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Contribution to the knowledge of the veterinary science and of the ethnobotany in Calabria region (Southern Italy)

Nicodemo G Passalacqua1, Giuseppe De Fine2 and Paolo Maria Guarrera3*

Author Affiliations

1 Museo di Storia Naturale della Calabria ed Orto Botanico, Università della Calabria, 87030 Arcavacata di Rende, Italy

2 via Madonna delle Grazie 9, 88813, Cirò, Italy

3 Museo Nazionale Arti e Tradizioni Popolari, Piazza Marconi 8-10 00144 Rome, Italy

For all author emails, please log on.

Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 2006, 2:52  doi:10.1186/1746-4269-2-52

The electronic version of this article is the complete one and can be found online at: http://www.ethnobiomed.com/content/2/1/52


Received:26 July 2006
Accepted:11 December 2006
Published:11 December 2006

© 2006 Passalacqua et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.

This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Abstract

Background

A series of preliminary research projects on plants used in Calabria (Southern Italy) in veterinary science and in other ethno-botanical fields (minor nourishment, domestic and handicraft sector) was carried out in the last twenty years. From the ethno-botanical point of view, Calabria is one of the most interesting region, since in the ancient times it was subject to the dominant cultures of several people (Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans etc.). Until some decades ago the road network was poorly developed and villages were isolated, so that the culture of the "subsistence" and some archaic customs were kept.

Methods

Data were collected by means of "open" interviews to farmers, shepherds and housewives in the last twenty years. More than 100 informants were interviewed, mostly over 50 years old. Plants were identified by local informants through gathering in the area or through examination of the fresh plants collected by the researchers. The collected data were compared with pharmacobotanical papers mainly of southern Italy and with other studies, in order to highlight novelties or concordances of uses.

Results

The use of 62 taxa distributed into 34 families are described. Among these, 8 are or were employed in veterinary science, 8 as anti-parasitic agents, 19 in minor nourishment, 5 as seasoning, 38 for other uses. Some toxic species for cattle are also mentioned.

Conclusion

Among the major findings: the use of Helleborus bocconei for bronchitis of bovines and of Scrophularia canina for lameness in veterinary science; Nerium oleander and Urginea maritima as anti-parasitic agents; Epilobium angustifolium, Centaurea napifolia L. and C. sphaerocephala L. in minor nourishment.

Background

A research was carried out in some localities of Calabria region (Italy) in the last twenty years on the traditions relevant to the plants used in veterinary science and in other ethno-botanical fields (minor nourishment, domestic and handicraft sector) in order to preserve the historical "memory" of the territory and of the local culture.

The only papers existing on the ethno-botany of Calabria region (mainly on uses in human medicine) are by Leporatti and Pavesi [1] and by Barone [2]; some information is also furnished by Bernardo [3], La Sorsa [4] and Lupia [5]. In the food field, two recent contributions were published by Picchi and Pieroni [6] and by Nebel et al. [7].

Calabria region (15080 km2) extends about 250 km north to south in the center of the Mediterranean Sea, bordering with Ionian Sea to east and south, with Tyrrhenian Sea to west, and with Basilicata region to north; the Messina Strait separates Calabria from Sicily. The region is mostly mountainous and about 90% of the surface is occupied by two section of Apennine chain: southern Apennines, calcareous, with Pollino Massif (Serra Dolcedorme, 2267 m a.s.l.), and Calabrian Apennines, mainly siliceous, with Coastal Chain (M.Cocuzzo,1541 m), Sila Massif (Botte Donato,1929 m), Serre Calabre (M. Pecoraro, 1423 m) and Aspromonte Massif (Montalto, 1956 m). Plains are few, linked to the presence of rivers.

