East India Company Botanical Studies from the Collections of Exeter Museum

Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery

RAMM has 86 exquisite botanical drawings believed to be associated with the East India Company. They were donated by the Cresswell family. Most depict medicinal or commercially valuable plants and date from about 1770-1810. Many of the plants were known through their use in Ayurvedic medicine. One of the world’s oldest medicinal systems, it has been practiced in India for 3,000 years.

People behind the paintings
Only 17 of the works are signed. The Indian artists are well known and their works can be found in museums around the globe - Bhawani Das, Ram Das and Sheikh Zain al-Din. Lady Mary Impey – (1749-1818, wife of the Chief Justice of Bengal) employed all three of these artists to draw the animals in her menagerie as well as India's flora. It is possible that Richard Cresswell simply bought the drawings at auction. However, the works may have come via his wife, Frances Creighton’s, family who almost certainly knew the Impeys.
Plants with culinary uses.
Rambutan (Pulchrifilium spurifolium). Company School, watercolour, about 1800-1810. Two leaf insects (Phyllium bioculatum) are depicted feeding on rambutan leaves. Rambutan fruits look similar to lychees and can be eaten.

Known as horseradish tree due to taste of the roots. It is a fast-growing, drought-resistant tree, native to the southern foothills of the Himalayas in North-Western India. It is widely cultivated in tropical and subtropical areas where the young seed pods and leaves are used as vegetables. It can also be used for water purification and hand washing, and is sometimes used in herbal medicine.

The sausage shaped fruits of the tamarind were traded widely in ancient times. Records from the Eastern Mediterranean provide evidence of its cultivation since the 4th Century B.C. Arab sea-traders believe that it resembled the date palm so they combined their name for the date palm 'tamr' with 'hindi', this created the plants common name tamrhindi, upon which its scientific name is based.

Plants with culinary and medical uses.
Taro (Colocasia esculeuta var.antiquorum) Indian School, watercolour, about 1795-1810. Taro is said to be the world’s oldest crop plant, cultivated for its edible tubers, leaf stalks and leaves; it is very easily grown in warm, moist conditions. The tubers are usually eaten cooked to destroy poisonous calcium oxalate crystals. Although they contain more starch than potatoes the starch grains are smaller, which results in a slimy texture. The leaves can be eaten when boiled.

The roots and flower buds are edible, and were eaten particularly in times of famine. Other parts of the plant were used medicinally for a variety of complaints. They contain active chemicals which are said to have psychedelic and aphrodisiac effects. This is a true waterlily, not to be confused with the sacred lotus. They can be told apart by their leaves: in Egyptian lotus and all true waterlilies, the leaves are split to the stalk, whereas in the sacred lotus there is no split.

In Ayurvedic medicine the Ceylon caper is used as a Rasayana - a herb which has multiple beneficial effects on the whole body. The bark of the roots is most often used. It has recently been investigated as an antidiarrhoeal herb, useful in the treatment of cholera and diseases with similar effects. The leaves, buds and young fruits of capers are said to contain antioxidants, anti-inflammatory and immuno-stimulant compounds. They are a good source of many of the same beneficial substances as are found in cabbage, kale and broccoli. The flower buds are often eaten pickled.

Butterfly pea is frequently used in Ayurvedic medicine, as a memory enhancer, antidepressant and tranquilliser. Different parts of the plant have been shown to have different properties, but an infusion of the roots appears to be most effective. In traditional Chinese medicine it was used to treat infertility and ailments of the female reproductive system. In other traditional medicines it was used to encourage menstruation. The flowers are used to colour food, or make herbal tea that is blue in alkaline solution, turning pink if acids such as lemon juice are added.

The leaves of arrowleaf pond weed (Monochoria hasta) are sometimes eaten as a vegetable. In Ayurvedic medicine they are used for the treatment of pimples and wounds and as a diuretic.

The rose apple or Malabar plum (Syzygium jambos) is usually grown for its fragrant edible fruit, which may be pale green, yellow or reddish. In spite of the English names, it is related neither to rose, apple or plum, but to myrtle. The simple leaves, flowers with masses of long, thin stamens and fruit with the remains of sepals at the tip, are characters of the myrtle family. Many parts of the plant have long been used in traditional medicine to treat a number of ills.

