materia medica

There and back again! A Materia Medica Tale by Jemma Houghton

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By Jemma


For the past few weeks I have been back at the herbarium returning the materia medica collection to their cupboards following work undertaken by estates.

materia medica boxes
Boxes of materia medica jars to be organised back into the cupboards.


half done cupboards
First cupboards filled with specimens.


This project is somewhat reminiscent of my placement year over two years ago at the herbarium when I photographed, databased and organised the collection into their current system.

materia medica jars
Completed organisation of the materia medica collection two years ago.


The materia medica collection at the Manchester Museum contains over 800 specimens of plants, animals and minerals that were used for medicinal purposes. It dates from the latter half of the nineteenth century and was originally used as a teaching tool for medical and pharmacy students at Owens College.


Following the 1858 Medical Act, anyone wishing to be a practicing physician first had to be included on the medical register. This required them to pass at least one of the qualifications recognised by the General Medical Council – such as those by the Royal College of Physicians – and the majority of these involved some form of examination into materia medica. As such, materia medica was an essential subject for any medical student during the nineteenth century.


The role of the materia medica collection as a teaching resource, therefore, meant that it was a vital part of medical education at Owens College. This was particularly evident given that the collection at the time had its own dedicated museum at the medical school!


The building that housed this museum no longer exists so the collection no longer has its own museum, but instead resides in the tower of the Manchester Museum as part of the herbarium.

The Travelling Botanist: Cinnamon, a spice of many tales

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Guest blog by: Sophie Mogg

Cinnamomum cassia

Cinnamon is a spice that we have all had the opportunity to try, whether in fancy coffees, liqueurs or delicious buns. Whilst the “true” cinnamon species is Cinnamomum verum, the most common source of cinnamon is Cinnamomum cassia. Both species originate in Asia, with C. verum being native to Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon) and C. cassia originating in southern China. In order to distinguish the cinnamon produced by the two species in the spice trade, cinnamon refers to C. verum whilst cassia refers to C. cassia.  This is because, C. verum is  more expensive of the two due to its sweeter taste and aroma as less than 30% of cinnamon exports come from Sri Lanka. 

Cinnamon has been traded for many thousands of years, with the imports into Egypt reported as early as 2000 BCE so it is no surprise that there are countless tales and historical events that surround this spice. From Sieur de Joinville believing cinnamon was fished from the Nile at the end of the world and Herodotus writing about mystical giant birds (such as a phoenix) that used cinnamon sticks to build their nests, the history of cinnamon is rich in legends of its origin as it wasn’t until 1270 that it was mentioned the spice grew in Sri Lanka. However as sweet as this spice may be it also appears to have a bloody history. Aside from the countless wars raged over the right to trade cinnamon, it was also used on the funeral pyre of Poppaea Sabina, the wife of Nero, in 65 AD. It is said that he burned over a years supply as recompense for the part he played in her death.

There are a total of 5 species (C. burmannii, C. cassia, C. citriodorumC. loureiroi and C. verum)  that produce cinnamon however C. verum and C. cassia are where the majority of international commerce is sourced from. Production of cinnamon is fairly straight forward albeit time-consuming. The outer bark of the tree is shaved off exposing the inner bark which is the cinnamon layer. This inner bark is also shaved off and left to dry, naturally curling as it does. By comparison the cinnamon of C. verum has a more delicate flavour than that of C. cassia  as well as having thinner bark that is more easy to crush and produces a much more smooth texture. cinnamon-comparison

Cinnamon is prominent in the practice of Ayurveda medicine as well as traditional Chinese medicine, being one of the 50 fundamental herbs. Traditionally it has been used to treat a wide variety of ailments from digestive problems, respiratory problems, arthritis and infections. In traditional Chinese medicine it is believed that cinnamon is able to treat these ailments through it’s ability to balance the Yin and Wei as well being a counterflow for Qi. These terms are aptly explained here for those who are interested. While there is little scientific evidence for the treatment of digestive and respiratory disorders, cinnamon does appear to possess antibacterial, antifungal and antimicrobial properties which may help to fight infections although at this moment in time it is inconclusive in studies trialled on humans. Cinnamon produced from C. cassia coumarin, which thins the blood, can be toxic to the liver in high concentrations so it is advised that only a few grams per day be consumed.

