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Neglected Crops: 1492 from a Different Perspective. 1994. J.E. Hernándo Bermejo and J. León (eds.). Plant Production and Protection Series No. 26. FAO, Rome, Italy. p. 303-332

Neglected horticultural crops

The authors of this chapter are F. Nuez (Department of Biotechnology, ETSIA, Valencia, Spain) and J.E. Hernández Bermejo (Córdoba Botanical Garden, Córdoba, Spain).

The authors wish to thank S. Zaragoza, V. Castell and P. Cornejo for their bibliographical contribution.

In the chapter on the processes and causes of the marginalization of Iberian crops, more than 20 horticultural crops are mentioned which could be considered to be in this situation. The authors have selected eight which will be dealt with in detail. Selection was based on a stricter identification of their marginalized nature and choosing from various taxonomic groups that would allow a detailed view of the problem.

Rocket (Eruca sativa), garden cress (Lepidium sativum), purslane (Portulaca oleracea), borage (Borago officinalis), alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum), scorzonera or black salsify (Scorzonera hispanica), spotted golden thistle (Scolymus maculatus) and Spanish salsify or Spanish oyster plant (Scolymus hispanicus) are the eight species selected.


(Eruca saliva)

Botanical name: Eruca sativa Miller

Family: Brassicaceae = Cruciferae

Common names. English: rocket, salad rocket, garden rocket; Spanish: oruga, oruga común, eruca, roqueta común; Catalan: ruqueta; Basque: bekarki; Portuguese: eruca, rúcula, fedorenta, pinchão (Brazil); French: roquette

Origin of the name

The semantic origin of this plant's name alludes to the oldest crops of the Near East. The Persian girgir and Acadian gingiru gave the Aramaic, Hebrew and Syrian gargira, and from these the Arabic yiryir and Latin eruca, from which, through Spanish, the words "roqueta" and "oruga" of present-day Spanish appeared.

Properties and uses

This plant is considered to be an excellent stomachic, stimulant and aphrodisiac, and is also used as a diuretic and antiscorbutic. The leaves have a bitter flavour which is made milder by cooking or frying. The seeds are hot, although rather less so than mustard seeds. It contains glucosides, such as allyl sulphocyanate, mineral salts and vitamin C. The oil of the seed contains erucic acid.

Rocket was always considered to be a potent aphrodisiac. In classic antiquity, it was consecrated to Priapus and was planted at the foot of the statue of this deity dedicated to the procreative potential of males. Dioscorides warns that, eaten raw, it stimulates lust and that the seeds have the same power. Columela also refers to its sexually stimulating effect, but is also very well acquainted with its cultivation technique: "...and rocket and basil also remain in the place where they have been sown and require no other care than manuring and weeding. Moreover, they can be sown not only in autumn, but also in spring...." The Hispano-Romans also compared the aphrodisiac power of rocket precisely with the anaphrodisiac power of lettuce. In Hispano-Visigoth culture, Isidoro de Sevilla supports the use and knowledge of this plant's powers: "... rocket is, so to speak, inflammatory, since it has burning properties and, if consumed frequently in the diet. arouses the sexual appetite. There are two species. one of which is in habitual use while the other is wild with a more bitter taste. Both stimulate sexual appetite."

Irrespective of these effects, rocket has been eaten basically as a vegetable (leaves) and as a spice (leaves and seeds). It is thus an ingredient of misticanza" (mixed salad), a speciality eaten in Rome since the very foundation of that city. Hispano-Arab agronomists also mention its cultivation. for instance Ibn Hayyay (eleventh century). Ibn Wafid (eleventh and twelfth century) and. of course, Ibn al-Awwam (twelfth century). The latter author mentions the plant's use as a flavouring for musts and syrups, the seed being ground and scattered over the surface of the earthenware jars containing the syrup. He also mentions its flowers being used in a similar way. In the sixteenth century, Alonso de Herrera's Tratado de agricultura contains no mention of rocket.

It is used to make sauces in which the leaves are mixed with sugar or honey, vinegar and toasted bread (rocket sauce). In Italy, it is eaten boiled with spaghetti, and then seasoned with garlic and oil. In Spain, it is traditionally used in La Roda and Montealegre del Castillo (Al bacete) in the preparation of gazpachos of La Mancha, an ancestral dish which includes the meat of partridge and rabbit and unleavened bread (gazpacho), with lightly fried rocket. Some authors relate this tradition to primitive fertility rituals.

Nowadays it still remains very much appreciated in various countries of the Mediterranean area. including Italy, Greece and Turkey, where it is eaten mainly in salads and as a garnish for meat. It goes very well with lettuce, chicory, valerian and tomato. Another recipe is potato and rocket salad. In India, it is cultivated to obtain a semi-drying oil from the seeds. At present, most of the rocket grown is for this purpose, and it is considered mainly as a potential oilseed product.

This plant's marginalization as a vegetable in Spain may have been very much connected with its condemnation because of its aphrodisiac properties.

Botanical description

Rocket is an annual herbaceous plant, growing up to 80 cm. The basal leaves occur in a rosette and are lyrate-pinnatifid (those normally eaten in salads); the caulinar leaves are lobulate or dentate. The flowers have white or light yellow petals. The siliquae measure up to 40 mm, are erect, attached to the stem, with a subcylindrical valvar portion and an ensiform face as long as the valves. The seeds measure 1.5 to 2.5 mm and are brown.

The wild form flowers from February to June and the cultivated form right into mid-summer. It is allogamous with a complex system of self-incompatibility, mainly gametophytic, but with some alleles acting sporophytically. The existence of genie male sterility has been verified. The chromosome pattern is 2n = 2x = 22.

rocket, garden cress, and purslane
Figure 37. Horticultural crops: A) rocket (Eruca saliva), detail of fruit in the silicle; B) garden cress (Lepidium sativum), detail of fruit in the silicle; C) purslane (Portulaca oleracea)

Ecology and phytogeography

Rocket grows spontaneously in places modified by humans: abandoned gardens, waysides, tips and among rubble. It prefers hot, dry climates.

It is distributed all around the Mediterranean, extending to central Europe in the north and as far as Afghanistan and northern India in the east. It has reverted to the wild state in North America, South Africa and Australia. Vavilov described it in central Asia, the Near East and the Mediterranean, the latter being considered its main centre of origin.

It is cultivated mainly in India, and is grown more rarely in Turkey and Greece. It is also cultivated in Italy. In countries such as Spain, France and Great Britain, cultivation is rare.

Genetic diversity

The biggest collections of rocket germplasm are to be found at the Institute of Germplasm in Bari, Italy, at the NBPGR in New Delhi, India, at the Haryana Agricultural University in India and at the VIR in St Petersburg.

There are also smaller collections in Kabul in Afghanistan, Saskatoon in Canada, Gaersleben and Braunschweig in Germany, Tapioszele in Hungary, Islamabad in Pakistan, Blonie in Poland and Alnarp in Sweden. A small collection of species of Eruca, including E. sativa, is to be found at the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid and there is also germplasm from wild populations of the genus at the Córdoba Botanical Garden.

Collecting expeditions have continued. In 1985, 25 samples of indigenous germplasm of E. sativa were collected in the northeastern Sudan.

In an analysis using the D2 statistic of Mahalanobis, out of 99 lines of rocket no correlation was found between genetic diversity for 12 characters associated with production and geographical origin.

There is wide variability as regards the characters of the siliqua and its stability, and a strong interaction with the cultivation conditions. Similarly, there is wide genetic variability for seed production per plant and related characters.

An important group of studies is attempting to use E. sativa as a genetic resource for improving other crucifers. In this way, intergeneric hybrids have been obtained with Raphanus sativus, Brassica campestris and B. oleracea. Somatic hybrids have been obtained through the fusion of protoplasts with B. napus and B. juncea.

There are lines of rocket (T27) known which are resistant to mustard aphid and tolerant of several stress conditions as well as Fusarium oxysporum. Such lines may also be a source of genes that are transferable to species of Brassica.

Cultivation practices

Rocket is a very hardy plant which requires little care. It is generally sown direct in late winter or early spring, in shallow furrows. To encourage emergence, it is advisable to cover with light sieved soil. It requires little irrigation and manuring. It is usually hoed by hand.

The young leaves are harvested in spring.

Prospects for improvement

The use of rocket as a vegetable, salad or spice has been marginalized, possibly for moral or religious reasons, and its recovery is limited by local gastronomic tradition, which is not always able to appreciate its characteristic bitter flavour. This is due to glucosinolates and the high content of mineral salts.

The development of cultivars with a low allyl sulphocyanate content does not appear to be an improvement objective since, even though the plant would be rendered innocuous, it would lose its individual identity.

In fact, a wide variability has been observed as regards both erucic acid content and glucosinolate content in 128 rocket specimens from Pakistan. Rocket already has a low content of these constituents, and the local inhabitants clearly distinguish this species from other more bitter crucifers. Its use can be increased only through the promotion of the traditional dishes in which it appears.

The use of agronomic techniques such as nitrogen fertilization and shading would enable younger, more juicy rosettes to be obtained which have a milder taste and are more palatable.

The work on genetic improvement for the use of "rocket" as a vegetable is very limited, if we exclude the development of in vitro cultivation, which has made it possible to regenerate normal diploid plants from isolated protoplasts of leaf mesophyll.

Garden Cress

(Lepidium sativum)

Botanical name: Lepidium sativum L.

