medicine

The Travelling Botanist: A Berry Good Day!

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Lycium chinense

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.

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Goji berries and flower

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

Lycium chinense

Lycium barbarum 

Chinese medicine – goji berry

Health benefits and side effects

The Travelling Botanist: There’s always time for EVEN MORE tea!

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baby-chrysanthemum-teaGuest blog by: Sophie Mogg

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.

chrysanthemums
Chrysanthemum indicum

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

Chrysanthemum care

Chrysanthemum indicum

Chrysanthemum morifolium 

Chinese medicine

#AdventBotany – Getting stuffed at Christmas: Sage

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Common sage specimen, seeds and illustration on a 19th century herbarium sheet from Leo Grindon's cultivated plant collection
Common sage specimen, seeds and illustration on a 19th century herbarium sheet from Leo Grindon’s cultivated plant collection

There are many more gastronomically interesting options available at Christmas time, but I’m still always drawn to the reassuringly traditional sage and onion stuffing. Nowadays, in addition to stuffing poultry, sage is most commonly used to flavour other meat dishes (particularly sausages in British cuisine). However, its scientific name, Salvia officinalis, shows its heritage as a medicinal herb. The species name ‘officinalis’ comes from the Latin word officina referring to a monastic storeroom for herbs and medicines. Sage was recommended for all kinds of ills, from wounds and sore throats to hair care and fertility problems. There’s something about this suggestion for ‘Great Sage’ from Gerard’s Herball, however, which seems especially appropriate for overindulgent holidays:

‘Sage is singular good for the head and braine, it quickeneth the sense and memory, strengtheneth the sinews….’ John Gerard, 1597

This year, perhaps an extra bit of sage with my turkey could give me the edge over my competitors in any after-dinner Christmas boardgames!

John Gerard's herball, 1597
John Gerard’s herball, 1597

 

Sage is in the mint family (also known as the Lamiacaea). Many of the plants in this family are aromatic, but sage also shows some other very recognisable characteristics such as a square stem, leaves in opposite pairs and flowers with bilateral symmetry with the five petals fused to give the appearance of an upper and a lower lip. Originating from the Mediterranean, sage enjoys plenty of sunshine and doesn’t like to get too wet over winter, but is quite tolerant of low temperatures. The furry leaves help to keep insect pests at bay, but cultivars which flower freely are very attractive to pollinating insects such as honeybees and many different bumblebees.

sage

The sage flower has an interesting mechanism for getting pollinated. As pollinator enters the flower looking for nectar it has to push past the base of the stamens which are blocking the way. This acts as a lever, so that the stamens tip forwards and leave pollen on the back of the insect. When it visits another flower, the insect can brush against the female stigma depositing the pollen. Some bees have learnt to cheat, however, and you can find small holes at the base of flowers where a bee has bitten through and drunk the nectar from the outside.

19th century botanical teaching model of a sage flower produced by Brendel, Germany.
19th century botanical teaching model of a sage flower produced by Brendel, Germany.

The Poison Chronicles: Death by Pea

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Guest blog by: Laura Cooper

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Abrus precatorius seed necklace on display in the Study.

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.

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Abrus precatorius seeds

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

Poison Garden – Abrus precatorius 

What wondrously poisonous plant would like to find out about next? Leave your comments below.

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.

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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.

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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!

A Travelling Botanist: A plant worth its weight in gold!

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Guest blog series by: Sophie Mogg

To those of you who cook exquisite dishes using saffron, I am sure you are aware of its beautiful aroma and colour as well as its hefty price tag. The question I want to ask is, can you name the plant saffron is derived from?

Crocus sativus
Crocus sativus

Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world and is harvested from Crocus sativus, commonly referred to as the saffron crocus. C. sativus will grow to approximately 20-30cm and produce up to four flowers, the saffron itself being the stigmata of the plant and often referred to as strands. This domesticated crocus is in fact sterile and so bulbs must be divided and replanted in order for more crocuses to grow. This plant is sterile due to it’s triploid genome, meaning that it has three paired sets of chromosomes.

Saffron, like tea, is hand-harvested with each flower only yielding 3 strands. The flowers bloom at dawn, gradually withering throughout the day and the stigmata rapidly losing their aroma and colour hence the flowers must be collected quickly so that the saffron can be removed from the flower and dried. It is estimated that over 85,000 flowers would be required to produce 1 kg of saffron. These factors are what contribute to the high sale price of saffron. In order to keep your saffron fresh, buy it in small quantities and store it in an airtight container away from sunlight. This will ensure it stays in top condition for 3-6 months.

