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Welcome on Pl@ntUse

the wiki about useful plants and plant uses


Bellakhdar front cover.png

Jamal Bellakhdar's book (La pharmacopée marocaine traditionnelle. Médecine arabe ancienne et savoirs populaires. Paris, Ibis Press, 1997. 764 p. 12 pl.), out of print for long, is the result of long years of field and bibliographical research, in old Arabic authors as well as modern scientific publications.

It contains in particular many popular names, that the author takes care in locating precisely in space, giving his source when it is reproduced from a printed book, and detailing its meaning when apparent, and its etymology. A linguist would not have done best, and we thank the author who allowed us to reproduce such names on Pl@ntUse.

A quick review of Arabic and Berber names allows us to observe the richness of expressive names. It also shows how much plant names are embedded in a long history of Mediterranean interchanges, between East and West, but also North and South. Linguists know it of course, but it is worth reminding. Many names come from classical or Eastern Arabic, which incorporate names borrowed from Greek, Persian, Indian languages and Turkish. But we also find, especially in Berber, names of Latin origin, which probably go up to the period of the Roman Empire, which lasted from ca. 146 BC to 670 AD. Much later, French and Spanish names were borrowed to designate introduced plants.

As examples of Latin names borrowed by Berber, let us cite taydā (taeda) for Pinus halepensis or tarūbiya (rubia) for Rubia tinctorum.

The articles put on line follow the plan of the book. Botanists can use them by searching by family. What remains to be done is updating nomenclature, but also creating indexes. The names will also be pasted in the species pages of Pl@ntUse, to make them easily retrievable.

Only articles about plants have been uploaded. The book also contains articles about animal and mineral products.

We now have to wait for the publication of a revised and augmented (about 25% !) version of the book, that the author says will be for soon.

Michel Chauvet
17 March 2015
PS. Such pages complement Trabut's Algerian names and Le Floc'h's Tunisian ethnobotany. Your collaboration is welcome.

The plant of the month: sarsaparillas

Mediterranean sarsaparilla

At a botanical trip with Ecologistes de l'Euzière, I was asked about the etymology of the name sarsaparilla. Everyboby was surprised that a plant so common in Languedoc could wear a Spanish name. I decided to go into this "prickly" issue for Pl@ntUse, and I found no less than 55 Smilax species used worldwide, most of them for their medicinal virtues, but some for their starchy rhizome.

Sarsaparillas are quite forgotten today, but from the 16th to the 19th centuries, they had a great fame to cure this new disease which was syphilis. Monardes described çarçaparrillas originating from the West Indies (Smilax regelii and others), and Garcia da Orta described raiz da China coming from the East (Smilax china).

For francophones (and also anglophones!), sarsaparilla is the plant that the great Smurf is eager to collect in the mountain. The illustrator Peyo is said to have chosen the name for its exotic tone. Surely he didn't imagine that the plant was used to cure syphilis! This brings a strange light on Smurfs, who were a band of asexual dwarfs at the beginning, and later men with only one Smurfette. Were they affected by syphilis?

For anglophones, sarsaparilla is also the name of a drink of old times.

Sarsaparilla uses are so completely forgotten that the French Wikipedia only speaks of Smilax aspera, et that the article on syphilis doesn't mention either sarsaparilla or China root.

As a gift, you will find thorough notes on the etymology of names such as sarsaparilla (Latin), salsepareille (French) and squine.

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.

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.
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