Family: Brassicaceae = Cruciferae

Common names. English: cress, common cress, garden cress, land cress, pepper cress; Spanish: mastuerzo, mastuerzo hortense, lepidio, berro de jardín (Spain), berro de tierra, berro hortense (Argentina), escobilla (Costa Rica); Catalan: morritort, morrisá, Portuguese and Galician: masturco, mastruco, agrião-mouro, herba do esforzo; Portuguese: mastruco do Sul, agrião (Brazil); Basque: buminka, beatzecrexu

Origin of the name

Cultivation of this species, which is native to Southwest Asia (perhaps Persia) and which spread many centuries ago to western Europe, is very old, as is shown by the philological trace of its names in different Indo-European languages. These include the Persian word turehtezuk, the Greek kardamon, the Latin nasturtium and Arabic tuffa' and hurf. In some languages there is a degree of confusion with watercress. It seems that the meaning of the word nasturtium (nasum torcere, because its smell causes the nose to turn up) must have been applied initially to garden cress, as both Pliny and Isidoro de Sevilla explain. The confusion remains with the terms used by the Hispano-Arabs. The word hurf is applied without distinction to watercress and garden cress (several species certainly of up to three different genera: Nasturtium, Lepidium and Cardaria). Thus the medieval agronomists of Andalusia went as far as differentiating between several hurf, such as hurf abyod, hurf babili, hurf madani....

Properties, uses and cultivation

Xenophon (400 BC) mentions that the Persians used to eat this plant even before bread was known. It was also familiar to the Egyptians and was very much appreciated by the Greeks and Romans, who were very fond of banquets rich in spices and spicy salads. Columela (first century) makes direct reference to the cultivation of garden cress. In Los doce libros de Agricultura, he writes: " ...immediately after the calends of January, garden cress is sown out... when you have transplanted it before the calends of March, you will be able to harvest it like chives, but less often... it must not be cut after the calends of November because it dies from frosts, but can resist for two years if it is hoed and manured carefully... there are also many sites where it lives for up to ten years" (Book XI). The latter statements seem to indicate that he is also speaking of the perennial species L. latifolium, as L. sativum is an annual.

Almost all of the Andalusian agronomists of the Middle Ages (Ibn Hayyay, Ibn Wafid, Ibn alBaytar, Ibn Luyun, Ibn al-Awwam) and many of the doctors, such as Maimonides, mention garden cress. Ibn al-Awwam also includes references from Abu al-Jair, Abu Abdalah as well as from Nabataean agriculture and, among other comments, he says: "Garden cress is sown between February and April (in January in Seville). It has small seeds which are mixed with earth for sowing to prevent the wind carrying them away.... It is harvested in May and is grown between ridges, in combination/conjunction with flax cultivation."

Many of the authors of the old oriental and Mediterranean cultures emphasized the medicinal properties of cress, especially as an antiscorbutic, depurative and stimulant. Columela notes its vermifugal powers. Ibn al-Awwam refers to certain apparently antihistaminic properties, since it was used against insect bites and also as an insect repellent, in the form of a fumigant. It was perhaps Ibn al-Baytar, an Andalusian botanist (eighth century), who collected most information on its properties, summarizing the opinions of other authors such as El Farcy, who says that it incites coitus and stimulates the appetite; Ibn Massa, according to whom it dissipates colic and gets rid of tapeworms and other intestinal worms: or Ibn Massouih, who mentions that it eliminates viscous humours. Ibn al-Baytar also says that it is administered against leprosy, is useful for renal "cooling" and that, if hair is washed with garden cress water, it is "purified" and any loss is arrested.

In Iran and Morocco, the seeds are used as an aphrodisiac. In former Abyssinia, an edible oil was obtained from the seeds. In Eritrea, it was used as a dyestuff plant. Some Arab scholars have attributed garden cress's reputation among Muslims to the fact that it was directly recommended by the Prophet.

Garden cress's main use was always as an aromatic and slightly pungent plant. Not only in antiquity but also in the Middle Ages it enjoyed considerable prestige on royal tables. The young leaves were used for salads. The ancient Spartans ate them with bread. This use still continues and they are also eaten with bread and butter or with bread to which lemon, vinegar or sugar is added. However. it is mainly used nowadays in the seedling stage. the succulent hypocotyls being added to salads and as a garnish and decoration for dishes.

The roots, seeds and leaves have been used as a spicy condiment. Columela explains how oxygala, a type of curd cheese with herbs, was prepared: 'Some people, after collecting cultivated or even wild garden cress, dry it in the shade and then. after removing the stem, add its leaves to brine. squeezing them and placing them in milk without any other seasoning, and adding the amount of salt they consider sufficient.... Others mix fresh leaves of cultivated cress with sweetened milk in a pot… ".

L latifolium L. stands out for its horticultural interest; although it grows spontaneously on the edges of rivers and lakes, it is also occasionally grown in the same way as L. sativum. Its young leaves can be used for salads; the ancient Greeks and Romans used to grow it for this purpose. Its leaves and seeds were also used as a spicy condiment. Several sauces are prepared with its leaves, including in particular the bitter sauce of the paschal lamb of the Jews. The seeds of this species were known in England as the poor people's pepper. The roots have been used on occasion as a substitute for radish.

In the fifteenth century, we know through Alonso de Herrera that garden cress was one of the vegetables most widely eaten in Castile. During the sixteenth century, obstinate attempts were made to introduce it into America. Right up to the beginning of the nineteenth century, its cultivation in Spain continued to be important, since Boutelou and Boutelou (1801) deal specifically with this crop in their Tratado de la huerta, commenting on the existence of several cultivars At present, the cultivation of cress is very occasional in countries such as Spain and France. Water cress, in competition with garden cress, has eclipsed the cultivation of the latter. However, this is not the case in other central European countries or the United Kingdom, where its use is normal and the system of cultivation has changed substantially.

Botanical description

Cress is an annual, erect herbaceous plant, growing up to 50 cm. The basal leaves have long petioles and are lyrate-pinnatipartite; the caulinar leaves are laciniate-pinnate while the upper leaves are entire. The inflorescences are in dense racemes. The flowers have white or slightly pink petals, measuring 2 mm. The siliquae measure 5 to 6 x 4 mm, are elliptical, elate from the upper half, and glabrous. Cress flowers in the wild state between March and June.

It is an allogamous plant with self-compatible and self-incompatible forms and with various degrees of tolerance to prolonged autogamy. There are diploid forms, 2n = 2x = 16, and tetraploid forms, 2n = 4x = 32. A degree of variability is noted in the character of the basal leaves which are cleft or split to a greater or lesser degree. a character which is controlled by a single incompletely dominant gene.

Ecology and phytogeography

Cress is a plant that is well suited to all soils and climates, although it does not tolerate frosts. In temperate conditions, it has a very rapid growth rate. It grows subspontaneously in areas transformed by humans, close to crops or human settlements. It appears in this way on the Iberian peninsula. mainly in the eastern regions.

Wild cress extends from the Sudan to the Himalayas. Most authors consider it to be a native of western Asia, whence it passed very quickly to Europe and the rest of Asia as a secondary crop, probably associated with cultivars of flax. Vavilov considers its main centre to be Ethiopia, where he found the widest variability: the Near East, central Asia and the Mediterranean are considered secondary centres. It is now naturalized in numerous parts of Europe, including the British Isles.

Genetic diversity

The genus Lepidium is made up of about 150 species, distributed throughout almost all temperate and subtropical regions of the world. On the Iberian peninsula and the Balearic Islands, at least 20 species or subspecies exist among the autochthonous and allochthonous taxa, some genetically close to L. sativum. Seven of them are exclusively endemic to the peninsula or, at the very most, are common with North Africa. Other close species are L. campestre (L.) R. Br. and L. ruderale L. which also have edible leaves. The leaves of L. campestre are used to prepare excellent sauces for fish.

Common cress (L. sativum L.), with regard to the anatomy of the leaf, stem and root, has been divided into three botanical varieties: vulgare, crispum and latifolium. The latter is the most mesomorphic, crispum the most xeromorphic and vulgare intermediate.

At present, most of the studies on the variability and development of new cultivars are being carried out in liaison with the VIR of St Petersburg, where there is a good collection of material. Of the 350 forms of garden cress studied in the Ukraine, Uzkolistnyti 3 was the best, being highly productive and of good quality. It is being used as the basis of improvement programmes, as it appreciably surpasses the best Soviet varieties in production and quality. Other cultivars well suited to European Russia are Tuikers Grootbladige (broad-leaved) and the lines Mestnyi k137, k106 and k115. Of the types most cultivated in Europe, Early European, Eastern, Dagestan and Entire Leaved stand out, being distinguished by the length and shape of the leaf, earliness and susceptibility to cold. In Western Europe, one broad-leaved type is especially appreciated (Broad Leaved French) as are curly types (Curly Leaved), the latter being used extensively to garnish dishes. In Africa, there are red, white and black varieties.

This crop is also arousing interest in Japan, and collecting expeditions to Nepal have been organized. Some specimens collected during an expedition to Iraq in 1986 are now stored in Abu Ghraib and in Gratersleben, Germany. There are also small collections of L. sativum in the PGRC in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), at the ARARI of Izmir in Turkey and in Bari, Italy. At the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid there are accessions of 20 species of Lepidium, while the BGV of the Córdoba Botanical Garden keeps germplasm of the southern Iberian species of the genus.

