Sapotaceae in the spotlight at RBGE

Humans have relied on Sapotaceae for everything from golf balls to intercontinental communication, and continue to exploit the genus with advancements in skin care and miracle sweeteners.

Argania spinosa, used to make Argan oil, is from the Sapotaceae family. Image: Pixabay
Argania spinosa, used to make Argan oil, is from the Sapotaceae family. Image: Pixabay

From now until July 24, visitors to the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) can discover just how much humanity has used the pantropical Sapotaceae family, through the Nature Mother of Invention exhibition in the John Hope Gateway.

RBGE tropical botanist and Sapotaceae expert Dr Peter Wilkie said: "This is a large family of trees and shrubs, first brought to the attention of Europeans in the mid-17thcentury and the latex produced by these plants is a good example of the innovation and - the implications – that come from exploitation (and over exploitation) of nature."

The exhibition will explore different Sapotaceae-based products that have influenced the world since Victorian times, using the vehicle of the "gutty", as remembered by people who wore the cheap plimsolls when they were young children.

Wilkie explainied: "The basis of the ‘gutty’ was not the natural rubber of today but gutta-percha, the latex produced by trees of the genus Palaquium, from the family Sapotaceae. Unlike the elastic natural rubber, gutta-percha is malleable when heated and retains its shape when cooled.

"As a result it has been useful for a wealth of objects both ornamental and utilitarian – from the aforementioned plimsoll to dental filler and jewellery. However, probably the greatest impact on the modern world has been as the basis for under-sea telegraph cables laid from 1857 to allow intercontinental telecommunications and, more recently, the internet."

Other members of the Spapotaceae family featuring in the exhibition range from Shea butter from the Vitellaria paradoxa tree to Argan oil from kernels of the argan tree, endemic to Morocco, and the miracle berry - Synsepalum dulcificum – the fruit that, when eaten, causes sour foods such as lemons and limes to taste sweet.

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