Something unexpected happened in the Manchester Museum!
By Eirini Antonaki
The herbarium of Manchester itself is a collection of some 750,000 specimens of preserved plants. Most are in the form of pressed specimens on flat sheets. Some are in small packets such as the mosses and lichens and some are even 3D e.g. our collection of fruits and seeds. Apart from them it has also books, plant illustrations , slides projector, microscopic slides, plant models and many more to explore.
Finally something that you can’t miss is our brand new modern greenhouse. You should definitely check out!
The Greenhouse is a hidden gem, located on the third floor of Manchester Museum. It accommodates plants from all over the world in an artistic installation that has been realised with the collaboration of Nonsense_indoor_plants , Jeanette Ramirez founder of The Clorofilas (@Theclorofilas) and our Curator of Botany Rachel Webster.
It is next to Sylvia’s study room, which is a multi purpose room near the new third floor cafe. What a wonderful idea to study or have a meeting with a view of ferns, cacti and tropical plants in the middle of the winter in Manchester!
Want to see more about the Greenhouse?
Then you can follow our instagram profile @mcrmuseumgreenhouse and you can upload your own photos with the #mcrmuseumgreenhouse.
The Poison Chronicles: Deadly Doping with Strychnos nux-vomica
Guest post by Laura Cooper
Strychnine is an infamous poison. It is most well-known by its appearance in the novels of Agatha Christie as an effective but unsubtle method of murder. It was widely available in the 19th century from chemists as a rat poison, but this was taken advantage of by a number of real life serial killers including Dr Thomas Cream who gave disguised as a medicine and in alcohol. But strychnine had another side to it. Its caffeine- like stimulating effects means it has been used as a performance enhancing drug in competitive sports.
Strychnine, along with the toxin brucine, is present in the seeds of Strychnos nux-vomica. Though its name is lurid, it does not have anything to do with vomiting, “nux vomica” translates as ‘bumpy nut’. S. nux-vomica is in the family Loganiaceae and is native to South-East Asia and India. It is a medium-sized tree with large smooth oval leaves. The flowers have a repellent smell and the fruit is apple-sized with a hard shell that is orange when ripe. Inside, the seed are held in soft gelatinous pulp. The seeds are flattened disks covered with fine hairs, their flatness gives them the nickname ‘Quaker buttons’. The strychnine is concentrated in the seeds, but the wood also possesses poisons including brucine. Strychnine in the S. nux- vomica plays the same role as abrin in Abrus precatorius, it prevents herbivore species evolving which specialize in eating these seeds, as the poison is so general that it will likely kill any animal that eats the seed.
Strychnine poisons by blocking glycine from binding to specific neurons in the central nervous system. Strychnine prevents glycine from carrying out its inhibitory role, so causes the central nervous system to over-react to the smallest stimulus.
Initially the muscles become stiff, which is followed by hyperreflexia, where small stimulus trigger powerful reflex reactions. Later, increasingly frequent whole body convulsions occur. These resemble those in tetanus, an explanation often used to cover up strychnine poisoning. Eventually the respiratory muscles become paralysed and death by asphyxiation occurs usually within a few hours. Strychnine cannot cross the blood-brain barrier, so the victim is fully conscious throughout, making strychnine poisoning one of the worst ways to die I can imagine.
The main method of treating strychnine poisoning is crude. The patient is given barbiturates and muscle relaxants and removed from stimuli to prevent convulsions until the strychnine is metabolised by the liver which takes a few days.
However, S. nux-vomica extracts have been used in herbal and alternative medicine. It has been recommended for many different health issues from abdominal pain, heart disease and migraines though there is no evidence for its efficacy as a drug. However, a low dose of strychnine stimulates the central nervous system in a similar way to caffeine, but to a greater extent. This gives it great potential to act as a placebo, which is likely why it was reported to treat a wide range of illnesses, as well as to help spur athletes to victory.
S. nux-vomica‘s stimulating effects were used in 19th and early 20th century Europe and America in competitive sports as one of an arsenal of performance enhancing drugs, which were even deemed necessary for some endurance sports. Strychnine helped the American Thomas Hicks secure an Olympic Gold Medal. He was given strychnine and brandy during the 1904 Olympic marathon when he was flagging, though he collapsed after crossing the finishing line he later recovered. To this day, strychnine is on the list of banned stimulants in the World Anti-Doping Agency International Standard Prohibited List.
For more information, see the Poison Garden’s page on the species and Ian Musgrave’s article on strychnine in sport.
A Travelling Botanist: The Miracle Tree
Guest blog series by: Sophie Mogg
In this installment of A Travelling Botanist I will be focusing on Moringa oleifera, commonly referred to as the miracle tree.
