pierre laszlo


Botany, which I did study awhile in my youth, holds a continued interest. Plants are remarkable organisms. In writing about them, in these small vignettes I try to combine the scientific and the cultural, the bucolic and the utilitarian, and to convey some of my sense of wonder - in brief to try and emulate some of the eighteenth-century natural historians, with the information now available to us.

Corylus avellana (Betulaceae)

A deciduous, thicket-forming, multi-trunked, suckering shrub, it can reach a height of 4-6 m (12-20’). This hardy shrub is native to Europe, western Asia and northern Africa.  It carries separate male and female flowers on the same plant. The male flowers, pale yellow-gray, form drooping catkins, each up to 5-8 cm (2-3”) long. 
Hazelnuts, also known as filberts, appear in terminal clusters of one to four — often three — and are half covered in ragged husks. The husk around the nut extends beyond the nut by at least one inch to form a beak. Those nuts ripen in August-September, close to St. Philibert (August 20th) — hence the name filbert. As for hazel, it is Old English for a shrub. 
Count nine calories per nut. The Swiss hazelnut chocolate appeared at the turn of the twentieth century and has been a lasting commercial success. 
But where did the plant originate? My personal history here comes into play. I am French-born of Hungarian parents. Accordingly, my vocabulary in Hungarian is poor. I know, however, the word for hazelnut, mogyorô [mod’orō.]  This is not untypical knowledge for a child, of something not only edible, easily and frequently found on a long-domesticated plant, in-between a shrub and a tree. 
Before going on, a reminder on conventional knowledge about the Hungarian language. Originating in Central Asia, in the general area of the Gobi Desert, it is part of the Finno-Ougrian family of languages. Finnish is a related language. However, Finnish and Hungarian share very few words.
Let us now review critically the evidence on that example, the Hungarian name for hazelnut.  
As it turns out, this word flags an issue in both linguistics and botany. It is one of few words the Hungarian language has in common with Turkic languages, Chuvash in particular. The Chuvash people are a Turkic ethnic group, native to an area stretching from the Volga Region to Siberia. 
A mere look at Old Turkish loanwords in the Hungarian language convinces that the Magyars of the Ural region came into close contact with this Turkish people, the Chuvash, engaged in animal husbandry. Accordingly, the Magyars changed their mainly predatory way of life to the more dignified one of livestock breeding. (Beyond Chuvash, mogyorô the Hungarian name for hazelnut, if one is to believe the linguist Alfréd Tóth, goes back to the Sumerian language in which mudum is a fruit.) 
Speaking of, the present-day Hungarian word for fruit, gyümölcs [ɟy.mølʧ], is also a borrowing from Chuvash, during coexistence of the Magyars and the Chuvash in the same geographic area, 5th-9th centuries. So much for the radical uniqueness of the Hungarian language! So much for our laziness in embracing conventional knowledge without checking it! 
Coming back to hazelnuts, they were already cultivated by the Romans. Hazelnut appears to have been domesticated independently in three areas: the Mediterranean, Turkey, and Iran. An Easterly origin thus seems to be consistent with the linguistic evidence adduced here.

Thymus vulgaris (Lamiaceae)

Everyone, inclusive of Oberon in A Midsummer’s Night Dream (‟I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,‟) is familiar with this small shrub of the Mediterranean, that gained an ancillary role as an herb in the kitchen. It owes it to being a small drug-manufacturing factory. 
It is native to southern Europe from the western Mediterranean to southern Italy. Numerous, somewhat woody stems grow into a foliage mound 6-12" tall. Stems clothe themselves with distinctively revolute (leaf margins are rolled under) tiny, linear-to-elliptic, pointed, gray-green leaves. These are highly aromatic, due to the biologically active molecules produced, by the chemical family of phenols, various thymols in particular. 
Whorls of tiny, tubular, lilac flowers appear on the stem ends in late spring to early summer. Flowers are attractive to bees and butterflies. 
The essential oil has bactericidal action with a wide spectrum. It has insecticidal properties as well, against mosquitoes in particular, that has made it an anti-malarial in the entire area of its growth, spontaneous or domesticated. 
Its biological properties have been used since Greek Antiquity, when it was renowned originally as a cure for hiccups and snakebite. As a tea, it helps upper respiratory problems such as bronchitis, asthma, flu and colds. It also assists digestion, helps with intestinal problems and promotes iron uptake. It helps fight anemia and fatigue. 
In the kitchen, it has been an ingredient in many dishes— usually as a bouquet garni — and sauces, especially since Apicius (c 25 BCE-37 CE) provided many such recipes. In the English-speaking world, only with Julia Child and Elizabeth David did it gain its legitimate pride of place during the Sixties. 
A lingering question is the origin of the name ‟thyme,‟ quite a few hypotheses were formulated, but none has become overwhelming.