The climate is of Mediterranean type, with maximum precipitation during the winter and minimum in the summer and vice versa for temperature, but strong meso-climatic variations occur depending on altitude, topographic features and location respect to the sea. As consequence, the typical Mediterranean bioclimate is restricted to a belt mainly close to the coast, flowing to the European one going up to the top of mountains. Vegetation varies with bioclimate: xerophile oaks (Quercus virgiliana, Q. suber, Q. ilex), Mediterranean maquis (Pistacia lentiscus, Rhamnus alaternus, Myrtus communis, etc.) and therophytic pastures dominate the coastal thermo-Mediterranean belt; mesophile oaks and mixed woods (Quercus cerris, Q. pubescens s.l., Castanea sativa, Acer sp. pl., Ostrya carpinifolia, etc.) in the meso-Mediterranean hilly belt; beech woods (but also Pinus laricio and P. leucodermis woods), brooms and mountain pastures in the mountain European belt.

From the ethno-botanical point of view, Calabria is one of the most interesting region, for the dominant cultures of several people in the past (Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans etc.). Until some decades ago the road network was poorly developed and villages were isolated, so that the culture of the "subsistence" and some archaic customs were kept. Today agricultural (cereals, vegetables, grapes, olives and citrus fruits), pastoral and tourist activities characterize above all the way of life of people.

In order to make a first sampling of data in Calabria region, a preliminary ethnobotanical research was carried out both in some mountain areas and in coastal places.

In the mountain belt, data are presented for Castrovillari (foothill of Pollino Massif) and for Acri (in the upland plain of the Sila), in Cosenza district, in the northern part of the region. Other information was collected in the southern Calabria near S.Stefano di Aspromonte, Cittanova and S. Giorgio Morgeto (Aspromonte Massif), Reggio Calabria district. The cited villages are located into or near important protected areas (Pollino National Park, Sila National Park, Aspromonte National Park, Tarsia lake natural reserve).

Castrovillari and Morano are starting points of interesting excursions in the upland of the Pollino National Park (with the rare Pinus leucodermis), or of itineraries in canoe along torrents. Acri, S.Stefano di Aspromonte, Cittanova, S. Giorgio Morgeto are at the centre of interesting naturalistic areas where the endemic Pinus calabrica but also the tropical fern Woodwardia radicans grow.

Other data were collected in coastal or hilly areas of Crotone district (Cirò), Reggio Calabria district (Scilla) and Catanzaro district (Montauro and S.Elia).

Brief news was also collected for Crucoli, Umbriatico (Crotone), Vallefiorita (Catanzaro); Ardore (Reggio Calabria); Morano and Tarsia (Cosenza) (Fig. 1).

thumbnailFigure 1. Map of the investigated areas in Calabria region. (AC Acri; AR Ardore; CI Cirò; CR Crùcoli; CS Castrovillari; CT Cittanova; MT Montauro; MR Morano; SC Scilla; SE S.Elia; SG S.Giorgio Morgeto; SS S.Stefano di Aspromonte; TA Tarsia; UM Umbriatico; VA Vallefiorita).

The colonies of the "Magna Graecia" were above all located along the Ionian and southern coasts. The name of Scilla is associated to the sea monster that, according to the Odissea, terrorized the sailors of the Messina Strait (for the strong streams that are present in the Strait). This village is known for the fishing of the swordfish, but it lives also with agriculture and tourism. Cirò is the ancient Ypsicron (Krimisa in the Magna Graecia), now famous for the full-bodied wine.

Several internal towns date back to the presence of the Normans (e.g. Montauro) or have medioeval aspect (e.g. S.Giorgio Morgeto).

Methods

In the "open" interviews informants (farmers, shepherds, housewives) were asked to furnish for each plant: local name, folk use (in veterinary science, as anti-parasitic agent, in the nourishment, in domestic and ritual fields), formulation and used parts, possible recipes, possible association with other plants. More than 100 informants were interviewed, mostly over 50 years old (near Cirò 5 informants were between 90 and 96 years old, others between 80 and 86 years old). Plants were identified by local informants through gathering in the area or through examination of the fresh plants which were showed them by the researchers. Cited voucher herbarium specimens are kept in the herbarium of the Università della Calabria (acronym CLU) and in the Museo Nazionale Arti e Tradizioni Popolari (Rome)(acronym Mat). Taxa are reported according to Pignatti [8]. The collected data were compared with those quoted by Gastaldo [9], with the pharmacobotanical literature of southern Italy and of the near Sicily [1-7,10-28], and with other studies cited in the text, in order to highlight possible novelties or concordances of uses.