Cultivation practices

Cress is an easily grown plant with few requirements. It can be broadcast after the winter frosts or throughout the year in temperate climates. However, Boutelou and Boutelou (1801) were already recommending sowing in shallow furrows, which enables surplus plants to be thinned out and facilitates hoeing. Sowing has to be repeated every 15 to 20 days so that there is no shortage of young shoots and new leaves for salads—the leaves of earlier sowings begin to get tough and are no longer usable. The seed sprouts four or six days after sowing, depending on the season, and the leaves are ready for consumption after two or three weeks.

The usual form of cultivation continues to be as described, with 15 to 20 cm between rows and the use of irrigation in the summer, since they are lightly rooted seedlings which can dry up in a few days. Its growth is very rapid and harvesting can begin in the same month as sowing, with yields reaching 6 tonnes per hectare.

Prospects for improvement

Most of the genetic improvement work on garden cress is being carried out in the CIS, with little or no work being done at present in the countries of western Europe. Mainly early cultivars with a prolonged production period and better cold tolerance are being developed.

Cress can be grown and used like white mustard. It geminates more slowly at low temperatures, the emergence period being three or four days longer. Shortening this period is an interesting improvement objective.

However, cress's recovery and its greater presence on markets mainly depends on a modification of cultivation and marketing techniques. In counties such as the United Kingdom, where this vegetable is nominally to be found at the markets. cultivation takes place in greenhouses throughout the year. The whole succulent hypocotyls of the very young seedlings are eaten. The seed is placed on the soil surface on soft, level beds. It is finely sprinkled with water and then covered with sackcloth which has been steam-sterilized and moistened. The latter is frequently wetted to maintain moisture and is removed when the seedlings reach 4 to 5 cm in height (after approximately seven days in spring and autumn and ten days in winter). The yellowish leaves turn green after two to three days.

The cress is harvested when the first pair of cotyledon leaves have developed and it is marketed in small bags or trays, sometimes together with seedlings of white mustard.

Garden cress and white pepper are sometimes sown in the plastic trays or bags in which they will be sold, generally in peat with a nutrient solution.


(Portulaca oleracea)

Botanical name: Portulaca oleracea L.

Family: Portulacaceae

Common names. English: purslane, purslave, pursley, pusley; Spanish and Catalan: verdolaga, verdalaga, buglosa, hierba grasa, porcelana, tarfela, peplide (Spain), colchón de niño (El Salvador), flor de las once (Colombia), flor de un día, lega (Argentina); Portuguese and Galician: beldroega, bredo-femea, baldroaga; Basque: ketozki, ketorki, getozca; French: pourpier, portulache

Origin of the name

The diversity of names and meanings already gives an idea of the age and geographical dispersion of purslane's cultivation or use. On the basis of historical, archaeological and linguistic documentation, De Candolle thought that this species was cultivated more than 4000 years ago. Its common names come from different roots: lonica or louina (Sanskrit), koursa (Hindustani), kholza and perpehen (Persian), adrajne agria (Greek), portulaca (Latin, which means "little door", because of the way its capsule opens). The Arabs in the Middle Ages called it baqla hamqa', which means "mad" or "crazy vegetable" because of the fact that its branches spread over the ground without any control. The Hispano-Arabs of Al-Andalus (from the tenth to fifteenth century) used the name riyla, which means "foot", most certainly because of its dactyliform leaves, and also furfir, farfan, farfag, farfagin, derived from the Persian perpehen. They also called it missita, which means "mixed", because it is sometimes found growing in gardens and sometimes growing wild. In Spanish, names such as verdilacas, yerba aurato and yerba orate are known (which again mean "crazy herb").

Properties, uses and cultivation

As a medicinal plant, it is considered to have antiscorbutic, diuretic and cooling properties. Being rich in mineral salts and with a high water content (95 percent) and mucilage content, it has emollient and soothing properties for irritations of the bladder and urinary tract. It is also used to regulate the bowels. Dioscorides already recognized its medicinal powers: these were anti-inflammatory (eyes) and analgesic (headache), emollient and soothing, antifebrifuge (in juice) and anthelmintic. He also says that "it reduces the desire to fornicate". In the latter sense, other authors also mention its anaphrodisiac powers (1837 Codex of the Spanish Pharmacopoeia), including this plant among the "four cold seeds", together with chicory, endive and lettuce. The anaphrodisiac effect is perhaps due to the presence of norepinephrin, a precursor of adrenalin, which causes a reduction in the blood flow through constriction of the main arteries. It is also mentioned by Maimonides. In the Middle Ages, the pharmacists of Cairo used to sell purslane seed for various uses, recommending it in particular as a vermifuge. Laguna and Leclerc also recognized its different medicinal properties, especially the anti-inflammatory ones, in mixtures prepared with plantain, violets and gourds. Its magical powers have also been mentioned, as a charm against evil spirits and for dispelling nightmares if placed in the bed.

However, in addition to its medicinal powers, it is also a vegetable, a weed and a food for pigs.

Columela writes in his poem on the garden: "Already the juicy purslane covers the dry beds"; and in Los doce libros de agricultura: "Leafy purslane appeases the plot's thirst" (Book X); and in Book XI he gives a recipe for preserving it in vinegar and salt. Paladio refers to it exclusively because of its mucilaginous, medicinal and veterinary properties. Similar references are found in Kastos, taking up the Byzantine tradition. Isidoro de Sevilla mentions it without giving any information on its cultivation. In short, such a summary reference to the Hispano-Roman and Hispano-Visigoth tradition regarding purslane is surprising.

It is the writers of oriental and Arabic treatises who concerned themselves most with this vegetable. Ibn Wahsiyya describes its cultivation in the Near East, presenting it as a summer crop. Most of the Hispano-Arab agronomists deal with this plant. Arib (tenth century) mentions it in his Calendario agrícola. Al Zahrawi and Ibn Hayyay (eleventh century) also mention it. Ibn Bassal (eleventh century) deals extensively with its cultivation, already recognizing a certain intraspecific variability (he distinguishes early and late varieties), setting out its temperature and water requirements (summer cultivation and irrigation or vegetable garden), drawing up a sowing calendar which extends from March to August and demonstrating the practice of two basic cultivation periods, depending on whether the aim is to produce seed or to produce for human consumption. Sowing quantities and manuring and irrigation requirements also appear and are dealt with in great detail by the author. Ibn Wafid (Hispano-Arab agronomist of the eleventh and twelfth centuries) mentions it under the names haqla hamqa' and missita. Ibn al-Awwam, in his Kitab al-Filaha, recalls that it is mentioned by almost all the Arab authors and refers to different varieties. He uses the adjectives "mild", "vain" and ''blessed".

After the sixteenth century, cultivation of purslane was gradually lost in Spain. Alonso de Herrera (sixteenth century), for example, makes no reference to it while Boutelou and Boutelou (1801) say that "purslane, which is not at all appreciated in Spain, is one of the crops which, in England and other countries further north, need to be cultivated in frames and hotbeds in order to bring forward their vegetation artificially"; and further on: "on this land, it is not usual to cultivate purslane other than using those that have grown at random among other plants cultivated with more care". In spite of Spanish disregard for this plant, it is still valued in many Latin American countries where it was introduced.

Purslane has been eaten as a vegetable, particularly fresh. In England in the seventeenth century. the cooks of Charles II used to add its leaves to all salads, perhaps to satisfy the king's taste or else for its digestive properties. In this recipe, the chopped young leaves were mixed with double the amount of leaves of lettuce, chervil, borage flowers and marigold petals, the mixture being dressed with oil and lemon juice. The recipe resembles that mentioned by Tirso de Molina: "I will have green coriander, garden cress, purslane, borage and mint added to it."

Not only the leaves, but also the stems and rootless plantlets can be eaten raw and fresh. Columela mentions their being eaten pickled with salt and vinegar. Purslane has a pleasant acidic flavour and is very juicy. In Spain, it is usually eaten at a more advanced stage of growth, after cooking. It is also delicious boiled and in omelettes. Sauteed in butter or fried, it is used in soups, broths, salads and sauces. Together with sorrel, it forms part of the French soup bonne femme. Recipes are also known for purslane and pea soups.

To complete the range of its applications, one could mention its use as an insecticide, in which case its juice is poured on to anthills, and also its ornamental use in Roman and medieval gardens.

At present in Spain, it is basically a volunteer species (weed) among summer irrigated crops, and its consumption is gradually declining; this is also the case with individuals collected from wild populations.

Botanical description

Purslane is an annual, herbaceous plant, with branched, decumbent or fairly ascending stems of up to 50 cm, and which are reddish, fleshy and glabrous. The leaves measure 0.5 to 3.3 x 0.2 to 1.5 cm, are obovate, entire and fairly papillose. The flowers are yellow and solitary or in axillary groups of two or three. The fruit is in a capsule (pyxidium) of up to 7 mm. The seeds measure 0.6 to 1 mm; they are reniform, black, and maintain their germinating capacity for eight to ten years. Of orthodox behaviour in germination, their viability is maintained much more if they are stored dry at a low temperature.

