Students of Ethnobotany: The Mystery of the Killer Bean

physostigma_venenosum_gb5100(2)This killer, and ultimate, edition of Students of Ethnobotany comes from the mysterious E. Green.

One of the draws of botanical research, in my opinion, is the chance that you will discover something extraordinary, some intricate mechanism, adaptation, or chemical that has implications able to expand the scope of human knowledge.  However, there are times when less information can be more exciting than a thorough chemical or physiological analysis.  These are the instances where investigation into the mystery surrounding a plant actually reveals more about humans than the plant in question.

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Students of Ethnobotany: Botanical gold

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Figure 1: Saffron crocus. Photographer: Gut Gimritz (Germany) from Wikimedia Commons

This flavorful edition of Students of Ethnobotany comes from the glittering Fiona Thompson.

At between $1,000 and $10,000 USD per kilo, saffron is the most expensive spice in the world. Why is it that the stigma of this small flower is worth (one fifth) its weight in gold?

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Chicha from the great beyond

The basic recipe for beer goes something like this.You take starch from a cereal grain (the fruit of a domesticated species of Poaceae, or Grass family), use enzymes to convert that starch into sugar, feed the sugar to a microbe capable of fermentation (such as a yeast or bacteria), which then poops out alcohol and carbon dioxide. It’s a beautiful process. You see the barley – brewer’s yeast – hops combo all the time. But why be so predictable?

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