For those avid tea lovers out there I’ve found instructions to brew your own cinnamon tea.

For more information check out the links below

Cinnamomum verum

Cinnamomum cassia in Chinese medicine

Rainforest Alliance – Cinnamon farms

Leave a comment below to tell me what you think or what you’d like to see next!

A Travelling Botanist: The Miracle Tree

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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.

Moringa oleifera specimens. Seeds, bark and pods.

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.

Moringa oleifera herbarium sheet

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.

Medicinal uses

Trees for Life International


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!

Cinchona and Treating Malaria

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by Jemma

This blog post is going to focus on the genus Cinchona, which is the source of the antimalarial drug quinine.

Cinchona officinalis Image taken from Image taken from
Cinchona officinalis
Image taken from Image taken from


The Quechua peoples of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador were the first to realise the medicinal properties of Cinchona. Though now famous as a cure for malaria, the Quechua used the tree’s bark as a muscle relaxant to treat shivering. Since shivering can be one of the symptoms of the disease, the bark was coincidently used to treat malaria. The Quechua’s use of Cinchona was observed by Jesuit missionaries, who introduced the plant to Europe by the 1630s.

Materia Medica jar containing Cinchona officinalis bark
Materia Medica jar containing Cinchona officinalis bark

In 1677, the use of the bark as a treatment for malaria was first noted in the London Pharmacopoeia, a reference text of different medicines. During his reign, the English King Charles II contracted malaria. He was treated by Robert Talbor, who used Cinchona bark mixed with wine to fight off the disease. He later went on to treat the son of Kind Louis XIV of France of the same disease.


In 1738, Charles Marie de La Condamine produced a paper that identified three separate species of Cinchona from his travels from Ecuador. This paper and a specimen from La Condamine were then used by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, who named the tree Cinchona. The name was based on a 16th century Spanish Countess of Chinchon, who contracted malaria and was cured with bark from the tree by the Quechua people. Linnaeus’ species was later named as Cinchona officinalis after he established his binomial system for classifying plants.


Medicinal properties

The bark of the Cinchona tee contains a number of medicinal compounds, including quinine and quinidine. Quinidine is used in pharmaceuticals as an antiarrhythmic agent, suppressing abnormal rhythms of the heart and regulating the heartbeat. Cinchona has been used in folk medicine to stimulate appetite, promote discharge of bile and treat mild influenza infections.

Small Materia Medica jar containing powdered Cinchona calisaya bark
Small Materia Medica jar containing powdered Cinchona calisaya bark

However, the most well-known use of Cinchona is as a source of the antimalarial compound quinine. Quinine is a crystalline salt that has antimalarial, fever-reducing, painkilling and anti-inflammatory properties. Though it is frequently found in antimalarial drugs, the compounds mechanism of action is still not fully understood. Even so, the bitter tasting quinine compound is included in many drugs treating malaria. Cinchona bark is still the most economically viable source of the compound, despite it being possible to synthesise quinine in a laboratory. Quinine has not been the primary treatment for malaria since 2006, when the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended that the drug artemisinin become the standard cure. Now quinine is used when artemisinin is not available.


Despite being an effective malarial treatment, quinine is not entirely safe. It can cause a condition called cinchonism, which can range from mild to severe. Mild conditions mainly involve reversible symptoms, such as skin rashes, dizziness and vomiting. Severe symptoms of cinchonism can involve temporary deafness, paralysis, blindness and death. Death is usually by pulmonary oedema, which is fluid accumulation in parts of the lungs.