Ecology and phytogeography

Purslane was one of the most widespread horticultural plants in the Old World since distant times. It was taken to America where it was naturalized, as in Europe, in gardens, among rubble and at waysides. It originates from the region extending from the western Himalayas to southern Russia and Greece. In eastern Asia it does not seem to be spontaneous. In Greece it is spontaneous and cultivated. Vavilov (1951) categorizes it in the Mediterranean countries of the Near East and central Asia as a weed and vegetable.

Nowadays it is distributed over the hot temperate zones of a great part of the world. Together with other species of the genus it occurs as a weed in the majority of tropical and subtropical countries.

It is cultivated in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and other European countries. It is a popular winter vegetable in northern India. In Spain. it very frequently occurs as a volunteer, but it is very rare as a crop.

Genetic diversity

Little work has been done on the management of purslane's extraspecific variability. Apparently, without any aim at improvement, protoplast fusion of the genera Portulaca and Nicotiana has been attempted, and heterokaryons and the first division have been observed, but it is not clear whether multiple divisions occurred.

Nevertheless, there is an enormous intrageneric variability. The genus Portulaca is cosmopolitan and many species are grown as a vegetable. Thus, P. afra Jacq., P. pilosa L. and P. tuberosa Roxb. in southern Africa and P. quadrifida L. in tropical Africa; P. retusa Engelm. in North America and P. pilosa L. in South America; P. napiformis Muell. in Australia; and P. lutea Forst in Polynesia. P. quadrifida L. is cultivated in many tropical regions.

Within P. oleracea and in its wild populations, Danin and Baker distinguish five subspecies (oleracea, papillato-stellulata, stellata, granulato-stellulata and nitida), on the basis of the seed size and structure of the testa. Recognition of these subspecies is somewhat questionable, especially if we take into account their sympatric character. Generally speaking, the existence of a single P. oleracea complex with several varieties is accepted; it includes: var. oleracea, which is widespread as a weed; and var. sativa (Haw.) Celak, which is cultivated as a vegetable and has a bigger and erect habit.

In a chemotaxonomic study comparing proteins and free amino acids, Prabhakar and Ramayya (1988) found that, within the complex P. oleracea, the var. ophemera is distinct from the var. oleracea and sativa.

In the var. sativa, it is usual to distinguish two types which can be differentiated by their colouring: green purslane and golden purslane. However, it seems that colour depends basically on exposure to the sun and is more an environmental than a genetic characteristic. Some markets, such as the French market, appreciate red in particular.

In the commercial catalogues of seed firms, cultivars of this horticultural plant are not usually offered.

Girenko (1980) has described the intraspecific diversity and composition of cultivars in various climatic zones of the CIS, along with another set of data of agricultural interest.1

Extensive work also has to be done on the recovery and conservation of purslane germplasm. In 1985, as part of a joint project with the IBPGR, a mission of the Agricultural Research Corporation collected indigenous germplasm of P. oleracea in the northeastern region of the Sudan. At ARARI in Izmir, Turkey, some accessions of P. oleracea are conserved.

1This article, published in 1988, has not been translated from Russian.

Cultivation practices

This is a vegetable which develops rapidly in hot environments. Cultivation is very simple, entailing the necessary hoeing and irrigation on light, rich soils which encourage emergence.

It can be grown in greenhouses and may be broadcast or sown by burying the seeds with light pressure. A first and second irrigation are essential and must be carried out either by sprinkler or by hand. In order to ensure moisture during emergence, the plots are sometimes covered with wet sackcloth. The seeds germinate quickly and have to be raised up to accelerate emergence and development. The plantlets are harvested when four or five leaves have formed which, with suitable temperatures, is achieved in about 20 days. It is possible to cover a long production period by staggered sowing.

In temperate areas in central Europe around April, when the frosts are over, cultivation also takes place in the open air with direct broadcasting (10 g per m2). Moisture must be ensured during emergence. Later, when the seedlings have reached the mid-point in their growth, they tolerate water shortages well. In this type of cultivation, the plant is normally allowed to develop and the stalks are harvested throughout the summer. If the plant is not pulled up, it sprouts again.

The crop's biggest enemies are low temperatures and weeds, which require as many hoeings as necessary. Pests and diseases do not appear to constitute important limitations.

Prospects for improvement

Cultivation does not present any technical difficulty preventing restoration of this vegetable's use. In experimental tests carried out by the authors on the southeastern coast of Spain, uniform production of seedlings of between 6 and 8 cm was obtainable after a month or so during the winter and spring in an unheated polyethylene greenhouse.

This type of cultivation is the one which may be most readily acceptable on western markets, provided clean rootless seedlings are offered, appropriately packaged in trays covered with plastic film. Under these conditions, they keep well at low temperatures for a couple of weeks.

This type of product is practically unknown to the consumer and yet it is the most suitable for salads. If plants or shoots of plants developed under high temperature conditions are used, they may have excessive mucilage and an unpleasant texture. The plantlets have a milder flavour and texture which make them more appetizing.

Where plant material is concerned, practically everything remains to be done, since very little improvement work has been carried out recently.


(Borago officinalis)

Botanical name: Borago officinalis L.

Family: Boraginaceae

Common names. English: borage, cool tankard; Spanish: borraja, borraja común, borraga, borracha, bora, corrago, alcohelo, flores cordiales; Catalan: borratja, borraina, pa-i-pexet; Basque: borrai, borroin, murrum, assunasa, porraiña; Portuguese and Galician: borrage, borragem, erva borragem, borraxa

Properties, uses and cultivation

Borage is attributed with sudorific (flowers), diuretic (leaves and petioles) and emollient properties (cataplasms of leaves). It contains substantial mucilage, tannin, potassium and magnesium salts and traces of essence. The seeds contain up to 23 percent linoleic acid.

Pharmacologists in past times used to include borage within the "four pectoral flowers", and it was also strongly recommended in cases of rheumatism, in which case the fresh leaves were applied as a poultice, since they lose their properties when dry. The flowers and seeds had a reputation as euphoriants and were added to wine for this purpose. Some authors think that borage is the plant which the Greeks called eafrosinon and which, according to Pliny, "made men joyous and happy". One Greek proverb used to say: "I, borage, always give courage." In sixteenth-century Spain, it was still attributed with this property.

Thus, Alonso de Herrera (1981 [1513]) states that borages "are healthier than any other vegetable and. in truth, it can be said that in many cases they are not appreciated because these powers, which are many, are unknown". He also mentions some of these: "When raw, they engender a very singular blood, and more so when cooked with a good mutton or capons, and for this reason they are very good for old people... and if their seed is drunk in wine, it cheers the heart greatly...". The question arises as to whether the vegetable's virtues might not be due to the other ingredient which accompanied it.

In actual fact, its effects cannot be very obvious. since "in many cases they are not appreciated". The mildness of its action perhaps explains the well-known Spanish expression "it is borage water" to indicate that something has come to nothing. For example, Boutelou and Boutelou (1801) explained: "In ancient times it was very often used in medicine, but nowadays it is practically forgotten since it does not produce the effects for which it was applied in those days."

As a food vegetable, the origin of its cultivation has not been pinpointed. Although it is unclear whether the Greeks and Romans made medicinal use of this plant, it is more certain that they did not cultivate it, since none of the writers of treatises such as Columela or Paladio referred to it, although some authors attribute a Latin etymology to borago (derived from borra = rigid hair, because of the characteristic hairiness of the whole plant). Other authors support an Arabic etymology, from abu = father and rash = sweat, because of the sudorific property of its flowers. Some historians even thought that the plant came from Africa during the Middle Ages. However, there is no doubt that the plant is native to Spain and that, around the twelfth century, the Andalusian Muslims were not growing it. Indeed, in his Kitab al-Filaha, Ibn al-Awwam makes a single reference to it, treating it as a wild plant which could be used in times of famine. Other Andalusian agronomists and doctors such as Ibn Hayyay (tenth century), Ibn Wafid (eleventh to twelfth centuries) and Maimonides (tenth century) seem to mention it, but there is a degree of confusion regarding its name, lisan al-lawr (ox tongue), which may refer to both Borago officinalis and Anchusa officinalis or A. italica.

Consequently, borage must not have been cultivated until after the twelfth century. It is known to have been grown in Castile in the fifteenth century and, in 1539, Alonso de Herrera gave an extensive description of its cultivation and properties. It was one of the first vegetables taken to America by the Spanish; as early as 1494 it was being grown in the gardens of La Isabela, the first city founded on American soil. In the seventeenth century, Cobo (1953 [1662]) also stated that borage had adapted to Latin America. In the eighteenth century, it was frequently grown but had already lost importance.

Borage is grown for its leaves and stalks which are eaten as a vegetable. The young leaves can be eaten raw in salad dressed with olive oil, giving an aroma and flavour similar to cucumber. They should be chopped, since they are not very appealing whole because of their hairiness. They are used cooked in soups, as a garnish for meats and also in olla, a kind of stew. The leaves cooked in batter and served with hot or grated cheese are delicious. Similarly, borage dumplings can be made, while its finely chopped leaves can be cooked with almond milk to make an exquisite soup or used to make an excellent borage omelette.

However, nowadays leaf petioles are the part of the plant most used and lend themselves to most of the uses stated.

The flowers are used to garnish dishes and prepare an exquisite dessert. Genders (1988) suggests a recipe for borage tart. In some regions, a dessert is also prepared by frying the leaves, to which sugar or honey is added, in the same way as the paparajotes of Murcia, but using borage instead of lemon leaves. In Majorca, according to Font Quer (1990) the leaves are used to make fritters by preparing a mixture with beaten eggs and wheat flour and then frying the leaves thus coated in hot oil and sprinkling them with sugar and cinnamon.

