Guest blog by: Sophie Mogg
Lycium chinese, and its close relative Lycium barbarum, are both native to China although typically found to the Southern and Northern regions respectively. Part of the Solanaceae (Nightshade) family, they are also related to tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, chili peppers, tobacco and of course belladonna. Both L. chinese and L. barbarum produces the goji berry, or among English folk commonly known as the wolfberry believed to be derived from the resemblance between Lycium and the greek “lycos” meaning wolf. Both species are decidious woody perennials that typically reach 1-3M tall however L. barbarum is taller than L. chinense. In May through to August lavendar-pink to light purple flowers are produced with the sepal eventually bursting as a result of the growing berry which matures between August and October. The berry itself is a distinctive orange-red and grape-like in shape.
In Asia, premium quality goji berries known as “red diamonds” are produced in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region of North-Central China where for over 700 years goji berries have been cultivated in the floodplains of the yellow river. This area alone accounts for over 45% of the goji berry production in China and is the only area in which practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine will source their goji berries as a result of their superior quality. The goji berry has a long history in Chinese medicine, first being mentioned in the Book of Songs, detailing poetry from the 11th to 7th century BC. Throughout different dynasties master alchemists devised treatments centering around the goji berry in order to improve eyesight, retain youthfulness and treating infertility. However it must be noted that because of the goji berry being high in antioxidants those on blood-thinning medication such as Warfarin are advised not to consume the berries.
As a result of their long standing history in Chinese medicine and their nutritional quality Goji berries have been nicknamed the “superfruit”. Many studies have linked the berries being high in antioxidants, vitamin A and complex starches to helping reduce fatigue, improve skin condition and night vision as well as age-related diseases such as Alzheimers. However, there has been little evidence to prove these claims and the evidence that is available is of poor quality.
In the 21st century the goji berry is incorporated in to many products such as breakfast biscuits, cereals, yogurt based products as well as many fruit juices. Traditionally the Chinese would consume sun-drief berries with a wide range of food such as rice congee, tonic soups, chicken and pork. Goji berries would also be boiled alongside Chrysanthemums or tea leaves from Camellia sinensis as a form of herbal tea. How would you like your berries?
I hope you have enjoyed reading about Lycium chinense and Lycium barbarum. Please complete the poll below to tell me more about what you would like to see more of.
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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.
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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!
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.
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.
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
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!
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?
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.
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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!
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:
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.
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.’
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.
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.
Edible, an Illustrated reference to the World’s Foods. National Geographic
Culpepper’s Compete Herbal
The Origin of Plants by Maggie Campbell-Oliver
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
 According to the World Drug Report 2014 by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime