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The ruffled reefer June 19th, 2016 by

Reefer (a marijuana cigarette) is the perfect example of a common word with an unknown origin. I heard Richard Diebold say this several times. He was an eminent historical linguist (and one of my mentors). The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language noted that the etymology of “reefer” was obscure, but that it might come from the phrase “to reef (i.e. roll up) a sail.” Diebold found this unconvincing. I’ve since learned where the word “reefer” really does come from, but first, a bit of history.

marihuana leavesMarijuana is an old crop, native to Central Asia, where it still grows wild (pictured), and cultivated in China at least 4500 years ago (Zohary et al 2012). It came to the Americas with the early colonists, and it was called “hemp” (or cáñamo, in Spanish). Hemp was grown for fiber, to make sails and rope. The word “marijuana” or “marihuana” is a Mexican invention, according to the authoritative Diccionario de la Real Academia de la Lengua Española, a major reference for Spanish etymology.

Hemp and marijuana are the same species of plant, but there are many different varieties. In the USA, recreational marijuana arrived with Mexican immigrants in the 1920s, following the end of the catastrophic Mexican revolution. The word marijuana was loaned into American English about then. The word “reefer” was well enough established to be used in the title of the 1936 propaganda film Reefer Madness, which sought to discourage marijuana smoking; the movie was so loaded with errors it became a classic in the annals of disinformation.

In Honduras in the 1980s, I realized that “reefer” came from grifa, a synonym in Spanish for marijuana. I wanted to publish the idea, but I was too much of a coward to publish on an illegal crop. Spanish makes some sense as the origin of reefer. After all, some of the other words describing marijuana are also from Spanish: such as “sin semilla” for seedless marijuana (female plants produced in isolation from male plants to produce lots of drug-rich resin), and “toke” for a hit, from toque.

I am only now getting up the nerve to write about reefer, and I am almost too late. By 2016 the American Heritage Dictionary has stopped repeating the old story about reefing up a ship’s sails, but it still says that the etymology of reefer is obscure. Wiktionary, a collaborative dictionary written by readers (www.wiktionary.org), does say that reefer is from grifa, but stops there. The Real Academia corroborates; “grifa” does mean marijuana, but only in the Americas. And that’s where the books end.

The Honduran campesinos not only use “grifa” to mean marijuana. The term is rich in other meanings. As an adjective, “grifo” means ruffled, or fluffy, for example when weed seeds stick to your trouser legs after walking through a field of maize: one is said to “salir de la milpa con el pantalón grifo de mozote.” The verb engrifarse means to ruffle up one’s own feathers, the way birds fluff up their feathers to look big.

So “grifa” (the feminine form of “grifo”) is a perfect way to describe a bud of marijuana, which is fluffy, feathery or ruffled. The word “grifo” in turn comes from standard Spanish, and it is the name of the mythical gryphon, with the head of a lion and the body of a ruffled eagle.

The other thing they say about marijuana in Honduras is that it turns your head grifo or fuzzy, which is a good reason not to smoke it, at least not every day.

I wish Diebold was still around to hear this story. He spoke Spanish well and would have appreciated the real origin of reefer. Crops need names and it was always going to be more likely that the etymology of reefer came from the land and farmers rather than from the sea and sailors.

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery W. 2001 Diccionario Campesino Hondureño. Ceiba 42(2).

PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) 2014 “Marijuana Timeline.” PBS Frontline.

Zohary, Daniel, Maria Hopf and Ehud Weiss 2012 Domestication of Plants in the Old World: The Origin and Spread of Domesticated Plants in South-west Asia, Europe, and the Mediterranean Basin (Fourth Edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Good-bye bison January 10th, 2016 by

The story of the American bison (the “buffalo” as it is called in the USA) has been rehearsed many times, how the settlers shot them for their hides, or sometimes for their tongues. They shot them just for fun from the platforms of trains, and killed them for malice to starve the Native Americans. It gets worse. The last man to seal the bison’s coffin was a researcher from the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC.

bison up closeThere were once 30 million bison in North America, in two great “herds”, a northern one ranging into Canada and a southern one that wintered in Texas. They ranged from Utah to Pennsylvania. By 1886 bison had almost disappeared, so the Smithsonian Institution sent William Temple Hornaday out west to investigate.

The resourceful Hornaday gathered a team of hunters and guides, provisioned himself with wagons of food and ammunition and set off for the wilds of Montana, where a remnant herd of about 35 bison still ran wild. Hornaday already knew that there were only about 400 bison left alive, 200 in the newly created Yellowstone National Park, and 200 scattered around on private ranches.