Results and discussion

The uses of 62 plants belonging to 34 families are reported in Table 1, 2, 3: 8 taxa are employed in veterinary science and 8 as anti-parasitic agents (Tab. 1), 19 in human nourishment (Tab. 2), 5 as seasoning and 38 for other uses (cosmesis, illegal fishing, domestic or handicraft field, agriculture, rituals) (Tab. 3). Plants are listed according to the families' alphabetical order, even inside them. Some species (4) particularly toxic for the livestock (according to the effects referred by the informants) are described in Table 4. The most represented families are: Compositae (7 species), Labiatae (7 species) and Leguminosae (4 species).

Table 1. Ethnoveterinary and anti-parasitic uses of plants in some areas of Calabria (Southern Italy)

Table 2. Food uses of plants in some areas of Calabria (Southern Italy)

Table 3. Domestic, handicraft and miscellaneous uses of plants in some areas of Calabria (Southern Italy)

Table 4. Toxic plants for animals in the folk knowledges of Cirò, Calabria (Southern Italy)

Veterinary medicine

In Calabria the breeding of animals is a very important activity and many dishes are realized e.g. with pork meat (a primary resource), or with products derived from goats, sheep and cows (pecorino, ricotta, mozzarella etc.) mainly in the hilly and mountain areas.

A particularly in-depth research was carried out near Cirò (Crotone).

The plants described in this section are mainly of clearings of oak woods, chestnut and mixed woods (Helleborus bocconei), garrigues and maquises (Daphne gnidium), meadows (Inula viscosa, Malva sylvestris), gravels, sandy and stony grounds (Scrophularia canina).

Helleborus bocconei

In the past, since the first years of XX century, it was the only remedy known by the cowherds in case of bronchitis of bovines. This species, toxic as fresh plant due to poisonous substances (glycosides elleborin and elleborein, and some alkaloids), loses its toxicity after drying [29]. H. bocconei is named "aricchja" in Cirò, "radicchia" in other localities of Calabria [4], "radicchia" or "raricchia" in Sicily, where the subsp. siculus is used to diagnose and cure the pneumonia of cattle [22,26]. The gathering occurred on Friday and only in those places that because of their geographical position faced either at the sea and at the mountain. People thought that this procedure exalted the curative properties of the plant. We don't know if this is true, but it is a sure thing that this species is an excellent remedy, so that it still survives in the most internal rural areas of Calabria. Its "secret" still hands down from father to son. An analogous use is documented for other areas [30].

Scrophularia canina

The use as an antiseptic, anti-inflammatory and cicatrising in veterinary science of S. canina (a medicinal plant for excellence in the Crotone district) is reported for some regions of central Italy [30-33]. In Calabria this practice is still now alive.

Cestrum parqui

This subspontaneous ornamental species is rather unusually used as arepellent for animals; its unpleasant smell probably represents probably a guard signal against more serious effects (being a toxic plant for cattle).

Inula viscosa

It was used to eliminate the parasites of the rectum in asses and mules. Bernardo [3] reports the cicatrising use of this herb.

Daphne gnidium

The use for papillomas seems to be more a magic remedy than a medical one.

Anti-parasitic uses

The reported plants are cultivated (Juglans regia), or species growing in the Mediterranean maquis (Laurus nobilis, Nerium oleander) and garrigues (Daphne gnidium, Urginea maritima). Some species are still now employed.

Nerium oleander is a plant dear to the farmers and very requested, since considered enemy of the moles, known eaters of roots and vegetables. In Cirò, planting branches of this plant is still now a means to kept out holes. This fact could perhaps be explained through the branches eated by these animals, which after die because of the poison. The use is not cited for other regions, but in Sicily the flowers are spread on the ground of areas infested with cockroaches [22].

Lavandula angustifolia

The presence of this plant in the Pollino Mountain and other areas of the region can account for its common use as repellent agent.

Among other repellent agents: Juglans regia leaves for bugs, Ocimum basilicum for mosquitos and Laurus nobilis fruits (macerate in olive oil) for flies, put on the coat of cattle [34]. Sambucus nigra branches were hung in rooms to attract flies, then captured.

