FLORA i. Historical Background



The indigenous knowledge of plants in Persia had a long standing tradition before the country’s flora was explored by Europeans, who were eventually joined in modern scientific botany by Persian botanists. Traditional knowledge of plants was augmented through trade relations and scholarly exchange with other countries, and in the early Middle Ages it had reached a level of development that was in no ways inferior to botany in Europe. Persian names of plants were so deeply rooted and prevalent throughout the Middle East that long after the Arab conquest of Persia and the introduction of Arabic in Persia even Arabic scientific texts used Persian botanical terms, as in the Arabic translation of the pharmacology of Dioscurides (Dīosqoredīs) by Eṣṭafan b. Bāsīl (Stephanos b. Basileios) and Ḥonayn b. Esḥāq in Baghdad in the mid-9th century (Ullmann, 1972, p. 88). Even Ebn al-Bayṭār, who originally came from Mālaqa (Malaga) in Andalus and lived in Egypt and Syria, frequently used Persian plant names in his book on simple drugs (al-Jāmeʿ le-mofradāt al-adwīa wa’l-āḡḏīa). The dissemination of Islamic medicine and natural sciences through Latin translations since the 11th century generated an influential intellectual revival in Europe, which, concurrent with other factors, ultimately resulted in the development of modern natural sciences.

Although the methodology and principles of modern sciences have been generally adopted in Persia for botanical research, and the exploration of the country’s flora is based on international scientific groundwork, traditional Persian botany and plant names as well as their historic development are still indispensable for the understanding of the traditional natural sciences and education in Persia today.

The oldest Persian plant names. To the oldest class of Persian plant names belong those that correspond to paronymous forms of old-Indian and thus can be traced back to origins in the Indo-Iranian language or, if attested in other Indo-European languages, may even date back to the common Indo-European language. Among these are: jow/jaw, Av. yava-, Skt. yava- (barley); gandom, Sanskrit godhṹma- (wheat); zīra, Skt. jīraka- (cumin, Cuminium cyminum); berenj, Skt. vrīhē-, Arm. brinj, Kurd. birinj, Osset. brin, which, according to Paul Horn (Eytmologie, p. 48), is a borrowed word with a definite Aryan origin; bīd, Av. vaeiti-, and OIr. vētasā-, paronymous with old-Nordic vidir, and old-high-German weidā, Greek itea, (willow). There is no paronymous word for OPers. hauma-, Av. haoma-, Skt. soma- in any other indo-European languages, which means that it is a plant only known to the Indo-Iranians (for a recent study see Flattery and Schwartz).

Plant names documented in Middle Persian. Despite its small volume and limited interest in themes pertaining to natural sciences, Pahlavi literature preserves a substantial number of plant names. Examples, mostly derived from MacKenzie, are alalag, NPers. lāla (tulip); anār, NPers. anār (pomogrante); aspast, NPers. aspast, Pashtu spastu (medicago sativa, lucern), is derived from the OPers. aspo-asti (asb “horse” and the root of ad “eating,” thus designating horse feed). Lucerne was the prefered horse feed in ancient Persia. Horses were exported to Anterior Asia and since the 2nd century B.C.E. also to East Asia; the plant for feed was brought along with them. In this way the Persian name (aspastu) was adopted by the Akkadian in the 7th century B.C.E. (Laufer, 9. 210; Meissner, p. 296, apud Shahbazi, in EIr. II, p. 726; Waley).

Spand (< Av. spənta “holy”), NPers. esfand (q.v.; wild rue, pergamum harmel, Peganum harmala); wātrang, NPers. bādrang (lemon, citrus medica; see BĀLANG); gōz, NPers. gowz (walnut); gaz, NPers. gaz (q.v., tamarisk); gišnīz, NPers. gešnīz (coriander, q.v.); hamē-wahār, NPers. hamīša-bahār (marigold); sarv, NPers. sarv (cypress, q.v.); šambalīlag, NPers. šanbalīd, šambalīla (fenugreek, Trigonella foenum-graecum); sīr, NPers. sīr (garlic, q.v.); zardak,NPers. zardak (safflower, Carthamus trinctorius).

