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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: Clematis vitalba

old man's beard

Following my question about the use of mock-orange or lilac stems as syringes or flutes, the ethnobotanical forum of Tela Botanica derived about the uses of elder marrow and Clematis vitalba. This last plant awakened remembrance of forbidden rural plays, when children used to smoke internodes of old man's beard. Today, it appears that children in towns are smoking something else… But this fact is attested in many regions, and mentioned by Marcel Pagnol and Louis Pergaud in La Guerre des Boutons. A curious thing is that the popular names of Clematis vitalba have remained well alive in francophone areas : herbe aux gueux, ravissano, tiran d'bribeu

Two names puzzled me, and I discovered unexpected developments:

  • in many regions of France, the plant is called viorne or vioche. Renaissance botanists mention it (Viorna vulgi, Lobel ; Viburnum Gallorum, Bellon), and the Dictionnaire culturel of the Robert notes that the "popular" meaning of viorne is Clematis vitalba, and that Viburnum lantana is a "botanical" meaning. More astonishing, when we read one of the few occurences in classical latin of the word viburnum, we find Virgile's verses :
Verum hæc tantum alias inter caput extulit urbes Quantum lenta solent inter viburna cupressi,
classicaly translated by:
But this Rome raised its head amonst the other towns as much as cypresses use to raise their own head amongst the flexible viburnum.

It is clear that Clematis are intended, contrary to what latinists use to write, and not Viburnum lantana, the Wayfaring Tree! This meaning of "Clematis" has actually been retained by Linnaeus to create a Clematis viorna for an American species.

  • in Normandy and elsewhere, Clematis vitalba is liane ou lienne. This word has been taken by French colonists in the Antilles to designate tropical lianas, because in western France, only Clematis vitalba has long climbing woody stems. From the French, the word was borrowed by English liana and has become the generic name of this life form so typical of tropical areas.

Thanks to telabotanists, Pl@ntUse could be enriched with rich contents about Clematis vitalba and tobacco substitutes, which are many…

As a gift, you will find thorough notes on the etymology of names such as Clematis, vitalba,Viburnum, viorne, liane and mancienne.

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:

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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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