The use of saffron is not limited to South Asia and is often used to impart a pale orange-yellow hue to foods such as rice but it also features in Swedish baked goods, soups and Italian liqueurs such as Strega and Fernet. Kashmiri saffron, produced in Pakistan, is commercially sold for use as both a dye and a folk remedy for melancholy. Saffron has also had notable references made to it in the treatment of scarlet fever, measles, Alzheimer’s disease and is currently being investigated for its potential to treat to asthma and insomnia. If you’re interested in the research conducted into the use of saffron you can find all the relevant links here.

Please complete the poll to have a say in the type of plant that features in the series. If you choose other, please specify what you would like to see.

For more information:

Grow your own saffron crocus 

Interesting facts about Crocus sativus

BBC Recipes using Saffron

Did you know you can request a guest blog on a plant of your choice? 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: Health and beauty, wonders of a single plant.

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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:

Lawsonia inermis 

Medicinal uses

#AdventBotany Day 5: Walnuts

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Walnut botanical print from Kohler’s Medizinal Pflanzen

In my humble opinion, the hazelnut is OK, but in my stocking I’ll be sure to find some walnuts. Clearly I’m not the only one to put this as the king of the nuts either, as the botanical name, Juglans regia, translates as ‘royal nut of Jupiter’. One myth has the  Roman god Jupiter (also known as Jove) living on walnuts during his time on Earth.

Roman coin showing Jupiter throwing thunderbolts

 

Walnuts have been used medically for centuries. In the ancient herbalist system known as the Doctrine of Signatures, plants with medicinal properties would resemble the part of the body they would be effective at curing. The walnut’s resemblance to a human skull and brain meant that it would be recommended for injuries to the head (for example by treating head wounds with walnut oil). Later remedies expand on the usefulness of walnuts, such as this recommendation by Culpepper:

‘If taken with onions, salt and honey, they help the bites of mad dogs, or poisonous bites of any kind.’

Culpepper’s remedy reported in John Parkinson’s ‘Teatrum Botanicum’, 1640.
Culpepper’s remedy reported in John Parkinson’s ‘Teatrum Botanicum’, 1640.

 

These fruit have turned black with drying and aging, but young, pickled walnuts also turn black.
These fruit have turned black with drying and aging, but young, pickled walnuts also turn black.
Boxed specimens from the Manchester Museum herbarium.
Boxed specimens from the Manchester Museum herbarium.

 

As it grows, the nut is protected by a green, fibrous fruit which splits when the nut ripens in autumn. The hard-outer case protects the rich food reserves inside. These were the produced by the plant and stored within the nut for a young seedling to use upon germination. The flesh of the nut is rich in fibre, protein and omega-3 fatty acids as well as being a source of minerals such as calcium, magnesium and potassium.

Herbarium sheet showing pressed walnut leaves, flowers and developing fruit from the Himalayas in 1881.
Herbarium sheet showing pressed walnut leaves, flowers and developing fruit from the Himalayas in 1881.

The natural range of the walnut tree was throughout North and Central Asia, and into Eastern Europe. The species is thought to be declining in its Central Asian strongholds through grazing, seed collection and timber use. The species has been listed as ‘Near Threatened’ by the IUCN Red List. However, walnut trees have been planted all across Europe and in the US and are often found in large parks and gardens in the UK as ornamental trees.

 

This blog post is part of the #AdventBotany series hosted by the Culham Research Group at the University of Reading. Get ready for the next installment in the botanical advent calendar for 2015!

References

Edible, an Illustrated reference to the World’s Foods. National Geographic

Culpepper’s Compete Herbal

The Origin of Plants by Maggie Campbell-Oliver

Palm oil: The Good, the Bad and a History

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by Jemma

 

Elaeis guineensis is a single-stemmed palm tree in the Arecaceae family that can reach up to 20 metres in height. It is native to West and Southwest Africa and thrives on open, flat land with plenty of water. The palm’s plum-sized palm fruit grow in bunches of around 1,000 and are reddish in colour. The fruit is a drupe, which means it has a fleshy outer layer surrounding a single seed. Both the flesh and seed are rich in oil, which can be extracted. Elaeis guineensis is the primary source of palm oil and is closely related to the American species Elaeis oleifera.