Borrowed plant names in Middle Persian: sīsīmbar, NPers. sīsambar (< Gk. sisymbrium); nīl, NPers. nīl (< Skt. nīla-, blue, indigoferea tinctoria “indigo”); wanafšag, probably to be read wanafšg, NPers. ba/bonafša (violet; from Skt. vanāvsaka-, a compound of vana- (Av. vana-) “woods” and vas- (OPers. vah-) “to sojurn” with the adjective-forming suffix -ka, lit. “wood dwellers”); halīlag NPers. halīla, (Skt. haritaki- “myrobalan”); bis, Av. viš-, vīša-, (poison; Skt. viṣa- “aconite, Acontium”).

The adoption of these and other words which are documented later but were probably borrowed from Indian at the same time may be placed in the later Sassanian period when the Indian book of tales, Pañcatantra, was brought to Persia by Borzūya (q.v.), the personal physician of Ḵosrow I Anōšīravān.

Plant names contained in Middle Persian literature, however, certainly do not render a complete picture of Sasanian plant names with their Greek and Indian loan-words. A complete list must have been considerably larger, a conclusion supported by the scientific developments in Persia of Sasanian times and the early Islamic period under the Greek influence. A link to Greek medicine and natural sciences was the school at Gondēšāpūr, which was founded in the aftermath of the Sasanian Šāpūr I’s victory over the Roman emperor Valerian at Edessa in 260 C.E. Šāpūr brought many educated Romans to various places in southern Persia, like Gondēšāpūr, the city named after him, near the present-day Dezfūl. The hospital there had a staff of Greek physicians and was affiliated with an academy which became famous in the Orient. It survived the Arab conquest of Persia and was a breeding ground of intellectual culture at the time of the first ʿAbbasid caliphs. The Boḵtīšūʿs (q.v.), a Nestorian family of physicians, monopolized the position of the academy’s directorship and were repeatedly called to Baghdad as court physicians. The son of the medical assistant of Gondēšāpūr, Yoḥannā b. Māsūya (d. 243/857), was the first director of the Bayt al-ḥekma (House of Wisdom), which was founded in Baghdad by al-Maʾmūn in imitation of the Gondēšāpur academy. The Bayt al-ḥekma became the center of prominent scientific translation work, especially during the tenure of Ḥonayn b. Esḥāq (d. 260/873), the disciple and successor of Ebn Māsūya. He translated the pharmacology of Dioscurides, the most famous Greek work about medicinial plants, into Syriac (Ullmann, 1970), and later, together with his disciple Eṣṭafan b. Bāsīl around the mid-9th century, into Arabic. It may be assumed, although it cannot be proven, that the Materia medica of Dioscurides was known in Gondēšāpūr before these translations and may even have been translated into Middle Persian. Greek herbal pharmacology was, however, known in Persia through a translated Greek standard text by the mid-9th century. Indian medical science was also known through the chapters on Indian medicine in the Ferdaws al-ḥekma of ʿAlī b. Rabban Ṭabarī and the physicians of the Indian hospital in Baghdad (Ullmann, 1970; Schmucker).

The oldest documentation of tNew Persian plant names. The oldest preserved New Persian manuscript is the Ketāb al-abnīa ʿan ḥaqāyeq al-adwīa by Abū Manṣūr Mowaffaq Heravī (q.v.), a text of pharmacology emphasizing medicinal plants written, as Ullmann argues, during the reign of the Samanid Manṣūr b. Nūḥ (350-65/961-76), to whom it seems to be dedicated. The oldest of the two known manuscripts, copied by the poet Asadī Ṭūsī (q.v.), is dated Šawwāl 447/December 1055-January 1056 and is kept at the Austrian National Library in Vienna (Monzawī, Nosḵahā I, pp. 463-64). The great value of this book lies in the fact that it expounds in alphabetical order on simple drugs, mainly medicinal herbs, and cites the names by which they were commonly known in Persia. It also contains numerous loan words and Arabic nomenclature which can often be traced back to other Semitic languages. The names are frequently listed in phonetically different forms, which may reflect the development of the ending-h through the older g (Ar. j), e.g., davālag, davālaj, davāleh (beard moss, usnea).

