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Posted in Ancient History, Historical articles, History, Medicine, Plants on Friday, 17 May 2013
This edited article about vegetables originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 258 published on 24 December 1966.
Feeding lettuce to the rabbits
We do not know how old this plant is, although most authorities agree that it has been cultivated in Europe since the earliest times. The ancient Greeks and Romans knew it, and it was served at the royal tables in Persia over 500 years before the Christian era. The Moors were very fond of lettuce and developed many types, among them the Romaine. Lettuce was esteemed highly by the Greeks also and it is said that a famous Greek philosopher even irrigated his growing plants with wine, to produce a distinctive flavour.
Lettuce has had a somewhat stormy history. It once caused the death of a queen and was responsible for great honours being paid to a slave. The queen, whose unfortunate end came about indirectly because of it, was the wife of Cambyses, the son of Cyprus The Great. Cambyses murdered his brother, and then forced his sister to marry him. One evening, when they were dining together, the queen stripped a head of lettuce of its leaves and the king remarked that it was not as beautiful as it had been.
“It is the same with our family,” replied the queen, “since you cut off a precious shoot.”
King Cambyses never forgave her this indiscreet remark and later had her executed.
The slave’s story had a much happier ending. Augustus, the Emperor of Rome from 27 B.C. to A.D. 14 was gravely ill and the royal physician Musa, who had once been a slave, put him on a diet of lettuce. The Emperor recovered and for this great service Musa received not only a large sum of money, but permission to wear a gold ring, a privilege usually reserved only for aristocrats. But even greater honours were to come to him, all due to the humble lettuce. When the news spread around Rome and the citizens realised that they owed the life of their Emperor to the skill of Musa, they took up a popular subscription and erected a statue in his honour.
Do you wonder that lettuce leaves have a tendency to curl a bit scornfully at the edges? They are probably shrinking away from other vegetables, who have never been responsible for the death of a queen, or the honouring of a slave!
Like all plants, at one time or another in their history, the lettuce was considered to have great medicinal value. According to old writers, it was an antidote against the bite of a scorpion or any poisonous spider and was also prescribed for diseases of the spleen and as a cure for insomnia. King George I of England once sent his royal courier to Holland to procure a special lettuce for his ailing queen. History fails to tell us whether it cured the lady, but we hope so. Having caused the death of one queen, the lettuce should certainly have tried to atone by curing this one.
Posted in Historical articles, History, Legend, Plants, Religion on Friday, 17 May 2013
This edited article about onions originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 257 published on 17 December 1966.
Framyard Alphabet – onions, pigeons, quash
An Eastern folk tale tells us that when Satan left the Garden Of Eden, onions sprang up from the spot where he had placed his right foot, and garlic where his left foot had touched. While this is only a legend, we are positive that if we only knew it, the origin of the onion was every bit as interesting.
It was so long ago – much more than 4,000 years, most authorities say – and therefore its native home and exact age are difficult to trace. Most botanists seem to agree on an Eastern birthplace. There are drawings on old Egyptian monuments of priests holding onions and covering their altars with their stalks. In Chinese, the word is designated by a single character, which means that the onion was known from the beginning of their written language.
The Egyptians raised it to godhood, calling upon it to witness their most solemn oaths, as it was a symbol of eternity. However, their priests were forbidden to eat them, but this may have been an act of ascetic self-denial. The Greeks, on the contrary, regarded an onion-eater with abhorrence, although they cultivated a few varieties to flavour their food.
The Romans were amused at both the Egyptian and Grecian attitudes and refused to regard the vegetable as either sacred or profane. They believed that eating onions gave you courage and strength, feeding large quantities to their soldiers, labourers and game-cocks. Apparently, our English word came from them about A.D. 20, a Roman writer calls them unionem’, from which comes the French ‘ognon’ and our English ‘onion’.
When the onion reached England, it was neither worshipped nor hated, except that in the old Druid rites its different layers were said to have represented various heavens and hells. Later, the onion was regarded as a friendly spirit and planted in English gardens to keep the owner safe from evil spells. Even as late as the 18th century, many people believed that a bunch of onions hung in a crowded room, would draw to themselves all diseases.
