Arxiu de la categoria: ETHNOBOTANY

Flowers in the kitchen

Although flowers can be part of our diet, there are the plants parts less considered in gastronomy. Apart from providing color and beauty to our meals, flowers can enrich our diet with different nutrients and textures. In this post, we talk about what kind of flowers are used in different cultures kitchens and what benefits they can bring.


Maybe you have never asked yourself about what part of the plant you are eating when you consume a potato, a lettuce, a tomato or a sunflower seed but all cited vegetables are different plant organs with distinct properties and functions. Potatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes, beets and mandioques are roots or tubers and contribute our organism with many nutrients. One of the functions of the roots is to accumulate reserves for the leaves and flowers development, so these organs constitute a valuable source of high-energy carbohydrates and vitamins. On the other hand, the greenest and crispiest vegetables in our diet like lettuce, spinach and chard are leaves and its function is to do the photosynthesis. His contribution to our diet is very beneficial because they contain lots of fiber, vitamins and minerals. Following our plant tour we can continue with fruits, sometimes called vegetables such as tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, eggplants and beans. The fruits include highly rich nutrients because have their function is to accumulate nutrients for seed germination. They contain fiber, sugars, minerals and a large intake of vitamins. Finally, many also consume seeds and nuts, such as almonds, walnuts, pine nuts and peanuts. These feed us with beneficial fats and essential amino acids, fiber and vitamins.

There are other plants parts less frequently consumed, but all plant organs can have a profit! The stem or trunk is usually too fibrous and hard to eat although some species are made of trunk such as cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum).

And flowers? What role do they have in our diet? The showy and most ephemeral plants part have been used throughout history and cultures to feed us or their uses are limited to ornamentation?


In fact, we regularly consume flowers although perhaps we do not perceive. In the Mediterranean diet, one of the most popular vegetable is a flower: the artichoke (Cynara scolymus) is an inflorescence from which we only consume the basis of the floral bracts and the receptacle when it is not yet mature. Also capers (Capparis spinosa) are buds used in vinegar in the preparation of many Mediterranean dishes. When you eat broccoli or cauliflower (Brassica oleracea) you are also eating the immature flowers of these plants.

Capers buds to consume and an open caper flower. Source: PresidenciaRD by Flickr.

Another common flower in the Mediterranean, with a very special taste is Aphyllanthes monspeliensis. Its flowers are very sweet and is a delight to eat them while you walk through the countryside. Also elder flowers (Sambucus nigra) are used to prepare delicious and very aromatic bunyols at Spain. The elder flowers are anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and diuretic and they act against colds, fever and bronchitis.

In other cultures, the flowers are used for flavoring desserts and sweets. For example at Turkey and Iran, rose water (Rosa sp.) is used to make the famous lokum or Turkish delight.

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Turkish delights aromatized with rose water. Source: Pinterest.

Other flowers used in infusion are hibiscus flowers (Hibiscus sabdariffa). Only sepals are used to prepare an iced tea with diuretic properties, very popular in Jamaica but also common in Mexico and other countries in Central America.

Hibiscus dried sepals. Source: Commons Wikimedia.

The violet flower (Viola odorata) is also very sweet and aromatic. It is used to make a famous candy from Madrid, manufactured from 1915, with calming properties. Viola flowers can also be sued to make pies, jellies and ice cream.

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Violet candies typical from Madrid. Source:

The zucchini flowers (Cucurbita pepo) after the stamens have been removed, are used in Italy for a very original pizzas. Similarly, in Greece and Turkey, they eat pumpkin flowers (Cucurbita maxima) batted or stuffed and fried. They are also used in Mexico to make quesadillas.

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Zucchini flowers pizza. Source: Gourmand Asia.

Flowers have been used at kitchen from Roman and Greeks time. They used flowers in salads, like mallow (Malva sylvestris), that has soothing and healing properties in infusion.

Flowers add color, texture and beauty to our meals while they can also provide taste contrasts, as they are not always sweet and soft. For example, cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) and nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus), both edible flowers have a spicy taste and borage (Borago officinalis) reminds cucumber and can be used in salads, soups or drinks. The chives flowers (Allium schoenoprasum) are often used to add a very special taste of garlic at salads and soups.

Nasturtium flower. Source: David Goehring by Flickr.
Borage flower. Source: Commons Wikimedia.

