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The Smell of History

Louis Van Deven

The ancient Greeks and Romans had a number of writers on agriculture. Three of them can be singled out because of the volume of their works that are known today. A Greek, Theothrastus, lived in the 4th century B.C. Two Romans, Pliny the Elder and Columella, lived in the 1st century A.D. and wrote extensively on nature and agriculture.

We know very little about Columella (Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella), not even his date of birth or death. Aside from his mentioning various 1st-century people he knew, and that he was born in Gades (now Cadiz in Spain) and seems to have lived a long life, he is a rather blank page. It seems certain he left Roman Spain at an early age and settled in the Italian Peninsula. He also probably served in the Roman army for a time.

Like our modern writers on agriculture, the ancients concentrated on the big cash crops of their day. They speak at great length on wheat, oats, barley, various tree crops and livestock. You have to hunt for the references to the alliums.

One oddity I found was that there are a total of 8 references to onions in Coumella's 12 volumes of On Agriculture, and 7 references to garlic-and 13 to leeks! Were leeks more important then than onions and garlic? Columella (also Pliny) makes no mention of onion or garlic farms, perhaps most were grown in people's yards or on their farms. Leeks produce a lot of seeds per plant; possibly they liked this and preferred to plant the seeds yearly, instead of separating garlic cloves.

After several hundred pages with no allium references, we must go all the way to Vol. VI to find our very first allium reference, this wonderful animal remedy!

It will be no use to give cattle a satisfying diet, unless every care is taken that they are healthy in body and that they keep up their strength. Both these objects are secured by administering, on three consecutive days, a generous dose of medicine compounded of equal weights of the crushed leaves of lupine and of cypress, which is mixed with water and left out of doors for a night. This should be done four times a year-at the end of spring, of summer, of autumn and of winter. Lassitude and nausea also can often be dispelled if you force the whole raw hen's egg down the animal's throat when it has eaten nothing; then on the following day, you should crush spikes of "Cyprian" or ordinary garlic in wine and pour it into the nostrils.

A number of other such exotic mixtures are given, with no explanation of how you force these vile concoctions down the nostrils of an enraged bull.

Then no more allium comments until Vol. VIII, and it is on raising peafowl and chickens. Speaking on chicks, we get this expert advice on feeding them:

During the first days they should be fed on barley meal sprinkled with wine and with gruel made from any kind of cereal and allowed to go cold. Then, after a few days, a Tarentine leek cut up small should be added to their diet and soft cheese, etc.

No more mention of alliums is made until Vol. X. A few meaningless lines are given in a long poem. Then he has a calendar for gardeners, and says in the month of February you plant onion and leek seeds, and adds: "for ordinary garlic and African garlic are the last seeds that can be planted at this season." Interestingly, he says leeks and onions should be started in a sunny location and transplanted by the 1st of April. And what is African garlic? The German translation of Lundstrom says it is "either a form of A. sativum or A. nigrum." What is A. nigrum?

Columella then says: the African garlic, which some people call Carthaginian garlic, is of a much greater growth than the ordinary garlic, and about October 1st, before it is planted, will be divided from one head into several.

He also has some advice that sounds quite up-to-date even now:

African garlic, like ordinary garlic, has a number of cloves sticking together, and these, when they have been separated, ought to be planted on ridges, in order that, being placed in raised beds, they may be less disturbed by winter rains. Cloves should be set at the distance of a hand's breadth from one another.

Apparently great-headed leeks (Elephant garlic) were known then. He tells us:

As for the leek which you wish to form a large head, you must take care that, before you transplant it and re-set it, you cut off all the small roots and shear off the tops of fibers; then small pieces of earthenware or shells are burried beneath of each of the seedlings to serve as a sort of vase, so that the heads of a larger growth may be formed.

In Vol. XI we get some advice on raising onions:

An onion-bed requires soil that has been frequently broken up rather than turned over to any depth. Therefore, from November 1st onwards, the ground ought to be cut up, so that it may crumble with the cold and frosts of winter; then after an interval of 40 days, and not before, the process should be repeated, and again carried out a third time 21 days later, and the ground manured immediately afterwards.

Columella gives a number of recipes in Vol. XII, which I will forego, as they seem possibly lethal. But he also has some excellent advice along the way: Ground does not wear out if properly manured. And he advises crop rotation, alternating a grain and a legume, which is exactly what our farmers do today when they alternate soybeans and corn. And the above-mentioned raised beds. He was a smart cookie

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