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the wiki about useful plants and plant uses


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

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!



The Greek text of Materia Medica by Dioscorides (1st century of our era) is now available on Pl@ntUse ! Well, it can only be read by hellenists, but titles have been added with a transcription in latin script, as well as partial translations by Suzanne Amigues and identifications.

Curiously, no French translation is known since Mattioli (1572). Today, we can buy two translations in German, two in English and one in Spanish. Comparing them shows that they have been published by hellenists who made no effort in updating identifications. As for botanists, it seems they have no longer been interested in Dioscorides, since Sprengel and Fraas in the 19th century.

Nevertheless, the work of Dioscorides is indispensable to anybody interested in the history of botany. It was quite the sole base of botanical knowledge throughout the Middle-Ages, and Renaissance botanists constantly translated and commented Dioscorides (Theophrastus was only rediscovered during the Renaissance).

As a result, most Dioscorides' names are to be found in botanical names in latin. Any etymological dictionary should then go back to Dioscorides. Pl@ntUse will endeavour to do it in time.

Latin names of plants are often perceived as complicated, with many h and y. When we read Dioscorides, we are surprised by the freshness of text, and by the fact that his Greek names were in fact popular names. Alcea is simply "the helpful", althaea "the healing". We discover that akoron is Iris pseudacorus, and that it was confused with Acorus calamus because both are aquatic plants giving a fragrant rhizome. Even more amusing, cleavers, Galium aparine, if it bears not surprisingly the name aparinê, has as a synonym "the philanthropous", because it sticks to humans!

In brief, many details to rejoice all those interested in plant names, or looking for scholarly anecdotes. As Pl@ntUse is a collaborative site, don't hesitate to propose translations if you are a hellenist, or to ask for them on a case by case basis. You can also help translating pages from French to English.

Michel Chauvet
3 avril 2014
PS. Such pages complement the index of plants of Theophrastus. We could also think about the works of Galen, Hippocrates or Arabic authors. But this will be quite another task.

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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