The parts of an Elaeis guineensis plant (African palm oil). Image taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elaeis_guineensis
The parts of an Elaeis guineensis plant (African palm oil).
Image taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elaeis_guineensis

History

In the late 1800s, archaeologists showed that humans have used Elaeis guineensis for the past 5,000 years. They found the plant in a tomb dating from 3,000 BCE in the ancient Egyptian city of Abydos. It is widely believed that traders brought the palm to Egypt from elsewhere in Africa.

Fruit and seeds of Elaeis guineensis oil palm
Fruit and seeds of Elaeis guineensis oil palm

Europeans were introduced the palm sometime during the 16th-17th centuries. They originally traded for palm oil in the ‘palm oil coast’ (the southern coast of Nigeria) before growing the plant in their colonies. One such colony was the British-occupied Malaysia. Elaeis guineensis became established in Malaysian plantations in the early 1900s. For the most part, these plantations were owned and run by the British until the late 1900s when the Malaysian government took control.

Materia Medica jar containing Elaeis guineensis seeds
Materia Medica jar containing Elaeis guineensis seeds

The government set up the Federal Land Development Authority (Felda) in 1956 to operate their plantations. The main aim of Felda was to use the plantations as a means of eradicating poverty in the area. Those wishing to be involved were given 10 acres of land in which to plant oil palms or rubber plants and 20 years in which to pay off the debt for the land. In the 1960-70s, the Malaysian government expanded the project to include other crops so that they had an economic ‘cushion’ for when the price of rubber fell. Soon the land dedicated to rubber became more palm oil plantations. By the end of the 20th century, Felda had given rise to other organisations, such as the Federal Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority (FELCRA) and the Sarawak Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority (SALCRA). These additional organisations had the same primary aim as Felda; to eliminate poverty through the cultivation of crops. Today Felda is the world’s largest palm oil producer, with around 900,000 hectares dedicated to growing the palm.

 

Uses

Palm oil can be extracted either from the flesh of the fruit or from the seed. As mentioned previously, some of the earliest findings of Elaeis guineensis were in Egyptian tombs. The vast quantities of oil found have suggested that they used it for culinary rather than cosmetic purposes. The unrefined oil is still a common cooking ingredient in West Africa today, but elsewhere is always refined before use. Palm oil is high in saturated fats, making it solid at room temperature and able to withstand higher temperatures compared to many other cooking oils. For these reasons, as well as a rise in popularity for naturally saturated fats, palm oil has become a cheap and popular substitute for butter. Due to its ability to withstand high temperatures, palm oil is second only to the soybean in its use as vegetable cooking oil. Oil from Elaeis guineensis is often also included in many other foods, such as ice cream, crisps and chocolate.

Materia Medica jars containing palm oil
Materia Medica jars containing palm oil

Although around 90% of palm oil is used in food, its use is not limited to culinary purposes. It is also added to cosmetics, shampoos and soaps. In recent years, palm oil has become a popular biofuel. Traditional African medicine have used Elaeis guineensis as a laxative, to stimulate the production of urine, as a poison antidote, to cure gonorrhoea and to treat skin infection – to name but a few uses. However, it may not be entirely harmless as some studies have linked palm oil with cardiovascular diseases.

 

Materia Medica jar containing palm oil
Materia Medica jar containing palm oil

 

Social and environmental concerns

Despite its wide range of uses, there are many social and environmental impacts of cultivating the palm. Growing the plant is a source of income for governments – particularly in Malaysia – as well as a major provider of employment. However, there have been many unfavourable social effects of this. Many palm oil plantations have appropriated lands for cultivation without consulting or compensating the local residents. In some cases, the plantations do not even employ the locals but rather import labour or illegal immigrants.

Elaeis guineensis in palm oil plantation. Image taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elaeis_guineensis
Elaeis guineensis in palm oil plantation.
Image taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elaeis_guineensis

Along with the social concerns that accompany the plantations, there are also substantial environmental impacts. Cultivation of the plants has caused irreversible damage, including deforestation, habitat loss and increased greenhouse gas emissions. Large areas of tropical rainforests have been cleared for plantations and the resulting biodiversity loss could result in the extinction of species of potential medicinal importance. In some areas where enforcement of environmental legislations is lax, plantations have had little regulation to stop tem encroaching into protected areas and releasing pollutants into the environment.

