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Domestication des plantes, 2108, Errance / Actes Sud

This book is a reference about the beginnings of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent, where many plants cultivated in Europe find their origin. The first edition was published in 1988 in English. We offer this French translation of the fourth English edition (2012).

The authors combine briliantly the archeobotanical, botanical and genetic data to reconstruct the origin of crops. Only these disciplines can be used to document this early period, long before the invention of writing and the emergence of iconography. This book has become a cult reference as well for archaeologists as for geneticists. It offers indeed what I call a first level synthesis, which relies critically on primary scientific publications. As can be seen in the bibliography, such references are numerous, deal with very precise items, need to be analyzed critically and are in addition largely inaccessible for the lay reader.

Later, with Mesopotamian tablets, Egyptian illustrations and hieroglyphs and biblical, Greek and Roman writings, we get into the domain of historians and linguists. Unfortunately, syntheses are old or lacunar in those domains. Specialists have a lot of work to do. This is necessary to allow plant historians to write second level syntheses, integrating historical, linguistic, ethnological and cultural data.

This book is a result of a fruitful collaboration between a German archaeobotanist, Maria Hopf, and an Israeli geneticist-botanist, Daniel Zohary. The fourth edition was carried on by an Israeli archaeobotanist, Ehud Weiss. Daniel Zohary will not see this book, as he died on December 16, 2016 in Jerusalem. I am sad of this, because I made this translation as a tribute to such a captivating person. I bear in mind fascinating field excursions on the heights of Jerusalem, discovering the progenitors of our crops. I also remind animated discussions on this issue at the Council of Europe.

No other region in the World benefits today of such a synthesis. This is largely the result of history, since for many centuries, researchers have mostly been Europeans or persons steeped in European culture, who were seeing the "Holy Land" as the origin of their civilisation, integrally including crops. Fortunately, science is slowly internationalising, but we are still far from having data corpuses as reliable for the other regions of the World as we have for South-East Asia and Europe. The Amaricas benefit from the attention of US researchers, but other regions are left aside ; it is difficult today to trace the history of relationships between Africa and India, for example.

  • Zohary, Daniel ; Hopf, Maria & Weiss, Ehud, 2018. La domestication des plantes. Traduction, introduction et compléments par Michel Chauvet. Arles, Errance / Actes Sud. 330 p. English title: Domestication of plants in the Old World: the origin and spread of domesticated plants in South-West Asia, Europe and the Mediterranean Basin.
Michel Chauvet
11 September 2018

The plant of the month: cistanche

Cistanche phelypaea growing massively below a Tamarix aphylla in Khemliya (south-east of Morocco)

In contrary with its relatives orobanches, which look somewhat pale with their pastel colors, cistanche exhibits a brilliant yellow which cannot be missed even far away. It is also much bigger.

When travelling in Algarve (Portugal) beginning of April, I could observe some of them at the limit of a seashore laguna. It occurs that Claude Lemmel, who participates in the Tela Botanica forum about North Africa, sent us a "postcard" from Sahara, taken at the end of March, where we see a profusion of cistanches with a background of dunes and camels. Knowing the biology of this parasitic plant, we can readily identify the host-tree, which is Tamarix aphylla.

Cistanche Cistanche phelypaea is in fact an important food resource for populations in the Sahara. Marceau Gast described it excellently in his book Moissons du désert. Touaregs distinguish three parts : the young inflorescence before emerging from the earth is eaten as a vegetable like an asparagus; the vertical part below is mashed, fermented to eliminate bitterness, dried and added to flour in bread; lastly, the horizontal part connecting the plant to the tree, although not so good, is used as a famine food.

This plant is common in Sahara, and can be found in the seashore sandy areas from Morocco to Portugal, Spain and occasionaly in the Var department (France).

The result of my search can be found in the page Cistanche phelypaea (in French).

Pages have been created only in French for the moment, due to lack of time. You can help us translating!

2018, May, 3


Why is seringat the French name of Philadelphus coronarius, whereas lilac bears the name Syringa ? My perplexity doubled when I read that this name came from the use of hollow branchlets to make… seringes ! This was the beginning of a long etymological search, that we detail in our Etymological dictionary. But this quest ended up in an enigma.

Renaissance botanists used to group several plants with frangrant flowers under the name Syringa. For instance, Bauhin in his Pinax (1623) distinguishes Syringa cærulea, which is lilac, Syringa vulgaris; Syringa alba, which is seringat (mock orange), Philadelphus coronarius; and Syringa Arabica foliis mali arantii', which is sambac, Jasminum sambac. It seems in fact that the name Syringa was first applied to the mock orange, but Linnaeus decided another way. This answers the first question.

mock orange flowers

As to the second question, you must know that the etymon of medieval Latin syringa is Greek σῦριγξ, -ιγγος - surinx, - ingos, which meant in ancient Greek "flute" or "fistula". In medieval Latin, this "flute" or "pipe" came to designate a "seringe". But in fact, we must not understand our hypodermical or intravenous seringes. Every pipe through wich a liquid was pushed was called a syringa, which applies to seringes for rectum or uretra enema !

The object size fits indeed more, but it seems that this meaning is not the right one. Tabernaemontanus may give us the right explanation in 1625 in his Neuw Vollkommentlich Kreuterbuch : "the branchlets can be used as a whistle (or flute), by removing the marrow". This explanation is highly plausible. What remains is to check it experimentally. If you have a lilac or a mock orange in your garden, cut off a branchlet, scoop out the soft heart, et blow into it to see (or hear) the result. Give us then the answer on the ethnobotany forum of Tela Botanica.

Michel Chauvet

What is Pl@ntUse?

Pl@ntuse is a collaborative space for exchange of information on useful plants and uses of plants. It is not intended to duplicate existing encyclopedias (including Wikipedia), but to offer additional features such as:

The working method

It is of course scalable and open for discussion. But the basic idea is not to produce consensus summaries. It is rather to provide reliable material to allow everyone to make his/her own synthesis. A priority is to upload the data sets that underlie the work, but are rarely published, forcing everyone to start from scratch.

Any kind of page may be created. Templates have been devised to create pages with a similar structure and with similar content. Such pages are easily accessible through categories or portals. If you intend to upload new types of information, please ask the administrators, who will help you create and use a new template.

As is customary in the scientific community, we mention the author of each contribution. However, most of the contributions may be corrected or updated, as far as they reach consensus. See Help:Authors of contributions

Each page is potentially available in English and French. By default, we are beginning with French, except for books written in English. You can collaborate by translating.