The patron saint of the onion is the merry Saint Thomas and in early England it played an even more important part than the mistletoe in Christmas festivities. A huge bonfire would be lighted and the unmarried girls of the village would gather around it timidly. A jolly fellow, representing Saint Thomas, would then skip out of the shadows and give each girl an onion, telling her to whisper to it the name of the man she would like to marry, repeating this mystic verse:
Good Saint Thomas, do me right,
And let my true love come tonight.
That I may see him in the face,
And him in my kind arms embrace.
The catch was that the vision of her future husband would be granted only on the exact stroke of 12 and we imagine that few of the girls would care to tear themselves away from the fun so early.
Posted in Historical articles, Plants, Royalty on Tuesday, 14 May 2013
This edited article about the potato originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 255 published on 3 December 1966.
Potato harvest in Ireland
Poor, luckless potato! What an unhappy childhood you had! To ensure your cultivation, kings passed laws, with dreadful penalties for disobedience, and Frederick William I of Prussia threatened to cut off the noses and ears of any peasant who refused to plant the vegetable.
In France things were different. King Louis XVI wore potato flowers in his buttonhole at court functions and Marie Antoinette wore wreaths of them in her hair at balls.
But it was no use. The French peasant said that potatoes caused leprosy and fevers, and refused to plant them. An English writer described the potato as “little knobs held together with string” and went on to say they would do as “food for hogs” but were suitable for humans only if “they were boiled with dates”.
Even the Spaniards, who introduced them into Europe, didn’t really care for them. They tried steeping them in wine, preserving them with spices and sugar, but each time they tasted worse. They were cultivated to some extent, but more as a curiosity than a food.
It was Louis XVI of France who got the potato accepted. He believed in its future, because a scientist in whom he had great confidence had persuaded him that the potato could become a cheap food supply.
When neither Louis’s threats nor his boutonnieres produced any enthusiasm for the vegetable, he tried more subtle tactics. The French scientist was given a plot of ground on which to plant potatoes, and royal soldiers guarded it night and day, shouting angrily at anyone who approached. The people grew curious. “This new potato plant!” they said. “It must be valuable if the king takes all that trouble over it!”
Finally the potatoes were dug – a few slit open – and were left piled in great mounds only a few feet away from the peasants’ hungry eyes. The royal soldiers then relaxed their vigilance, and little by little the mounds of potatoes disappeared.
The king had reasoned that if the people had to go to a great deal of trouble to get potatoes, they would value them, and he relied on the French woman’s natural instinct for cookery to do the rest. As a result, potatoes became popular in France – and to this day potato flowers bloom on the grave of the French scientist who had vision enough to see their future.
The potato seems to be 100 per cent American. There is no name for it in the ancient languages of Asia, and the silence of old writers in China and Japan indicates that it was not known there. They appear to have come from the high plateau of the Andes, from present-day Chile, Bolivia and Peru.
In about 1533, one of the Spanish leader Pizarro’s priests brought the potato to Spain, and by the end of the 17th century its cultivation had spread all over Europe.
The poor potato once suffered a blistering attack from a Scottish pulpit, the minister saying that, as it was not mentioned in the Bible, it was not proper food for Christians. Other ministers claimed that it was the ‘forbidden fruit’ described in Genesis.
Posted in Ancient History, Historical articles, Nature, Plants on Tuesday, 14 May 2013
This edited article about mushrooms originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 254 published on 26 November 1966.
Red-capped toadstools are poisonous and hallucinogenic mushrooms
Did you ever see a knife made from golden amber? They say that Roman aristocrats used such knives to slice mushrooms to tell whether they were poisonous, as amber is supposed to be a detector of poisons.
In those days, mushrooms were viewed by everyone with the deepest suspicion and called ‘vehicles of death’.
One of the most notorious crimes in which mushrooms played a leading part was the murder of the Roman emperor Claudius, around the beginning of the Christian era. His empress, Agrippina, poisoned him with ‘mushrooms’ – undoubtedly toadstools – to secure the throne for her son, the infamous Nero.