 

Other states have implemented environmentally-friendly practices to try to limit the damage. These have included the use of waste products as sources of ‘renewable’ methane production to generate electricity. However, palm oil plantations are still environmentally damaging as many rainforest are above peat bog that store vast amounts of carbon. The deforestation and bog draining involved in setting up the plantations releases this carbon into the atmosphere, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. Many environmental groups have pointed out that the environmental impacts of running plantations are far more damaging to the climate than the benefits gained by the biofuel produced.

Powerful poppies!

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by Jemma

This blog post is going to focus on a particularly interesting plant called Papaver somniferum, more commonly known as the opium poppy. Not only does this plant have a fascinating medicinal history, it also impacted heavily on us socially.

Pressed poppy flowers from Europe
Pressed poppy flowers from Europe

Firstly, a bit on the poppy’s medicinal use. Opium, the narcotic extracted from the plant’s seed pod, contains a number of natural painkillers and has been used in pain relief for millennia. In the 17th century, a tincture of opium combined with alcohol became readily available to the general populace under the name laudanum. Along with acting as a painkiller, laudanum was quickly employed as a cure for almost every ailment: from colds to heart problems to menstrual cramps. The drug morphine was later extracted from the opium poppy by the German pharmacist Friedrich Sertürner in the early 19th century. Morphine quickly became one of the most widely used painkillers in medicine. A further extract, called heroin, was released in 1898 by the drug company Bayer. This well known drug is now an illegal substance that is frequently abused. All of the forms of opium can be highly addictive and long term use may result in interference with the brain’s endorphin receptors. These receptors are responsible for preventing the transmission of pain signals, making withdrawal difficult.

Poppy seeds contain less of the opiates but can give a positive result on a drug test if too many are eaten. From the Materia Medica
The poppy seeds do not contain much of the opiates but can give a positive result on a drug test if too many are eaten. From the Materia Medica

P. somniferum use predates human recorded history and has been found in Neolithic burial sites as far back as 4,200 BC. The use of opium has been documented in numerous ancient medicinal texts including the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus from 1,500BC and those by Hippocrates in 460 BC and Dioscorides in 1st century AD.

One country that has played a big part in the history of opium is China, which was first introduced to P. somniferum between the 4th and 12th centuries via the trading route known as the Silk Road. By the 1600s, opium was smoked with tobacco and had become a popular pastime for the social elite. The recreational use of opium soon spread to the lower classes and its popularity soared. British traders from the East India Company sold large quantities of opium to smugglers to meet the growing demand for the drug. Worried by this, the Chinese Emperor began to take serious measurers to stop the illegal importation of opium, and in 1838 opium worth millions was destroyed by the Chinese Commissioner Lin Zexu.

Since opium smuggling accounted for 15-20% of income for the British Empire, they started of the First Opium War on 18th March 1839 to combat the clampdown. The British won in 1842 and implemented a series of Unequal Treaties. The first of which, the Treaty of Nanking, involved trade concessions as well as forcing the Chinese to pay a total of 21 million ounces of silver in compensation. When Britain tried to make further demands in the 1850s, the Chinese refused and the Second Opium War began. Once again, China lost and this time was forced to legalise the opium trade.

Soon opium use spread from China to the west and, as opium dens became commonplace in cities, Britain attempted to curb the use by its populace. From the 1880s onwards, they tried to reduce opium production in China by discouraging its use. However, this had the opposite effect and opium’s popularity continued to escalate. After the introduction of the more addictive heroin by Bayer, the use of opium and heroin soared even further.

Two opium pipes in the museum's collection.
Two opium pipes in the museum’s collection.

In 1906, the anti-opium initiative was set up by the Chinese to attempt to eradicate the problem. The initiative tried to turn public opinion against the drug through numerous methods, such as meetings, legal action and the requiring of licence. Opium farmers had their properties destroyed, land confiscated and sometimes publically tortured in an attempt to turn the general population against using opium. Though cruel, this method was quickly deemed a success with the majority of Chinese provinces ceasing opium production. However, this success was short-lived. By 1930, China had become the primary source of opium in Eastern Asia. Today it is estimated that 27 million people[1] are addicted to opiates in one form or another and heroin continues to be a widely abused drug across the world.

Despite its chequered past and uses, the opium poppy has still contributed greatly to modern medicine and produces one of the most widely used painkillers today: morphine.

An illustration of the opium poppy from the Leo Grindon collection of the Herbarium
An illustration of the opium poppy from the Leo Grindon collection of the Herbarium

[1] According to the World Drug Report 2014 by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime