Ethnobotanical study in the Balkans by Andrea Pieroni of UNISG and Cassandra Quave of Emory University published in prestigious journal Nature Plants

unisg foraging


Traditional communities living in isolated, rural areas with little money or infrastructure tend to have one thing in common: resilience rooted in intricate knowledge of their natural environment, especially plants.

“This knowledge may be relevant to some of biggest problems in plant science, including climate change, conservation biology, food security and public health,” said Andrea Pieroni, professor of Ethnobotany at the University of Gastronomic Sciences of Pollenzo, northwestern Italy.

Along with his colleague Dr Cassandra Quave (Emory University, Atlanta, USA), Pieroni led an ethnobotanical study centered on a remote corner of the Balkans that was recently published in the prestigious journal Nature Plants.

“Ethnobotany is the study of the interactions between human societies and plants,” said Pieroni, “but it has also been described as ‘the science of survival.’ People’s knowledge of which wild plants are beneficial, and how to harvest and preserve those plants, can make a huge difference in the overall well-being and food security of a disadvantaged community.”

The University of Gastronomic Sciences funded the study, with additional support from Emory’s Center for the Study of Human Health.

The research is the result of a field study conducted in the spring of 2012 and compares how two different cultures use wild plants in the Gora region of northwestern Albania, near the border with Kosovo. This mountain district is one of the most economically disadvantaged areas in Albania and all of Europe. The two cultures in the study, the Albanians and the Gorani (a Slavic ethnic minority), are both Muslim and subsist primarily on small-scale agricultural activities (especially potato and rye farming) and animal breeding/cheese making.

The area is mountainous and many “roads” are unpaved, rocky paths. Some communities can be cut off completely from the outside world by heavy snows during the long winters.

The researchers conducted interviews with more than 100 residents about 104 different species of plants in their local environment. They recorded 418 uses of these plants for a broad spectrum of food, health, ritual, and economic purposes.

The plant uses of the two cultures tended to overlap when it came to food, the study showed.

Stinging nettle, for example, is a dietary staple among both the Albanians in the study and the Gorani. “They boil nettle and use it the way we would spinach,” the authors say, sometimes mixing it with cheese, and baking it into local pastries known as byrek.

The researchers also found 77 divergent uses for plants between the two cultures, including 43 plant species. “Culture affects the way people view the natural environment,” say the authors. “And those views can affect everything from home healthcare practices to diet and local economies and conservation issues.”

The Albanians in the study, for example, reported no special affiliation with a species of willow tree (Salix alba), while the Gorani often choose to plant this tree around their homes and have many medicinal uses for it.

Another example of a tradition used primarily by the Gorani involves lacto-fermented beverages based on wild fruits (cherry-plums, Cornelian cherries, sloes, bilberries), which are drunk as “healthy beverages.”

“They have a great deal of knowledge about their local environment that has been handed down to them through generations,” say the authors.

“A lot of international attention has been focused on the Balkans to support reconciliation and development,” said Pieroni. “But if you really want to help local communities in a sustainable and culturally sensitive way, it’s important to maybe forget a bit the Western views and solutions and to seriously consider instead how they interacted and interact with their environment and their ethnobiological knowledge, beliefs, and practices.”

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