Wyrtig

For gardeners with a sense of history
 

OE wyrtig, adj: Garden-like, full of plants;
On anum wyrtige hamme, Homl. Skt. ii. 30:312
.

  

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Roman brothers and farmers Eukarpos and Philoxenos, National Archaeological Museum, Athens, photo by Giovanni Dall'Orto,from Wikimedia Commons

 

Auctoritas in the Garden: What plants did the
Romans really introduce to Britain
?


 

Tombstone of Roman brothers
and farmers Eukarpos
and Philoxenos

During medieval times, written works were often attributed to well-known Greek or Latin writers in order to increase their credibility, or auctoritas. For example, an early herbal, the Herbarium Apuleii Platonici, was ascribed to a famous author, Lucius Apulieus Madauranus. While this Apulieus did write "The Golden Ass," he is not the author of that late 4th century herbal, a fact that has led to its being known today as “Pseudo-Apuleius.”

All things classical were revered in medieval times, and this may be echoed in the list of plants supposedly introduced to Britain by the Romans. Checking this list against information derived from recent archaeological work in the British Isles can shed some light on what the Romans brought, and what they found already growing in their British colony.

Archaeobotanical evidence takes many different forms: seeds or grains, nutshells, bits of skin, phytoliths, pollen. These are preserved when they become waterlogged, charred, experience mineral replacement (usually in latrine deposits), or dry out. Sometimes all that remains are impressions, such as those of grain in the walls of clay pots.

The list below includes plants known to be growing in Britain prior to the Roman Conquest. Many are the wild forms of plants whose quality as foodstuffs would improve with cultivation. Knowing whether the remains of a plant come from wild or cultivated forms can be difficult. Clearly, however, these plants were found in Britain prior to 43 CE, when the Roman legions took up residence.


Plants said to have been introduced by the Romans,
but identified at pre-Roman sites in Britain

  • Apium graveolens, celery

  • Asparagus officinalis ssp. prostratus, wild asparagus

  • Beta vulgaris ssp. maritima, beet

  • Brassica nigra, black mustard

  • Brassica oleracea, cabbage

  • Brassica rapa, turnip

  • Chenopodium album, fat hen

  • Daucus carota, carrot

  • Fragaria vesca, strawberry

  • Malus sylvestris, crab apple

  • Malva moschata, musk mallow

  • Origanum vulgare, marjoram

  • Papaver somniferum, opium poppy

  • Pastinaca sativa, parsnip

  • Pisum sativum, pea

  • Prunus avium, wild cherry 

  • Prunus cerasus, dwarf cherry

  • Prunus domestica, damson plum

  • Prunus domestica. ssp. institia, bullace plum

  • Rubus fruticosus, blackberry, bramble

  • Rubus idaeus, raspberry

  • Sambucus nigra, elderberry

  • Satureja hortensis, summer savory

  • Thymus spp., thyme

  • Triticum spelta, spelt wheat

  • Urtica dioica, nettle

  • Valerianella dentata, corn salad

  • Verbena officinalis, verbena

  • Viola spp., pansy, violet

  • Vitis vinifera, grape

Plants that are said to have been introduced to Britain by the Romans that do NOT, to date,
appear in the archaeological record until after the Roman conquest:

  • Allium porrum, leeks

  • Allium sativum, garlic

  • Anethum graveolens, dill

  • Asparagus officinalis, asparagus

  • Castanea sativa, sweet chestnut

  • Coriandrum sativum, coriander

  • Cucumis sativus, cucumber

  • Cydonia oblonga, quince

  • Ficus carica, fig

  • Foeniculum vulgare, fennel

  • Juglans regia, walnut

  • Laurus nobilis, bay

  • Lens culinaris, lentil

  • Mespilus germanica, medlar

  • Morus nigra, mulberry

  • Ocimum basilicum, basil 

  • Petroselinum crispum, parsley

  • Pimpinella anisum, anise

  • Pinus pinea, Italian stone-pine

  • Prunus dulcis, almond

  • Pyrus communis, pear

  • Raphanus sativus, radish

  • Rosmarinus officinalis, rosemary

  • Salvia officinalis, sage

  • Sinapis alba, white pepper

Sources

 

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Botanists are among those who know that, in spite of the rude shocks of life,
it is well to have lived, and to have seen the everlasting beauty of the world.
F.D. Drewitt

 

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