Tuesday, 4 December 2018
WYCH ELM (Ulmus glabra)
Wych Elms in spring are a remarkable sight and are often mistakenly thought to be trees in flower[i]. In fact the trees are covered in tens of thousands of winged seeds (‘samaras’)[ii] in which each seed is set in a greenish-yellow diaphanous disk approximately 20 mm long and 15 mm wide (The Tree Guide). Within a couple of weeks the seeds lose their golden-green colour and become dry, light structures, ready to be carried away by the wind. The name ‘Wych’ is thought to derive from the Old English ‘wice’, meaning to be pliant, or to bend (Thomas et al. 2018: 1751; see also Online Etymology Dictionary), and is applied to several trees (including witch hazels, Hamamelis spp.).
Unlike Wych Elm, the English Elm (Ulmus minor ‘Atinia’; synonym: Ulmus procera) rarely produces samaras and so distinguishing between the two species in spring is relatively easy. Another way of recognising Wych Elm is from its very short leaf stalks, which are less than 3 mm long on mature trees, whereas in the English Elm they are 5 mm or longer (see NHM Elm Identification Guide). The Wych Elm grows in woods, in hedgerows and beside streams throughout the British Isles and likes a fairly damp soil (Thomas et al. 2018; for distribution maps see Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora).
The green samaras as food
When the winged seeds, or samaras, are still young, tender and golden-green, they can be eaten either raw or cooked (Plants For A Future [PFAF] database). They are mild flavoured even when raw and can be used as a major ingredient of salads[iii]. The seeds are eaten as a snack by children in Denmark, where they are known as ‘manna’ (Grøn 1998: 188). They are also good in soups and can be steamed or boiled to produce a kind of spinach, although they never really become completely flaccid. The Arhorchin Mongol herdsmen apparently gather the young fruits of the Siberian Elm (Ulmus pumila) to eat as a vegetable (Khasbagan et al. 2000: 533). One major drawback of these young samaras is that they keep very poorly—even in a refrigerator—and they really should be gathered daily, as required. Alternatively in hot weather they can be quickly dried in the sun for use in soups. In lowland areas of the British Isles they are generally at their best between early April and early May.
The ripe seeds as food
Grøn records that the elderly inhabitants of south Jutland and Funen (/Fyn) remember when they were children being given “a slimy manna porridge” made with ripe samaras (Grøn 1998). He describes his own attempts at making the porridge, and states: “I have recently carried out experiments which show that porridge can also be prepared from the dried seeds with wings. This does actually taste nice if the water is changed a couple of times during the boiling to wash out the bitter chemical component” (Grøn 1998: 188).
Samuel Thayer (2006: 169) describes harvesting elm seeds in North America:
“Once the seeds of the Siberian Elm[iv] ripen, the samaras become dry and brown. They flutter from the tree in the breeze, littering the ground below and sometimes getting blown into convenient piles. They can often be collected very easily. After they are thoroughly dried, you can rub and winnow them to procure rather soft, lentil-like seeds. The ripe seeds are delicious raw or cooked. The flavour reminds me of a cross between sunflower seeds and oats.” … “Their texture seems too soft and oily to make good flour,” but they are “easily stored” and “ripen at a time when other seed foods are not available.”
The young leaves as an edible and medicinal resource
Although the young leaves of Wych Elm are rather rough-textured, they too can be eaten either raw or cooked (see Plants For A Future [PFAF] database)[v]. They are best if collected just as they are emerging from their buds in late April and early May. There has been a long tradition of feeding elm leaves to livestock (see later section on Historical Uses), and in parts of Norway pollarded Ulmus glabra trees still provide fodder for animals (Thomas et al. 2018: 1751, citing Nordbakken and Austad 2010; see also: Heybroek 2015: 182).
The leaves also have antimycobacterial properties and so can be used to inhibit the growth of the pathogenetic bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which causes tuberculosis (Tosun et al. 2004).