Two other monarchs, Tiberius, of pagan Rome, and Charles VI of France, both accused the poor mushroom of attempting their murders.
The real reason, of course, that the mushroom got such a bad reputation lay in people’s complete ignorance that there were poisonous and non-poisonous varieties.
Pliny, an ancient Roman botanist, gives us the most fantastic theories about the plant. He wrote: “If they grow near a piece of rusty iron or rotten cloth, they will instantly absorb the flavour and transform it into poison.”
Serpents, he asserted, were another hazard. “Nothing is more deadly than a mushroom that grows near the hole of a serpent, or has even been breathed upon by one.” And he goes on to give rule after rule for deciding when serpents have retired to their holes, at which time it might be possible, he said, to enjoy a dish of mushrooms without coming to an untimely end.
Very little seems to be known about either the age or the origin of mushrooms. They were known in early Rome and have been cultivated in modern Europe since the 17th century. In Ireland, especially, the country people are always happy when they find mushrooms growing in their fields. They will tell you that when everyone is asleep, the Little People come out and dance across the turf.
“They leave the mushrooms behind,” they whisper, “because there are persons so stupid, they don’t believe in the Little People. As if you couldn’t see, with one eye closed, that it’s a fairy plant.”
It’s a lovely tale, and much like an older one told by Grecian mothers to their children about the Moon Goddess.
“She dances in the fields on spring nights,” they said, “when the wind blows from the west. Her slippers are silver clouds, studded with jagged pieces of broken star, which take root to mark the places where her feet have pressed.” In the morning, wherever her feet had touched, there would be a tiny white mushroom growing, exactly the shade of a soft, fleecy cloud.
We like to think of this fungus being a gift from the Moon Goddess, rather than to dwell too much on an emperor murdered for his throne, or Romans slicing mushrooms fearfully with their golden amber knives.
Posted in Ancient History, Historical articles, Nature, Plants, Religion on Monday, 13 May 2013
This edited article about vegetables originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 253 published on 19 November 1966.
Chick peas, the ancestors of our popular green peas, have been cultivated for well over 5,000 years. Old Egyptian tombs have yielded specimens that prove that they were known in that country as far back as 2400 B.C., although at the time of Herodotus (about 500 B.C.) the Egyptians regarded the vegetable as unclean. Possibly this arose from the shape of the unripe seed, which resembles a ram’s head. In India, the use of the chick pea goes back to a remote time, as shown by the Sanskrit name.
Many botanists believe that chick peas came originally from Western Asia, but as they no longer grow wild there, the point is difficult to prove. Others claim that their native home was northern India.
Chick peas were well known to the Romans for many centuries, but considered inferior to other vegetables. There was one variety of pea, however, historians tell us, so popular that politicians actually bought votes with them and during entertainments, vendors went around selling them, as we sell candy or soft drinks. We are sure that this must have been our present green pea, as, unlike the chick pea, it is sweet.
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Posted in Historical articles, History, Plants on Monday, 13 May 2013
This edited article about vegetables originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 252 published on 12 November 1966.
The Romans had a peculiar ritual for the sowing of turnips. The sower was stripped and, as he walked through the fields scattering the seed, he chanted: “I sow for myself and for my neighbours,” intoning the words over and over again. When it came to sharing the fruits of the soil, the Romans seemed to have had some idea of the communal rights of all men to them. It was a Roman who once said that asparagus should be allowed to grow wild, so that both rich and poor could share its goodness.
However, in old Rome, the turnip was more commonly regarded as food for cattle and the varieties they grew attained enormous size. Old records speak casually of roots weighing 40 pounds and one tells of a turnip weighing 100 pounds. We should be inclined to regard this as an inaccuracy of the translator, but in 1850, California produced a turnip of like weight. In addition to using it as food for cattle, the Romans made wine out of it.
The turnip is very old. Most botanists say that it has been cultivated for over 4,000 years, which puts it in the same age group as our old friends the onion, bean and cabbage. Its birthplace is uncertain. Some authorities say the Scandinavian Peninsula, but the majority give Western Siberia, where the turnip still grows wild.