Some spices come from flowers or organs flower. Saffron (Crocus sativa) is the female organ (style and stigma) of this species bloom, giving color and flavor to spanish paellas. Its cultivation is extremely delicate and expensive: 200 thousand of flowers or 600 thousand of pistils are needed to produce 1 kg of saffron. Spain is the world’s largest producer. Cloves (Syzygium aromaticum), originally from Indonesia, are in fact dried buds of a tree that can reach 12 m high. Its strong smell can help in producing a natural insecticide prepared with cloves infusioned with distilled water and alcohol.

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Saffron flowers with its typical red pistils. Source: pixabay.

Maybe not all the flowers mentioned are affordable but we encourage you to include flowers in your meals while learning more about plants cooking them.


Graziano, X. 2010. Almanaqueo do Campo. Panda Books, Sao Paulo, Brasil.


The great journey of coconut

Cocos nucifera L., the coconut tree, is one of the most emblematic palm trees from tropical countries: photographed by tourists on bucolic beaches; basis element for the gastronomy and culture in many countries and a source of inspiration to many artists, is still a mystery for scientists. Where is coconut from originally? The answer to this question is now a little more clear thanks to a phylogeographic study, discipline that integrates population genetics with biogeography. In this post, we reveal this and other questions about this iconic palm.


Coconut tree belongs to Arecaceae, the family of monocots with tree aspect, known as palm trees. Yes, you read right! All palm trees are closer to grasses (cereals) than to deciduous trees. In fact, its trunk is not a real one because it has no tissues allowing them to growth in diameter and therefore not branches. If you look closely to any palm tree trunk, you’ll see that it always has the same thickness, it only grows vertically. It’s the stipe and it is formed by the superposition of the leaves base and the scarfs we see on the trunk are the marks left by the falling leaves petioles. If you ever see a cut stipe, you’ll see that it doesn’t have the typical structure in growth rings but fiber mass. In fact, this structure is optimal to survive to tropical winds because it is both tough and flexible, providing flexibility necessary not to break while tropical winds and also stand firm.

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Palm tree stipe (Source: Public Domain Pictures).

The function of the stipe is to support the weight of the leaves, flowers and fruits; that grow on top. The Arecaceae leaves are pinnate. The flowers grows in racemous inflorescences and fruits usually are drupe type, such as date or coconut.

In the Mediterranean region we only have two species of native palms. Mediterranean dwarf palm (Chamaerops humilis) has its northern limit at the Garraf coast. The Cretan palm (Phoenix theophrastii) is endemic to southern Greece, Turkey and Crete.

Mediterranean dwarf palm (Chamaerops humilis) at Catalonian coast (Source: Wikimedia).


Arecaceae contains approximately 2600 species classified in about 202 genera. The coconut palm is monotypic because it is the only species in the Cocos genus. It is found in 89 tropical countries and is considered the tree of life because it provides resources such as:

– Food: Coconut is a highly nutritious fruit, rich in fat (is the most caloric fruit consumed by humans), micronutrients (it is very rich in potassium) and fiber. From dried endosperm (the white “meat” or copra, which is actually the seed) we can also extract milk and coconut oil, widely used for cooking, cosmetics and even as biofuel. The sweet sap of the inflorescence is also consumed as wine after its alcoholic fermentation.

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Dried coconut to elaborate copra (Source: Peter Davis / AusAID).

–     Water : green coconut contains drinking water rich in micronutrients. It is consumed in many tropical countries as an isotonic drink.

– Construction Material: mesocarp fiber is widely used to make ropes, mats, planting substrate, etc. Endocarp, the layer that covers the meat is used as a container for food and drink, decoration or as a musical instrument. The leaves are also used to produce handicraft (rugs, toys, baskets, etc.), to cover roofs and as carbon. The wood has traditionally been used for houses construction.

– Religious Element: Coconut is part of different spiritual manifestations in Hinduism and some Philippines communities.

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Coconut inner parts schema.


Coconut is adapted to hydrochory, ie dispersal by water. Coconut is one of the little fruits known to have been adapted to oceanic dispersal. The water contained by the coconut enables its floatation and facilitates its dispersal over long distances. In addition, the fruit is resistant to salinity and does not rot. When it gets the beaches, it can germinate after having sailed 110 days (or 4000 km). However, its pantropical distribution is not only due to its oceanic dispersal but is also linked to its cultivation by humans. Human migration to Southeast Asia would not have been possible without the coconut cultivation and coconut should not have been so widely dispersed if not for its value.