Cinchona bark in a Materia Medica jar
Cinchona bark in a Materia Medica jar


Cinchona and homeopathy

It is said that the birth of homeopathy came about from Cinchona. Homeopathy is a form of alternative medicine in which it is believed that a substance that causes the symptoms of a disease in healthy people will cure similar symptoms in sick people. Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843), the founder of homeopathy, came across the tree when he was translating William Cullen’s work on the Materia Medica. In it, Cullen documented that the bark could be used to treat intermittent fevers and shivering. Hahnemann began taking a large dose of Cinchona daily for two weeks. He started to develop symptoms that resembled malaria. Though he attributed the symptoms to a hypersensitivity to the bark, this experiment gave Hahnemann the idea that ‘like cures like’, which he later developed into the idea of homeopathy.


Gin and Tonic

Quinine extracted from Cinchona is they key ingredient in tonic water, a carbonated soft drink. The dissolved quinine gives tonic water a distinctive bitter flavour, which is often used to compliment the alcoholic drink gin. The quinine content gives tonic water fluorescent properties under ultraviolet (UV) light. It can even fluoresce in direct sunlight as quinine is extremely sensitive to UV.

Tonic water fluorescing under UV light Image taken from
Tonic water fluorescing under UV light
Image taken from

Tonic water was first produced in the early 19th century, when British officials stationed in tropical colonial outposts began mixing quinine with carbonated water and sugar to alleviate the bitterness of quinine. They later started mixing this medicinal tonic with gin to create the classic ‘gin and tonic’ combination.


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by Jemma


Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) is a dense, clump-forming grass that is found in tropical and subtropical grassland  throughout southeast Asia. It can reach a height of around 2 metres with leaves that are white on the top and green on the underside. Lemongrass flowers are red to reddish-brown in colour.

Lemongrass Image taken from
Image taken from


Culinary uses

Cymbopogon citratus is abundant in the Philippines and Indonesia, where it is known as tanglad or sereh. Lemongrass leaves are too tough for the body to digest, so they either need to be removed before eating or chopped vary finely. Both the stems and leaves feature in Asian, African and Latin American cuisine in teas, soups and curries. It has a subtle citrus flavour that complements poultry, fish, beef and seafood dishes in particular.

Materia Medica jar containing Cymbopogon citratus
Materia Medica jar containing Cymbopogon citratus


Medicinal uses

Lemongrass is sometimes used in folk medicine, particularly in India and Brazil. The plant is believed to have a range of medicinal applications with its supposed hypnotic, anticonvulsant, antibacterial and antifungal properties. Though many of these believed effects have not been supported scientifically, some studies have shown that it does have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antifungal properties.


Citronellol, one of the essential oils that can be made from the plant, has antihypertensive properties. In other words it can lower blood pressure by relaxing the muscles of blood vessels, which results in increased blood flow and decreased tension. Hydrosol, a by-product of the distillation process used to extract the essential oils from lemongrass, is used in skin care products as a weaker alternative to the oils. In some individuals Cymbopogon citratus oil can cause contact dermatitis, whereby the skin is irritated and becomes swollen and sore.

Materia Medica jar containing oil of lemongrass
Materia Medica jar containing oil of lemongrass

Other uses

The oil extracted from Cymbopogon citratus is a popular insect repellent. It is particularly favoured for use against the stable flies that bite domesticated animals. Though it repels most insects, beekeepers are very fond of lemongrass oil as it can be used to attract honey bees when they swarm.  In addition to these, lemongrass oil is also used in perfumes and is a popular houseplant as it gives a room a ‘fresh’ fragrance. The plant is also grown on embankments in South and Southeast Asia as a means of soil conservation.


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Today’s blog post is going to focus on Matricaria chamomilla, which is more commonly known as chamomile or scented mayweed.


It is a highly aromatic shrub native to Europe and Western Asia. Chamomile grows up to 0.5 metres tall and possesses yellow daisy-like flowers that bloom in early- to mid-summer. Sometimes viewed as a weed, this plant is found near roadsides, landfills and in cultivated fields. It needs open soil to survive.

Chamomile flowers  Image taken from
Chamomile flowers
Image taken from


Medicinal uses

Chamomile has been used as far back as the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. They used it to treat fevers, digestive and menstrual problems, and as an insecticide.


