Archive for the ‘nature’ Category

In the Sierra dos Orgaos

In the Sierra dos Orgaos




“We reached Mr. March’s fazenda early in the forenoon.” Gardner wrote in his diary.   “It being Christmas-day, we found his slaves, who amount to 100 in all, performing a native dance in the yard before the house. His estate embraces an extent of country containing sixty-four square miles. The greater part of it is still covered by virgin forests ; what is cleared of it consists of pasture land, and several small farms for the cultivation of Indian corn, fiagrens (French beans), and potatoes. Plentiful crops are yielded by the two former, but the produce of the latter is neither so abundant nor so good as it is in England. He has also near to his house a large garden, under the management of a French gardener, in which all the European fruits and vegetables grow tolerably well. Many of these he has been at much trouble and expense in introducing from the Old World. From this garden he sends regular supplies of vegetables to the Rio market, and they are by far the best that are to be found in it.  “


From here over the next few months Gardner set out on regular expeditions exploring the region for twenty or thirty miles in each direction.


pool in sierra dos orgaos




Laurus nobilis flowers


The various species of Laurus form fine large trees, and when growing, as they often do, in an open part of the forest, they remind the European of the oaks of his native country. They flower in April and May, loading   the air with the rich perfume of their small white blossoms. Their  ripened fruit  forms the principal food of the Jacutinga, (Penelope Jacutinga  Spix) a fine large game bird.


penelope jacutinga

Penelope Jacutinga Spix


 Some of the largest trees of the forest are species of Ficus ; one, with an enormous height and thickness of stem, is called by English here the buttress tree, from several large thin plates which stand out from the bottom of the trunk. They begin to jut out from the stem at the height of ten or twelve feet from the bottom, and gradually increase in breadth till they reach the ground, where they are connected with the large roots of the tree. At the surface of the ground these plates are often five feet broad, and through out not more than two inches thick.


ficus buttress roots




Above: Ficus buttresses Below: Flowering canopy with Cassia and Tibouchina trees


The large Cassia have a striking appearance when in flower ; and as an almost equal number of large trees of Lasiandra fontanesiana [now renamed Tibouchina] and other species belonging to the same natural order are in bloom at the same time, the forests are then almost one mass of yellow and purple from the abundance of these flowers.

When rainforests are not protected 

Wild plants  have provided humans with  everything from quinine, aspirin and morphine to numerous cancer and HIV-fighting drugs. Seventy percent of the plants identified as having anti-cancer characteristics by the US National Cancer Institute are found only in the tropical rainforest. 

When rainforests vanish, they take with them  hundreds  of as yet undiscovered plant species, many of which may have had life-saving medicinal properties. One near recent miss was Calanolide A, a compound with significant anti-HIV effects. Calanolide A is derived from Calophyllum lanigerum var austrocoriaceum, a very rare member of the Guttiferae or mangosteen family. Samples  were first collected in 1987 on a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-sponsored expedition in Sarawak. Having discovered that the plant   was active against HIV, excited researchers rushed back to the original kerangas forest near Lundu … but the tree was no longer there.

The tree was gone — likely felled by locals for fuelwood or building material. The disappearance of the tree lead to a furious   search by botanists for further specimens. Good news finally came from the Singapore Botanic Garden which had several plants collected by the British over 100 years earlier. Sarawak banned the felling and export of Calophyllum shortly thereafter.

Calophyllum lanigerum var austrocoriaceum

The importance of Gardner’s explorations

What of the many medicinal trees and plants discovered by Gardner? A team of Kew researchers  decided to revisit the collection. They searched George Gardner׳s exhaustive  Catalogue of Brazilian Plants deposited in the archives of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK.

Each plant was re-identified and/or updated by consulting the preserved botanical collections that  Gardner gave to   the Herbarium of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and expert inspection of  other collections  to which  Gardner had given  duplicates. The team scoured the  PubMed database for whatever  pharmacological studies had been done on the plants. Gardner׳s diary entries and published letters were consulted and 63 useful plants were  recorded from the Catalogue and a further 30 from Gardner׳s book Travels in the Interior of Brazil. 

Take just one tree discovered by Gardner:  Cissus erosa. The French Guianan Palikur use the stem and leaves to make a plaster with pain killing  and healing   properties  that they apply to  the ulcers of leishmaniasis and  to wound s inflicted   by  of river rays of Paratrygon species.


The stem sap of is drunk to reduce fever. Crushed leaves are applied externally to treat snakebite, ulcers and thrush. The liana is crushed and rubbed on centipede bites  by the Surinam Akuriyo. (Shown here Scolopendra viridicornis viridicornis, two-thirds     life size.)