The inner bark as an edible and medicinal resource
The inner bark of Wych Elm is very nutritious and it has been found to contain 72 mg of carbohydrate per 100 g and 97 mg of protein (Källman 1997: 110). It is best gathered in February or March from bark stripped from branches that are four years old or younger. In Sweden in the early 19th century Ulmus glabra bark was used as a famine food, it was ground into flour and used to make bread when cereals were scarce (Svanberg 2012). Heybroek (2015: 183)[vi] notes that the chopped or shaven bark was fed to cows in Norway and the nutritional mucilage from the inner bark was given to calves. He also states that because elm bark was a commodity of such high value it could be exchanged for other goods, for example: “Fishermen sailed into the fjords to barter their best fish against elm bark” (ibid., citing Landmark 1983; Nordhagen 1954; Ropeid 1960).
In Ireland there are early records that date back as far as 1726 for the application of a “slimy decoction” made with the inner bark of Ulmus glabra to treat burns and scalds, and its use in this form continued until the 1930s (Allen and Hatfield 2004: 83-84). The mucilaginous salve was also found to ease inflammations and sprains (ibid.). A North American relative of Wych Elm, Ulmus rubra, known as the Slippery Elm (also Red Elm or Indian Elm), has similar medicinal uses and it has also been found to be effective in treating sore throats, coughs, oedemas, and various gastric and urinary problems[vii] (Watts and Rousseau 2012).
Ulmus glabra wood is useful in construction and for making furniture (Thomas et al. 2018: 1751; see also: ASHS, Association of Scottish Hardwood Sawmillers). Thomas et al. (ibid.) record recent results of a survey of Scottish sawmills in which “the perceived use of elm timber [was] 36% for furniture, 22% for wood turning and carving, 17% for wood fuel, and 9% for coffins and various other small uses” (citing Bowditch and MacDonald, 2016). The wood is much more durable when wet so is commonly used in boat building and for timbers to make lock gates on canals (ibid.). There are also early records of bored-out elm trunks being used as mains water pipes (dating from the 17th century) and sewer pipes (dating from as early as the 13th century; Thames Water News; The History of Sanitary Sewers). In Patrick O’Brian’s novel ‘Master & Commander’—the first book in the series about Captain Jack Aubrey—which is set on the warship HM Sophie at the turn of the 19th century, he extols the facilities on board, including the water pump: “There were three things that everybody knew about the Sophie:….and a third was that she possessed an elm-tree pump on her fo’c’sle, that is to say, a bored-out trunk that communicated directly with the sea and that was used for washing her deck – an insignificant piece of equipment, really, but one so far above her station that no mariner who saw it or heard of the pump ever forgot it.” (O’Brien 2002: 49-50).
Elm bark fibres can be made into cords that are then used in various ways, e.g., for thatching, and to make shoes and mats (Heybroek 2015: 183). The Ainu of Japan made clothes with the bark: “they peeled the bark off the trees in spring or fall, then soaked it in water for ten days, divided it in strips which could be used for weaving. This textile could be colored dark with oak bark or with iron-containing peat, creating bold traditional patterns” (ibid.).
Historic and Prehistoric uses
Marcus Porcius Cato (234-149 BC) wrote extensively about agriculture and his works offered best practice advice to landowners (Meiggs 1989: 4-6). For example, he suggested planting elms and poplars around farmland and beside roads to provide fodder for livestock and also for timber (ibid.). And on building a pressing-room for olives, he suggests using oak and pine as support timbers, but for the great disc, which compresses the olives, elm and hazel—because of their durability (ibid.).
From as early as c. 600 BC it was thought that the best wine was made from grapes that grew high above the ground in trees and elms were favoured as ‘living supports’ for the vines (Heybroek 2015: 184). Like Cato, other Roman authors who wrote about agriculture and rural life (e.g., Marcus Terentius Varro, c.116-27 BC and Lucius Junius Columella, 1st century AD) also agreed that elms were useful ‘nurse-trees’ for grapevines (Meiggs 1989: 7-8; see also: Fuentes-Utrilla et al. 2004). Thomas et al. (2018: 1751) refer to the symbiosis between elms and grapevines and state: “This elm grape co-cultivation was called ‘Grape married to elm’[viii] (Ovid, Metamorphoses, XIV, 663–666) and was common in all central–north Italy since Roman and Etruscan times” (citing Aversano et al. 2017; Richens 1983). They also point out that the elms would need to be stripped of their leaves to allow the sun to ripen the grapes thus providing a ready supply of fodder and, as many of the Roman authors noted, these were superior to the leaves of other trees (ibid.).