In Greece, turnips were considered wholesome and nutritious. They were imported from Thebes and were especially popular in Athens where the roots were dried and then pickled with mustard and raisins. The Greeks drank the juice, too, but as a cough remedy, not as a wine!
Turnip cultivation in Europe was first attempted by the Celts and Germans, when they were forced to make use of nutritious roots. They came to England before 1500, via Holland, and in the time of Henry VIII were used extensively. The turnip was then baked in hot ashes when served as a main dish and the green shoots were often used as a kind of salad.
In Westphalia, at one time, turnips had a peculiar significance. When a young man courted a girl and his attentions were unwelcome, she merely invited him to dinner and set a steaming dish of freshly baked turnips before him. We cannot say whether the young man took a helping of the vegetable, but he usually took the hint!
Posted in Ancient History, Historical articles, Legend, Myth, Plants, Religion on Saturday, 11 May 2013
This edited article about vegetables originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 251 published on 5 November 1966.
The humble cabbage is not only a very old vegetable – it has been cultivated for over 4,000 years – it is also one with an interesting history.
A little girl feeding cabbage to her pet rabbit
In Egypt the cabbage was worshipped as a god and, to show their great respect for the vegetable, it was the first dish Egyptians touched at their banquets. The Ionians believed that fairies rode on cabbage stalks and held it in such high respect that they swore their most sacred oaths on it. “I swear on the cabbage” was a very solemn promise, not lightly broken.
Due to its great antiquity and the numerous varieties, botanists do not agree on the cabbage’s place of origin, but mythology has made up for this by giving us a number of fascinating themes.
The Romans did not deify the cabbage, but they did give it a divine origin. They claimed that Jupiter, the father of all their gods, was attempting to explain two contradictory oracles. He laboured so hard that perspiration came out on his brow and, as the drops fell to earth, they turned into tiny cabbage plants.
Curiously enough, Grecian mythology also ascribes a watery origin to the cabbage. The story goes that Lycurgus, a prince of Thrace, destroyed all the grapevines in Dionysus’ garden. Dionysus was a most important god and, when he saw the damage to his garden, a very angry one. Lycurgus was brought before him and condemned to be bound to a grapevine for the rest of his life. As Lycurgus wept, lamenting his lost liberty, his tears took root and tiny cabbage plants came up.
Several hundred years later a reflection of this legend was found in a belief, widely held by both Greeks and Romans, that eating cabbage would cure intoxication. The cabbage, having sprung from Lycurgus’ tears, was the enemy of the vine, of which Dionysus was the God.
Intoxication was not the only thing the cabbage was supposed to cure. One old writer states that at one stage in their history the Romans expelled all doctors and preserved their health for over 600 years by prescribing cabbage as a remedy for every disease – a tale that must be viewed with a certain amount of scepticism! Less fancifully, Cato, the censor, urged all Romans to grow cabbages for their slaves, as they were both cheap and nourishing.
There are a lot of strange members of the cabbage family. Some of them are not really related to it at all, but the word ‘cabbage’ appears as a part of their name. In the West Indies, there is a tree called the Cabbage Palm, whose end is cooked and eaten in exactly the same way as we prepare the vegetable. (This same tree is found in Australia, but there the natives dry the leaves and make hats out of them.)
Another cabbage tree is found in the Channel Islands, whilst on rocks near the Antarctic Circle, a shipwrecked crew kept themselves alive for days on cabbage growing there.
Posted in Ancient History, Historical articles, History, Medicine, Plants, Religion, Superstition on Friday, 10 May 2013
This edited article about vegetables originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 250 published on 29 October 1966.
Pythagoras taught his followers that the spirits of the dead lived again in the bean, by J Armet
In the ancient world, some vegetables were gods, but beans were hated as if they were devils, and even to pronounce their name was forbidden to holy folk. It is almost certain that the species of bean singled out for distrust was our field bean, a close relative of the broad bean, because this has a black spot which aroused alarm, and botanists agree that it is one of the oldest of all vegetables.
The Hebrews knew the field bean 1,000 years before the birth of Christ; it is spoken of in Homer’s Iliad, and specimens of it have been found in the excavations of Troy and in the Lake Dwellings of Switzerland. This means they must have existed in that country around the Bronze Age.