Borage is also a honey-producing plant, the flowers and roots produce dye, while the active synthesis of linoleic acid—of pharmacological and cosmetic interest—occurs in the ovary, which explains the high content of linoleic acid in the seeds.

Botanical description

Borage is a sturdy, annual herbaceous plant. Almost all the plant is covered with stiff hairs. It has a taproot and erect, sturdy stems which reach 20 to 100 cm and are sometimes branched. It has ovate or lanceolate, petiolate basal leaves in a rosette which grow up to 25 cm. The upper caulinar leaves surrounding the stem are sessile. The flowers are a bright celestial blue on branched tops. Flowering occurs from spring to autumn. The fruit contains four oblongo-ovoid nucules measuring 4 x 2.5 mm.

Borage is an allogamous plant, which has hermaphrodite flowers with exserted stamens. It has a self-incompatibility system controlled by numerous genes. Pollination is predominantly entomophilous (bees).

The plant is propagated from seed. Seed collection is laborious, since the seeds drop easily. Sixty-five seeds weigh 1 g; 1 litre of seeds weighs around 430 g. In commercial storage conditions, germination capacity remains high for eight to ten years. Its behaviour is orthodox in storage.

The seed germinates very quickly, without any dormancy problems. The chromosome pattern is 2n = 2x = 16.

borage, alexanders, and scorzonera
Figure 38. Horticultural crops: A) borage (Borago officinalis); B) alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum); B1) leaves; B2) inflorescences in the umbel; B) fruit; B4) root; C) scorzonera (Scorzonera hispanica); C1) capitulum; C2) basal rosette of leaves: C3) root

Ecology and phytogeography

In its spontaneous or subspontaneous form, borage grows on uncultivated land, embankments, fallow land, wasteland, garden edges, waysides and among ruins.

It is native to the Mediterranean region but has been naturalized in the hot zones of western, central and eastern Europe, sometimes with unstable escapes northwards. It is also found in Southwest Asia, Macronesia and North America.

Cultivation of borage as a vegetable is limited to certain regions of the Netherlands, France, Spain and Latin America, being unknown in the rest of the world.

In Spain, it is grown mainly in the Ebro valley, in the provinces of Zaragoza, Logroño and Navarra. The total cultivated area in 1987 was 303 ha and production 7818 tonnes.

In recent years, some expansion of cultivation towards Andalusia has been noted, particularly in Almería. Sheltered cultivation is beginning to be carried out, with excellent results.

Genetic diversity

The genus Borago has only two Mediterranean species. In humid areas of Corsica and Sardinia, B. pygmaea (DC.) Chater & W. Greuter, a perennial with decumbent stems, is found.

Borago officinalis L. is a very variable species. There are varieties characterized by the flower colour. Although they are generally bright blue, there are also types with white and pink flowers. However, these are very heterogeneous populations with a great diversity in habit, vigour and development of the plant, shape, colour and size of the limb and leaf petiole, flowering, etc.

The cultivar Flor Blanca, which is marketed in Spain, has leaves with petioles of 40 to 50 cm in length and 1.5 cm in width. The plant grows to a height of around 50 to 60 cm.

In the gene bank of the SIA at the Diputación General de Aragón (Zaragoza), there is a small collection of accessions of this vegetable.

Cultivation practices

Borage is a very hardy plant which is suited to all types of soil. although it grows best on clayey-muddy soils. It prefers land that is rich in organic matter. It tolerates low temperatures, down to -50°C, and starts to sprout again when the temperature rises.

In Spain, direct sowing is used. The ground should be prepared with a basal dressing using about 50 tonnes of manure per hectare, if it has not been incorporated into the previous crop, and 90 to 120 units per hectare of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. The soil must be well broken up with deep ploughing and a couple of harrowings. In Aragon, staggered sowings are carried out in the open air from mid-August to January, in rows or individual drill holes with 25 to 30 cm between plants.

Cultivation presents no particular problems; the plants must be irrigated and, in the event of intensive cultivation, after thinning out top-dressing must be supplemented by 150 units per hectare of easily assimilated nitrogen.

The vegetative cycle takes between 50 and 120 days and harvesting can begin in mid-October, ending in May since, when high temperatures come with spring, the plant goes into flower and loses its value. Harvesting is done by hand. Each plant has two or three rosettes with five to seven leaves each. with a weight of 500 to 1000 g per plant.

Production levels of around 60 to 100 tonnes per hectare are obtained. According to data in the Spanish Government's Anuario de Estadística Agraria, average yields are 25 tonnes per hectare in the case of open-air irrigation and 36 tonnes per hectare in sheltered cultivation, Navarra being foremost with yields of 40 tonnes per hectare using both methods of cultivation.

Recently, sheltered cultivation under plastic has been gaining in importance. Under these conditions, much longer and fleshier leaf stalks are obtained and the stalk/plant yield rises to 60 percent, as against the 40 percent obtained with open-air cultivation. Production levels are also usually better.

The crop's main enemies are virus diseases (cucumber mosaic virus), soil fungi (Fusarium sp.), soil grubs, caterpillars and aphids.

The plant is usually marketed in 15 to 20 kg "bundles", amounting to 15 to 30 clumps, or in 10 to 12 kg boxes as complete plants, with part of the leaf removed. However, the consumer prefers borage to be completely stripped and packed in trays protected with plastic film.

Borage is subject to the technical regulations on the control and certification of horticultural plant seeds. The requirements for seeds of the basic, certified and standard category are 97 percent specific purity, 65 percent germination of pure seeds, with a maximum tolerance of 0.5 percent of seeds of other species. According to INSPV data, in 1989 2567 kg of borage seed were marketed, 2 489 kg of which were homegrown. Only the white variety was grown.

Another method of cultivation carried out in the Netherlands uses plantlets. After direct sowing, these are allowed to grow to a height of 10 to 15 cm and the complete plantlets are harvested. After washing and root removal, these can be marketed in trays covered with plastic film.

Prospects for improvement

Most improvement work has been carried out using white flower types. Breeding by growers has created forms with more succulent, longer and wider leaf stalks, with little pigmentation and less hair than the wild forms.

One of the main problems of cultivation is its ease of bolting, including the formation of flowers, which lowers the value of production. This process is caused by high temperatures and light intensity and reduced humidity. Breeding for resistance to bolting is a priority improvement objective, and a very high response to breeding is observed.

Although this plant has traditionally been cultivated in the open air, excellent results are now being obtained under plastic, in which case growth improves. A quality product, with long, tender leaf stalks and less hair can be obtained for a good part of the year in a greenhouse. The plant tolerates low winter temperatures and high humidity well. In the area around Zaragoza, borage has been converted into the most profitable crop under plastic.

The expansion of sheltered cultivation may encourage the recovery of this marginalized vegetable. The first tests in this connection have been carried out in Almería. If they prove positive, they would contribute to the diversification of production and to improving the supply in this region. which has great agricultural importance and yet depends on a very small number of crops.

As far as the consumer is concerned, in the case of regions that do not have a tradition of using this plant, borage must be presented stripped and properly packed, so that the work of culinary preparation is reduced. The plant's coarse, hairy appearance may cause some degree of rejection, which is avoided with appropriate cleaning and presentation.

With sights set on possible external markets which are even more demanding than the Spanish market, the high nitrate content of leaves and leaf stalks will need to be reduced. This can be achieved without great difficulty, as breeding to obtain a low nitrate content has been effective in other cases. Breeding to obtain individuals with a low content of lasiocarpine, a pyrrolizidinic alkaloid, would also be advisable, although its content is not excessively high.

As regards the plant's pharmacological use, in vitro cultivation of embryos is being developed; this is a technique whereby the active synthesis of linoleic acid takes place. In vitro propagation techniques of borage have also been developed.


(Smyrnium olusatrum)

Botanical name: Smyrnium olusatrum L.

Family: Apiaceae = Umbelliferae

Common names. English: alexanders, alisander, maceron; Spanish: apio caballar, apio equino, apio macedónico, perejil macedónico, esmirnio, olosatro, cañarejo; Portuguese and Galician: salsa de cavalo, cegudes, apio dos cavalos, roses de pé de piolho; Catalan: api cavallar, abil de siquia, julivert de moro, cugul, aleixandri

Origin of the name

This is the hipposelinon of the Greeks, a word which means parsley or "horse celery". In Arabic, during the Andalusian period, it was called karafs barri, one of the various karafs (celeries) known by Hispano-Arab agronomists, different from cultivated celery (Apium graveolens), aquatic celery (A. nudiflorum) and mountain or rock celery (the Greek and Latin petroselinum or oreoselinon). Alexanders has always been identified as oriental or Macedonian, very possibly as a reference to its geographical origin and its allochthonous character.

Properties, uses and cultivation

Its use as a medicinal plant is very old. The Greek botanist Theophrastus (fourth century BC) made reference to the plant. Dioscorides (first century) also included it in his Materia medica, commenting that its roots and leaves were edible. According to this author, its seed, taken with wine, is an emmenagogue. However, Galen said that it was less active than celery. In the Cordoba of the caliphs, Maimonides also spoke of its powers. During the Middle Ages, it was constantly considered as a plant with diuretic, depurative and aperient properties, particularly through its root. However, its most outstanding quality was perhaps as an antiscorbutic because of its high vitamin C content. The fruit has carminative and stomachic properties. In the eighteenth century, it continued to maintain its reputation as a medicinal plant. as the Flore économique des plantes qui croissent aux environs de Paris described it in 1799.