Bison had once been naïve and easy to shoot. Sometimes the beasts simply stood still while the hunters shot them down. At other times when the bullets started to fly, the terrified animals bolted off in a wild dash into the wind (where they could smell their way). In his book, The Extermination of the American Bison, Hornaday describes in loving detail how this last wild herd in Montana was now more cautious of people.

Hornaday simply assumed that nothing could be done for the bison, that they were doomed to extinction. He (and his backers) imagined that when all the bison were gone, it would be nice to have a few stuffed bison in naturalistic poses, inside a glass case for the museum-going public to see.

By 1886, the remaining, wiser bison had finally learned to run in different directions at the first shot, and to hide in the ravines. And bison run pretty darned fast. Even so, Hornaby and his crew managed to kill 20 of the creatures, and crate their hides and bones back to Washington, where the remarkable Hornaday, who was an expert taxidermist, preserved six dead bison, from calves to old cows and bulls, for a diorama of the Great Plains. Wildlife conservation has come a long way since then.

As a species though, the bison got lucky. As an afterthought, Hornaday brought back two calves. It was the least he could do, since he had killed their mothers and they had wandered into his camp and taken to following the men around. These calves became the nucleus of the bison herd in the National Zoo, in Washington.

S.L. Bedson, of Stony Mountain, Manitoba and C.J. Jones of Garden City, Kansas and other ranchers managed to buy up scattered bison from other cowmen who had only one or two animals, until they gathered small, reproducing herds.

In 1986 the management of Yellowstone National Park passed from the Interior Department to the U.S. Army. Hunters slipped into the park to slaughter the last remaining wild bison (to sell their hides). The poachers were heavily armed and light on scruples, but Captain Moses Harris and his men chased them out of the park.. Thanks to the efforts of a few ranchers and soldiers the bison survivedin parks, ranches and zoos. Yet their ecosystem is gone: the wild grasslands have been plowed up, and replaced with maize, soybeans, and pick-up trucks. The bison or buffalo no longer thunder their way north and south in great, reddish brown rivers in search of fresh pasture.

Some people are even raising bison commercially, and its lean, tasty meat is back on the menu. In Washington DC, you can have a bison burger at the restaurant in the Museum of the American Indian, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution, the same outfit which once backed Hornaday’s taxidermy expedition. Hornaday might be pleasantly surprised to see that the bison was not exterminated after all.

Further reading

Hornaday, William Temple 2002 (1889) The Extermination of the American Bison. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

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The sunflower: from Russia with love, and oil January 3rd, 2016 by

Some 4,000 years ago, native North Americans of what is now Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee and surrounding states were domesticating a whole set of crops, most of which you have probably never heard of.

For reasons we do not fully comprehend, when ancient peoples made the transition to agriculture, they never domesticated just one crop by itself. In the first stage of agriculture, first farmers planted and tended wild plants, species which they and their ancestors had been gathering for generations. Within a few centuries, the farmers would select for larger seeds or roots, depending on which part of the plant they ate. This change in form is usually what archaeologists refer to as domestication. By more stringent definitions, domestication is when the plant can no longer reproduce on its own, in the wild, as is the case with maize and potatoes.

The native North Americans domesticated the sunflower (Helianthus annuus), but also the summer squashes (yellow and green varieties) and the acorn squash, all derived from Cucurbita pepo. The other ancient North American crops included the little barley (Hordeum pusillum), goosefoot or lambsquarters (Chenopodium berlandieri), erect knotweed (Phalaris caroliniana) and sumpweed or marsh elder (Iva annua).

young sunflowerBesides the little squashes and the radiant sunflower, the other native crops now survive only as weeds. As North America was one of the last centers of domestication, the crops may still have been robust enough, just wild enough, to reproduce themselves as weeds. As my wife Ana noticed, the sunflower itself is a hardy, fast-growing, weedy-looking plant before it starts to flower (pictured).

Except for the sunflower and the squashes, all the other North American crops were slowly abandoned, probably because they were much less productive than other crops (maize, beans and the larger squashes) which arrived from Mexico, about 100 BC. But the sunflower was valued for food (including oil), dye and even medicine.

sunflowers in the sloughs envAnother 1700 years later, the settlers in North America were uninterested in growing the sunflower, although they happily adopted maize, beans and squash. The settlers certainly knew of the sunflower, but they had a diet that was fairly rich in animal fats, especially from pork, and may have found it too tedious to process the oily little sunflower seeds. But many wild species of sunflower still thrived all over the continent.

