A look at the files
What is included in the files?
What do the data files include?
The four ways to search
Help in finding subjects
NOTE: Use the links along the page to get back to the Home Page or any sub-page. If you try to use the
Normally if you want information on a plant, you go to a library, find a likely book, look for the plant name in the index and hope that the index was complete. Or you do a search on the Web, and find some pointers which you have to go through one by one. In either case, you have to wade through a lot of irrelevant material to find the information you want. And some information you can’t find, either because the plant’s botanical name has been changed over the years, or because the source used local names.
This website cuts through all that. I examined several hundred books and articles, searching for people who used plants, and what they used them for. Then I sorted the information by plant family, genus and species. I checked names against a recent database to keep everything belonging to a given plant together, and eliminated duplications and wordiness. Everything has a citation, and every genus file has its own bibliography. The resulting file is a condensation, not a summary. It amounts to a whole library re-sorted and ready for use.
A reference book has to use summaries for lack of space. A website may be pushing an agenda they don’t tell you about. But here, with many sources in a single file the over-simplified or the misleading ones stand out. The dissonances in the files are on purpose. You would find them in the original sources, of course. But here they are all in one place so any inconsistencies show up much better.
Granted, the website contains only a small fraction of the available literature. Many of my sources are hopelessly biased toward North American and Western European plants. And there are only a few dozen plant families in the site so far. But it is a genuine attempt at a global survey. I tried to be as far-ranging as possible in space and time, in ecology and technology.
People like to believe that science is one steady upward climb to a summit that is just a little way ahead. In fact it’s a network, with many paths and an infinite number of goals. And some of those goals, the most worthwhile ones, are those that no one could have anticipated. All the blind alleys, all the mistakes, all the triumphs, can be guides in our own searches. And I hope this website can help people find new paths and goals of their own.
A look at the files
Many websites have summaries with links to the original article(s). This is an excellent idea. You can make a good survey of the literature from such a site. But you still have to wade through a great deal of duplication to reach the nuggets of information you actually need. Here you have everything in one site, contradictions and confirmations all together. If you do want to look up a source, perhaps to see where they got their information, a bibliography is right there at the end of each file.
I tried to avoid the problem of mistakes by presenting all the points of view I could find in my limited time. I didn’t summarize anything, just eliminated wordy introductions or unnecessary qualifiers, and replaced at least some of the jargon. Every entry has its own citation, so if you need further details you can find them. My very occasional comments are all enclosed in square brackets. If a nugget of information seems to be unreliable, I indicate it with [!] or [?]. Otherwise I let you draw your own conclusions.
If you want a summary of uses for a species rather than a condensation, click the Standard Subjects in this Species link by each species. It gives a list of all the subjects there, with the branch of the Subject Tree where each belongs. Or you could try a site such as Plant Lives, http://www.plantlives.com, which gives summaries directly.
A summary is very useful, and some people may not need to look any farther. But a condensation can tell you -
a. who originally said something, and in what context.
Several authors over the years have said that Lachnanthes caroliniana is eaten by pigs, and if they have white skin their bones turn pink. This was traced to a comment by Darwin, who said it was reported to him by some squatters in Virginia. It has not been independently confirmed, and the bone color is probably due to a congenital condition.
b. if it was from their own observation or if they were summarizing someone else.
Hillman gives reasons why rye, Secale cereale, might have been the first cultivated cereal, based on his hands-on archeological research in eastern Syria.
c. if there is information that contradicts or amplifies accepted ideas.
Hernandia peltata is said to be used for canoes in the South Pacific. But a researcher who actually talked to canoe-makers in Fiji, said the wood is made into bailers, since it is so soft it won\'t damage the canoe when they bail water out of it.
d. how or why different peoples use the same plant.
Under Triodia pungens is a reference giving the contrasting views of the Australian spinifex grass by Europeans (‘Triodia bloody irritans’) and aborigines, who gather it for its useful resin.
e. about vital older information that might be buried under the flood of new articles.
All too often someone says ‘American Indians’ did this or that. But which Indians? Hopi in the arid southwest US? Ojibwa in the lake-filled midwest? Seminoles in wet semi-tropical Florida? Their environments and lifestyles are all completely different. Part of my work is trying not to force things together that shouldn\'t be grouped.
f. a great many fascinating details that would be too bulky for a summary.
Look under Hordeum vulgare for a long discussion on how the people in Tibet prepare food and drink from barley.
g. what botanic names were used in the past, and which one is now current.
If you want to see a really muddled taxonomy, enter the genus Mnesithea and look at the circle of names that have been used.
What is included in the files?
Most files in this website include the geographical range of a genus and its useful species, and short descriptions. Then come any uses I could find, with emphasis on who used the plant, and how. The same use may appear in several places in the file, since different authors each speak from their own knowledge. If a later reference copied from an earlier one, I usually include only the early one. If on the other hand the later source contradicts or amplifies older information, I include both of them. Finally, each file in this website has its own citations and bibliography.
Ornamental plants, weeds, poisonous plants, timber, fibers - I tried to include every kind of plant use. Medicinal uses range from magical plants, through pragmatic local uses, to pharmaceutical ‘discoveries’. The files on edible plants may include methods of preparing foods, though there are better places to look for actual recipes. Ideas about origins of cultivated crops abound, both archeological evidence and theories old and new. Some files even have a little folklore.
This website presents its information in a form shaped by the original authors. This means it is somewhat disjointed. However it seemed to me that this very disjointedness may be needed by researchers. Most books - and websites - smooth out the irregularities to give a short coherent account of a plant, but in this process they lose the sharpness and precision of the originals.
The search engine looks for botanical and common names only in the top three lines of each species. Thus I was able to compare the plant under discussion with other plants. I was able to name adulterants, or alternatives, or associated plants, with the assurance that the search engine would ignore them. You can look them up in their own files if you need to.
Mistakes are perpetuated all too often in the literature, because people don’t check their secondary sources. For instance, one standard reference published in 2001 says that mango leaves are/were used to feed cattle. Indeed they were. Farmers in 19th century India tied oxen in stalls and fed them mango leaves. They then collected the urine which contained a valuable yellow pigment. The oxen died when their kidneys lost the long fight against the poisons in the leaves. The Indian government has long since outlawed this horrible practice.
A great deal of valuable information may be lost because it is stored under an older name that is no longer searched for. Here each species is listed under the most recent taxonomic identifier at the time of writing, with other botanical names as synonyms. To save my time, I used only GRIN to check on names; if a name was not there I said so in the file. Other citations show the years in which each synonym for a given plant was used, and how the names changed with time.
There is a sense of increasing (well, changing, at least) knowledge that comes after reading several references on the same plant. For instance, the file on Zea mays includes several theories on the origin of maize, and some of them are very imaginative. It also has a long excerpt from an article by Eubanks, who produced something very like the archeological tiny-cob maize, from a cross between genera.
My site also tries to give a sense of the history of economic botany. I present several theories of the origin of domesticated wheat - even Lysenko’s - and some archeological evidence, so you can trace the evolution of accepted knowledge.
Many of the files include folk medicine and other lore. These often have a basis that even we rational Westerners can accept. Perhaps we should pay more attention to local knowledge. Aside from anything else, we need to remind ourselves that our ways of doing things may not be the best possible ways.
This website is copyrighted. Copyright © 2007 by Margaret Delfeld and Neal Delfeld.
However if you want to download or print some of the files at this website for your own use, go right ahead. If my information helps you in your work or in a paper you’re writing, please have the courtesy to acknowledge the site: Margaret Delfeld, at www.plantsforuse.com, and the date when you found the information. The date is important, since the site is always being added to and (occasionally, I hope) corrected.
You can also use the Comments and Contributions links to let me know how useful the site really is.
If you would like to help with this site, click the Contributions link. I would very much like to have a team working on it. Volunteers are welcome, provided they commit themselves to at least a year of hard work. I don’t have time to ride herd on the unwilling. Of course, money could help me hire a team.
If you would like to set up a similar site of your own using my subject lists and embedded subjects, and my webmaster’s database program, get in touch with us through the Comments link. We may be able to work something out.
What do the data files include?
NOTE: Use the links at the top of the file to get back to the Home Page or any sub-page. If you try to use the
Every file contains one genus and any of its species for which I have found uses.
1. Each segment, that is, the genus as a whole and each of the species, begins with the current botanical name and its family.
2. Under that are botanical synonyms used by my references. I made no effort to include all the synonyms that my references listed, only the names that they actually used.
3. On the next line are common names, with the name of the author who used them (in brackets). The author sometimes gives a clue as to what part of the world the name comes from. Further information on the names may be given in the text.
For every genus and every species, the text starts with the geographical range and a short description, if any of my sources gave this information. The people who use the plant and how they use it may give a hint. I didn’t make any assumptions, though of course you are free to do so. In some files more than one reference gave a range and description. They are included later in the text only if they amplify the first set.
Then comes all the useful information I could find on that genus or species. I chose to keep all facts from a given reference together, just as if you were looking it up in the original book or article. Each reference has its own citation. If the reference used a different botanical name, it is in italics at the start of the citation as well as in the ‘synonyms’ line. Sometimes a plant is mentioned more than once in a book, so I may have several citations from different pages of the same reference.
I eliminated most of the duplicate material. Then I tried to condense the remaining information while keeping all the important points. This means that information on a given subject may be scattered all through the file as different references give their own facts. On the other hand, it’s all here, so you don’t have to click on links and then wade through introductory material to find what you want.
When one reference contradicted another, I kept both; you can make your own decisions. For instance, people in Japan and China eat ginkgo fruits; in the West female ginkgo trees are almost never planted. Why? Check the file.
At the end of every file is a bibliography. You can use this together with the text citations to find further information that interests you, or to check that I have summarized the information accurately.
I hope that you enjoy using this website, and that you find information you can use. Please use the Comments page for any suggestions or helpful hints. And if you care to use the Contributions button, all donations will be gratefully received and used to improve the site. I do not have status as a non-profit, perhaps later if the contributions warrant it.
Anything I added to the text is in square brackets.
1. The first entry in a file is the genus name, with general information about the whole group. To distinguish this entry from the various species, I put [genus] after the name. Thus: Melocanna [genus] Trin. POACEAE
2. Sometimes taxonomists transfer a species to another genus. If I can’t certify the new species name, I have the species heading, ‘New genus [old species]’, to show that it is only a guess. Thus: Pennisetum [uniseta] . POACEAE, which used to be Beckeropsis uniseta K. Schum.
3. When a reference assumes you know what plant a common name refers to, I added the genus and family so you have some idea what they are talking about. Thus: ‘grains of Paradise [Aframomum, Zingiberaceae]’. In the same way, if I notice that a genus or species name in the text is no longer current, I sometimes put the new name in square brackets. Thus: Panicum clandestinum [now Dichanthelium clandestinum].
4. When someone says something I don’t agree with - and even standard references make mistakes - I put [?] or even [!]. I do this when two references disagree, for instance, to mark the one I consider less reliable. Occasionally I also add comments.
In almost every file one or more terms are underlined. Each of these terms belongs with a standard subject embedded in the text. A standard subject gives the search engine one term that will return all instances of plants that are used in a certain way. For instance, if you are looking for plants that livestock graze on, the text might say, ‘grazing’, ‘forage’, ’fodder’, ‘winter feed’, ‘eat greedily’, ‘consume’, ‘munch on’, and so forth. You would have to figure out all the possibile terms and check them one by miserable one. Setting up and checking the standard subjects are a great deal of work for me, but make life much easier for you.
You don’t even need to know what the standard subject is. Simply use the Subject Tree or your own words in the Subject Cross-Reference to bring up the list of plants you are looking for. Or you can click on an underlined term to display its own branch of the Subject Tree, with a list of all the species in which the same subject is embedded.
The longer files may include a number of authors who all discuss the subject you are interested in. Even after you find a keyword for your subject, keep scanning for related material. The search engine recognizes a relatively small number of specific terms; you are not so limited.
One type of underlined term is a little different. From time to time I found something that I thought was interesting, but wasn’t exactly a standard subject. For instance, ‘what is the tallest bamboo?’ or ‘is there a system of weights based on grain?’ or very often, ‘where did this name come from?’. So I highlighted them under the catch-all term ‘factoids’. If you want to just browse through some of the factoids, the link is in the Subject Tree under Social Uses.
The four ways to search
Most search engines look for the chosen word(s) anywhere in the database, giving you many false hits to wade through. In this website you won’t have to sort through a lot of files for the one you want.
My webmaster set up the search engine so it looks for botanical names only in the top line and the ‘synonyms’ line for each species.
Similarly, if you type a common name, the search engine looks only in the ‘common names’ line of each file.
In other words, datafiles that contain a name only in their text - and this happens frequently - will not clutter up your results. If you want further information on a name in the text, look it up in its own file. For example, the file on Vallisnera reports that this water-plant has been used to make white sugar crystals from raw sugar. The file on Saccharum gives a full description of the process, but though Vallisnera is named there, the search engine will not retrieve it when you ask for Vallisnera.
Type the genus and species you are looking for to display that file. If you don’t get a file for a genus-and-species, try typing just the genus. I included only species that I found uses for. Many useful plants are simply not here because I didn’t have their information. Or because I haven’t yet tackled that family.
Many names have been re-classified by taxonomists over the years. If you type an older synonym the file will appear under its current name.
In this link, type a plant name used by and for non-botanists. A click will then bring up a list of plants whose common names contain the word(s) you want, each with its own species beside it. Click on one of the species names to bring up its file.
Some plants have dozens of local names in various parts of their range. There is no way I could include all of them, or even find all of them. I did try to give a broad selection with variant spellings.
A common name may refer to any of a number of plants, some completely unrelated. If you type ‘rose’, you’ll get half a dozen hits, and I haven’t even started the Rose family yet.
It’s a good idea to start with as precise a name as you can. For instance, type ‘common hair grass’. If that doesn’t work, try ‘hair grass’. If you start with ‘grass’, you will have a list with hundreds of names, and the one you want will probably be lost in the crowd.
If you are looking for a plant use rather than a single file, this is where to start. When you click on this link, a list of seven major categories appears. Select the one most likely to include the subject you want, and repeat through the sub-lists that follow. Three, or sometimes four, clicks will bring you to the final subject choices. When you click on one of these, a list of botanical names appears. Click on one to display its file.
I developed a list of standard subject for this website, each one linked to one twig of the Subject Tree. Then I embedded these subjects in each file under the words they belong with. The word(s) associated with a subject are underlined. The standard subjects are unique, so the search engine for the site can find any one you want. You don’t even have to know what they are.
On the other hand, if you are looking for ‘FOOD: 1.Staple foods: Grain’, the underlined text might be ‘sold in markets’ or ‘harvest’ or ‘daily food’ or any of dozens of other possibilities. This is the big advantage of using standard subjects, that you can find what you want no matter what the text says. Much more work for me, much less for you.
When the plant file is displayed, the botanical name you selected is at the top of the display. It doesn’t center on the subject you have chosen - sorry about that - so you may have to scroll down to find it. If you skip from one underlined word to another you can probably recognize the one you want. That way if several lines of text don’t have an underlined term, if they are a long discussion of a different subject, you can skip them to save time.
You can use
Usually I entered the standard subject only once, even if several references discuss it from different angles. But sometimes I repeated a standard subject if a later reference was especially interesting or if the file was long.
In any case, remember that this website contains only a few families so far. The list of files that contain a given subject will be longer as more families are included. Also you won’t find some subjects because their plants aren’t in the site yet.
If you can’t find a subject, try the Subject Cross-Reference link.
Sometimes you can’t find a subject using the Subject Tree, which is somewhat arbitrary. For instance, where would you find treatments for drunkenness? I put it under Medicine: Poisonings, but it might be in several other places. If you can’t find something fairly quickly in the Subject Tree, click on this link. Type the word or words you want and a branch of the Subject Tree appears with a list of botanical names under which the subject is found. Click on one of the names, and its file is displayed.
Some words have more than one meaning. Suppose you type ‘grain’. You might actually mean grain to feed people, or livestock, or even cage-birds. Don’t limit yourself to your first thought, try some variants.
Help in finding subjects
The subjects in this site were established through a trial-and-error system, not a pre-determined theoretical framework. This means that some ‘important’ subjects with very few references may be included in other broader categories. Epilepsy, for instance, is included in ‘convulsions’. Some parts of the Subject Tree are arbitrary, so check the Subject Cross-References if you can’t find what you want right away.
Whenever a text uses a subject name different than the standard subject, I include that name in the Subject Cross-Reference list. For instance, under MEDICINE, catarrh is referred to ‘colds’, and chronic catarrh to ‘hay fever’. Generally the standard subjects are names in popular use; how many people know that ‘quinsy’ is tonsillitis? If I have mis-identified any of the more obscure names, at least they are in the Subject Cross-Reference list so you can track them down.
I set up the Subject Tree and Subject Cross-Reference lists to be complementary. For instance, the FOOD Tree is arranged by use, but the FOOD Cross-Reference list is by plant parts. By flipping back and forth between these two lists you should be able to find what you are looking for.
A single line of text may say that a plant is used as a medicine, as an insect repellent, and as a sign of mourning. Each subject has its own separate reference.
Often several species in a genus have the same use, so each of them can have the same standard subject assigned to them. On the other hand, even if other authors referred to the same use in another context, I assigned the standard subject only once per species. Be sure to scan the rest of the file to make sure you have all the information on your subject.
ANIMAL FEED: This list includes food for domestic animals, wild animals, and pollinators/ dispersal agents.
In the Livestock section of the Subject Tree, ‘planted hay’ and ‘wild hay’ are separate categories, and so are ‘planted pasture’ and ‘forage’. In some cases plants may have harmful awns or burrs when they are ripe, or they may accumulate poisons as they mature. Thus I distinguished plants that are eaten only when young.
If you want a complete list of food eaten by a specific animal look under the name, but also look under the more general terms. Thus if you want cattle feed, look under ‘livestock’ as well.
ENVIRONMENT: This is a wide-ranging category, including such subjects as ornamental plants, archeology, remediation, and weeds.
FOOD: The three main food categories, Staple foods, Planted crops and Gathered from the wild, are numbered so the system will put them at the top of the list.
‘Juices’ include plant parts drunk directly
‘Teas/ Ades’ are those diluted with hot or cold water before drinking. If they are refreshing beverages, they are listed under FOOD. If they are primarily medicinal, though, they appear in the MEDICINES list, under the name of the condition for which they are used.
‘Flavorings’ are added to food or drinks that contain something other than pure water, for instance mint leaves in a julep.
HARMFUL PLANTS: This category includes both harmful plants that we don’t want, such as those injuring people or domestic animals; and those we do want, such as those used against pests.
The plants used to treat ailments caused by plants are listed under MEDICINE. For instance, plants causing hay fever are under HARMFUL PLANTS, but treatments for it are under MEDICINE. Plants used to repel mosquitoes are under HARMFUL PLANTS, but treatments for mosquito bites are under MEDICINE.
MATERIALS: This is a catch-all category. It includes not only materials used for beads, boats and basketry, but also oils, gums, dyes, perfumes, and all kinds of chemicals. Even chemicals used primarily for medicine are listed here. Menthol, for instance, is a powerful expectorant and antiseptic, but it is also used as a flavoring in foods. Other chemicals have industrial uses.
Equipment used for sports, hunting or warfare is listed here; sports facilities and hunting sites are under ENVIRONMENT.
MEDICINE: This category was very hard to subdivide, since many ailments or treatments belong in more than one place. For instance, ‘pectoral ailments’ might actually mean a heart problem, a lung problem, or even heartburn, a stomach ailment. Often the original report has no further details. If you can’t find something where you think it belongs, check the Subject Cross-Reference list.
Generally I tried to put the names of medicines under the condition they treat. Thus ‘febrifuges’ are placed under ‘fever’. However medicines such as ‘stimulants’ or ‘antidotes’ are used for several different ailments, so these have their own listings.
SOCIAL USES: This includes magical uses and ceremonies in which plants are used for their symbolic value rather than for a reason apparent to a scientist in a laboratory. Often the line was very hard to draw. If a plant seemed to have any medicinal value I usually put it under MEDICINE.
I had a problem deciding where to put recreational drugs, such as tobacco, kava, betel and the like. Finally I decided they belonged here. If used in a religion or ritual they are also under one of the Ceremonies categories. Flavorings for such drugs are listed under FOOD, because they are not themselves drugs.
Factoids are snippets of information that don’t seem to belong anywhere else in the entire system, but still seem worth noting. For instance, there are rice varieties that can grow several meters long so their heads remain above major floods. Origins of names, the ‘tallest’ or ‘oldest’, systems of weights based on plants, all sorts of trivia are here.