Moringa oleifera is native to South Asia however due to the multitude of useful products it can provide its distribution has increased in more recent years and now covers the majority of Asia, Africa and Europe. M. oleifera is a hardy tree, requiring little in the way of compost or manure and being drought resistant it is well suited to the environment of developing countries. M. oleifera reaches heights of up to 3M within the first 10 months and initial harvests of leaves are able to occur between 6-8months, with subsequent yields improving as the tree reaches maturity at around 12M tall.
Many parts of the Moringa tree are utilised in South Asian cooking. The young seed pods, more often referred to as drumsticks, are used in a variety of dishes such as curries, sambars, kormas and dals. The drumsticks can also be incorporated into soups such as the Burmese Dunt-dalun chin-yei. This is true also for the fruit of the drumsticks, the white seeds can either be cooked as you would green peas or incorporated into a variety of soups. Flowers can also be used, generally being boiled or fried and incorporated into a variety of friend snacks such as pakoras and fritters or alternatively used in tea.
The leaves of the Moringa tree are considered to be very nutritional, with the suggestion that a teaspoon of leaf powder being incorporated into a meal three times a day could aid in reducing malnutrition. The leaves can be prepared in a variety of ways, from being ground into a find powder or deep-friend for use in sambals. They can also be made into a soup with the addition of rice, a popular breakfast during Ramadan. The leaves of the Moringa also contain antiseptic properties with a recent study suggesting that 4g of leaf powder can be as good as modern day non-medicated soap. This provides some means of sanitation to people who would otherwise not be able to properly clean their hands.
The seeds of a single Moringa tree can be used to provide clean water for up to 6 people for an entire year. With their outer casing removed, the seeds can be ground to form what is known as a seed cake that can be used to filter water thereby removing between 90-99% of the bacteria present. This works on the basis of attraction whereby positively charged seeds attract negatively charged bacteria and viruses causing them to coagulate and form particles known as floc. This floc then falls to the bottom of the container leaving clean water above it. It is estimated that only 1-2 seeds are required for every litre of water.
Oil is a by-product of making the seed cakes, comprising of around 40% of the seed. This oil, often known as “ben oil” by watchmakers, can serve a variety of purposes due to its properties. Due to being light, it is ideal for use in machinery and produces no smoke when lit making it ideal for oil-based lamps. The oil also contains natural skin and hair purifiers and is becoming more popular with well known cosmetic companies such as The Body Shop and LUSH thereby providing revenue to the farmers who grow the miracle tree. It also bears similarities to olive oil making it ideal for cooking and therefore another avenue for marketing this multipurpose oil.
Moringa oleifera and its close relatives are also known for their medicinal properties, containing 46 antioxidants which aid in preventing damage to cells. Due to containing benzyl isothiocyanate it has been suggested that Moringa may also contain chemo-protective properties.
I know that you may think I have completely forgotten the bark of the tree. But no, that too has its use. The tree bark is beaten into long fibres ideal for making strong rope.
I hope you have enjoyed reading about the Miracle tree as much as I have, if you wish to seek more information just follow the links below.
As always 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!
A Travelling Botanist: There’s always time for tea
Guest blog series by: Sophie Mogg
Manchester Museum is currently planning a brand new HLF funded South Asia exhibit and held a fantastic Big Saturday with a South Asian theme. There were plenty of wonderful experiences to be had from traditional South Asian food to Bhangracise lessons that featured throughout the museum. You can find more about the event here.
We shared some beautiful specimens from our herbarium and Materia Medica collection depicting several culturally and economically important plant species from South Asia. This blog post will focus on the beautiful beverage, tea.
Originating in China during the Tang dynasty (618-907), the practice of drinking tea quickly spread to other parts of South Asia. Camellia sinensis var. assamica is typically a small evergreen shrub that will grow on to produce a small tree if left undisturbed. Native to the state of Assam, India, this variety produces a full-bodied black tea with a malty flavour.
Within the Assam state, this variety of tea is grown on plantations operating on a separate timezone (IST +1) to the rest of India. The first harvest occurs in March, typically referred to as the first flush. The second flush producing much fuller flavoured tippy tea occurs much later in the season. Following harvesting, leaves must first must undergo several labour intensive processes involving: fermenting, curling and drying. Subsequently leaves are graded by size and shape before being exported to other countries. The bud and smaller surrounding leaves are often graded the highest, with hand-picking of these leaves being repeated every few weeks. Larger leaves are graded lower, due to their chemical composition differing to the young leaves.
Tea is not only the second-most widely consumed beverage across the world, it is also involved in the Ayurveda practice of medicine. Tea would be mixed with a variety of herbs such as rooibos, rosehips and chamomile for their medicinal benefits.
In the upcoming weeks I will be following the silk and spice trade routes from Asia to the UK so stay tuned to learn more about fantastic plants of the past and present and where you might find them. If you have any suggestions not listed below, please leave a comment!
If you would like to find further information on Camellia sinensis and the production of tea please follow the links below: