The University of Manchester

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

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A Travelling Botanist: #WorldSoilDay

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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!

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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: There’s always time for tea

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Guest blog series by: Sophie Mogg

Manchester Museum is currently planning a brand new HLF funded South Asia exhibit and held a fantastic Big Saturday with a South Asian theme. There were plenty of wonderful experiences to be had from traditional South Asian food to Bhangracise lessons that featured throughout the museum. You can find more about the event here.

We shared some beautiful specimens from our herbarium and Materia Medica collection depicting several culturally and economically important plant species from South Asia.  This blog post will focus on the beautiful beverage, tea.

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Camellia sinensis var. assamica

Originating in China during the Tang dynasty (618-907), the practice of drinking tea quickly spread to other parts of South Asia. Camellia sinensis var. assamica is typically a small evergreen shrub that will grow on to produce a small tree if left undisturbed. Native to the state of Assam, India, this variety produces a full-bodied black tea with a malty flavour.

Within the Assam state, this variety of tea is grown on plantations operating on a separate timezone (IST +1)  to the rest of India. The first harvest occurs in March, typically referred to as the first flush. The second flush producing much fuller flavoured tippy tea occurs much later in the season. Following harvesting, leaves must first must undergo several labour intensive processes involving: fermenting, curling and drying. Subsequently leaves are graded by size and shape before being exported to other countries. The bud and smaller surrounding leaves are often graded the highest, with hand-picking of these leaves being repeated every few weeks. Larger leaves are graded lower, due to their chemical composition differing to the young leaves.

Tea is not only the second-most widely consumed beverage across the world, it is also involved in the Ayurveda practice of medicine. Tea would be mixed with a variety of herbs such as rooibos, rosehips and chamomile for their medicinal benefits.

In the upcoming weeks I will be following the silk and spice trade routes from Asia to the UK so stay tuned to learn more about fantastic plants of the past and present and where you might find them. If you have any suggestions not listed below, please leave a comment!

If you would like to find further information on Camellia sinensis and the production of tea please follow the links below:

Camellia sinensis
Tea production
Tea grading

 

Managing the marshes of S’Albufera

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For many years the students on the Comparative and Adaptive Biology field course in Mallorca have visited the strandline and salt marsh plant communities at the Albufereta Nature Reserve on the Bay of Pollença. This year, however, we went for a tour of the S’Albufera wetland (a Ramsar protected site of international importance) by Gaspar, one of the team who manages the reserve. The reserve has been protected since 1988 and is surrounded by the coastal tourist resorts and inland agricultural lands.

Gorgeous day for visiting somewhere new
Gorgeous day for visiting somewhere new

The land around the Bay of Alcudia is naturally marshy, with water from the seasonal rivers (torrents) held back by the sand bars at the coast. However, the marsh isn’t entirely fresh, but is brackish and salty in places as seawater infiltrates the sand to saturate the land behind. This winter was drier than average, leading to the marsh being saltier than usual for so early in the year. In the 19th century, the British civil engineer John Frederick Bateman carried out work to drain the marsh for agriculture, creating the infrastructure which is still visible today – a network of canals, ditches, bridges and old pumping houses.  More recently the focus has been on retaining the water and so sluice gates have been added to maintain the wetland habitat for wildfowl. The reserve is a carefully managed mosaic of old reedbeds (dominated by Phragmites australis), open waters, scrapes and salt marsh. Horses are particularly important for managing the more open environments, keeping the reeds in check.

Probably planted, but still, a Mallorcan peony in flower in Mallorca!
Probably planted, but still, a Mallorcan peony in flower in Mallorca!

The human population around the reserve around 60,000, but over the summer season this can triple with the arrival of holidaymakers seeking some Mediterranean sun. This places a huge increase in demand for drinking water and wastewater treatment over the driest months in the Mediterranean. It is at these times when the reserve is at its most vulnerable from pollution (e.g. nitrates escaping from water treatment works) without the potential for a diluting influx of freshwater.

The wetland is used by some bird species all year round and by others who use it as a staging post on their migrations. With the background soundtrack provided by Cetti’s warblers, we watched black-winged stilts, avocets, egrets, a kingfisher, shelducks, crested coots and an osprey. Still, the zoological highlight happened later in the day as the flamingos treated us to a fly-by on the beach.

 

Surviving salt and waterlogging on the Albufereta, Mallorca

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Albuferita, Mallorca

It’s that time of year again when a lucky group of 1st year undergraduates from the University of Manchester head to the Mediterranean to learn about plant evolution and adaptations. This year in Mallorca we stopped at a slightly wetter part of the Albufereta, a small salt marsh near to the town of Alcudia (north-west of the lager famous wetland and Ramsar site, the Albufera). With more water in evidence, this part looked like a better place for the students to learn about mechanisms plants can use to tolerate salt stress.

Open-air lecture in progress
Open-air lecture in progress

The area is dominated by three plant species Arthocnemum macrostachyum (Glaucus glasswort), Halimione portulacoides (Sea purslane) and Juncus maritmus (Sea rush). Each of these has has specialised mechanisms for living in high salt, waterlogged soils such as succulent stems, the ability to exudes salt onto the leaves or air-filled spaces within the leaves and stems.

Patches of slightly higher ground, however, allowed other plants to grow, including this Grey birdsfoot trefoil (Lotus cytisoides). The weather had been a little cold over the preceding weeks and as this was one of the few plants in flower it was getting a lot of attention from the bees.

 

We see a lot of  this plant on the strand-line and sand dune systems around Alucudia. It is clearly also salt-tolerant, but likes freer-draining soils and cannot cope with waterlogging. In flooded soils, air spaces fill up with water and bacteria rapidly use up available oxygen. Without special adaptations, plants in waterlogged soils can die as their roots are effectively suffocated as the flow of oxygen and carbon dioxide in and out of the roots is limited. Roots can then be invaded by fungi and other pathogens and the above ground parts of the plant suffer as water and nutrient transport from the roots is affected.

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Beautiful Lady’s Slipper Orchids

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by Rachel

Stream bed

The Passo Pura in the Carnic Alps was awash with summer flowers when we visited for our Field Course in Alpine Biodiversity and Forest Ecology in July. One interesting walk took us up this seasonal stream bed on the side of Monte Tinisi and rewarded us with some beautiful Lady’s Slipper Orchids (Cypripedium calceolus).

Lady's slipper orchid

The flowers in the hot Italian sun were fading and drying up, but the plants in the shade were perfect.

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I’d only ever seen this plant in cultivation before, so it was a treat to see it growing wild. In the UK it is very rare having been lost from many sites through 19th century collecting for the horticultural trade. The lady’s slipper orchid was thought extinct in the UK until a plant was found growing at one site in Yorkshire. This plant has been the focus for conservation and re-introduction programmes.

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We also have pressed examples of this species in the herbarium collection and one sheet is on display in the Living Worlds gallery. This example was collected in the same area of the Carnic Alps in 1897 by James Cosmo Melville. He didn’t do a very good job of pressing the intricate 3D flowers, which is one reason why orchid flowers are often preserved in spirit collections.

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This specimen collected from neighbouring Austria does a much better job of showing the structure of the flowers. However, the person who picked it also included the roots (not just examples of the leaves and flowers) which could have had consequences for the population of plants at that site. Like other orchids, germination needs the presence of a symbiotic fungus and  the lady’s slipper orchid can take many years before it reaches flowering size.