Greek loan words in Abū Manṣūr’s work are, anīsūn (< anison “anis”); asārūn (< asaron “hazelwort”); fotrāsālyūn (< petroselinon “parsely”); oṣṭoḵūdūs (< stoichados, gen. of stoichas, lavender, Lavandula stoechas).

Examples of Indian terms from pre-Arian origin are, šekar (< Skt. śarkarā- “brown sugar”); qand (< Skt. khaṇḍaka- “lump sugar, candis”); felfel (< Skt. pippalī-, the long pepper, Piper longum, not Piper nigrum, the common black pepper); zanjabīl (< Skt. sṛṅgavēra-, ginger, probably from the Tamil word inči “ginger” and ver “root”; in Skt. the word was transformed to sṛṅga- “horn, antler” because of the antler-shape look and the rhizome used as medicine and spice).

Examples of Arabic plant names used by Abū Manṣūr, which can be traced back to Akkadian origins, are: kamūn (Akk. kamūnu, cumin, Cuminum cyminum), the Arabic equivalant for the NPers. zīra (see above); sūsan “lily” (sūsan āsmāngūnī, blue lily, iris; Akk. šešannu); naʿnāʿ (Akk. nanahu, “mint”); kattān (Akk. kitinnu “linen”; probably related to Sumerian gad).

Persian botany and international botanical nomenclature. The New Persian botanical terms in Abū Manṣūr’s work constitute only a small part of Persian botanical names used in the various regions of Persia today. The first botanical identification of Persian plant names through the internationally recognized Latin names took place in the second half of the 19th century. The pioneer work was Términologie médico-pharmaceutique by J. L. Schlimmer, an instructor at Dār al-fonūn (q.v.), the first modern institute of higher education, founded in 1850 in Tehran. It comprised 600 folio pages and was based on first-hand knowledge of Persian plants and herbs.

The scholarly activities started by the teachers of Dār al-fonūn were unfortunately constrained by adverse circumstances but were revived with the founding of the University of Tehran in 1935. This was true for the discipline of botany as well, the revival of which owes a great deal to the efforts of Aḥmad Pārsā, whose research, published in Persian and French, provided the systematic morphologic and floristic tools for botanical study in Persia. In addition to his main work, Flore de l’Iran (la Perse), his studies on Plants of Northern Iran (2 vols., Tehran, 1938-39) and Taxonomy of Plants (3 vols., Tehran, 1952, 1955-56) should also be mentioned. The books that were published in rapid sequence by the University of Tehran after the war provided a general, reliable, and extensive corpus of inform ation. Under its auspices were also published the general phytography (Gīāh-šenāsī: Tašrīḥ-e ʿomūmī-e nabātāt, Tehran, 1949) by Ḥabīb-Allāh Ṯābetī and the principles of phytology (Gīā: Rāhnemā-ye gīāhī, Tehran, 1961) by Ḥosayn Gol-e Golāb, as well as the arboretal botany (Jangal-šenāsī, Tehran, 1948) by Karīm Sāʿī. The latter contains larger compendiae of Persian and Latin botanical names in the floral lists of different woodtypes. Persian botanical names are also listed in the work of ʿAlī Zargarī about medicinal plants. Lastly should be mentioned the Botanical Dictionary by Esmāʿīl Zāhedī.

These examples of botanical textbook literature illustrate the successful endeavor to introduce modern botany into Persia. More or less associated with this process is the research carried out by individual scholars. The development and literature of Persian research has been discussed by Wolfgang Frey and Wilfried Probst (below). This section mainly deals with the current scientific publications by the University of Tehran and younger universities like the University of Shiraz, because they provide a picture of the progress made within a few decades.

The effective improvement of a scientific Persian nomenclature of plants may provide the decisive support for further development of botanical research in Persia and, in the long run, provide for the use of simple Persian terms as genus names, eventually employing the Persian designation of the species as the equivalents of the scientific binary Latin names. This kind of scientific nomenclature, combined with the vernacular language, has long been developed in Europe and has contributed a great deal to the spread of independent observation of nature in various strata of the society (Hummel, 1974).


