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Vavilov, les centres d’origine (Petit Génie)

« Life is short, one must hurry » (N. Vavilov).

Nikolaï Ivanovitch Vavilov (1887-1943) is considered as one of the most famous botanists and geneticists of his time. He was among the first scientists to have understood theimportance of the link between biological diversity and food security of societies; collecting and studying the diversity of plant genetic resources worldwide is a challenge for the future of a productive and sustainable agriculture. The vision of Vavilov, on the steps of Alphonse de Candolle and Darwin, was original at that time, as it was implemented at the world level, what led him to elaborate his theory of centres of origin of cultivated plants. He realized more than 200 missions through 65 countries and collected hundreds of thousands of cultivated varieties. With his collaborators, he set the basis of the genetic research on cultivated plants.

The book (in French) contains two texts of Vavilov:

  • Works on the origin of cultivated plants undergone since Darwin (1940, translated from Russian)
  • The origin of cultivated plants (1935, translated from English)

Curiously, those texts had never before been published in French.

The introduction by Michel Chauvet explores the relations between science, agriculture and society. It shows the evolution of Vavilov's theory, its topicality and the resulting scientific debates of nowadays. Genetic resources have become as never before power challenges. The availability of the broadest possible diversity for all stakeholders is a condition for allowing each country, each group of farmers to adapt their varieties to answer the manyfold economical, ecological, climatic and society changes.

Nikolaï Vavilov. La théorie des centres d’origine des plantes cultivées. Introduction par Michel Chauvet. Editions Petit Génie, octobre 2015. 176 pages. ISBN: 979-10-93104-08-9. 19 €.

Michel Chauvet
19 November 2015

The plant of the month: Ferula communis

flowering plant of Ferula communis

The North Africa forum of Tela Botanica was asked about a wild vegetable sold in Oran; it consisted of the young inflorescences of the giant-fennel. The discussion extended to recipes and the plant toxicity. It appears that this product, called bubal or kbel in Maghrib, is largely known and sold on markets. It is appreciated by all, even if its potential toxicity is acknowledged. Fortunately, its availability in time is very short.

This use was already known in Italy in 1572, as it is cited by Mattioli in his Commentaries of Dioscorides, who adds that eating it "incites marvellously to bawdiness (paillardise)".

Wild food plants play a very important role in Maghrib, and we lack a book in order to promote this culinary heritage.

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

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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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