The versatility of the elm is commented upon widely by Medieval authors. In his agricultural discourse Ruralia commoda (Smith 2005), which was based in part on the writings of classical authors and also on his own knowledge of horticulture and agriculture, Pietro di Crescenzi (c. 1230-1321) gave the following advice: “And if it is all a field, there the elm is the best tree among the others and it can be pruned often. And it can well support vines to have the grapes and it provides good greenery and pleasant shade to the people and the cattle and from it we take poles and branches for hedges and it is good to burn and it has more other things” (Fuentes-Utrilla et al. 2004: 11). Fuentes-Utrilla et al. (2004: 12) draw attention to the painting by Leonardo da Vinci’s student, Francesco Melzi (c. 1491-1568/70), entitled Pomona and Vertumnus (dated 1517-1520), that shows the male and female figures in front of an elm tree entwined with a vine—thus confirming the continuation of the tradition of using the elm as a support for grapevines. Shakespeare also refers to the symbolic male-female relationship between the elm and the vine in his play a Comedy of Errors (first folio published 1623); in act II scene ii Adriana affirms the bonds of marriage and pronounces:
Come I will fasten on this sleeve of thine;
Thou art an elm, my husband, I a vine,
Whose weakness married to thy stronger state,
Makes me with thy strength to communicate.
Pressed, dried leaves of Ulmus glabra were found between pages of a copy of the Great Bible kept in the library of the university of Western Australia (Dodson et al. 2013). The bible, originally from Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire, is dated to the mid 16th century (c. 1540 AD) and a radiocarbon analysis on a sample of the leaves gave a date of 310±40 BP (equivalent to a calendar date of between 1516 and 1596 AD). The authors conclude that the leaves were therefore contemporaneous with the bible (ibid.: 1701). They are more equivocal, however, about the religious significance of Wych elm and suggest that perhaps its reputed association with fertility, death and melancholy from the late Medieval period (c. 15th century) to the 17th century was the reason why the leaves were placed within the bible (ibid.: 1702; see also Thomas et al. 2018: 1751-1752). Interestingly, in the same library at the University of Western Australia Ulmus glabra leaves were found between pages of an original edition of the King James Bible (1611) also formerly from Ely Cathedral (ibid.).
Ulmus glabra charcoal was found in the three uppermost burnt layers within an Iron Age ritual pit at Raffin Fort, Co. Meath, Ireland (Newman et al. 2007). The main feature at the site (dated to the early 4th to late 6th century AD, equivalent to the Iron Age/Medieval transition) was a circular enclosure, approximately 65 m in diameter, surrounded by a bank and an inner ditch. In the enclosure there was a circle (c. 15 m in diameter) of six posts and within which there was a smaller ring-ditch (c. 9 m in diameter); all features are thought to have been constructed at the same time (ibid.: 349-350, figure 3). The ritual pit was located in the northwest of the enclosure, just inside the perimeter ditch. It was filled with successive layers of charcoal and burnt soil that indicated several phases of intense burning (ibid.: figure 4). A human skull fragment (subsequently found to date to at least a century earlier than the feature) and broken animal bones were also found in the pit fills (ibid.: 352). The authors comment that the selection of wood for burning in the ritual pit was: “neither random nor determined solely by availability or combustibility, but instead may have been informed by socio-religious belief systems pertaining to trees and wood” (ibid.: 349). The association of Wych Elm with the ceremonial burning therefore adds support to the notion that it was endowed with sacred significance.
There is evidence of the use of elm to make long bows during the Mesolithic period in northern Europe; for example, at Holmgaard IV (Zealand, Denmark; c. 6000 BC), at Ageröd V (southern Sweden; c. 5890-5500 BC) and at Tybrind Vig (Fyn/Funen, Denmark; c. 4600-3200 BC), thus indicating that the pliancy of the wood was valued from a very early date (Bergman 1993: 97-98).
Allen, D.E. and Hatfield, G. 2004. Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition. An Ethnobotany of Britain & Ireland. Timber Press, Portland, Cambridge.
