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Feb 19 16

Ethnobotany, the roots of our culture.

Babel Nature

Ethnobotany focuses on the study of the relationship between plants and local human populations, how they interact and how plants have influenced the development of these cultures. Today we are looking at the Iberian Peninsula, in particular the Natural Park of Sierra de Huelva y Picos de Aroche.

The different cultures which have populated this region, all of very different origins, have contributed to an increase in the number of plant species present in this region. Each civilisation to settle in these lands has left a botanical gift of a new species of plant, or a way of working the land. These species would have been crucial for daily life in these people’s homelands and were transferred to the new villages with migration. The way these plants and trees are used for food, grazing, construction, medicine, and ceremonies nowadays are a result of centuries of co-habitation and adaptation.

We could start further back, but we will begin with the Romans. More than 2000 years ago, the Romans began to systematically clear the Mediterranean woodland leaving only those species of value for raising cattle, and creating large areas of grazing land known as dehesa. They also extended the cultivation of olives, vines and cereal crops.

Later at the hands of the Arabs, irrigation was introduced with the use of infrastructures to channel and store water (irrigation channels and tanks), thus transforming the lower areas of the valleys. They also brought citrus fruits, mulberry trees for silkworm production, vegetables and pulses.

After the Christian re-conquest the area was left uninhabitated, and it was necessary to repopulate with people from northern areas, in particular from Castille and Leon, and Galicia. These people introduced the colder northern species of the chestnut and walnut, important for their edible fruits, wood and dyes.

With the discovery of the Americas the variety of products available for cultivation widened, such as potatoes, peppers and tomatoes. The Indians, in memory of their American plots, introduced the palm tree in their gardens. Religious orders, conscious of the economic and social importance of the vegetable species, created botanical collections with samples from all over the world. One example of this is the botanical garden in Villa Onuba, near the village of Fuenteheridos.

In the 19th century trees were introduced to mark the boundaries of properties or regions. The stone pine was planted along boundaries due to its height and rounded shape to separate one county from another, gaining the nickname of watchtower pines.

In more recent times, the construction of the industrial plants in Huelva brought the plantation of eucalyptus trees for paper production, transforming huge areas around the county.

Nowadays there are still signs of this contact between nature and society in our culture. For example, the trees present in many of the ceremonies such as the ‘Fiesta of the Poplar tree’ in Cortelazor; or in Los Marines where the people carry a tree cut from the riverbank to the village square to celebrate the arrival of summer. In the celebration of Corpus the streets are decorated with aromatic herbs, such as lavender and rosemary. These celebrations have their origins in the worship of Mother Nature, some of which are still repeated throughout the world, such as the Nordic custom of bringing a pine tree into the home during Christmas.



Field notebook