India is one of the largest silk-producing countries in the world. Silk is produced by boiling silk moth cocoons to release the long fibres the caterpillar made them from. The silk is then spun onto a reel. This caterpillar is probably the South India small tussore moth which produces ‘tussar’ or ‘tasseh’ silk. Tussar silk is coarser, but stronger than common silk, and is naturally reddish-brown in colour. William Roxburgh and his wife studied this moth and in 1797 he wrote a paper on the possible commercialisation of this silk for Sir Joseph Banks and the East India Company. It belongs to a different family from the Chinese silk moth (Bombyx mori) which has hairless, white caterpillars and feeds primarily on the white mulberry. The fruits of the jujube tree turn red as they ripen and are often dried and candied, used for making teas and have numerous medicinal uses, particularly in relieving stress.

Sea holly is currently being investigated as a treatment for liver and other cancers. In Ayurvedic medicine the plant is known as a ‘Sahachara’ - a group of similar plants that are used for rheumatic complaints. It has been used for dyspepsia, paralysis, asthma, headache, rheumatism, and skin diseases. The leaves can be chewed or brewed into a tea.

The flower buds and young seedpods and leaves of agathi (Sesbania grandiflora) can be eaten as a vegetable, and are commonly used in Thai cuisine. It is wild in tropical eastern Asia, but has been long cultivated in the warmer parts of India. The tree also has numerous medicinal properties: for example, the leaves can be chewed as a mild laxative, and to clean the mouth; the flowers are said to be good for headache, and the fruits which are bitter and acrid can be used as a laxative.

The green apple-like fruit of this large evergreen tree are eaten and dispersed through the forest by elephants. The pulp is sour and bitter, and is used in pickles and curries. The fruits are also used medicinally to aid digestion and prevent hair loss, as well as being an antidote to mercury poisoning and a treatment for diabetes. Most parts of the plant contain betulinic acid, which has been found to be a potential anti-cancer agent.

The root of the monkey fruit is a strong laxative when eaten, but can also be turned into a paste and used as a poultice for skin ailments. The bark is used to treat headaches. The fruits and male flowers are eaten raw, boiled, steamed or roasted. The tree is also valued for its hard, termite-resistant timber that is used for everything from firewood to heavy construction. The wood and roots yield a useful dye and the sticky latex sap has a variety of uses. In Nepal the leaves are fed to lactating animals due to their high protein content.

Shampoo ginger rhizomes are traditionally used to treat a variety of ailments including stomach ache and worms. Zerumbone, an aromatic compound found mainly in the leaves, is being investigated as an anti-tumour agent. It is commonly used in Malaysia and the Pacific islands, both as flavouring, and for making the hair sleek and fragrant.

Plants with Medicinal uses.
Kadam (Neolamarckia cadamba) Indian School, watercolour, about 1795-1810. Kadam leaves are used medicinally in eastern India as a treatment for diabetes. In eastern Asia they have a variety of uses including the treatment of wounds. This is a very fast-growing tree that reaches 45m in height. It is grown for its cheap, light wood, which is made into packing cases, tea chests or disposable chopsticks.

Uttran is an important Ayurvedic herb, used for a variety of ailments: it relieves asthma and catarrh, its leaves can be used against intestinal worms, to reduce uterine bleeding, relieve piles or jaundice and can ease the pain of rheumatism.

Cat’s whiskers’ leaves are used for relieving sinus headaches and chest congestion. In Ayurvedic medicine it is also used for treating tapeworms. The young shoots and leaves are eaten and contain valuable vitamins and minerals.

The seeds of the Chinese honeysuckle are used for treating parasitic worm infections.

Dayflowers are eaten by humans and animals in countries such as Pakistan, India and Nepal. It is also used medicinally in China as a diuretic and in Pakistan as a laxative, to cure skin complaints and treat leprosy.�

The whole plant is very poisonous. It contains colchicine which interferes with the way cells divide and can cause abnormalities. In southern India it is used in Ayurvedic medicine for treating gout and worms, as a laxative or to produce abortion. Colchicine from a different plant is used in modern pharmaceuticals to treat gout. Natural order Liliaceae - the genus Gloriosa comprises several species of very ornamental plants of the Lily kind, the name referring to the handsome flowers. The species illustrated is a native of tropical Asia and Africa, introduced into England where it is grown in hothouses in 1860.