Abū Manṣūr Mowaffaq b. ʿAlī Heravī, Ketāb al-abnīa ʿan ḥaqāʾeq al-adwīa, MS Vienna, Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek Codex Vindobonensis A. F. 340, facs. ed. by F. R. Seligmann as Codex Vindobonenesis sive medici Abu Mansur Muwaffaq bin Ali Heratensis…, Vienna, 1859; facs. ed. with a tr. of the introduction and comments of Seligmann’s ed. by C. H. Talbot as Das Buch der Grundlagen über die wahre Beschaffenheit der Heilmittel, Graz, 1972; ed. A. Bahmanyār and Ḥ. Maḥbūbī Ardakānī, Tehran, 1346 Š./1967; tr. Abdul-Chaliq Achundow as “Die Pharmakologischen Grundsätze (Liber Fundamentorum Pharmacologiae) des Abu Mansur Muwaffaq bin Ali Harawi,” in Historische Studien aus dem Pharmakologischen Institut der Kaiserlichen Universität Dorpat III, Halle, 1893, pp. 137-414, 450-81.

M. Asadi et al., Flor-e Īrān/Flora of Iran, Tehran, 1367 Š./1988- (in progress).

D. S. Flattery and M. Schwartz, Haoma and Harmaline, Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London, 1989.

K. Hummel, “Zur Herkunft der Neupersischen Pflanzennamen,” Geistige Zusammenarbeit, Vorträge des Seminars Lindich 4 und 5. Folge, 1974, pp. 69-91.

Idem, “Nām-goḏārī-e ʿelmī-e gīāhān ba zabān-e fārsī,” Rahnemā-ye ketāb 17/10-12, 1353 Š./1975, pp. 693-97.

B. Laufer, Sino-Iranica: Chinese Contributions to the History of Civilization in Ancient Persia with Special Reference to the History of Cultivated Plants and Products, Field Museum of Natural History Publications, Anthropological Series 15/3, 1919; repr., Taipei, 1973.

D. N. MacKenzie, A Concise Pahlavi Dictionary, London, 1971.

B. Meissner, “Babylonische Pflantzennamen,” ZA 6, 1981, pp. 216-96.

M. Mīnovī, intro. to the photostatic repr. of the Vienna MS of Abū Manṣūr’s Ketāb al-abnīa…, 2 vols., Tehran, 1344 Š./1965.

Ṣ. Mobayyen, Rostanīhā-ye Īrān, 2 vols., Tehran, 1358-59 Š./1979-80.

A. Parsa, Flore de l’Iran, 9 vols., Tehran, 1948-60.

J. L. Schlimmer, Terminologie medico-pharmaceutique et anthropologique française-persane, Tehran, 1874, repr., Tehran, 1970.

W. Schmucker, “Ein Beitrag zur Indio-Arabischen Arzneimittelkunde und Geistesgeschichte,” ZDMG 125, 1975, pp. 66-98.

Ḥ. Ṭābetī, Deraḵthā-ye jangalī-e Īrān, Tehran, 1326 Š./1947.

Idem, Deraḵtān o deraḵtčahā-ye Īrān, Tehran, 1344 Š./1965.

M. Ullmann, Die Medizin im Islam, HO I/VI/1, Leiden, 1970.

Idem, Die Natur- und Geheimwissenschaften im Islam, HOI/VI/2, Leiden, 1972.

A. Waley, “The Heavenly Horses of Ferghana: A New View,” History Today 5, 1955, pp. 95-103.

E. Zāhedī, Vāža-nāma-ye gīāhī: Nām-e ʿelmī-e gīāhāņ/Botanical Dictionary: Scientific Names of Plants in English, French, German, Arabic and Persian Languages, Tehran, 1337 Š./1958.

ʿA. Zargarī, Gīāhān-e dārūʾī, 2 vols., Tehran, 1345-47 Š./1966-68.

(Karl Hummel)

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