2007(6) : « Some thoughts after Brig »

(Contemporary Wild Plant Use – Nutritional Value of Plants – Animal Feed)


Here are, very briefly, some reflections that came to me during or after our meeting in Brig.

Contemporary Wild Plant Use

There was a wild grain harvested in Northern Europe until the 19th century : Glyceria fluitans (fétuque d’eau, en français). It grew in marshes and shallow lakes, like the much better known Zizania aquatica of N. America. Its harvest and uses have been described by Parmentier in the 18th or early 19th century, but probably from other sources. Most of the literature is in German, in Scandinavian languages or in Latin (Linnaeus). In my opinion, it would be very interesting to know more about this “wild cereal” who was actively harvested but remained wild in areas where agriculture had been a matter of course for millennia.

Another interesting example is Croton tinctorius L or Chrizophora tinctoria A.Juss. This plant (en fr. Tournesol ou maurelle) was harvested in S. France (Languedoc and neighbouring areas) until at least the mid 19th cent., when it was at least domesticated. It produced a blue juice which was made to impregnate sheets (drapeaux) who were sold… to the Netherlands. This commerce is attested from the 16th cent. on. The literature in French is pretty abundant (I have written a paper on this, soon to be published in a book by Aline Durand). There must be some literature in Dutch too…

My suggestion would be for someone (not me !) to gather this old literature on each of those plants (and others, as the case would be) in order to republish it, either on paper or on line…


Nutritional Value of Plants


Peasant food from earliest times on and about everywhere has been made of two

parts : starchy (from grains, tubers, etc.) for energy, and “tasty”, for taste (of course !), but beyond taste also maybe for vitamins, etc. The tasty part has sometimes a special name : e.g. pulmentum or companaticum in Latin (that which goes with puls, porridge, or with panis, bread).

A few years ago, I learnt by chance that in southern France, onions were eaten raw, like fruit, and that workers going to the fields for the day took nothing else than a piece of bread and some onions. It came as a surprise to me because in northern France, onions are not eaten raw (except in salads, etc.). Now, onions are very rich in vitamins (don’t ask me which ones just now !), which are partially destroyed by cooking.

But one of the richest plants, as far as vitamins are concerned, in cabbage. As far as I know, cabbage is never eaten raw (?), but it is so rich that a large part of its vitamins (or whatever) probably resist cooking.

Now, the need for vitamins must be strongest in winter, when there is few fresh foods available. Onions can be stored for the winter, if only protected against freezing. In similar conditions, cabbage would rot. But some varieties of cabbage resist mild freezing in the fields, and they were grown in order to be harvested (for humans or animals) during the winter months, although the risk to be destroyed by a strong freezing episode could never be dismissed. In Central Europe, where winters are usually quite cold, cabbages were stored as sauerkraut. Until the late 18th cent., sauerkraut was quite unknown in Britain, in France West of the Vosges, in Italy, Spain, etc. It was made world-famous when Cook took some casks of sauerkraut in his expeditions to prevent scurvy in his crew.

My point here is that in order to find some answers to the many questions which crop up about all that, we must go through a geographical analysis. I am simply dreaming of an Atlas showing areas where onions are eaten raw or cooked ; areas where cabbage are preferred to onions (or the reverse), etc.; and also areas where neither onions nor cabbage are important, but where other plants (possibly wild) play the same role. It would not be advisable to go too far. But I think that the thing should be feasible for Europe, the Mediterranean countries and the Middle East.


Animal Feed

  1. Why feed animals in the first place ?

- for taming or controlling them (e.g. salt…)

- for preventing their dying of hunger

- for making them work

- for obtaining more or better products (milk, meat, fat…).


  1. Some (theoretical) feeding systems

- No feeding at all : animals are just allowed (or made) to go from one pasture to another. This is the basis of nomadism, transhumance, etc., but may obtain in quite settled peoples too.

- Seasonal feeding : just compensate for seasonal scarcities, for example

- in winter, with stored fodder (hay, etc.)

- in spring, with green fodder, sown to be mown when the hay is coming to an end and grazing in the fields or meadows cannot yet be allowed.

- Not seasonal feeding : working animals must be fed whenever they are made to work - although, of course, it may happen that animals are made to work when there is fodder available; the same may be said for milch cows, etc.

- Not seasonal feeding : the use of waste, when available all around the year.


  1. And, not to forget : tools are essential. Without scythes, no hay (or no hay to speak of). And scythes are quite a problem to make, with a proper combination of iron and steel… Before scythes (and even after), the only material available to be stored in winter was la ramée (means tree boughs with their leaves, I don’t know if there is an English equivalent). Here again, a geographical survey of areas where ramée was still used in recent times would be quite interesting…

(Excusez-moi pour la justification du dernier §. C’est un sale manie de cet ordinateur, qui se mêle toujours de ce qui ne le regarde pas dès qu’on cesse une seconde de prévenir ses coups tordus. Je n’ai pas le temps de trouver le truc pour corriger ses corrections idiotes.)

François Sigaut,
le 19 juillet 2007