It is therefore quite likely that the wide variety of coconut uses has conditioned its migration history. There are several hypotheses about coconut origin. De Candolle, at 1886, proposed that the coconut was American, based on the distribution of all other members of the Cocoseae tribe (200 species distributed in 20 genera from America), except for the African palm oil (Elaeis guineensis, the source of  palm oil). Other hypotheses (Beccari, 1963) claim of an Asian origin because morphological variation in the region is greater, popular names and uses are more diverse on this continent and in addition there is an Asian endemic hermit crab (Brigues latro) that can only live in symbiosis with coconut. So from Asia and with human help, coconut palm tree would have migrated eastwards to the Pacific ocean and westwards to the Indian Ocean.

Coconut tree distribution (Source: Gunn et al., 2011).


Recent studies using DNA as a source of information have made new discoveries about coconut origin. It seems that despite the wide variety of cultivars and human manipulation, coconut palm tree populations have a strong structure into two genetic groups, one in the Indian Ocean (including Indian and African populations), and the other in the Pacific ocean (including Southeast Asian, Caribbean and South American populations). Thus, all current coconut populations come from one of these two groups, demonstrating its Asian origin. For example, Brazilian and Caribbean populations come from the Indian group and the American Pacific coast populations come from Southeast Asia.

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Coconut tree genetic groups discovered by Gunn et al. (2011).

Therefore, it seems that the coconut tree is native to both Pacific and Indian coasts and that coconut cultivation arose independently in these two regions.


  • Beccari, O. 1963. The origin and dispersal of Cocos nucifera. Principes 7: 57–69.
  • de Candolle, A. 1886. Origin of cultivated plants. New York: Hafner. 468 p.
  • Cook, O.F. 1911. History of the Coconut Palm in America. American Journal of Sciences 31(183): 221-226.
  • Gunn, B.F. 2004. The phylogeny of the Cocoeae (Arecaceae) with emphasis on Cocos nucifera. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 91: 505–522.
  • Gunn, B.F., Baudouin, L. & Olsen, K. M. 2011. Independent Origins of Cultivated Coconut (Cocos nucifera L.) in the Old World Tropics. PLoS ONE 6(6): e21143.
  • Meerow, A.W., Noblick, L., Salas-Leiva, Dayana E., Sanchez, V., Francisco-Ortega, J., Jestrow, B. & Nakamura, K. 2015. Phylogeny and historical biogeography of the cocosoid palms (Arecaceae, Arecoideae, Cocoseae) inferred from sequences of six WRKY gene family loci. Cladistics 31: 1096-0031.
  • Scientific American: Coconuts: not indigenous, but quite at home nevertheless


Alcoholic fermentation of plants through cultures

All cultures around the world have based their diet and culture in plants of their environment. So, each people way of cooking, dressing, building our house, healing or making instruments to create music is related to raw materials available: the plants of our landscape.

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Ethnobotany is the science that studies the cultural uses of vegetation over time and in this post I want to talk about a cultural use of plants spread around the cultures of the world: the production of alcoholic beverages through the process of fermentation and/or distillation of plants sweet juice.


The fermentation process is done by the yeast metabolism that produces energy from sugars. This is the way how these living beings produce their own energy in an anoxygenic environment; for this is called anaerobic metabolism. Other waste products of fermentation are carbon dioxide (CO2); that’s why we found gas in beers, for example, and of course, alcohol.

Culture plate with yeast Saccharomyces cerevisae (Foto: Wikimedia Comons)
Culture plate with yeast Saccharomyces cerevisae (Foto: Wikimedia Comons)

The fermentation has been used to preserve and enhance the flavors of a variety of foods throughout history, such as bread, yogurt, tofu, soy sauce or cheese (which have lost their alcohol).

The main responsible of this type of fermentation in the food industry is Saccharomyces cerevisae, although there are other yeast species and genera able to perform the alcoholic fermentation giving foods its distinctive taste.

The alcoholic distillation process is really distinct from fermentation. Distillation is a chemical process that separates the components of a liquid mixture by a heat source. The different components of a solution are separated in an alembic through evaporation and condensation according to their volatility. In the case of alcoholic beverages, distilled spirits are produced to obtain drinks with more alcohol, from juice of the fermented grain or fruit. For example, the brandy is distilled wine.

Alembic used to ditillate fluids (Foto: barresfotonatura)

So I invite you to take a journey through the world of spirits under this classification… All the continents have come to produce alcohol by this process? What do you think?