Exactly where the bean’s birthplace was is not known. Some botanists say Asia, others northern Africa, and still others that it came from some region south of the Caspian Sea.
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Posted in America, Farming, Historical articles, History, Plants on Friday, 10 May 2013
This edited article about maize originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 249 published on 22 October 1966.
Mexican Ranchers and Cowboys with their maize crop
Maize was not known in the Old World until Columbus discovered the New, so we have little except Indian myths about its origin. One of these runs somewhat along the lines of our own Adam and Eve story.
A Fox, a Jackal and a Parrot lived in The-Land-Of-Divided-And-Stagnant-Waters, to which they guided the great god Tepeuh Gucumatz, showing him ears of white and yellow maize. From these the god created man and woman, giving them a drink made from pounded-up maize. From this drink, so the Indians say, all men and women are given their strength.
Botanists believe that maize existed over 2,000 years ago on the Central Plateau of Mexico. From there it spread southward to Peru, Chile and the Argentine and northward to the St. Lawrence. Today it is grown almost everywhere that man lives: below sea-level in the Caspian Plain, and as high as 12,000 feet in the Andes.
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Posted in Ancient History, Historical articles, Magic, Medicine, Nature, Plants, Superstition on Thursday, 9 May 2013
This edited article about vegetables originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 248 published on 15 October 1966.
The Temple of Apollo where golden radishes were offered to the Greek god, by Ruggero Giovannini
Everyone knows that radishes are good to eat, but did you also know that they have the power to warn you if a witch should happen to be hiding in your chimney? We had never suspected it, until we read this sentence in an old English book: “a wild radish, uprooted with the proper incantations, has the power of revealing the whereabouts of witches.” Unfortunately, the author forgot to add “the proper incantations”. Very annoying, as we have always wanted to see a witch!
From another book, written about the same period, we learned that wearing a garland of flowering radish around one’s neck, would repel demons. Odd that the flowers should drive them away and a ripe radish tempt them out of their hiding places!
Although the radish has been cultivated for well over 4,000 years, its appearance has changed very little. Botanists do not agree on its native land. Some say China, while others insist on Western Asia as its birthplace.
They were cultivated in Egypt at the time of the earliest Pharaohs and esteemed highly because of the abundance of oil in the root. A variety of radish is cultivated today by the Egyptians for that very purpose.
Greece, however, gave radishes their highest honours. One Greek philosopher wrote an entire book about them and in their offerings to Apollo, the Greeks again demonstrated how highly the radish was regarded. It was their custom to present these gifts in the form of carvings, the metal chosen representing their ideas of the value of the plant. Turnips, for instance, were carved out of lead, beets from silver, but pure gold was chosen for the radish.
Few vegetables have had more extravagant claims made for their curative powers than this one. In fact, reading the long list, the radish seems to be able to cure almost every illness in life, the only drawback being that it was considered bad for the teeth. One physician wrote that you could handle poisonous serpents and scorpions safely, if you took the precaution of first rubbing your hands with radish juice, while another actually wrote that if you merely dipped a radish in a glass of poison, you could drink it and go happily away. We sincerely hope that none of his patients tried it.
A very charming legend about the radish has come down to us from Germany. The soul of the radish, so they said, was an evil spirit named Rubezahl, with a bad habit of taking what he wanted, regardless of other people’s rights. Rubezahl fell in love with a princess, kidnapped her and shut her away in a great tower, surrounded by miles of woods. The poor princess was very lonely and frightened and grew so thin and pale that Rubezahl worried for fear she would die. So he touched a radish with his magic wand and turned it into a cricket, first warning the princess that when the leaves of the radish began to wither, the cricket would die. The princess asked the cricket to find her lover and bring him to rescue her, so the cricket set out, chirping loudly as he hopped. Unfortunately, he could not find her lover before he died, but as he told every cricket he met and they told their friends, the story still lives. If you listen closely on a summer evening to the cricket’s song, you will hear all about the plight of the poor princess and the wicked radish, Rubezahl.