The plant, and especially the leaves, have a smell and flavour similar to myrrh. Hence the origin of the word smyrnion, its generic name. Columela (first century) refers to the plant as "myrrh of Achaea", because it was grown in Greece. which the Romans called Achaica or Achaea. It is also because of its characteristic flavour and smell that it is used as a condiment; it is used to season food in a similar way to parsley, giving flavour to soups and stews, and to prepare sauces accompanying meat and fish. However. its commonest use has been as a fresh vegetable, with a preference being shown for its leaves, young shoots and leaf stalks, which impart a pleasant flavour similar to celery, although somewhat sharper. It has also been eaten cooked. The Latin word olusatrum, which means "black vegetable". reflects these uses. The roots were used preserved in a sweet-and-sour pickle. The fruit contains an essential oil, cuminal, which is reminiscent of cumin.

The history of its cultivation is surprising. Of all the Umbelliferae used as vegetables, alexanders has been one of the commonest in gardens for many centuries, although in the nineteenth century it was almost completely forgotten. It was probably being gathered before the Neolithic period and was already being grown as early as the Iron Age. It became very popular during the time of Alexander the Great (fourth century BC) and was widely grown by the Romans, who certainly introduced it into western and central Europe, including the British Isles. It is now naturalized in these regions and on the Iberian Peninsula.

Columela elaborates on its cultivation and methods of consumption: "Before alexanders puts out stems, pull up its root in January or February and, after shaking it gently to remove any soil, place it in vinegar and salt; after 30 days, take it out and peel off its skin; otherwise, place its chopped pith into a new glass container or jar and add juice to it as described below. Take some mint, raisins and a small dry onion and grind them together with toasted wheat and a little honey; when all this is well ground, mix with it two parts of syrup and one of vinegar and put it like this into the aforementioned jar and, after covering it with a lid, place a skin over it; later, when you wish to use it, remove the pieces of root with their own juice and add oil to them."

Isidorode Sevilla (sixth century [1982]) seems to attach less importance to alexanders.

In France, it was an important vegetable, and was grown on the estates of the Carolingian kings. Thus, in the Capitular de Villis, promulgated by Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne (around AD 795), alexanders appears among the plants which should be cultivated. In the eighteenth century, in Versailles, it was used blanched to accompany winter salads. In the early nineteenth century, Rozier, in his Dictionnaire universel d'agriculture pratique, writes: "The leaves of alexanders can appear among cooking condiments, like parsley. Its roots and young shoots are still eaten in England after blanching in the same way as celery."

There is documentation on its cultivation in Belgium in the fifteenth century and on its abundance in English gardens in the sixteenth century. The Italians also traditionally used this plant. However, by about the eighteenth century its cultivation was only very occasional or had fallen into disuse. In Spain, Font Quer (eighteenth century [1990]) says that its root was eaten in many countries as a salad, raw and cooked, as were the stems and young leaves. By the nineteenth century, Spanish agronomists were no longer making any reference to it. Thus, Boutelou and Boutelou (1801) do not mention it, an omission which contrasts with the 13 pages devoted to celery cultivation.

Alexanders was falling into disuse as from the seventeenth century. in direct competition with the celery of the Italians", an improved form of wild celery (Apium graveolens). This is a case of marginalization in which one plant, doubtless widely used since prehistory, is replaced by another one improved later.

Botanical description

Alexanders is a biennial herbaceous plant with a thick elongated root. The stems grow up to 150 cm and hollow on fruiting. It has large, pinnatisect, basal leaves, with ovate to subrhombic terminal segments; the caulinar leaves are pinnatisect. The umbels have seven to 22 rays, with black. didymous fruit measuring 5.5 to 7.5 x 4 to 7.5 mm. Alexanders flowers from April to June and propagates well from seed. Its chromosome structure is 2n = 2x = 22.

Ecology and phytogeography

Wild populations of alexanders grow abundantly in salt-marshes and uncultivated land near the sea. normally in lime soils. It is also found in hedges. woods and on waysides.

It is spontaneous throughout southern Europe, North Africa (Algeria) and in the Near East. In former times it was very abundant in the area around Alexandria. Vavilov (1951) places this crop in the Mediterranean gene centre.

It also occurs on the Canary Islands and in the rest of the Macronesian region.

Genetic diversity

Perfoliate alexanders (Smyrnium perfoliatum L.) has smaller fruit (3.5 mm long) and is distributed through central and southern Europe and southwest Asia. The blanched stems and leaves are used in salads. Its cultivation is documented in the sixteenth century. According to Mathon (1986), this species is of superior quality.

Nowadays it is very difficult to find cultivars of alexanders. However, several cultivated varieties must have existed. For example, in England in 1570, Petrus Pena and Mathius Lobel wrote: "...the cultivated form is far better than the wild plant...". It seems that the plant is still occasionally grown in Great Britain.

Accessions of this species are kept only in the gene bank of the Córdoba Botanical Garden. They are from wild populations in Andalusia.

Cultivation practices

According to Columela, "alexanders must be grown from seed in ground dug out with a pastino, particularly close to walls because it likes shade and thrives on any kind of ground: so once you have sown it, if you do not uproot it fully but leave its stems for seed instead, it lasts forever and requires only light hoeing. It is sown from the feast day of Vulcan (August) until the calends of September, but also in January...".

Nowadays, since cultivation has been relegated to a few family gardens, similar practices are frequently seen. The stem is left to seed, and sowing and spontaneous cultivation takes place. Something like this usually occurs with chard: weeds are removed and a little fertilizer is applied.

Modernization of this crop will depend on techniques similar to those used for celery, including blanching, taking into account the fact that alexanders requires less soil and water.

Prospects for improvement

Celery was also known from antiquity but was considered to be an inedible plant of ill omen. The Greeks, who called it apion, used it in funeral ceremonies. It appears to have been grown early in our era by the Latins. Columela refers to it: ...after the ides of May, nothing must be put in the earth when summer approaches, except for celery seed, which must nevertheless be watered, since in this way it does very well...". Paladio also mentions it, probably basing himself on the earlier source. Likewise, in the Capitular de Villis (eighth century) reference is made to both apium and olisatum. Throughout this period, cultivation of alexanders seems to be predominant.

Around the seventeenth century, types of celery appeared which were derived through breeding to obtain a better size and improved succulence of the leaf stalks (var. dulce (Mill.) Gaud.-Beaup.) or fuller leaf development (var. secalinum Mill.) and which were clearly differentiated from the wild plant. These types are actually different vegetables requiring specific cultivation practices. Thus sweet-leaved celery ("celery of the Italians") is well suited to "blanching", which enables a milder, more tender product to be obtained.

The marginalization or disuse of many vegetables used since ancient times in Europe may be connected with the changing tastes in the Western world. The trend has been away from dishes rich in spices and hot ingredients towards milder dishes, which respect the flavour of the food itself or enhance it. This is perhaps the case with celery vis-à-vis alexanders. Alexanders is more bitter and pungent and not as tender as sweet celery.

It is significant in this respect that the last agronomic references to the cultivation of alexanders mention the introduction of the blanching technique. It appears thus in the reports by Versailles and Abbot Rozier: "...after they have been blanched in the same way as celery..."; and Barral and Sagnier, in Diccionario de agricultura (1889), write: " Turkey the cultivation of this plant is still an honour. The leaf is eaten after it has been blanched...". The blanching technique also used to be employed in North America. It is obvious that the smaller plant, celery, had asserted itself and now served as a reference, making it necessary to adopt the same cultivation practice for alexanders, evidently with little success.

While cultivation of alexanders is waning, cultivation of celery is by contrast on the increase, as is its importance in cool subtropical and tropical areas of Latin America and the Far East. Petiolate cultivate with big leaves are chiefly used.

The recovery of alexanders would be achieved via the derivation of plant materials with a specific typology, for specific uses, and the development of associated agronomic techniques; this seems very unlikely.


(Scorzonera hispanica)

Botanical name: Scorzonera hispanica L.

Family: Asteraceae

Common names. English: scorzonera, Spanish salsify, black oyster plant, viper's grass; Spanish: escorzonera, escorcionera, escurzo, yerba viperina, salsifí negro, salsifí hispánico, churrimana, tetas de vaca; Catalan: escurçonera; Basque: sendaposei, astobe-harri; Portuguese and Galician: escorcioneira, escorzoneira

Properties, uses and cultivation

Scorzonera has diuretic and depurative properties. The root has restorative and sudorific properties and is an ingredient of many infusions. It is very rich in carbohydrates (18 to 20 percent in fresh weight), with a high proportion of inulin and laevulin, which makes it very suitable for a diabetic diet. It also contains conopherin (glucoside), asparagine, arginine, histidine and choline.

In upper Aragon, the latex is added to milk as a cure for colds. Its ground, fresh leaves are used against viper bites to soothe the pain. Its peeled root, fresh or cooked, acts as a tonic for the stomach and fortifies the body.