ASHS, Association of Scottish Hardwood Sawmillers: http://www.ashs.co.uk/ [accessed: 14.08.18]
Aversano, R., Basile, B., Buonincontri, M.P., Carucci, F., Carputo, D., Frusciante, L. and Di Pasquale, G. 2017. Dating the beginning of the Roman viticultural model in the Western Mediterranean: The case study of Chianti (Central Italy). PLoS ONE, 12, e0186298. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0186298
Bergman, C.A. 1993. The development of the bow in Western Europe: A technological and functional perspective. In, Peterkin, G.L., Bricker, H.M. and Mellars, P. (Eds.), Hunting and animal exploitation in the later Palaeolithic and Mesolithic of Eurasia. American Anthropological Association, Washington, DC. pp. 95-105.
Bowditch, E. and MacDonald, E. 2016. Elm in the highlands: Current status and potential management resources to Dutch Elm disease. Report for Forestry Commission Scotland and the University of the Highlands and Islands, Inverness, Scotland.
Charles, A.H. 1939. Foreign bodies introduced into the bladder in attempts to procure abortion. The British Medical Journal 2(4099): 224-225.
Dodson, J., Grierson, P., Bennett, J., Melo de Howard, S. and Wong, H. 2013. Nuclear science and the story of a preserved leaf from a copy of the Great Bible. Journal of Archaeological Science 40: 1700-1702.
Fuentes-Utrilla, P., López-Rodríguez, R.A., Gil, L. 2004. The historical relationship of elms and vines. Investigación agraria. Sistemas y recursos forestales 13(1): 7-15.
Grøn, O. 1998. Neolithization in Southern Scandinavia – a Mesolithic perspective. In, Zvelebil, M., Domańska, L. and Dennell, R. (eds.) Harvesting the sea, farming the forest: the emergence of Neolithic societies in the Baltic region. Sheffield Academic Press, Sheffield. pp. 181-191.
Heybroek, H.M. 2015. The elm, tree of milk and wine. iForest 8: 181-186 http://www.sisef.it/iforest/contents/?id=ifor1244-007
Källman, S. 1997. Vilda växter som mat och medicin. ICA Bokvörlag, Västerås.
Khasbagan, Hu-Yin Hual and Sheno-Ji Pei. 2000. Wild plants in the diet of Arhorchin Mongol herdsmen in Inner Mongolia. Economic Botany 54: 528-536.
Landmark, J.T. 1863. Almetræer [Elm trees]. Tidsskrift for det praktiske Landbrug 1: 79-84.
Meiggs, R. 1989. Farm forestry in the ancient Mediterranean. Social Forestry Network Paper 8b (summer 1989). (available online at: https://www.odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opinion-files/948.pdf)
Natural History Museum Elm Map: Elm Identification Guide. Reproduced at: http://www.hertsmiddx-butterflies.org.uk/w-album/resources/ID-guide.pdf [accessed: 07.08.18]
Newman, C., O’Connell, M., Dillon, M. and Molloy, K. 2007. Interpretation of charcoal and pollen data relating to a late Iron Age ritual site in eastern Ireland: a holistic approach. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 16: 349-365.
Nordbakken, J.-F. and Austad, I. 2010. Styvingstrær, nøkkelbiotoper i norsk natur – en undersøkelse av moser på almestuver Ulmus glabra i Sogn og Fjordane. Blyttia 68: 245–255.
Nordhagen, R. 1954. Ethnobotanical studies on barkbread and the employment of wych elm under natural husbandry. Danmarks Geologiske Undersøgelse II, Række 80: 262-308.
O’Brian, P. 2002. Master & Commander. Harper Collins, London.
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Read, B.E. 1982. Famine foods listed in the ‘Chiu Huang Pen Ts’ao’: giving their identity, nutritional values and notes on their preparation. Southern Materials Center, Inc., Taipei.
Richens, R.H. 1983. Elm. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
Ropeid, A. 1960. Skav. Ein studie i eldre tids fôrproblem [Shavings. A study on the fodder problem in ancient time]. Universitetsforlaget, Oslo/Bergen, Norway, pp. 1-387. [in Norwegian]
Smith, M. 2005. Petrus de Crescentius, Ruralia commoda, 1471. University of Reading Special Collections http://www.reading.ac.uk/web/files/special-collections/featurecrescentius.pdf [accessed: 30.08.18]
Svanberg, I. 2012. The use of wild plants as food in pre-industrial Sweden. Acta Societatis Botanicorum Poloniae 81(4): 317-327.
