Saturday, 27 October 2012

Exploring the flora of Japan..

Gardens Curator Tom Price and Arboretum Curator Ben Jones have embarked on their four week field trip to Japan. This, the first of two trips, is part of a project to develop the living collections at the University of Oxford Botanic Garden and Harcourt Arboretum and the University of Oxford Herbaria. 

Japan is one of the 34 global biodiversity hotspots. Collectively these areas hold over 50% of all known plant species, yet cover only 2.3% of the Earth's land surface. The aim of this project is to cultivate plants from Japan at both the Botanic Garden and Harcourt Arboretum to communicate the importance of these biodiversity hotspots and the need for both in situ and ex situ conservation. 

The department is working in collaboration with the Department of Plant Sciences at Oxford, the University of Bonn Botanic Garden and botanic gardens across Japan.

This first trip involves travelling the length and breadth of Japan. From Hokkaido in the north to Shikoku in the south, via Tokyo, Niigata, Toyama and Kyoto. At each stop meetings are being held with botanic garden staff to establish seed collection sites of endemic plant species. These sites will be revisited in 2013 for the collection of seed and supporting herbarium specimens.

The Botanic Garden and Harcourt Arboretum are extremely grateful to the Impey family for their generous donation and to the Friends of the Botanic Garden and Harcourt Arboretum whose collective generosity has funded this trip.

Tom and Ben will be posting regular updates here on their progress over the next four weeks. Watch this space!

Friday, 12 October 2012

Naked Ladies Provide Gout Cure

The oncology bed of the Botanic Garden's medicinal plant collection has been glowing with colour in the autumn sun. The source of this radiance is the autumn crocus, Colchicum autumnale. Along with several other bulbs, its habit of flowering before the appearance of any foliage has earned it the common name 'Naked Ladies.' The mythical origin of this plant has it springing forth from drops of a magical potion concocted by the sorceress Medea to restore youth to Aeson. As this myth suggests, the medicinal properties of Colchicum have been known about for some time. In fact, it is first mentioned in the Ancient Egyptian Ebers Papyrus three and a half thousand years ago.

Colchicum autumnale  flowering on the oncology bed
The medicinal uses of this plant have not changed over the millennia- it is still used for the treatment of gout and joint pain. Modern medicine is researching its potential as an anti-cancer drug. As with many medicinal plants, the genus is extremely toxic and should never be confused, despite its common names, for the autumn-flowering Saffron Crocus, Crocus sativus. The stamens of the latter are an astronomically expensive condiment. In Crocus species there are only three stamens whereas Colchicum species have six.

Amaryllis belladonna

Amaryllis belladonna is flowering now on the family beds. In its native South Africa it is known as the March Lily, reflecting the Southern hemisphere month of its flowering. But the lack of accompanying foliage gives it another common name - 'Naked Ladies.' Now, it is worth pointing out that Amaryllis belladonna belongs to an entirely different family from Colchicum. Unlike Colchicum, it does not contain the active chemical Colchicine and has no application in the treatment of gout or in cancer research. This, of course, is an example of the confusion that scientific names were coined to avoid.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Umbel Relations

  Apiaceae, the carrot family, is well represented at the Botanic Garden. A huge family of annual, biennial and perennial plants with a global distribution, Apiaceae is characterised by its distinctive inflorescence - the umbel, which gave the family its former name of Umbelliferae. From familiar foods, such as carrot and parsnip, to the striking architecture of the ornamentals Eryngium and Bupleurum, to toxic and invasive weeds like Giant Hogweed(Heracleum mantegazzianum), the family is rich in variety and uses. 

Eryngium paniculatum on the Apiaceae bed
  Three species of Eryngium have germinated on the Merton borders with E. planum 'Blaukappe' producing spectacular, metallic blue inflorescences. E. maritimum, our native sea holly, has germinated well. Its thick, glaucous foliage can be seen dotted across the borders. The candied roots of this species were considered aphrodisiac in Elizabethan England.

Eryngium planum 'Blaukappe'
  Of the many Apiaceae species native to the British Isles several are threatened by changing patterns of land use. Sium latifolium, the Greater Water-parsnip, is a native plant found in the rafts of fen vegetation that build up on the margins of rivers and lakes. Modern approaches to the management of waterways have made such habitats increasingly rare. Now the Greater Water-parsnip is mostly confined to drainage ditches adjacent to arable land and is nationally scarce. The Oxford Rare Plants Group is active in the conservation of many threatened species in Oxfordshire including Sium latifolium. The Botanic Garden will be working with the Oxford Rare Plants Group to collect the seed of this plant for germination trials at the garden. More seed will be sent to the Millenium Seed Bank for long-term storage.

The nationally scarce Greater Water-parsnip
Sium latifolium