A particular still practised use is that of Urginea maritima bulb, as a repellent for insects and mice in granaries, silos and containers of broad beans [13]. In Sicily this bulb is analogously used as a repellent for mice [21] or as rat poison [22].

The memory of the anti-parasitic use of Delphinium consolida is kept in the vernacular name of Cirò: "erba ppè pidocchi" (herb for louses).

Human nourishment

The plants reported in this section grow above all in meadows (Borago officinalis, Origanum heracleoticum, Plantago major), ruderal areas (Amaranthus retroflexus), edges of roads (Silybum marianum), woods (Castanea sativa), clearings of wood (Epilobium angustifolium), open environments (Spartium junceum) and in the Mediterranean maquis (Myrtus communis). Even some species are gathered on beachs (Centaurea napifolia, C. sphaerocephala). Some cultivated species were used for peculiar purposes (e.g. roasted seeds of Phaseolus vulgaris as a substitute of the coffee in Acri, upland of Sila). Almost all the described species are still employed nowadays in Calabria, except for the more thorny species (Centaurea sp. pl.).

Calabrian people resorts in the nourishment to a lot of vegetables like the aubergine, with properties useful to reduce the amount of cholesterol in the blood [35]. Like in other regions, several species are eaten, e.g, Borago officinalis, Taraxacum officinale, Urtica dioica. Flowers of Sambucus nigra ("maju") are fried to make classic fritters ("pitte ccu majiu"). The young leaves of Ranunculus ficaria, the only edible plant of the Ranunculaceae family (apart from Clematis vitalba cooked buds), are eaten in salad, but also in soups. Among the less common food uses we cite that of Amaranthus retroflexus young buds [15,26], a ruderal species gathered in Cirò. This use is cited for Calabria region also by Picchi and Pieroni [6],that reported another species of Amaranthus, A. lividus, as food plant. Uncommon is also the food use of Plantago major (tender leaves in soups), described in the upland of Sila near Acri.

Some thorny plants (Carduae, e.g. Silybum marianum) are eaten also in the near Basilicata region [15,26], while the food use of Centaurea napifolia, C. sphaerocephala and Spartium junceum pickled buds, not cited elsewhere, is probably linked with the extreme poverty of past periods. S. junceum should have some toxicity for the presence of cardioactive principles. The use of young buds and pith of Epilobium angustifolium in salad is also new.

Contributions on wild food plants of Calabria region were made by Bernardo [3], by Picchi and Pieroni [6] and by Nebel et al. [7]. Bernardo [3] reports the use of Asphodelus fistulosus roots, Leopoldia comosa bulbs, "qepez", and Tordylium apulum leaves, in addition to Asparagus acutifolius, Chenopodium bonus-henricus, Cichorium intybus, Clematis vitalba. Picchi and Pieroni [6] highlight particularly the food use of Allium triquetrum (kept in olive oil after boiling in water and vinegar), of Lythrum salicaria (young buds in salad, stem without cortex boiled in vinegar or in olive oil), of Hypochoeris glabra, Lotus edulis (leaves and fruits), Chrysanthemum segetum (the more gathered species in Aspromonte), Reseda alba and other wild herbs.

Among the seasoning herbs, we cite Myrtus communis whose branches are utilized to make small spits to which figs are skewered for a winter eating (see also [3]). An analogous unpublished use was described in the Tyrrhenian area of Basilicata [36]. Also Mentha spicata, Laurus nobilis and Origanum heracleoticum are used as seasoning, together with Salvia officinalis (this last species in Calabria is subspontaneous in dry meadows and ruderal areas). The dye properties of Borago officinalis flowers are exploited for aromatic vinegars. Some practices cited in other Calabrian papers (e.g. that one of Ficus carica cinder in order to preserve seasoned salami)[5] have not been found by us.