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Thayer, S. 2006. The forager’s harvest: A guide to identifying, harvesting and preparing edible wild plants. Forager’s Harvest, Ogema, WI.
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Thomas, P.A., Stone, D. and La Porta, N. 2018. Biological Flora of the British Isles: Ulmus glabra. Journal of Ecology 106: 1724-1766. https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2745.12994
Tosun, F., Akyüz Kızılay, Ç., Şener, B., Vural, M. and Palittapongarnpim, P. 2004. Antimycobacterial screening of some Turkish plants. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 95: 273-275.
Watts, C.R.W. and Rousseau, B. 2012. Slippery elm, its biochemistry, and use as a complementary and alternative treatment for laryngeal irritation. Journal of Investigational Biochemistry 1(1): 17-23.
[i] Gordon Hillman’s reminiscence illustrates this: “It was early April and, as we walked over a rise towards the woods at the foot of the Downs, the sun caught a group of trees at the woodland edge The trees glowed golden yellow and my guest, a Russian botanist, stopped and asked: 'Those trees are absolutely smothered in yellow blossom. What trees produce such a mass of yellow flowers at this time of year?'” (Hillman unpublished field notes).
[ii] Grøn notes that “large free-standing elm trees on the edges of forests produce 10-20 kg seeds in June (equivalent to 5-10 kg dry weight = 500,000-1,000,000 seeds)” whereas “trees standing in dense forest will only produce seeds from their upper part – a couple of kilos” (Grøn 1998: 188, citing Søren Levinson, pers.comm.).
[iii] The Plants for a Future record for Wych Elm states the seeds have an unusual aromatic flavour, and also that they leave the mouth “feeling fresh and the breath smelling pleasant”.
[iv] An introduced species in North America.
[v] In a 16th century Chinese herbal the leaves of the English Elm are recorded as being eaten boiled, with oil and salt (Read 1982: 48).
[vi] NB: In Heybroek’s paper it is not always clear which species of elm is being referred to.
[vii] There are also records of Slippery Elm bark being inserted into the uterus to bring about abortions (Charles 1939). Charles describes one such instance that he was witness to in the UK: “An unmarried woman, aged 25, who had had one previous full-term child, attempted to induce abortion on April 10, 1938, by trying to insert two pieces of slippery elm into her uterus. The pieces of slippery elm were about 21/2 inches long and as thick as a lead pencil.” This caused damage to internal organs, pain and excessive bleeding but the foetus was aborted; and the patient survived.
Wednesday, 1 August 2018
WILD STRAWBERRY[i] (Fragaria vesca)
(Downs above Bignor, September 2002)
Wild Strawberries are widespread throughout the British Isles with the exception of the most northerly areas of Scotland (for distribution maps see Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora). They can be found growing prolifically in woodland glades and on grassy banks[ii]. The fruits ripen in early June and they can be harvested until the end of August or even later.
Before the fruits form it can be difficult to distinguish between Wild Strawberry and the equally common Barren Strawberry (Potentilla sterilis) which has very similar leaves and flowers (for comparison of flowers and leaves of the two species see: Easy Wildflowers). If they are Barren Strawberry plants and you return a month later to harvest the fruits, you’ll find that the flowers have ripened merely to clusters of inedible dry achenes.
The two look-alikes are in fact easily distinguished—even from their leaves. Each leaflet of the Barren Strawberry has a terminal tooth that’s much shorter than the teeth on either side of it, whereas in the true Wild Strawberry the terminal tooth is as long as, or longer than those on either side, even if it’s quite narrow. Also, the hairs on the underside of Barren Strawberry leaves stand upright, while those of the Wild Strawberry lie flat. Lastly, the upper sides of Barren Strawberry leaves are often much darker than the light green leaves of the true Strawberry (see also Jones 2018).