Among the beverages produced by alcohcolic fermentation in the Mediterranean, the wine is the most famous. Wine is a product of the fermentation of grape juice. The grapes come from vine (Vitis vinifera); a shrub native to the Caucasus and the Middle East that has also been used as a shade plant because it is a plant that climbs easily. There are over 10,000 varieties of grapes used to produce a wide range of wines. The wine art has been exported to other countries around the world with a Mediterranean climate, and therefore which can easily grow grapes, such as California, Chile, South Africa and Australia. The alcohol content of wine ranges from 10º to 14º.

To produce cava or champagne the sugars left in the wine bottle undergo a second fermentation (brut nature champagne). If sugars not coming from grapes are added to trigger this process then we are talking about brut or extra brut champagne. Then, yeast will begin the alcoholic fermentation again, producing dioxide carbonide and thus generating this drink typical bubbles.

Grape from Macabeu variety (Foto: barresfotonatura)

Another highly consumed beverage worldwide resulting from the metabolism of the yeast is beer, which is produced from the fermentation of barley (Hordeum vulgare) and finally adding hops (Humulus lupulus), which provides bitterness. The beer can be drunk hot or cold and its alcohol content varies from 2.5º to 11º. Currently, many different brands of beer mix different cereals in their fabrication (such as maize and rice) but do not be deceived, the original is made just with barley!

Female cones from hop plant (Cannabaceae) used to bitter beer and also to facilitate its conservation (Foto: Wikimedia Comons)

If we travel a little more further, exotic flavors of the east can also get drunk. Japan came to produce alcohol from rice (Oryza sativa), the most consumed cereal in Asia. It’s sake, an alcoholic beverage from 14º to 20º degrees that you can also drink hot or cold.

Rice crop field (Foto: barresfotonatura)

In Mexico we can also found a fermented drink that comes from a native plant. It is the mescal, obtained from Agave tequilana a native agave in Mexico. In this case the juice that originates the drink doesn’t come from the fruit, but from the base of its succulent leaves (called piña) containing a high concentration of sugars. The mescal is one of the alcoholic beverages with more alcohol (55º). The process of distillation of the mescal produces the popular tequila, which has an alcohol content of 37º to 45º. The fermentation of the agave to make pulque or mescal was already known by the Mexica but the distillation process did not occur until the arrival of the Spanish colonizers and its alembics in the S. XVI.

Agave tequilana crop field and “piñas” from where sweet juice is extracted to make the fermantated beverage (Foto: barresfotonatura)


Going back to the Old World, in the cold and continental lands of Europe, people have also arrived to ​​distillate the fermented juice of some plant found in the environment to produce an alcoholic beverage. In this case, I’m talking about vodka, a distillate of wheat (Tricticum sativum) or rye (Secale cereale) that can also be made from potato (Solanum tuberosum), one of the easiest and cheapest crop in cold. The graduation is quite high, up to 45 degrees.

Moreover the islands of Ireland and Scotland, came to distill the juice of barley (Hordeum vulgare), to produce whiskey; with more than 40º.

Barley (Hordeum vulgare) crop field (Foto: barresfotonatura)

In the Caribbean and especially Cuba, there is a distillate with a completely different origin, rum, obtained from sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum). The history of this drink involves invasions, slavery and has no relationship with native plants, but rather with colonial history. Sugar cane is a plant of the family Poaceae (grasses) native to New Guinea and India. It was exported to the Caribbean islands by Spanish colonists in the sixteenth century because its cultivation in tropical climates allowed high performance. Its production was only supported by the exploitation of Africans slaves. The rum has37º to 43º alcohol degrees. The Brazilian version of the rum is cachaça, obtained from the same process as rum.

Sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum) crop field (Foto: barresfotonatura)
Sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum) crop field (Foto: barresfotonatura)

We have travelled to America, Europe and Asia through its fermented alcoholic culture…Somebody knows the same culture in Africa or Oceania?


  • Herbert Howell C & Raven PH (2009). Flora mirabilis. How have shaped world knowledge, health, welth and beauty. National Geographic and Missouri Botanical Garden.
  • Hough SJ (2001). Biotecnología de la cerveza y de la malta. Acribia, Zaragoza.
  • Parthasarathy N (1948). Origin of Noble Sugar-Canes (Saccharum officinarum). Nature 161: 608-608.
  • Robinson J, Harding J, Vouillamoz J (2012). Wine Grapes – A complete guide to 1,368 vine varieties, including their origins and flavours. Allen Lane, UK.


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