In herbal medicine today it is used as a mild laxative, a sleep aid, an anti-inflammatory, and to treat digestive problems. In large doses, Matricaria chamomilla can cause nausea and vomiting due to small amounts of the toxin coumarin it contains, though this is extremely rare.

Herbarium sheet showing chamomile
Herbarium sheet showing chamomile

The plant has been studied extensively using pharmacological models, animal experiments and clinical tests. These studies showed that chamomile has anti-inflammatory, muscle relaxing, ulcer-protecting, bactericidal and fungicidal activity. Chamomile’s properties arise from the interaction of many different chemical compounds, such as bisabolol, chamzulene, matricin and apigenin. Bisabolol, a complex alcohol, seems to be partially responsible for the majority of chamomile’s medicinal effects. Recent studies have also reported that Matricaria chamomilla extracts could have some anti-cancer effects.

Materia Medica jar containing chamomile
Materia Medica jar containing chamomile


Other interesting facts

Garlands of this plant were found on Tutankhamun’s mummy along with chamomile traces being found on the body of Rameses II. Chamomile produces a strong yellow dye that has been used to dye textiles and is now a popular all-natural hair dye. Matricaria chamomilla is a relative of ragweed that can cause allergic reactions in some people.

Respect the Elder

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by Jemma


Elder, or Sambucus nigra, if found in woodlands and hedgerows throughout Europe, western Asia and North America. It is a short-lived shrub that can reach up to 6-9 metres tall. The plant has dark green, serrated leaves that possess a distinctive smell and flat-topped yellow-white flowers. These flowers bloom in May-July and are pollinated by insects, especially hoverflies. Following pollination, Sambucus nigra produces dark purple fruit that grow between September-October. These elderberries are mildly poisonous and grow in large clusters that often weigh down the branches of the plant.

Elderberries Image taken from
Image taken from
Sambucus nigra shrub Image taken from
Sambucus nigra shrub
Image taken from

Medicinal uses

For a long time Sambucus nigra has been used for a wide range of medicinal applications. It has been mentioned as far back as the Hippocratic Corpus (a collection of medical works from Ancient Greece) and Pliny (23-79 ACE), who both suggest the use of elderberry as a laxative and diuretic.

Materia Medica jar containing Elderflowers
Materia Medica jar containing Elderflowers

The flowers and fruit are still used in herbal medicine today for a wide range of remedies. They are used as a diuretic, to reduce inflammation, and to treat coughs and constipation. Sambucus nigra is also a popular flavouring agent used in laxatives.


Studies have shown that elderberries can be used to boost the immune system. This effect has been suggested to be caused by the high levels of anthocyanidins, which are chemical compounds that are known to stimulate the immune system, found in the berries. Other studies have suggested that the plant is effective against diabetes. Extracts from elderflower has been shown to stimulate the breakdown of glucose and increase secretion of insulin, both of which lower blood sugar levels.


Culinary uses

Sambucus nigra has a wide range of culinary uses, despite being toxic in its raw form. The plant contains low concentrations of cyanogenic glycosides, which are toxic, but these are destroyed by heat. Thus the elder is safe to consume after cooking. One of the primary uses of elder is the production of an anise-flavoured Italian liqueur, called Sambuca, which is made from the plants berries. Elder is also involved in the production of cordials, wines and teas. In addition, it is used to make various other products such as jams, jellies, chutneys, elderflower fritters and other baked goods.

Herbarium sheet displaying  Sambucus nigra
Herbarium sheet displaying Sambucus nigra

Other uses and interesting facts

Elder has been found in prehistoric archaeological sites across Europe. The stems were used by the ancient Greeks to make musical instruments called sambuke, whilst Native Americans used them for whistles and to make arrows. Traditionally, elder has also been included in the production of perfumes and dyes. The leaves are often used as a natural insect repellent. For a long time it was believed to be the tree from which Judas supposedly hanged himself in the Bible. However, this is unlikely since Sambucus nigra is not native to the Palestine region.

Sambuca instrument (aka sambuke) Image taken from
Sambuca instrument (aka sambuke)
Image taken from