The sunflower was taken from Mexico to Spain in the 1500s and slowly spread across Europe, largely as an ornamental, eventually reaching as far east as Russia. The sunflower might have ended as an obscure garden flower, if religious taboo had not dealt it a winning hand. During lent, the Russian Orthodox Church banned butter and lard, but sunflower oil was too new to appear on the list of banned oils. The demand for sunflower oil surged, leading V. S. Pustovit of Krasnodar to breed a sunflower with a much larger seed head. Named the Russian Mammoth, this variety was introduced to the USA in 1893. The sunflower slowly gained in importance, but did not become an important crop in the USA until the 1950s

At first the crop was almost entirely exported as oil to Europe, but stiff competition from Europe and Argentina ended that market, and most US sunflower is consumed domestically.

Modern plant breeding saved the sunflower. By 2010 there were 750,000 hectares of sunflower planted in the USA, worth $634 million at the farm gate. About 60% of the crop is used as oil and meal, and 10 to 20% is for snack food and baking. About a quarter of the sunflower harvest is made into birdseed: in 2006 the USA spent $3.35 billion feeding wild birds, roughly equal to the GDP of Fiji.

Under the changing pressure of economic demand, a crop can evolve quickly, from garden flower to Lenten oil to bird food. Once abandoned as a crop in its center of origin, the sunflower is now here to stay, thanks to a little love from Russia and plant breeders.

Further reading

Selig, Ruth Osterweis 2004 Origins of agriculture in Eastern North America, pp. 258-272. In Ruth Osterweis Selig, Marilyn R. London and P. Ann Kaupp Anthropology Explored (Second Edition). Washington: Smithsonian Books. 473 pp.

Smith, Bruce D. 2014 The domestication of Helianthus annuus L. (sunflower). Vegetation History and Archaeology 23(1):57-74

USDA 2015 Sunflower seed. http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/crops/soybeans-oil-crops/sunflowerseed.aspx


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Of chestnuts and cherries August 30th, 2015 by

Do you ever wonder why they stop you at the airport or the border crossing and ask if you have any plants?

The American chestnut was once the largest and most common tree in the eastern woodlands of the USA. Its loss led to a greater understanding of the importance of quarantine to protect agricultural and forest trees.

In the early twentieth century, the chestnut blight fungus arrived in North America from Asia. Chestnut blight was first spotted in 1904, in the Bronx Zoo. The chestnut trees started to die, much to the dread of the American people, who liked the tall, handsome tree, and valued its wood for furniture making. The disease was widespread by 1911 and the trees were basically gone by the 1950s.Here and there, a few ancient chestnut stumps still sprout branches. A sixty acre (24 hectare) stand planted by settler Martin Hicks, in West Salem, Wisconsin (outside of the tree’s natural range) is the largest remnant left.

Rescue efforts failed, but the US Department of Agriculture (and more recently the American Chestnut Foundation) never gave up, and have recently bred a resistant variety of chestnut, which they are planting on public forest lands, within the chestnut’s historical range. The new tree is 15/16’s American, but was crossed with Asian trees that are resistant to the blight. The new variety seems to be resistance to the blight.

At least the chestnut disaster was a learning experience. In 1910, the Japanese government gave the US a gift of 2000 ornamental cherry trees. American plant pathologists in Washington inspected the trees, observing that some of them had insect pests, fungi and nematodes. The Department of Agriculture burned the entire shipment from Japan, to protect American fruit trees from disease. It was an early experience with quarantine, isolating plant imports to protect the receiving country from disease.

Destroying the trees was the right thing to do from an agricultural point of view, but it was a diplomatic crisis. The State Department telegraphed a note of apology to the Japanese government. It was a model of frankness and tact, acknowledging that “It has been found necessary to destroy all of the cherry trees presented by the municipality of Tokyo for the use of this city. The reports of several experts of the Department of Agriculture show the trees to be badly infested with the root gall worm, certain fungus diseases and insect pests, some hitherto unknown in this country, whose introduction might result in future in enormous detriment to trees and agriculture generally.”

flowers and Washington monumentThe Japanese graciously responded by sending 3,000 more cherry trees, healthy ones this time. They still bloom gloriously once a year around the Tidal Basin Pond, in a large, but neat circle between the Jefferson and Lincoln monuments, in Washington DC. Diplomatic and agricultural disasters were avoided.

The tragedy of the American chestnut taught plant pathologists the importance of inspection and quarantine, which they used in the case of the Japanese cherry trees, still blooming a century later. Now most countries have airport and border inspectors to screen plants coming into the country. It may seem like an inconvenience, but it is a small price to pay to keep the trees standing.

