Manchester Festival of Nature (MFoN), Sunday 27th June 2021
It’s been a strange time for festivals and events. Following 2019’s scorchingly hot event at Heaton Park, 2020’s Festival of Nature went entirely online with some great digital webinars and workshops, oh, and me with my first attempt at live-streaming some plant pressing. Best leave it to the professionals!
This year we again have some wonderful online content for everyone to enjoy, and we started early this year with twitter takeovers throughout the month of June.
On the day of the Festival, you can get to all the new content on our ‘main stage’ twitter account @MancNature. Also, if you are lucky enough to be taking a Sunday stroll through Heaton Park today, you might spot the Lancashire Wildlife Trust’s gazebo and chat to them about wildlife in the park.
This year, the Museum has supported the Manchester Nature Consortium Youth Panel to deliver their art competition for the Festival. Taking inspiration from the bee and insect themes of the Festival, the young people launched a Pollinator Portrait competition earlier this year. They must have faced a tough choice voting for the winners as the quality of entries was really good. The Youth Panel loved the Museum’s Beauty and the Beasts digital exhibition, so we decided to create an online exhibition to display all the works.
Head on over to our online gallery to see for yourself……..
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.
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
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.
Guest blog by: Sophie Mogg (with images and introduction provided by Rachel Webster)
It’s always a joy to see something growing through these dark and dreary winter months. With glossy, green leaves, little cream bell-like flowers and big, red berries that start to appear as the snow melts, today’s plant, Gaultheria procumbens, is a very popular choice for baskets and containers. The name of this plant originates from Pehr Kalm, a Swedish explorer who named this plant after his good friend, Dr. Hugues Gaultier who expressed huge enthusiasm for the plant’s potential for tea.
Gaultheria procumbens goes by many common names such as the Checkerberry, Mountain Tea or my particular favourite la Petit te du bois meaning “the little tea of the woods”. The “tea” part of these common names refers to the fact that the leaves can indeed be brewed for tea however unlike that of Camellia sinensis, the leaves must be left to ferment in order to produce a distinct flavour. Drinkers of this mountain tea suggest that you place several leaves in a jar that can be sealed with boiling water and then cover said jar with a cloth or tea towel. The leaves must then be left to ferment for roughly 3 days in a warm environment, or at least till you can see small bubbles appearing. The liquid can be drained from the jar and stored, being diluted and warmed when required. The left over leaves are then dried and can be used again to make a more delicate flavoured tea. The leaves are evergreen and so can be harvested all year round to produce tea however it is suggested that you only take one or two leaves from each stem.
The essential oils of the leaves, known as oil of wintergreen, contains methyl salicylate and relative of aspirin and is known to act as a natural painkiller however those who are allergic to aspirin should avoid Gaultheria procumbens.
The small berries produced by Gaultheria procumbens is often referred to as “teaberries” and these are also edible with a mild minty wintergreen taste. The unripe berries are a pale green-white colour but soon ripen to a beautiful rosy red with a star-shaped depression on the bottom. They can be eaten raw or cooked to produce pies, jams or jellies.
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: 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.
Exciting changes ahead for Manchester Museum….
Manchester Museum, part of The University of Manchester, has received initial support from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) for its Courtyard Project. The project will transform the Museum with a major two-storey extension, a new main entrance, and much-improved visitor facilities inspired by a new ethos of a ‘museum for life.’
Manchester Museum – possible perspective render
Work will commence in May 2018 and the finished building will reopen in early 2020. Development funding of £406,400 has been awarded to help Manchester Museum progress its plans to apply for a full grant at a later date.
The Courtyard extension will create a major new Temporary Exhibitions Gallery, providing almost three times as much space as the Museum currently has for temporary and touring shows. The new facility will enable the Museum to become one of the North of England’s leading venues for producing and hosting international-quality exhibitions on human cultures…
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The Manchester Museum came to a standstill this morning as the staff stood transfixed watching the partial solar eclipse over Manchester’s cloudy skies. Only a few hours to go until our next spectacle as the British Museum’s Moai Hava arrives from Liverpool World Museum ahead of our next temporary exhibition ‘Making Monuments on Rapa Nui‘. An exciting day for us all!
