Wyrtig

For gardeners with a sense of history
 

OE wyrtig, adj: Garden-like, full of plants;
On anum wyrtige hamme, Homl. Skt. ii. 30:312
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What phytoliths can tell us about early gardens

Pot from Harappa

In 2012, when researchers from Washington State University analyzed phytoliths found in a cooking pot from the ancient Indus Valley village of Farmana, they discovered the remains of ginger and turmeric that dated to between 2500 and 2200 BCE. More surprising, analysis from three other Indus Valley sites found phytoliths from bananas, which until then were believed to have been unknown in this part of the world until the late Middle Ages (Science, 7-20-12, p.288). Clearly, phytolith studies such as these are transforming our understanding of the past.

PhytolithWhat are phytoliths?

The word phytolith comes from the Greek words for plant (phyto) and stone (lithos). Phytoliths are tiny silicate bodies that survive the decay of softer plant tissues.

Silica, silicon dioxide, is a chemical compound that dissolves in ground water. Some plants take up silica, along with water, through their roots. The silica is deposited in plant cells, and takes the shape of the cell or of the spaces between the cells. Since silica is remarkably durable, it may survive after the soft tissues of the plant have decayed.

When the plant is eaten, or burned, or dies and decays, the phytoliths survive, and are found in many places -- in the soil, in dung heaps and trash piles, inside cooking pots, and even on teeth.

In some plant remains, phytoliths preserve shapes that are so specific they can be used to identify the plants from which they come. Environmental archeologists and archeobotanists can use phytoliths to identify, with varying degrees of precision, the plants that grew at a site, were eaten by a person or animal, or were cooked in a pot.

This is important because, until the 20th century, humans used plants to create most of their “material culture” -- buildings. furniture, art, fuel, clothing, medicine, food. Unfortunately, the portions of plants and their products that we would have liked to study were usually too fragile to survive the elements. As a result, our knowledge of earlier cultures had, of necessity, centered on more permanent artifacts made of bone, stone, ceramics, and metals. Careful analysis of phytoliths, in combination with other research, is allowing us to broaden this focus.

Phytolith from
Pennisetum purpureum

Do all plants produce phytoliths?

No, not all plants produce these silicon markers. Plants that DO produce phytoliths include:

Acanthaceae

Aceraceae

Annonaceae

Arecaceae

Aristolochiaceae

Asteraceae

Boraginaceae

Bromeliaceae

Burseraceae

Capparaceae

Chloranthaceae

Chrysobalanaceae

Clusiaceae

Combretaceae

Commelinaceae

Costaceae

Cucurbitaceae

Cupressaceae

Cyatheaceae

Cyperaceae

Dilleniaceae

Dipterocarpaceae

Equisetaceae

Euphorbiaceae

Fabaceae

Fagaceae

Flacourtiaceae

Flagellariaceae

Heliconiaceae

Hernandiaceae

Hymenophyllaceae

Joinvilleaceae

Loranthaceae

Magnoliaceae

Malvaceae

Marantaceae

Menispermaceae

Moraceae

Musaceae

Orchidaceae

Pinaceae

Piperaceae
 

Poaceae

Podostemaceae

Polypodiaceae

Restionaceae

Sapotaceae

Selaginellaceae

Sterculiaceae

Taxaceae

Taxodiaceae

Ulmaceae

Urticaceae

Verbenaceae

Zingiberaceae

Plants that DO NOT produce phytoliths (or produce very few) include:

Agavaceae

Alismataceae

Amaranthaceae

Amaryllidaceae

Apiaceae

Apocynaceae

Araceae

Araliaceae

Araucariaceae

Asclepiadaceae

Bignoniaceae

Bixaceae

Bombacaeae

Burmanniaceae

Cactaceae

Campanulaceae

Caricaceae

Cartonemataceae

Chenopodiaceae

Convolvulaceae

Cycadaceae

Cyclanthaceae

Dioscoreaceae

Ericaceae

Eriocaulaceae

Gnetaceae

Guttiferae

Hydrocharitaceae

Iridaceae

Juglandaceae

Juncaceae

Labiatae

Lacistemnaceae

Lauraceae

Lecythidaceae

Lentibulariaceae

Liliaceae

Loganiaceae
 

Malphigiaceae

Mayacaceae

Melastomataceae

Meliaceae

Myristicaceae

Myrsinaceae

Myrtaceae

Nymphaeaceae

Olacaceae

Oxalidaceae

Pedaliaceae

Podocarpaceae

Polygonaceae

Pontederiaceae

Potamogetonaceae

Primulaceae

Proteaceae

Ranunculaceae

Rhamnaceae

Rosaceae

Rubiaceae

Rutaceae

Salicaceae

Sapindaceae

Saxifragaceae

Smilacaceae

Solanaceae

Theaceae

Tiliaceae

Trioridaceae

Typhaceae

Violaceae

Vitaceae

Winteraceae

Xyridaceae

Zygophyllaceae

Because not all plants produce phytoliths, it is important to use a variety of strategies to determine which plants were present at a given site. Such strategies may include:

  • Macro botanical analyses of charred, waterlogged, or mineralized plant remains

  • Palynological study of pollens and spores

  • DNA analysis of plant tissues

Phytoliths were first identified in the1830s, but it was not until the 1970s that archaeologists began to systematically use them to document the presence of plants. Today, reference collections of plants that produce phytoliths, and collections of photos of the phytoliths themselves, continue to expand. A sampling:

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Botanists are among those who know that, in spite of the rude shocks of life,
it is well to have lived, and to have seen the everlasting beauty of the world.
F.D. Drewitt

 

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