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Interpreting History Through Changes in Herbal Landscape

Por: | 17 de octubre de 2013

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By Renata Sõukand and Raivo Kalle, University of Tartu

The practice of using wild plants for medicinal purposes is rare in Old Europe, but it is still present in Eastern Europe today. Interestingly, just over a century ago, when the rural population of Estonia had poor access to medical help, plants were an irreplaceable means of dealing with diseases. Estonians used about one-third of their locally growing plants for healing and disease prevention.

Although this rich living tradition has dried up considerably, some fragments of it are stored in archives as documented herbal lore, and allow us to reconstruct the herbal landscape of Estonians. This herbal landscape manifested itself in the personal or community-shared knowledge of the medicinal plants available in the surroundings. Developed in the course of people’s everyday activities, this landscape changes over time and space, depending on the natural conditions and the written and oral knowledge of the plant use available. It is perceived differently by people with different duties and it is strongly affected by changes in the society’s way of life.

We can compare the herbal landscapes of modern urbanized Estonians at the end of the 20th century to those of rural farmers who were freed from serfdom at the end of the 19th century, but first, we have to understand the foundation for our estimation. Plants can be divided into four groups according to their sensitivity to human influence: those that need human influence, those that ‘like’ or thrive on it, those that are indifferent to it, and, lastly, those that ‘fear’ or even die when human activities are in their habitat. Plants that need human influence can live only if a human takes care of them fully, and thus, they grow only in cultivated fields, such as gardens, cornfields, parks, including the pots on your windowsill. Those plants that like human impact prefer places that are considerably affected by humans but are not constantly attended, such as hay meadows, half-wild parks, and forgotten gardens. Plants indifferent to human influence can live either in areas slightly touched by humans or not affected at all. The plants in the last group (that fear human impact) live only in places where humans have almost no activity, such as undrained bogs and deep forests. Accordingly, the more the plants like human influence, the closer they grow to human dwellings or other places of human activity.

Our research, comparing folklore usage reports on the medicinal use of plants in Estonian folk medicine, shows that peasants from the 19th century Estonia dominantly used plants that like human activity (40% of all plant uses), while those indifferent to it were on the second place of usage frequency (30%). The plants that need human influence were used only in slightly less than a quarter of usage reports, and 5% of the reports reflected on the use of plants that fear humans.

After a century, the order in the list has changed: although by the end of the 20th century the use of the plants that fear human activity was still the lowest (1%), the order of the other groups had changed notably: the most used were the plants that need human influence (46%), followed by those that like human influence (36%), and only then came the plants indifferent to human impact (17%).

Such a change in preferences did not come all at once but was gradual and persistent. It shows that with changes in lifestyle, the ways of thinking have also changed. A century ago, Estonians had a diverse herbal landscape — they were involved in rural activities like mowing hay and picking berries in the wild, they knew plants, as well as how to use them. They did not have many books to rely on, they had to memorize the plants on the landscape and the stories told by their elders or peers. The use of plants was kept within the community, relying only on the plants growing in the area. At the end of the 19th century, these Estonians, dominantly rural peasants, did not have their own gardens, which became popular only in the 1920s.

Today, the modern person has books to help him or her recognise and memorize the usage; personal communication of the knowledge is rare and secondary. The places where plants that do not need human attendance are growing are simply not visited any more; moreover, there is no certainty that one can recognize the right plant. Estonians, now mostly urbanized, have instead learned to rely on plants that depend on them and are thus always available in case of need. Books advertised the use of exotic alien plants, and the market responded to this by promptly introducing new species into local gardens. The more dependent plants became, the narrower was the herbal landscape.

Although the herbal landscape in Estonia has also shrunk due to socio-economic changes, urbanization, good conventional medical care, and good literacy, the shrinkage is primarily due to a loss of contact with nature and traditions. Has this happened in Old Europe too?


Renata Sõukand and Raivo Kalle
University of Tartu

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