So after my blog on the opium poppy (https://herbologymanchester.wordpress.com/2015/01/23/powerful-poppies/) I have decided to write another; this time on Gossypium barbadense.
G. barbadense is a small, tropical tree that produces cotton. The cotton fibres grow in a protective capsule, called a boll, around the seeds to increase seed dispersion. These fibres can be collected and spun into yarn or thread, which then have a variety of uses. These include making textiles, coffee filters and fishing nets. Cotton was even used in the 1890s in the manufacture of fire hoses.
Cotton has been used by humans for at least 7,000 years. Archaelogists have found signs of G. barbadense domestication (based on cotton bolls found) from around 4,400 BC. It is believed that cotton spread throughout India between 2,000-1,000 BC. Following his invasion into India during 327–325 BC, the troops of Alexander the Great began to wear cotton clothes because they were more comfortable than the alternative woollen ones.
By the medieval period, cotton had spread to northern Europe and was imported in large quantities. It was extremely popular as it was a cheaper alternative to silk but could easily be imprinted on to make patterned textiles. At first there was a common misconception that cotton was produced by plant-borne sheep due to its woolly appearance. However, G. barbardense was soon cultivated in Europe and this misunderstanding corrected. After the introduction of inventions like the spinning jenny in the 1770s, cotton manufacture soared in Europe. The Midlands in England quickly became one of the most profitable production centres for cotton.
From the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, textiles (particularly cotton) became their primary export. During this time, numerous inventions helped to dramatically increase cotton production. These included (but not limited to) Paul and Wyatt’s flyer-and-bobbin system for drawing cotton, Hargreaves’ spinning jenny and Crompton’s spinning mule. The invention of Whitney’s cotton gin for efficiently separating cotton fibres from the seeds reduced the time and cost of production, leading to cotton becoming one of the most widely used textile in the world. From the end of the 18th century onwards, Manchester became known as “Cottonopolis” due to its domination of the cotton trade.
The cotton trade continued to grow throughout the early 19th century and Britain had become one of the primary exporters. British factories imported vast quantities of fibres from India to produce cotton, but by the 1840s India could no longer supply the ever growing demand. British traders then instead turned to plantations in the United States, who quickly became one of Britain’s prominent suppliers. By the mid-19th century, cotton cultivation became one of the main occupations of slaves in the southern states of America.
During the American Civil War (1861-1865), the Union states blockaded the Southern ports so cotton export dwindled. This led to Britain once again needing a new source of the fibre; turning this time to Egypt. Egyptian cotton has a much higher thread count and is today viewed as a luxury brand of cotton. At the time the Egyptian government invested heavily in the trade and took large loans from European bankers to finance their fledgling cotton plantations. However, the boom in Egyptian cotton was short-lived. After the end of the America Civil War, traders abandoned Egyptian cotton in favour of the cheaper cotton supplied by the Americans. This crippled Egypt’s economy to the point that it declared bankruptcy in 1876.
The cotton industry in Britain reached its peak in 1912 when over 8 billion yards of cloth was produced. However, there was soon a drastic decline in trade with the onset of World War I. During the war, cotton could not easily be exported and other countries soon began developing their own industry. One such country was Japan who, by 1933, replaced Britain as the largest cotton manufacturer. The interwar period then completely destroyed Britain’s declining cotton industry. During this time over 345,000 workers became unemployed and more than 800 mills closed. Britain had become a net importer of cotton by 1958, rather than an exporter, and its remaining mills struggled to remain open. For the next few decades Britain’s cotton industry floundered and a mill closed approximately once a week. By the 1980s, Britain’s textile industry had all but disappeared.
The demand for cotton has doubled since the 1980s and today’s production occurs in lower-wage areas because production is cheaper. China is now the main producer of cotton, closely followed by America and India.