecta grown along the Meghna river. This variety, known as “Phuti karpas” is used to make Muslin in Bangladesh as the cotton fibres can be spun to produce threads are more resistant to breaking at higher counts.
The fibres can be separated from the seeds either manually or by use of a machine known as the cotton gin. There are two types of cotton gins, the saw gin for the shorter fibres and roller gin for the longer fibres. The roller gin was invented in India and is used to prevent damage to the longer fibres. Once fibres are separated from the seed they are compressed into lint bales and graded. Carding is the next step, where fibres are pulled so that align parallel to one another and eventually form a sliver which is a rope-like strand of cotton. The slivers are combed to remove impurities before being drawn out into thin strands (roving). The final processing step of cotton is the spinning, where the roving is drawn out and twisted for form yarns and threads for weaving to produce textiles.
Towards the end of the 18th century Manchester had begun to build steam powered mills in order to work with cotton and by 1871 was using approximately 30% of the cotton produced globally. Over 100 cotton mills were built during this time and the industry was supported by The Exchange where over 10,000 cotton merchants would meet in order to sell their wares. The start of the cotton industry across Britain coincided with the Calico act of 1721 being repealed allowing British companies to use cotton in order to make calico, a cheaper and less refined cotton textile, into clothing. Cotton textiles soon became one of the main exports of Britain and is still one of the worlds most used fibres today.
If you are interested in finding out more about plants from Asia over the next few weeks please fill out the poll below.
If you would like to learn more about cotton and the cotton industry follow the links below:
I’ll soon be travelling to other parts of Asia so I hope you continue to join me. Look for future blogs exploring dyes, medicines and potentially poisons. As always, don’t forget to leave a comment about what you’d like to see from our collection.
Guest series by: Sophie Mogg
Continuing on from last weeks post, I will be continuing my exploration into plant species within South Asia. This particular blog post will feature the otherwise ordinary shrub known for its highly pigmented dye, Lawsonia inermis.
Lawsonia inermis L., commonly referred to as Henna, is a tall shrub or small tree ranging in height from 1.8-7.6m tall. Native to Africa and South Asia, L. inermis thrives at high temperatures and cannot survive the milder climate (below 11°C) found within the UK. At 35-45°C is when the most dye, referred to as Lawsone or hannotannic acid, is produced. It is this dye that produces the dark red-orange pigment that Henna is known for.
Harvested leaves are ground into a fine powder and often mixed with a mild acidic liquid such as tea, lemon juice or lime juice to produce the paste used in the traditional practice of mehndi/mehendi. Mehndi is the art of piping the henna past onto the skin in beautifully intricate patterns often containing floral and geometric designs. Mehndi is typically applied in the nights before a wedding, with a tradition of hiding the groom’s name amongst the bride-to-be’s mehndi.
Aside from mehndi, henna is also used holistically in the Ayurveda practice of medicine. It is often mixed with essential oils and applied topically to treat headaches, stomach pains and burns as well as open wounds and fever. Henna can also be used as a form of sunblock. Henna would also be applied to colour the hooves, paws and tails of particularly favoured horses, donkeys and salukis.
To learn more about henna please follow the links below: