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title page of 3rd edition, 1868

François-Joseph Cazin is the last French physician who cured farmers and poors only with the help of local plants. His Traité pratique et raisonné des plantes médicinales indigènes had no less than five editions from 1850 to 1886, the last ones being updated by his son.

This book is still the best synthesis on the subject. Cazin allies a detailed presentation of the clinical cases he cured with a bibliographical review which is astonishing by its breadth, as it goes from the physicians (Dioscorides, Gallen, Hippocrates, Arnaud de Villeneuve) and botanists (Mattioli, Dodoneus...) of Antiquity, the Middle Ages and Enlightenment, up to the most recent researches in the scientific pharmacopaeia of his century.

Cazin was constantly complaining about such physicians who were only fascinated by exotic medicines proposed by pharmacists, and that the common people could not afford. In his book, we see the respect he had for "bonnes femmes" and country priests who used traditional remedies. At the same time, he constantly warns against the dangers of identification or dosage errors and the inefficiency or toxicity of some medicines. From this point of view, reading this book will be useful for those who, today, tend to consider that everything natural must be intrinsically good.

All the book has been put on line at Pl@ntUse (in its 1868 version) and structured by species. It can be accessed either through the category Cazin 1868, or by the links placed in the species pages, or by the index of modern scientific names or of French names.

The reader is also invited to read the excellent presentation by Pierre Lieutaghi, expert in ethnobotany.

  • Cazin, François-Joseph, 1868. Traité pratique et raisonné des plantes médicinales indigènes : avec un atlas de 200 planches lithographiées. 3e édition, revue et augmentée par le docteur Henri Cazin. Paris, P. Asselin. 2 tomes dont 1 de pl. en 1 vol., XXVIII-1189-XL p.
Michel Chauvet
6 March 2017

The plant of the month: cannonball

Sal, Shorea robusta, is a tree from India, the seeds of which give a fat which is an authorized substitute of cocoa butter. I asked an image to an illustrator, and he gave me what resulted as being Couroupita guianensis, the cannonball, a very showy species indeed. This is astonishing, since the trees share no character. My illustrator simply relied on Google Images. By the way, more than 90% of the illustrations labelled "Shorea robusta" on the Internet represent Couroupita ! As a showy species, it is frequently photographed, in contrary to sal.

How can such a crass mistake occur? Fortunately, we have Wikipedia, which gives both answers and photos. The origin could be a labelling error in a botanical garden of Sri Lanka in 1881. The tree then spread to all South Asia. It was taken up in the Hinduist symbolic under the name nagalingam, the stigmat being perceived as a lingam, and stamens as a sacred snake (a naga). A beautiful individual is to be found in front of the Royal Palace at Phnom Penh, duely labelled ’’Shorea robusta’’. Tourists then pelted it with photos, scrupulously copying the false name.

A friend and telabotanist residing at Pondicherry confirms me that it is now part of the Tamil folklore, and that the tree is the floral emblem of the State of Pondicherry.

It could be suggested that labels be changed locally. But the species has taken such a symbolic and ritual importance in South Asia that it will be difficult to convince that it eventually comes from Guyana, and so, was absent from Asia before Christopher Colombus.

Moral of this story: Internet has no responsibility for that, of course, but this example strikingly shows that the most frequent data are not always the good ones, and that we must always check in reliable sources. It should be stressed that Wikipedia, often criticized for being not reliable, has the great merit of emphasizing the error. In the meanwhile, my illustrator, somewhat piqued, had to redraw his illustration.

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


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.

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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.