It is considered to be an antidote to the bite of poisonous animals, for which reason in Spanish it is called "escorzonera", i.e. herb against escuerzo [toad]. The Diccionario de la lengua española of the Real Academia Española mentions that the name derives from the Latin "black root" because of its external colour. In Italian, too, scorza means "root" and nera "black". However, as documented in Mattioli's Epistolarium medicinalium libri quinque, published in 1561, the first interpretation seems correct.

Cultivation of this plant is thought to be recent. No Roman or Arab agronomist mentions it. In Spain, its cultivation is not dealt with either by Andalusian agronomists (tenth to fourteenth centuries) or Castilian writers of treatises in the sixteenth century. The same applies in other countries. In France, it is not mentioned in the Capitular de Villis of the Carolingian kings, nor does Olivier de Serves, Henry IV's minister, mention it. It was from the sixteenth century onwards that botanists began to concern themselves with this species, describing it as wild, although sometimes introduced into botanical gardens. It is not quoted as a cultivated plant until up to one century later. In time, it was to become fashionable in several countries. Thus Louis XIV of France was very fond of it.

Although scorzonera was perhaps first cultivated in Spain, its cultivation has never been very important in the country. Boutelou and Boutelou (1801) commented: "Scorzonera is usually sown on the edges of unoccupied beds, the empty spaces being profitably used by this tasty root", thereby demonstrating a marginal rather than a main crop.

On the other hand, it is curious that these same authors visualized a greater agricultural importance for white salsify than scorzonera, contrary to what actually happened. Thus, they thought that "...sometimes the roots of scorzonera can begin to be used the first year after sowing, but they are so thin that there is no point in wasting them so young. They require two or sometimes three years for their root to form. Salsify, which has the same taste and properties and which forms in one year, should be preferred because it requires less time in the ground and its product is much more plentiful." The main improvement activity on this crop has enabled some good cultivars to be obtained, with a greater growth rate and better yields than salsify in annual cultivation.

The part of the plant most used is the tender, fleshy root. It is peeled and then cut into pieces and placed in water with lemon to prevent it from turning black. It can then be eaten in a wide variety of exquisite dishes: raw in a salad; dressed with vinaigrette or with other sauces, steamed and served with Béarnaise or Béchamel sauce or with whole milk cream and toast; sautéed in butter with parsley or other herbs; boiled as an accompaniment for meat; grated with cheese; baked with tomato and roast mutton or pork, fried with oil or butter after being lightly cooked and served with lemon; scrambled with eggs or in omelettes; and preserved in sugar.

It is recommended that, once cooked, the roots should be peeled so that they do not lose their flavour.

The leaves can also be eaten, especially the young ones after boiling. The "beards"—young, fresh and tender leaves—can also be eaten raw. The young shoots are used in the same way as asparagus.

The flowers are added to salads as a flavouring. They have an aroma reminiscent of cocoa. For this purpose, the flowers of other species such as S. mollis and S. undulata are also used. The flower buds can be used too. Recipes exist for scorzonera flower omelette.

Botanical description

Scorzonera is a perennial plant with a long, fragile taproot, which is blackish on the outside and white and milky inside, and which increases in size each year. The stems are solitary or few in number, usually branched on the upper part and between 30 and 120 cm long. The leaves are broad, long, fleshy and spatulate. The yellowish flowers are in capitula at the end of the stems. Flowering is in spring and summer (April-June).

Propagation is from seed. The achenes are 10 to 20 mm long, cylindrical, whitish and rough, with a pappus that has several rows of hairs. The weight of 75 to 90 seeds is I g, the weight of one litre of them is around 580 g. Under ordinary storage conditions they maintain a high germination capacity for two to three years.

It has a diploid chromosome number: 2n = 14. In the var. crispatula, some polyploids have been detected: 2n = 4x = 28.

Ecology and phytogeography

Scorzonera grows on dry pasture. rocky areas, in thickets and on limy or marry soils of temperate zones.

It is distributed over central and southern Europe and the south of the CIS, although it is not found in Sicily or Greece or in northwestern Africa or southwest Asia. It probably originates from the Mediterranean region and is native to Spain.

The plant is little cultivated outside Europe. Most cultivation takes place in the gardens of amateurs, with the plant being cultivated in professional gardens on a very small scale. Some estimates put cultivation at only a few dozen hectares. The countries with the biggest cultivated area of scorzonera are Belgium, Poland and members of the CIS.

At present, its cultivation is practically unknown in Spain. Although it is subject to the Technical Regulations on the Control and Certification of Agricultural Seeds and Plants, there is no evidence of the seed being marketed in Spain in recent years.

Genetic diversity

The modern Scorzonera genus, which is very close to Tragopogon, only includes three sections (Podospermum, Scorzonera and Lasiospora) with some 28 species in Europe. The majority of them are perennial diploid plants with 2n = 2x = 14. Cytotypes also exist with 2n = 2x = 12, x = 6 being derived from the earlier type through translocation.

In Spain, some 13 species are to he found. The majority of them prefer dry soils. This is the case with S. angustifolia L., S. transtagana Coutinho, S. hirsuta L., S. crispatula (Boiss.) Boiss. and S. brevicaulis Vahl. S. parviflora Jacq. is found predominantly on saline soils; S. laciniata L. on alkaline soils; S. aristata Ramond ex DC. is calcicolous and is found only in meadows and other grassy places of the Pyrenees, the Alps and Apennines; S. fistulosa Brot. del W. in Portugal and southwestern Spain. S. humilis L., dwarf scorzonera, grows very widely in Europe, while S. baetica (Boiss.) Boiss., S. albicans Cosson and S. reverchonii Deveaux ex Hervier are found only in southern Spain.

Scorzonera (S. hispanica L.) is extremely variable, especially in its leaf shape. The botanical varieties recognized are crispatula Boiss. (S. crispatula (Boiss.) Boiss.), which is very widespread, and pinnatifida (Rouy) Díaz de la Guardia & Blanca, which is relatively rare; they are basically distinguishable through their leaf morphology.

Numerous commercial cultivars already exist, and there are generally populations with open pollination:

There are collections of local races and old cultivars at the Rijksstation voor Plantenveredling de Merelbeke (Belgium), at the Nordic Gene Bank in Alnarp (Sweden) and at the Vavilov Institute of Industrial Plants, St Petersburg.

Cultivation practices

Scorzonera is a vegetable that resists drought well when the plant has already developed.

It has similar cultivation requirements to white salsify. It is a typically winter vegetable which, although perennial, is grown as an annual.

It is usually sown direct in early spring, in shallow furrows, with 25 to 35 cm x 12 to 15 cm spacing. Care must be taken to provide protection from birds, which are very fond of these seeds.

About 12 kg of seed per hectare is required. Deep, fresh, loose soil is needed; it must be rich in decomposed organic matter and free from stones or gravel, which cause root deformation. The basal dressing recommended is 30 tonnes per hectare of rotted manure, 50 units of N, 100 units of P2O5 and 200 to 250 units of K2O).

Attention must be paid to the first irrigations and hoeings, which can be controlled chemically, both at pre-emergence and post-emergence, with CIPC. It prefers sunny soils and the presence of easily assimilable nitrogen of which an additional 50 units can be applied as a top-dressing.

Harvesting takes place from November to March and requires perhaps more care than the harvesting of white salsify, since the roots are very fragile. This means furrows of about 40 cm have to be opened parallel to the rows of roots. Storage is good, both on the actual cultivation land and in cold stores at between 0 and -1°C, possibly for two to three months, or frozen, with light industrial processing to clean, peel, cut and scald the vegetables to prevent oxidation.

Yields of around 20 to 30 tonnes per hectare have been obtained.

The most important diseases are mycosis, white rust, oidiopsis and strangulation and splitting of the roots, the aetiology of which is unknown.

Prospects for improvement

Although it is thought that this vegetable is very little cultivated in Spain, because it has not been introduced into Iberian cooking, it should be recognized that serious cultivation problems still exist.

Although scorzonera is more productive than salsify and its cultivation more frequent, the two crops have many problems in common:

Some of these problems have already been tackled or are on the way to being solved. Thus, Schwarze Pfahl is more resistant to bolting than Elite Stamm.

Einjährige Riesen is particularly resistant to bolting and produces a low percentage of roots with cavities. However, it does not attain the yields of the former. Since genetic variability in respect of the character exists within commercial cultivars, rapid progress in improving this cultivar may be expected.

In Belgium, material is being selected which is especially suited to mechanical sowing and harvesting. Lange Jan, Hoffman 83 and Flandria were the ones which contributed the best product qualities among the cultivars tested.

In Poland, work is being done on the development of cultivars suited to industrial processing (both canning and freezing); some cultivars display a good behaviour in this respect.

Insofar as these improvement objectives are achieved. scorzonera may be expected to begin acquiring greater economic importance. It should not be forgotten that it is a vegetable with a very delicate flavour; its glucide composition is rich in inulin, very unlike other tubers and roots rich in carbohydrates, for instance the potato which has a high starch content. This property may be the reason for the increase in demand and price.

Spotted Golden Thistle

(Scolymus maculatus)

Botanical name: Scolymus maculatus L.

Family: Asteraceae = Compositae

Common names. English: spotted golden thistle; Spanish: tagarnina, diente de porro; Portuguese: escólimo-malhado

Origin of the name and properties

The generic name derives from the Greek, skolos, meaning spines, a characteristic shared with many other Compositae. In ancient Greece, a thistle with an edible root was known by the name skolymos. Diuretic and antisudorific properties were attributed to these plants.