Images showing differences in leaf morphology
[Photos: Gordon Hillman]. (Coldthorne Lane, Hailsham, April/May 2009)
What we think of as the fruit of the strawberry plant is actually just a fleshy receptacle. The true fruits—the structures produced by the plant’s ovaries or carpels—are the little pips (or achenes) scattered over the surface of this red receptacle. There have been various theories on the origins of the name strawberry, for example, that it derives from the practice of covering the lines of cultivated strawberry plants with a low ridge of loose straw to hide the scarlet fruits from the sharp eyes of strawberry-loving birds; or from the tradition of pickers who used to carry the fruits strung on pieces of straw when taking them to market; or from Old English to ‘strew’ (see Online Etymology Dictionary), which describes the plant’s runners that stray in all directions and look as if they are strewn on the ground (Darrow 1966: 16; see also: Missouri Environment and Garden News).
Nutritional and medicinal uses
Wild Strawberries may be small but they are packed with flavour—with their combination of intense sweetness and effervescent tartness they produce a taste explosion. They can be eaten raw or cooked, and are commonly made into jams, jellies and juices; the leaves are also edible (Plants For A Future [PFAF] database; see also: Jarić et al. 2007; Schunko and Vogl 2010; Vorstenbosch et al. 2017). In the Upper Reno Valley (Bologna and Tuscany, Italy) an alcoholic drink is made by fermenting Wild Strawberry fruits, and the recipe states: “Fill glass jar with wild strawberries, cover with sugar, close jar and expose to sunlight for 40 days. The lightly fermented syrup, filtered and bottled, is used as a drink, diluted with a double quantity of water.” (Egea et al. 2016: table 4; see also: Egea et al. 2015).
Wild Strawberry plants (flowers, fruits, leaves, stems, roots) are a rich source of bioactive compounds known to have beneficial effects in terms of promoting health and preventing disease; for example, they are proven to be effective in the reduction of obesity and heart disease risk, they provide protection against certain cancers, have anti-inflammatory, antidiabetes, antioxidant and anticoagulant properties, and are also effective blood pressure and cholesterol regulators (Afrin et al. 2016; Basu et al. 2016; Dyduch-Siemińska et al. 2015; Liberal et al. 2014; Muthukumaran et al. 2017).
Fragaria vesca – flowers and leaves.(Horam, Cuckoo Trail, May 2010)
Strawberries are high in micronutrients, phenolic compounds and ellagitannins[iii]; they are a useful nutritional supplement for diets low in saturated fats and sodium, in addition they contain high levels of potassium and fibre (Alvarez-Suarez et al. 2014; see also Nutrition Value online database). Research has shown that the fresh strawberries have far more nutritive value than the processed foods made from the fruits (e.g., jam, juice, purée, wine; Alvarez-Suarez et al. 2014 8-9; but see also: Dyduch-Siemińska et al. 2015: 6, who comment that: “Dried fruits have a greater nutrient density, greater fiber content, increased shelf life, and significantly greater phenol antioxidant content compared to fresh fruits”). The nutritional content of the fruits (i.e., in terms of relative proportions of micronutrients, bioactive compounds, vitamins, etc.) is also dependent on the variety of Wild Strawberry, the time of cultivation and the date of harvesting (Jurgiel-Małecka et al. 2017: 208).
It is unsurprising, therefore, given the wealth of health benefits of Wild Strawberries, that there are numerous references to traditional uses of the plants. In Maden (Eastern Turkey, Elaziğ Province) the fruits are commonly acknowledged to have many curative properties, including as an analgesic, antiseptic, astringent and diuretic, and they are also used to treat several gastric (e.g., stomach pains, enteritis, diarrhea) and urinary disorders (Çakılcıoğlu et al. 2011). Similarly, the efficacy of the species in treating certain digestive problems is recognised by villagers living at several locations in the mountainous Kopaonik region of Central Serbia, but here the leaves (e.g., in the form of an infusion) are used for their diuretic and laxative properties (Jarić et al. 2007). In addition, the leaves (washed clean and placed externally on the affected area) are used to alleviate painful haemorrhoids (ibid.: table 2). In the Palestinian West Bank 50 ml. of a decoction made of leaves boiled in water is taken 5-6 times per day for antibiotic purposes (Jaradat et al. 2016). In the Albanian Alps in Kosovo an infusion of Wild Strawberry leaves is used as a neuro-relaxant (Mustafa et al. 2012). And a traditional fermented liqueur made from Wild Strawberry fruits is taken as a remedy for diseases of the circulatory, respiratory, digestive, musculoskeletal and genitourinary systems in the Upper Reno Valley (Bologna and Tuscany, Italy; Egea et al. 2015: supplementary data).