Further reading

Campbell, C. Lee, Paul D. Peterson & Clay S. Griffith 1999 The Formative Years of Plant Pathology in the United States. St. Paul, Minnesota: The American Phytopathological Society. 427 pp.

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Mushroom collecting: more than a hobby August 16th, 2015 by

When I buy a coffee or chocolate in London there’s a fair chance I’ll see a picture of a farmer or her family. I won’t see a photo of the person who collected the truffle or the chanterelles I buy.

Termite mushrooms BiasaMost food comes from cultivated or managed sources, but there are also substantial amounts hunted or gathered from the wild. The most valuable wild mushrooms include chanterelles, porcini (Boletus edulis), matsutake (Tricholoma spp.) and truffles. They and many other mushrooms need to grow on living, woody plants, where they form fungus-roots or mycorrhizae. It’s a mutually beneficial association that makes forests a fertile place for mushroom collecting.

The success of the wild mushroom trade depends entirely on collectors and traders. Yet these people are the least well-known aspect of an industry that provides a significant source of income for mostly poor people. One estimate put the in-season retail value of the most valuable wild mushrooms at more than $2 billion.

Selling termitomycesClearly there is more to rural livelihoods than agriculture, as this short account will explain. In Malawi women play an important role in picking wild mushrooms which they can sell and eat. They are surprisingly nutritious, with around 15-20% protein by dry weight. But for collectors it’s more important to sell than to eat, at least in in Malawi and neighbouring countries with miombo (dry) woodland.

Malawi benefits from an accident of nature: trees in the miombo woodland form mycorrhizae with edible species of mushroom. So too do the pine forests of the Pacific Northwest of North America, which extend from northern California to British Columbia. This became a new source of matsutake, a highly prized wild mushroom in Japan, filling a critical gap caused by Japan’s declining production of matsutake from shrinking native pine forests, caused by disease, pollution and felling.

The North American matsutake is not quite as tasty as the Asian species, yet such was the demand from Japan from the 1990s onwards that new job opportunities quickly increased. In Oregon the collectors include local people who once worked in forestry (a declining industry) and migrant labourers from Mexico, Cambodia and Laos. These groups had little or no family history of collecting wild mushrooms.

Stall 4 with berries behindA recent study by Mattia Cai and colleagues at the University of Padua in Italy provides a fresh account of wild mushroom collecting in Finland, where the government encouraged collection of wild mushrooms after the Second World War because of fears of food shortages and to generate rural jobs. In other countries collectors and traders operate in uncertain legal conditions and try to avoid officials. In Finland, wild mushroom collecting is exempt from taxes and anyone can do it.

The study divided collectors into professional, ordinary and recreational groups. The professionals were the smallest group selling to a local company, but provided over two thirds of the mushrooms (mainly porcini). The professionals collected for 45 days in the year of the study and earned €1200, around 5% of the average net annual household income for Finland.

In Spain, a separate study found that a family could earn over €200 in a day from collecting níscalos (Lactarius deliciosus), compared to the minimum monthly wage of just over €400. My colleague Miriam de Román’s family was from the village where traders bought the níscalos, so people were willing to share information. Miriam’s aunt told us: “If anyone says they’re doing it for a hobby, don’t believe them.”

There are concerns that commercial collection is unsustainable because of fears of over-picking. Scientific trials show this is highly unlikely, yet clear legal and regulatory frameworks are needed to ensure fair and legitimate use of natural resources. Authorities in Finland, the US and Canada issue licenses and set quotas, working closely with collectors and traders. In Italy, truffle collectors are tested on collection methods before they can let their dog loose to sniff for buried treasure.

In Africa and Asia, collection of wild mushrooms is, well, rather a wild affair. In miombo Woodland, pickers compete with charcoal makers and others for right of access. Authorities often fail to resolve disputes or to do so consistently. Fairer regulation would benefit everyone, but particularly the many people who depend on wild gathered foods as a valuable source of income and food.

Further reading

Boa, E. 2011. From Chipho to Msika: an introduction to mushrooms, trees and forests. In Mushrooms in Forests and Woodlands. Resource Management, Values and Local Livelihoods, edited by Cunningham AB, Yang X. London: Earthscan. Read more

Cai, M., Pettenella, D. and Vidale, E. 2011. Income generation from wild mushrooms in marginal rural area. Forest Policy and Economics: 13, 221-226

de Román M. and Boa E. 2006. The marketing of Lactarius deliciosus in Spain. Economic Botany 60: 284-290. Read more

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