Of the recorded names in the Catalogue, 46 (73%) could be identified to species by consulting specimens collected by Gardner and held at Kew. Thirty-six different traditional uses were registered for the identified plants, the most common being as febrifuges, to treat venereal complaints and as purgatives. Fewer than 50% of these species have been the focus of published pharmacological studies, yet for those which have been thus investigated, the efficacies reported by Gardner were confirmed.

The data recorded by Gardner, the Kew study rather blandly concludes, represent a rich, relatively unexplored source of information regarding the traditional uses of Brazilian plants which merits further investigation.  Yes, because the forests he explored have largely all gone. Get on with it!


Rare bird book makes an Abebooks record of $191,000

Rare bird book makes an Abebooks record of $191,000

AbeBooks has sold a rare 1765 ornithology book  for $191,000, making it   the most expensive item in its 19-year history.


The book,  Storia naturale degli uccelli trattata con metodo e adornata di figure intagliate in rame e miniate al naturale,  normally translated and shortened to A Natural History of Birds,  was published in Florence in Italian in five volumes. It  contains 600 beautiful hand-colored engraved plates of birds. Commissioned by Maria Luisa, the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, the book took ten years to complete. This copy’s fine condition coupled   with the fact that only ten  complete copies have been offered at auction in the past 40 years,  helped assure  a record price.


Here is the bookseller’s description: Together 10 volumes. Folio (19 x 15 inches). 6 plate volumes: 600 EXCEPTIONALLY FINE engraved plates with original hand-colour after Manetti, Lorenzi and Vanni (a few plates loose, one or two marginal stains, top outer corner of plates 100 and 101 affected by damp, plates 197 and 198 torn in upper margin, plates 221 and 225 with repaired tears (without loss), plates 267 and 336 slightly shorter,). 4 (of 5) text volumes: elaborately engraved half-titles by Lorenzi after Giuseppe Zocchi, 2 letterpress title-pages with engraved vignettes, one in Latin and one in Italian in each volume, parallel text in Latin and Italian, engraved allegorical plate by Lorenzi in volume IV, descriptions for 480 birds (small wormhole on first leaf in text volume I without loss, r1 and T1 of text volume I with marginal repairs).


Contemporary speckled calf backed marbled paper boards, the spines in six compartments with five raised bands, red morocco lettering-piece in the second, the others with gilt-ruled borders and small decorations (a bit scuffed, but attractive). Provenance: with the contemporary gilt initials “F.B.” at the foot of each spine; remains of later printed paper shelf labels at the foot of each spine, early shelf-marks to endpapers. First edition of a great 18th-century ornithological book. Manetti was a physician and director of the Florentine Botanical Gardens from 1749-1782.


Manetti worked almost exclusively from real specimens, beginning with the extensive collection of Marquis Giovanni Gerini. The result was one of the largest surveys of ornithology attempted up to that date, a work which became ‘the flamboyant forerunner of the splendid ornithological folios which were to appear in the nineteenth century. The production of its five massive folio volumes must have been one of the most remarkable publishing ventures ever undertaken in Florence. Begun in 1767 and completed ten years later, it was larger, better engraved and more vividly coloured than any previous book on birds’, notable for its lively posturing of the specimens which seem to reflect ‘the habits and mannerisms of contemporary Italian society’ (Dance p.70); Nissen IVB 588; Wood p.450; Fine Bird Books p.10; Zimmer I, 241. Bookseller Inventory # 72nhr128


Certainly all of this is worth following up. Feather by feather, leaf by leaf, tome by tome: this is how we discover   the world.


Ornithological flights leave in all directions from this page:

Oiseaux Exotiques
A Walk   Through H:   Reincarnation of an Ornithologist


Gardner’s Eden

Gardner’s Eden

Sunday July 22  1836. After two months of ‘calms and squalls,  bright skies, brilliant sunsets,  sharks, whales,  flying fishes and phosphorescent waves’,  the Liverpool-registered barque Memnon  nears Rio de Janeiro.  On board, eye glued to  the ship’s telescope for his first glimpse of the Sugarloaf mountain, is 27-year-old Scottish surgeon and botanist George Gardner. All he knows  of Brazil comes from the glowing descriptions he has read in the works of  Humboldt and others, but he does not intend to use them as his guide. He plans  to search out and collect rare plants, fossils and other natural history specimens in parts of the country ‘ of which no account has yet been presented to the world’.