Domestic and handicraft uses

In Cirò the use of Spartium junceum to make clothes, sacks and carpets dates back to the first decade of XIX century, as testified by some elderly men born in the first years of the XX century, whose parents were devoted to this work. In the Graecanic area the textile use of this broom was particularly practised in Aspromonte, e.g. in Bova [37] and near some Albanian minorities. At the present, it survives in few Calabrian countries (e.g. Serrastretta) [38] and Cerzeto [39] and in some folkloristic events [40]. It is also well documented in the Museum of. S.Paolo Albanese (Basilicata region) [3]. Several fabrics (knapsacks, blankets, towels, napkins etc.) from Calabria made with Spartium junceum are kept in the Museum of Arts and Folks Traditions (Rome); they were collected at the beginning of the XX century.

In Calabria the basketry is now particularly practised in San Giorgio Morgeto, Delianuova, San Roberto and Crucoli, but above all in Soriano Calabro [41]. From the inventories of the Museum of Arts and Folks Traditions (Rome) result that some Calabrian baskets were made with Fagus sylvatica, Ulmus minor and Abies alba, Arundo sp.pl., Salix sp., straw, but also small containers ("fiscelle") were made with brooms and other baskets ("nasse") with reeds and Juncus sp. The use of Salix caprea branches is documented for the Mt. Pollino area [3].

Moreover, in this paper we report the use of the branches of Vitex agnus castus – typical plant of riverbeds and edges of torrents ("fiumàre") – to make baskets ("sporteddi") near Cirò. This use is known since ancient times: in fact, the first term of the scientific binomial Vitex agnus castus (Vitex) means flexible shoot to bend, from the Latin "vieo" [42] (= to bend, to interwoven). This last word corresponds to the Greek "lìgos" (used also by Omero = Italian agnocasto) [8], with its verb "ligòo"(= to bend, to interwoven) [43] because – according to Dioscoride – the branches of this plant are long and pliable [44]. Rocci [43] writes that Vitex agnus castus (also called αγνος) is named in Italian "agnocasto" but also "vetrice". This term "vetrice" is attributed to Vitex agnus castus by Palazzi [45] too, while Zingarelli [46] calls it "a willow for baskets". In the dialects of central-southern Italy the word "vetrice" corresponds to some species of Salix [15,31,32]. Therefore Vitex agnus castus and Salix sp. pl. are called with the same term since their branches are used to bend.

The use for baskets of Vitex agnus castus is undescribed in the current Italian ethnobotanical papers, included the enormous work of Atzei [47]. Lieutaghi [48] writes that the Latins interwove its branches as those of a willow and that the plant is used in southern areas (of the France, where the willows are rare) to make baskets. Pirone [49] reports that the priestesses of Cerere slept on pallets interwoven with its branches.

Also Ferula communis is still used for this purpose and to make rustic chairs, as it happen in Sicily [23,24]. Other species are employed for brooms (Pistacia lentiscus, Inula viscosa,etc.), while there are some memories of wicks for oil lamps made with Verbascum phlomoides and V. Thapsus. An oil for lamps was obtained from P. lentiscus [5].

Two trees furnished the matter of various Calabrian artefacts (from the inventories of the Museum of Arts and Folks Traditions, Rome): Fagus sylvatica (chests for storaging bread, baskets, cradles) and Citrus bergamia (snuff-boxes)[50]. The very original Calabrian craft is art of the shepherds" (that engrave the wood) of the Serre and Sila Greca should be described from an ethnobotanical point of view. Hand looms with Fagus sylvatica wood are still made in Cariati (Cosenza) and Castelsilano (Crotone) [51]. Some plants are used in Cirò to make collars for animals (Phyllirea latifolia, Populus sp., Salix sp., Cornus sanguinea) and tools for kitchen (Cornus sanguinea). Elderly people says in Cirò with regard to Phyllirea latifolia wood: "Liternu lignu eternu", that is "P. latifolia wood is eternal due to its hardness when it is dried". Another proverb says: "Liternu ppe focu e ppe mprnu", that is "P. latifolia wood to make a fire and for the hell", since it burns much.

In the Calabrian economy of subsistence, a discreet number of plants were used in decoction to brighten up the colour of clothes: Spinacia oleracea, Cynara scolymus and Urtica dioica (leaves), in addition to Phaseolus vulgaris. Hanging the thorny Ruscus aculeatus in the houses, in order to keep the rats away, is perhaps magical; or it could be a residual of the use to wrap cheeses or ropes (these last ones employed to hang cheeses to the ceiling).