Fragaria vesca – showing achenes on the bright red,
fleshy receptacle. (Abbots Wood, June 2009)
Prehistoric and historic uses
Fragaria vesca remains are found on archaeological sites of all periods (for references see: Kroll 1997: 35). As is typical of many of the fruits described in the Wild Plant Foods of Britain blog, finds of Wild Strawberries are most frequently preserved in waterlogged rather than charred form (see separate entries for Blackberry, Sloe, Crab apple, Dog rose, Raspberry). There is very early evidence of fruit gathering at the late Mesolithic/Ertebølle culture site of Tybrind Vig in Denmark (c. 5600-4000 BC), where two achenes were identified in submerged cultural deposits (Kubiak-Martens 1999). The disparity between quantities of Wild Strawberry remains preserved by waterlogging versus charring is perhaps most clearly exemplified in the archaeobotanical samples at Neolithic pile dwelling (‘Pfahlbauten’) settlements[iv] in southern Europe (for comparative quantitative data see: Colledge and Conolly 2014: table 4; Jacomet 2006[v]: table 3: Karg and Märkle 2002: table 2). For example, large quantities of waterlogged Wild Strawberry achenes were found at the late Neolithic lakeside settlements of Arbon Bleiche 3 in Switzerland (n=5,471; Jacomet et al. 2004) and Torwiesen II in Germany (n=48,413; Herbig 2006) and at these two sites charred specimens were present in very low numbers (0.07% (n=4) and 0.15% (n=73) of the total waterlogged achenes, respectively). Thousands of waterlogged remains (but no charred finds) are also recorded at early Neolithic Egolzwil 3 (Switzerland, Bollinger 1994), middle Neolithic Motte-aux-Magnins (France, Lundström-Baudais 1989), at the late Neolithic sites of Horgen-Scheller (Switzerland, Favre 2002), Nidau-Schlossmatte/BKW (Switzerland, Brombacher 1997), Sutz-Lattrigen (Lattrigen Hauptstation VII; Switzerland, Brombacher 1997), Seekirch-Achwiesen (Germany, Maier 2004), Seekirch-Stockwiesen (Germany, Maier 2004), Sipplingen (Germany, Riehl 2004) and Hočevarica (Slovenia, Jeraj et al. 2009), and at final Neolithic Clairvaux Les Lacs station III (France, Lundström-Baudais 1986). At Neolithic dry-land settlements, where only charred Wild Strawberry achenes are preserved, the numbers are much lower (for two examples where quantities exceed 100 see: Antolín and Jacomet 2015; Blankenhorn and Hopf 1982).
Charred Wild Strawberry remains were found within and around the Copper Age (c. 3000-2800 BC) cremation chambers located along the Riparo Valtenesi limestone terrace at Rocca di Manerba, on Lake Garda in Italy (Colledge 2007). The fruits were with placed with the human bones together with other edible domestic and wild plants, including many colourful fruits, presumably as dedications before the cremations took place, and the author comments: “The strawberries and raspberries would have been easily accessible for gathering and, like the Cornelian Cherries, if picked when mature both would have added to the vivid colours of the funerary offerings.” (ibid.: 399).
The history of the use of Fragaria vesca dates back to the Roman period and several well-known authors include references to the fruits in their works, including Cato the Elder (234-149 BC), Virgil (70-19 BC), Ovid (43-18/17 BC), Pliny (23-79 AD) and Apuleius Barbarus (c. 6th century AD; Darrow 1966: 15-16; Wilhelm 1974: 264). The brightly coloured fruits are depicted in Roman frescoes, as at the ancient site of Oplontis[vi] in the Villa of Poppaea, where one painting shows a still life with a basket of Wild Strawberries and other fruits. Jashemski et al. also mention the copy of a painting (the original now no longer visible) on a pillar in the Villa of Diomedes at Pompeii, showing a Wild Strawberry with roses and a butterfly (Jashemski et al. 2002: 111 and figure 265).
