November 2022

Medicinal food in Quer’s ‘Flora Española’

The use of plants by humans is as old as humankind itself. Recognising and knowing how to use the plants around us have been (and is) vital for the survival of human communities. In fact, among the first written documents we can highlight those which describe the medicinal use of plants, such as the Ebers papyrus (c.1500 BC). Botany and medicine walked hand in hand until the 15th Century, and plants were the main therapeutic agent until the mid-19th Century.

The science of ethnobotany studies the relationship between Man and plants through time and space, and within this field, historical ethnobotany researches historical texts for traditional knowledge from the past.

Knowledge of plants (plant-lore) is one of the so-called traditional ecological wisdoms which are mainly transmitted from generation to generation by word of mouth. Within this group, the use of plants in food, medicine or both is particularly important (food which is beneficial to our health or functional foodstuffs).

At present, traditional knowledge is being lost due to globalisation and the modernising of agricultural production systems, although part of it has been preserved thanks to the work of different writers from Antiquity and to ethnobotanical studies.

In the Mediterranean we can highlight the work De Materia Medica by Dioscorides (1st Century), which gathers plant remedies used by doctors, witches and medicine men of the time. 

Unfortunately, few historical works have recorded the use of plants among Iberian peoples. We could highlight Andrés Laguna’s translation (16th Century) of the above-mentioned work by Dioscorides or Flora Española (18th Century), a work by Joseph Quer y Martínez, the first director of the Real Jardín Botánico de Madrid (Royal Botanical Gardens in Madrid). However, Flora Española did not get the recognition it deserved because it used the Tournefort classification system, rather than the Linnaeus system which was to dominate the scientific world.

Even so, Flora Española is a valuable compilation of ethnobotanical knowledge at the time. This is why the knowledge it provides about functional foodstuffs has been studied and compared with more recent sources to establish how it evolved.

One of the main findings of our research was that 97% of the plants mentioned in the work as foodstuffs also had medicinal functions. This is not surprising because just as botany and medicine were closely linked in the past, so were diet and medicine. In the 4th Century BC, Hippocrates was saying «let food be your nourishment and nourishment be your medicine». And many centuries later Don Quixote warned Sancho «eat little and dine less, for the health of our bodies is forged in the office of our stomachs».

According to modern ethnobotanical studies, this proportion fell drastically over time, probably due to the appearance of modern medicine which split nutrition from medicine. However, nowadays there are more and more studies which corroborate the indivisible link between nourishment and health and which promote more inclusion of functional foodstuffs in our diets, so the trend may be reversed.

Traditional knowledge is dynamic and evolves with society, so part is preserved, part is lost and part is replaced with new knowledge.

In our analysis of Flora Española we can see that the longest preserved use in nourishment is the consumption of fruit and vegetables, the most important elements in our diet. They are still used in medicine for the particular treatment of digestive problems, such as chamomile or lemon juice, which are current treatment nowadays.

On the other hand, a number of species whose underground parts are used and those used to prepare non-alcoholic drinks (like the consumption of asparagus roots or the use of pumpkin seeds to make soft drinks) have been lost. In the case of the former this may be because these are the least accessible parts of the plant, and in the case of the latter, the reason may be that they have been mainly replaced by carbonated drinks.

Lastly, we saw that certain uses found in current ethnobotanical studies were not mentioned in Flora Española. In foodstuffs we can highlight: the use of plants to prepare alcoholic drinks or coffee substitutes (like almond wine or its use as a coffee substitute). On the other hand, in medicine we found that such uses are related with treating diseases of the immune or endocrinal systems, which had not been discovered in Quer’s time. Given that they are better known nowadays, traditional knowledge would have adapted to include them in its lore, especially in areas with limited access to modern medicine.

Functional foodstuffs have great nutritional and medicinal potential, so paying attention to the long preserved traditional knowledge over the centuries and recovering some of its uses might help to improve nutrition and health in the future.

 

Andrea Camacho Rebaque is a Biology graduate from the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (Spain) and carried out her graduate final research project into medicinal nutritional plants in the work of Quer. Jimena Mateo-Martín is a researcher doing her PhD at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, and she also works spreading and developing traditional knowledge of plants in Spain. Manuel Pardo de Santayana is a Professor of Botany and Ethnobotany at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid and coordinates the «Inventario Español de los Conocimientos Tradicionales relativos a la Biodiversidad» («Spanish Inventory of Traditional Knowledge about Biodiversity»). Quer’s work can be consulted at Biblioteca Digital del Real Jardín Botánico-CSIC.