Other uses

A few plants are used in the cosmetic field: e.g. Hedera helix and Matricaria chamomilla in order to hair dye, and Abies alba, whose twigs are used in decoction to prepare deodorant footbaths. A limited number of plants is described also in agriculture: Arundo donax as a 'stake', Lupinus albus as a fertilizer for ground, Spartium junceum for laces in vineyards and vegetable gardens.

Toxic plants

Among these we can cite Daphne gnidium, called "junastrum" (ginestraccio, that is bad broom) but also "paparina ppè ntassari" (that is a plant that sleeps in order to poison) – 10 fruits can kill a men [52]. The fishes caught with this system (illegal fishing) are always more or less toxic for men [53]. Toxic plants for cattle are cited in Table 4 (the information was collected near Cirò). Among these, Oxalis pes-caprae introduced from South-Africa. The excessive consumption of this plant provokes intestinal inflammations, blood in the urines and often death by collapse in ovines, bovines and horses [54], due to the high amount of calcium oxalate. Milk cows were infected in 1818 by the "Morbo Ignoto" (unknown disease), also named "Pinzanese". It was treated with vinegar, salt and rubbing human dung [55].

Other toxic plants for animals are Ferula communis (oleoresins, resins)[56], Cestrum parqui (parquine, solasonine), Equisetum telmateja (silica and thiaminase). The folk name of this last plant is "stocca e ammenta" (that is you divide and unite) because the different parts of the plant can be detached and again inserted on the stem.

Plants and vernacular names

Some vernacular names derive from the culture of the "Magna Graecia" or from the following Bizantine rule. Pistacia lentiscus is named "scinu", "scine", which comes from the Greek "schinus". This last word comes from "to cut through, to carve", because the bark of the mastic tree is cut throughout to bleed the mastex [44]. Plantago major is called "peltinervia". This vernacular name results from "pentinervia" (from the Greek "pentà" = 5), whereas in several regions of Italy it is called "cinquenervia". Regarding the shape of the leaves, Verbascum thapsus is called "lingua 'e voiju" (that is tongue of ox), while Adonis annua "eriva bedda" (erba bella, that is beautiful herb) for the peculiar red colour of the corollas. Cestrum parqui is named "erva fetusa" (that is stinking herb) for its unpleasant smell. The sap of the vine is poetically called "pianto della vite" (the tears of the vine).

Conclusion

The preliminary reported data – in comparison with those from other Calabrian ethno-botanical papers – show that a big work is still to carry out in this region, where each village is "an island" for the past geographical difficulties of communication and for the above described culture of "subsistence". These data can appear fragmentary, because found out in the course of many years – in various stages – but they contribute to rebuild some plugs of a very rich patrimony in the past.

From the research it emerges that the practice or the memory of the veterinary, food, anti-parasitic, cosmetic, agricultural and domestic uses are still alive near the inhabitants of the investigated areas of Calabria region, particularly for the food uses. Among these practices, some are curious but consolidated, e.g. those for veterinary and anti-parasitic purposes, and worthy of further scientific investigation.

This recovery can have relapses in the ethno-pharmacological field, but also in the handicraft, economic and tourist sector. The preservation of traditional knowledge e.g. in the food or artisan fields may be source of some income in local enterprises.

This research is also offered as a contribute to the knowledge of the ethno-biological roots of the investigated region.

Competing interests

The author(s) declare that they have no competing interests.

Authors' contributions

The field work for data collection was carried out above all by GDF and in a limited way by the other authors. Data analysis and manuscript preparation were conducted by all authors, but above all by PMG. Scientific coordination was carried out by NGP.

Acknowledgements

We thank Dr. M.L. Leporatti, Dr. Ameruso P., Malarico V., Iamello A, Capalbo M., Mannella G. and Mascianà B.A. for the useful information, and all the people interviewed. Our thanks to Virginia Filippelli and to Luciana Mariotti for the English language review.

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