Valentine’s Day

and so are Yew…

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Brendel model of Taxus baccata – female flower, fruit (aril)

So here is the last of my botanical, Valentine’s Day posts. I admit this last post is a bit tenuous and I do hope you will pardon my pun.

Looking back over the Valentine’s posts I’ve realised I’ve perhaps not altogether gotten into the spirit of Valentine’s Day with all my talk of wars, slavery and exploitation and I’m afraid with such a tenuous link I will be unable to remedy that now.

However, did you know that the wood from the yew is very springy making it the wood of choice for longbow makers?  I’m sure, therefore, that Cupid’s bow would have been made from a yew.


This springy quality of yews meant that they were in great demand until bows were eventually replaced with guns. Unfortunately, yew is also a very knotty wood resulting in a lot of wastage, consequently the demand for bowstaves led to the demise of the great Yew forests of Western Europe.  Here at the Manchester Museum our archery collection consists of over 4,000 objects.

Yews that manage to avoid the chop have the potential to live for a very long time.   The Fortingall Yew Tree found in the centre of Scotland, is believed to be at the very least 2,000 years old and possibly as old as 5,000 years making it  the oldest organism in Britain, and maybe the world!


Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
Sugar is sweet
And so are Yew.

Please note, Yew trees are NOT sweet, in fact they are quite poisonous!

Sugar is sweet…

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Yes, roses can be red, violets are blueish, and sugar is undoubtably sweet to taste.  However, as the Revealing Histories project we took part in a few years ago revealed, life for those involved in the sugar trade has not always been so sweet…

Sugar was produced by enslaved Africans on British-owned sugar plantations in the Caribbean for 200 years from the 1600s. The plantations were immensely profitable and boosted the British economy to the extent that sugar was nicknamed ‘white gold’. Most sugar was exported raw and then refined when it reached Britain. Sugar refineries were discouraged in the West Indies; partly because refined sugar didn’t travel well during long damp ocean voyages, and also to afford maximum protection to British profits, as the refinement process considerably increased its financial value.

Life on the sugar plantations was much more hazardous than in the cotton plantations of the USA. Sugar production involved exhausting  labour and long shifts in high temperature and humidity. Many Africans died within five years of arriving in the West Indies, quickly replaced by the slave trade’s plentiful supply of fresh workers.

Specimens of sugar cane specimen collected by P & J A Sillitoe

Sugar cane, noble cane (English), Ikshu, khanda, sarkara (Sanskrit), Pundia, paunda (Hindi), Poovan karumbu (Tamil) has the botanical name of Saccharum officinarum and belongs to the grass or Poaceae family.  The sugar is found in the stems of the plants, which look rather like bamboo, and can grow up to 6 meters tall.

Undated illustration of Saccharum officinarum from Gardener’s Chronicle, from Leo Grindon collection

Below are two jars of sugar which came from Tate and Lyle Ltd, Liverpool.  These specimens were also used as part of the Revealing Histories project.

Bottled sugar specimens from a collection of Cocoa, Cotton and Sugar donated by Cadbury, Horrocks and Tate in 1923
Saccharum officinarum illustration - Leo Grindon collection
Saccharum officinarum illustration - Leo Grindon collection
Saccharum officinarum illustration - Leo Grindon collection
Saccharum officinarum specimen collected by P & J A Sillitoe

Violets are blue…

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Viola illustrations from the Leo Grindon collection

Viola odorata or Sweet Violet is an evergreen, perennial, woodland plant which grows to about 10cm tall.  It is a pretty and useful little plant whose leaves and flowers are edible.  All parts of the plant have been used in traditional remedies where it was used to treat cancer and whooping cough.  Old herbalists recommended Violets for ague, epilepsy, eye inflammation, pleurisy and jaundice. Syrup of Violets is a laxative, colouring agent and flavouring in some medicines.  Violets also contains salicylic acid, which is used to make aspirin, and is therefore effective in the treatment of headaches, migraine and insomnia.

Traditionally, the Violet was the real flower of Valentine’s Day, not the Rose. Valentine was persecuted by a Roman Emperor who imprisoned him. In prison, Valentine would crush the Violet flowers growing outside to make into an ink for writing on the leaves to his friends. A dove collected these messages. He was executed on 14 February 269 AD.

In folklore dreaming of violets will bring good fortune and wearing them round your neck would stop you from getting drunk!

The Violet

Down in a green and shady bed,
A modest violet grew;
Its stalk was bent, it hung its head
As if to hide from view.
And yet it was a lovely flower,
Its colour bright and fair;
It might have graced a rosy bower,
Instead of hiding there.

Yet thus it was content to bloom,
In modest tints arrayed;
And there diffused a sweet perfume,
Within the silent shade.

Then let me to the valley go
This pretty flower to see;
That I may also learn to grow
In sweet humility.

Jane Taylor

Viola specimen from Leo Grindon collection

Roses are red…

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As we are approaching February 14th I thought it would be nice to have some Valentine’s Day inspired posts.

The obvious place to start is with the rose – the flower of love.  It is one of the most popular and oldest flowers known to man. The word rose has come from the Latin word rosa meaning red, and the flower has been a symbol of love since ancient times.

It has become traditional to give either a dozen red roses or a single red rose on Valentine’s Day, but roses come in so many other colours with each shade having it’s own meaning.

Here are some colours and their meanings:

Red – Love, Romance, Beauty, Passion, I love you; Desire, Courage; Respect
Red (Dark or Burgundy) – Unconscious beauty
Red -Withered – I would rather die, Our love is over
White – Purity, Youth, Pure Love, Virginal, Innocence and purity, I am worthy of you, You’re heavenly
Pink – Happiness, Appreciation, Thankfulness, Grace, Gentle Love, Please believe me
Dark Pink – Gratitude, Thank You
Yellow – Joy, Gladness, Friendship, Delight, Platonic Love, Jealousy, Freedom
Yellow with Red Tip – Falling in Love
Orange – Fascination, Desire, Passion, Enthusiasm
Red and White – Two colors; Passionate Purity, Unity
Peach – Sincerity, Gratitude, Appreciation, Modesty, Admiration, Sympathy
Lavender – Love at first sight, Enchantment
Black – Death, Farewell
Blue – Impossible, Unattainable, Mystery
Red Rosebud – Symbol of Purity and Loveliness
White Rosebud – Girlhood, Youth
Thornless Rose – “Love at First Sight”
Single Rose – Simplicity
Two Roses – An engagement or coming marriage
Leaves – Symbol of hope
Roses-Sent every month – Beauty ever new

On his marriage, Henry adopted the Tudor Rose badge conjoining the White Rose of York and the Red Rose of Lancaster

The rose is also the national flower of England.  This dates back to the Wars of The Roses (1455 – 1485).  The Wars of the Roses were a series of dynastic civil wars between supporters of the rival houses of Lancaster (red rose) and York (white rose), for the throne of England.  The wars ended when Henry Tudor took the crown of England from Richard III in battle. Henry’s father was Edmund Tudor from the House of Richmond, and his mother was Margaret Beaufort from the House of Lancaster; he then married Elizabeth of York to bring all factions together.  

A Yorkshire Rose
A Lancashire Rose