Entrance to Rio de Janeiro harbour, c.1830

Gardner was well qualified for his ambitious project. He had grown up among exotic tropical plants. As a boy he had helped  his father, gardener to the Earl of Eglinton, whose gardens  were described as a ‘luxuriant paradise’ and ‘region of enchantment’ and  whose magnificent hot-houses were  filled with tropical fruits and flowers. Finding  Gloxinia speciosa flowering  on rocks by the shore beneath  a mountain  called Lord Hood’s Nose,  he remarks  that it is ‘now so common in the hot-houses of England.’ 

trichopterix excelsaGardner’s first impressions of Rio were anything but agreeable. He found ‘the streets narrow and dirty, badly lighted  and worse paved’. After a brief  stay in an Italian hotel he made his headquarters in  a boarding house run by an old Englishwoman a short distance  outside the city. From here he roamed in every direction, to mountains covered in untouched  forests and the swamps north of the city. He scoured the sea shores and islands in the bay,  keeping meticulous records of the plants he found, many of which had never been described before. For more than a year he gathered specimens and information, including the medical uses to which many of them were put. 

By boat and mule to Freschall

On Christmas Day 1837, having carefully packed up these first collections and arranged for their transport  in a London-bound ship, Gardner  set out to explor e  the spectacular spires of the Sierra dos Orgãos.  ‘The name,’ he wrote, ‘which the Portuguese have bestowed on them from a fancied resemblance which the peaks, which rise gradually the one above the other, bear to the pipes of an organ.’ Gardner had been invited  to stay with an Englishman, George Marsh, who had a fazenda,  or plantation, twelve miles into the mountains.

Gardner left Rio by boat at  midday, but the weather was mild  and the three-and-a-half-hour sail  across  Guanabara Bay, chased along by sea breezes,  was such a  pleasant experience that he wished it could last  longer. At the Piedade jetty a train of mules sent by Marsh was waiting to take Gardner and his collector’s baggage  the rest of the way to Freschall, the Marsh fazenda

The damp  plain between Piedade and the first stop, Mage, was covered with low trees and bushes, among which Gardner dutifully noted examples of the  Melastomacea, Malvaceae, and Myriaceae, and ‘great abundance’ of Selinum [Schinus] terebinthifolium (Raddi).

Naturally he made frequent stops to collect specimens.  In the hedges near Mage he recorded  Cissus erosa (whose discovery Kew Gardens attributes to Gardner on this day in 1837), Bignonias (Brazilian trumpet vine), and Paullinias (the Guarana vine, of which three species are credited to him).



Cissus erosa






In moist places were many plants of Dichorisandra thyrsiflora in beautiful flower. The sandy stretches  were dotted with the  cactus Fourcroga [Furcraea] gigantea (Vent.) some throwing up flowering stems to heights of twenty and thirty feet.


Dichorisandra thyrsiflora (l), Furcraea gigantea (r)

Marsh’s fazenda lay at a height of 3,100 feet above sea level.  The road was very bad, more like the bed of a mountain torrent. The path was so steep that Gardner  worried  that the mules would not be able to cope, but they plodded patiently on, and soon his  whole attention was given to the dense forest through which they were climbing.

The magnificence of these forests cannot be imagined by one who has not seen them and penetrated into their recesses. Those remnants of the virgin forest which still remain in the vicinity of the capital, although they appear grand to the eye of the newly-arrived European, become insignificant when compared with the mass of giant vegetation that clothes the sides of the Organ Mountains. Many of the trees are of immense size, their trunks and branches covered with myriads of parasites, consisting of Orchideae, Bromeliaceae, Ferns, Peperomirae, &c. I have since ascertained that a great proportion of the largest of these trees are species of  Ficus, Myrtus, Laurus, Melastomaceae, and Leguminosae.



Alive, alive, O!

Alive, alive, O!


I am supposed to be writing an article about cyberspace and the creative imagination, but the mind wanders – cyberspace is a labyrinth in which you stray at your peril. Around any corner await discoveries so stunning that work is forgotten for a few minutes, sometimes hours.

The Wellcome Institute’s Image Award Winners for 2010 have just been announced and the resulting gallery of pictures, accompanied by videos, interviews and scientific background is completely beguiling. I must now return to my article, but it gives me real pleasure to lead you astray, so without further ado, here is the diving beetle leg I promised:


More astonishing and beautiful images from the Wellcome Collection. These were the winners of the 11th Wellcome Image Awards – announced on 23 February 2011 – “recognising the creators of the most informative, striking and technically excellent images among recent acquisitions to Wellcome Images.

The images – not all are photographs – were chosen by a panel of expert judges who, let it be remembered, are not just looking for composition, technique and beauty, but for scientific usefulness, but most, like this photograph (below) of the retina of a baby Zebra danio, danio rerio, are quite breathtaking.


Here is a confocal micrograph of a cavefish embryo at around five days post-fertilisation. The embryo has been stained with an antibody against a calcium-binding protein (in green) to show different neuronal types and their processes in the nervous system. This staining also reveals taste buds, which are located around the mouth and along the body of the cavefish.


[Below] Confocal micrograph showing the expression of different fluorescent proteins in the stem of a thale cress seedling (Arabidopsis thaliana), the first plant to have its entire genome sequenced.