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the wiki about useful plants and plant uses


L'Herbier Vilmorin (Belin)

The Vilmorin herbarium and their illustrations shifted in a couple of years from the status of garbage bags to national digitized heritage. William Stearn had told me many years ago his concern that it could be lost. It is one of the very few historical herbaria in the world dealing with cultivated plants. After the herbarium digitization within the e-Recolnat program, let us hope that the illustrations will be digitized as well.

The saga of the Vilmorin family begins before the French Revolution. Philippe-Victoire de Vilmorin, a farmer's son, has a passion for plants and invents in the centre of Paris the scientific trade of seeds. For more than 200 years and six generations, the family is at the vanguard of agronomical and horticultural research in France and in the world. For their works and by passion for plants, the Vilmorin's gather an astonishing herbarium, the only one of its kind to have come to us.

This herbarium was about to disappear at the end of past century, but the enthousiasm of some people put it to light. The town of Verrières-le-Buisson, land of the Vilmorin's from 1815 to 1966, did its best to enhance this exceptional heritage. In 2006, the herbarium, including about 50 000 botanical sheats – among which a herbarium dedicated to Parmentier, an important wheat collection, Japanese watercolours, an album of vegetabless iconography… – has been classified as a Historical Monument.

This book relates the exceptional contribution of the Vilmorin's to the breeding of food and ornamental plants. It is illustrated with about 100 plates, among the most beautiful ones of this remarkable herbarium.

Christine Laurent, trained as a historian, was scientific journalist from 1985 to 2000. Since 2001, she is employed by the Mairie de Paris and works now in the direction of parks and environment.

Photographies are by Johannes von Saurma, author of many reportages around the world in the European medias. Since 1990, his research on the world of workers, artisans and shows is the theme of exhibitions in musea and galleries, and publications.

Christine Laurent, 2015. L'herbier Vilmorin. Deux siècles de passion pour les plantes comestibles et d'ornement. Belin. 192 p. ISBN 978-2-7011-9283-3 29.90 € [The Vilmorin herbarium. Two centuries of passion for food and ornamental plants].

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

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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