Spotted golden thistle has occasionally been cultivated, but generally the wild plant has been used, with harvesting being limited to the leaves only in spring. At present, its cultivation is very restricted and is tending to disappear.

Cervantes did not seem to set great store by this plant: "...1 do not have a stomach made for spotted golden thistle, nor for piruétanos, nor for roots of the forests." However, the fleshy parts of the young leaves, like those of Spanish oyster plant, constitute a delicious vegetable which can be used in soups, stews and scrambled eggs or as an accompaniment for meat. Baked au gratin, they make an excellent dish.

Botanical description

Spotted golden thistle is an annual, glabrescent plant with latex. The stems are 20 to 130 cm long, broadly wing-shaped, irregularly dentate and spiny. The leaves, bracts and wings of the stem have a white and continuous cartilaginous edge. The basal leaves are oblong-lanceolate, smooth and pinnatifid, with few spines. The pinnatifid caulinar leaves are sinuate, more or less oval and spiny. The bracts are lanceolate, involucral and are more than five in number. The capitula are golden yellow, solitary or in clusters of two to four and flower from May to June. The achenes are of 3 to 4 mm and without a pappus. The chromosome number is 2n = 2x = 20.

The plant is propagated from seed. Its behaviour is orthodox in storage and its germination capacity is maintained for a long time. Dormancy phenomena are not very pronounced.

Ecology and phytogeography

Spotted golden thistle is found on uncultivated land, in abandoned fields and ditches and along paths and waysides. It prefers clayey soils and temperate climates.

It is distributed through southern Europe, Southeast Asia, North Africa and the Macronesian region. It is a native plant of the Mediterranean region. In Spain, it grows very widely throughout the country, including the Canary Islands.

It is occasionally cultivated in some areas of the Maghreb, southern Italy and Greece. In Spain. cultivation has practically disappeared.

Genetic diversity

The genus Scolymus L. includes another two Mediterranean species with a use similar to that of the spotted golden thistle, the Spanish salsify or Spanish oyster plant (S. hispanicus L.), with a wide Mediterranean distribution, and S. grandiflorus Desf, with a more restricted distribution in the eastern Mediterranean. These are very close species which differ in the leaf margin and wings of the stem and in the involucral bracts. among other characters. Unlike the spotted golden thistle, these Spanish salsify oyster plants are biennial or perennial.

A great morphological variability is observed, but no collections of material are known.

Cultivation practices

The spotted golden thistle is a very hardy plant which prefers clayey soils, although it grows spontaneously in a wide variety of environments. It tolerates cold and drought.

The method of cultivation is similar to that of Spanish salsify, although the latter thrives better on looser soils. Sowing is direct into the soil ready for cultivation, in late winter, with furrows 30 cm apart. After thinning, the plants are spaced 30 cm apart. It is preferable to apply organic fertilizer beforehand. The usual cultivation practices are very simple, being limited to removing weeds.

With hot temperatures, the plant grows very rapidly, with the basal rosette forming quickly, at which time the leaves have to be harvested.

Prospects for improvement

Spotted golden thistles, like Spanish salsify or oyster plants, are practically unknown vegetables on the market. However, they are appreciated in many Spanish regions on account of their very pleasant flavour. As in the case of so many other crops, its revival will have to be accompanied by a marketing system which creates demand. This means publicity campaigns, utilization standards, recipes for traditional dishes, etc., as well as a product of sufficient quality being available on the markets. The fleshy leaf parts would have to be offered peeled and clean and suitably packaged.

From the point of view of improvement, one of the most serious problems of the spotted golden thistle is the ease with which it goes into flower, encouraged by long-day spring conditions and high temperatures. Selection for resistance to this process would increase the cultivation period and make it possible to improve yields of the basal rosette. The plant's general spininess is another problem.

Undoubtedly, the most urgent task is to carry out collecting expeditions in the Mediterranean basin, including the Maghreb, and to characterize the material collected as a starting point for improvement. At the present time it is already very difficult to find traditional cultigens.

This problem is not limited to the spotted golden thistle and Spanish salsify, or even to the genus Scolymus, but affects many other Compositae. For example, the tribe Carduaceae contains 80 genera with over 2650 species, 227 of which are found in Spain and 150 of which are endemic in the country. Many of these plants have agricultural value and have occasionally been cultivated. In the majority of cases, cultivation is on the decline, even though it is being maintained. The recovery of these genetic resources, the characterization of the materials and the initiation of improvement programmes could contribute towards diversification, both of production and supply, thus helping to make Spanish agriculture more competitive.

Spanish Salsify

(Scolymus hispanicus)

Botanical name: Scolymus hispanicus L.

Family: Asteraceae = Compositae

Common names. English: Spanish salsify, Spanish oyster plant, common golden thistle; Spanish: cardillo, cardillo de comer, cardillo de olla, cardillo bravío, cardo lechar, cardón lechar, cardón lechal, lechocino, cardo zafranero; Catalan: cardet, cardelina; Basque: kardaberaiakca; Portuguese: cardo de ouro, cangarinha

Properties and uses

The Spanish salsify plant has been recognized as having antisudorific and diuretic properties. The Greeks knew it and it is mentioned by Theophrastus. Pliny makes reference to it and considers it an antiperspirant. However, it is barely mentioned by Andalusian agronomists. The translator of an anonymous Hispano-Arab document of the eleventh and twelfth century interprets that silyan and adaliq, spiny plants which people collect among wild vegetables, are indeed Spanish salsify, Scolymus hispanicus.

Although it has been cultivated occasionally, at present it is clearly in recession. Most of the Spanish salsify that is eaten comes simply from collecting the wild plant.

Several parts of the plant have a fairly delicate flavour. The young basal leaves are eaten as a vegetable in salads, boiled, in soups, stews, omelettes, etc. The most pleasant part of the leaf is the central rib, a white fleshy part which is obtained by peeling the leaf, with a scraping movement with one hand from the base to the apex, while the other hand holds the base. The young stems are used in a similar way. Font Quer (1990) mentioned that this plant is appreciated in almost all of Spain's provinces and " used widely in stew during the spring". In the sixteenth century in Salamanca, the washed young plants used to be eaten with their root, either raw or in stews with meat. In soup, its roots are prepared with milk, butter and flour.

Botanical description

Spanish salsify is a biennial or perennial plant, which is erect, contains latex and is very spiny. The stems are between 5 and 250 cm long, branched at the top, with discontinuous spiny, dentate wings. The basal leaves are oblong-lanceolate, smooth, pinnatisect, with few spines, and a long petiole. The caulinar leaves are rigid, coriaceous and spiny. The capitula have one to three golden-yellow, enveloping leaves; they are about 3 cm long, in a lateral or terminal arrangement and surrounded by an involucre of spiny bracts. The achenes are 2 to 3 mm with a pappus that has a short corona. It flowers from May to July. The plant is propagated from seed, which has a very good germination capacity for several years and does not exhibit any marked dormancy phenomena. It is a diploid plant: 2n = 2x = 20.

Ecology and phytogeography

Spanish salsify is found on waste ground and uncultivated land, among rubble, in ditches and along paths; it is most frequently found in sandy places in temperate zones.

Distributed through southern Europe and North Africa, it extends to northwestern France. Vavilov (1951) pinpoints its origin as the Mediterranean region. In Spain, it grows wild in most of the country but shuns high mountains; it is less common in the north. It is also found in the Canary Islands.

It is occasionally cultivated in Mediterranean countries such as Spain, Greece and the Maghreb; it is practically unknown in the United States.

Genetic diversity

There is considerable variability in the morphological characteristics of Spanish salsify such as hainness, leaf morphology and involucral bracts, receptacular scales, spininess, etc.

No definite cultivars exist; it is still possible to obtain a few cultigens, although there is a serious risk of losing these materials.

There has been no significant activity in collecting or conserving genetic resources of this species.

Cultivation practices

Spanish salsify is a very hardy plant, is resistant to cold and thrives on all kinds of soil, although it prefers light-textured soils that are rich in organic matter. Its cultivation requires very little care.

Sowing is direct and is carried out in late winter or in spring. A light, well-drained, manured soil should be used. It can be sown in furrows, 30 cm apart with a distance of 30 cm between plants after thinning.

The young white shoots can be pulled up when they reach 20 cm or so in height. The fleshy parts of the leaves need the basal rosette to be well formed. The roots are usually harvested around the end of October or during the winter. If the plant is left until the following year, it goes into flower and develops a sturdy stem, while the basal leaves lose their quality because of toughening. Therefore, although the plant can be kept for several years, it should be cultivated as an annual.

There are no serious phytopathological problems.

Prospects for improvement

The considerably spiny nature of the Spanish salsify plant, and especially of the caulinar leaves which have big, tough spines, is a serious drawback to its handling and deters attempts to cultivate it. The breeding of less spiny forms would facilitate the plant's handling.

As far as the most widely used portion is concerned—i.e. the fleshy part of the leaves—forms will need to be bred that have thick, tender and juicy ribs. Wide collections of material must be made, especially of the old cultigens which can still be recovered, so as to characterize and select them. The areas of greatest interest are the Maghreb, southern Greece and non-horticultural Spanish regions.

If the intention is to use the roots, harvesting should be carried out until the end of the winter. Resistance to flowering will enable root yield to be improved by encouraging rapid root growth at the time of hot weather.


last update Tuesday, June 16, 1998 by aw