Suryavarti is used to treat jaundice, promote wound healing as a laxative and as a remedy for coughs and colds.

Menthol extracted from the bark has been shown to have anti-inflammatory and pain relieving properties.

The bark, flowers and roots of the white bauhinia or orchid- tree (Bauhinia acuminate) are all used in Ayurvedic medicine.

This is the famous fig tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment, and is sacred to Hindus and Jains, as well as to Buddhists. The tree can grow very large, up to 30m tall. The peepal tree has many traditional medicinal uses, from asthma to diabetes, gastric and genitourinary problems. In Ayurvedic medicine the bark is the most important part of the tree, but leaves, latex, fruits and seeds are also used. The latex in particular is valuable as a fungicide.

Fever nut is a climbing shrub, commonly found scrambling over hedges near villages in many parts of India. In Ayurvedic medicine powdered leaves are used in the treatment of malaria, liver disorders, and intestinal worms and to promote bleeding or abortion. Seed extracts are used for coughs, diabetes, piles or gout.

The porcupine flower’s leaves, stem, roots, bark and flowers have many uses in Ayurvedic medicine. Extracts of the plant have anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory properties and are used to treat fungal infections, wounds and toothache. In the monsoon season juice from crushed leaves is applied to the feet to prevent cracking and infection. The plant is also used as a remedy for tuberculosis, whooping cough, urinary infections, jaundice, fever and gastrointestinal disorders.

All parts of the oleander plant are very poisonous and if eaten it can cause heart failure. Like foxglove (Digitalis) juice it can be used in very small doses to slow the heart rate. Recently oleander has been used in a widely promoted skincare treatment, NeriumAD rejuvenating cream.

Crêpe ginger has recently been recommended as a possible remedy for diabetes. The leaves, seeds and creeping rhizomes contain diosgenin which helps lower blood sugar levels. This compound also affects the production of oestrogen and has been used to manufacture contraceptive pills. In traditional Indian medicine it is used for its diuretic, anti-fungal, anti-parasitic and anti-septic effects.

Non-Indian garden plant of Montbretia. The blackberry lily is thought to have originated in China where it has long been used medicinally. Slices of the rhizome are commonly used for clearing phlegm from the throat, as well as for genitourinary disorders and troubles in the digestive system. In the Malabar region of India it is known as an antidote to the bite of the cobra. The English name, blackberry lily, refers to the seeds which are black and shiny, developing in a clump outside the capsule.

This beautiful Hibiscus-like herb is well known in warm parts of India and China for its medicinal uses, and is related to okra (Abelmoschus esculentus). Seeds, roots and leaves are used medicinally, both in Ayurvedic and herbal medicine. A sticky mixture of the leaves and roots can be used for venereal diseases and an infusion of the seeds has a calming effect.

The leaves of the Indian almond can be used to feed silkworms and well as containing tannins that might help treat some cancers and sickle-cell anaemia. Though no relation of the true almond, this tree bears almond-like oily fruits. Its timber is also used. A native of the Malay Peninsula frequently grown in gardens in India. Most of the plants of this family possess acrid and poisonous properties and few have any economic uses.

The fruit are of the candlenut is almost round, with two nut-like seeds about 2.5cm long. The seeds are very oily, and can be lit and burn like candles or the oil can be extracted and either used for lamps or in cooking. In Ayurvedic medicine the nuts are used in the treatment of skin diseases.

Plants with other uses.
Flame-of-the-forest or dhak tree (Butea monosperma).  Indian School, watercolour, about 1795-1810. True cochineal is a very valuable product. Cochineal is a red dye formed by crushing insects that feed on the Mexican prickly pear cactus. In a similar way, the eggs of the lac insects (Laccifer lacca or Kerria lacca) that feed on the ruby-coloured gum of the dhak tree can be crushed to make a dye. In the 1790s the East India Company hoped that this might be used as a substitute for cochineal but it was not a profitable venture. 

A species of Ipomoea, the morning glory is native to tropical regions of the New World from northern South America north to Mexico. It is widely cultivated as an ornamental plant throughout the tropics, and also outside of tropical regions, where it is grown as an annual plant only as it does not survive temperate zone winters. In some tropical areas, it has become naturalised.

Oils from the cutleaf false oxtongue (Blumea Laciniata) have been shown to kill juvenile mosquitos.

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