Wild Strawberries appeared in many Medieval religious paintings in the 1400s and are considered to have had symbolic meaning; Darrow cites Haig (1913), who states: “the strawberry stands apart from all other symbolical fruits…. It is the symbol of perfect righteousness” (Darrow 1966: 11-14; Sillasoo 2006: 64; see also: Łuczaj 2012). It is thought that the tripartite leaves symbolised the Holy Trinity, the five petals of the flower represented the wounds of Christ and fruits his blood (Darrow 1966: 13, citing the Swiss herbalist Father Johann Künzle[vii]). The profusion of religious depictions coincided with the time when strawberries were first cultivated in Europe (for a comprehensive summary of the early history of the strawberry, see: Darrow 1966: 15-23). In 1368 King Charles V of France reputedly asked his gardener to plant 1,200 strawberries in the gardens at the Louvre in Paris (Darrow 1966: 16). French aristocracy followed suit and in 1378 the Dukes of Burgundy also had cultivated plots of the fruits (ibid.). Early documentary evidence in Britain for the growing of strawberries in gardens comes from references in Shakespeare’s plays, for example, in Richard III (written in c. 1593) Act III, scene IV (which takes place in the Tower of London) the Duke of Gloucester asks the Bishop of Ely to fetch him some of the fruits:
When I was last in Holborn,
I saw good strawberries in your garden there
I do beseech you send for some of them.
I saw good strawberries in your garden there
I do beseech you send for some of them.
Darrow comments that by the mid-1550s strawberries were so popular in England that they were regularly farmed in order to satisfy demands, he also cites Thomas Tusser who in his Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry (1557) advises that their cultivation is best done by women:
Wife, into the garden and set me a plot
With strawberry roots, the best to be got;
Such growing abroad among thorns in the wood,
Well chosen and picked, prove excellent good.
There are numerous recorded finds of Wild Strawberries on Medieval sites and many are preserved (commonly in waterlogged, mineralised or desiccated form) in cess pits and midden deposits (Greig 1996). Approximately 800 achenes were identified in two organic layers inside the 15th century Worcester barrel latrine (Greig 1981), thousands of Wild Strawberry remains (c. 9,000) were recovered from two cess pits (15th/16th century) at Göttingen in Lower Saxony, Germany (Hellwig 1997), average concentrations of c. 500 achenes per litre are recorded for seven 11th-13th century latrines at Überlingen on Lake Constance, Germany (Märkle 2005), and at the castle of Marmorera[viii] (c.14th century) in southeast Switzerland over 2,750 desiccated achenes were found in a crevice to the west of the chapel where household rubbish was routinely discarded (Akeret and Kühn 2008; for other Medieval references, see: Bosi et al. 2009; Brombacher and Hecker 2015; Mazzanti et al. 2005; Rösch et al. 2005).
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[i] Also known as: woodland strawberry, Alpine strawberry, Carpathian strawberry, European strawberry or ‘fraisier des bois’.
[ii] For example, on the South Downs the carpets of wild strawberries in 2009 were so thick with fruits that it was possible to gather over a kilo in one hour (Peter Owen-Jones, pers.comm.).
[iii] Ellagic acid (EA)—a plant phenolic—derives from ellagitannins, and is linked to human health benefits (Muthukumaran et al. 2017); the authors state: “Strawberries are considered a functional food and nutraceutical source, mainly because of their high concentration of EA and its precursors.”
[iv] For a description of the depositional processes at pile-dwelling settlements, see separate entry for Blackberry.
[v] In this paper Jacomet notes: “The most important collected plants were hazelnut (Corylus avellana L.), wild apple (Malus sylvestris Miller), sloe (Prunus spinosa L.), acorns (Quercus spp.), blackberry and raspberry (Rubus spp.), wild strawberry (Fragaria vesca L.) and rose (Rosa spp.)” (Jacomet 2006: 81).
[vi] http://www.oplontisproject.org/index.php/the-villas/ [accessed: 10.04.18]
[vii] For details see: https://www.kp-kuenzle.ch/johan-kuenzle/ [accessed: 23.07.18]
[viii] The castle was built under a massive rock shelter and this was the reason why so much of the organic materials was preserved (for more details see Janosa 1993).
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