Wetenschap - 7 september 2016

The lily and radish come from Japan

Albert Sikkema

The lilies that we now put in our vase, come from Japan. But in Japan they were cultivated for their roots, to eat, reveals master student Shantonu Abe, who studied an ancient and rare botanical booklet from Japan. Half of the described crops in the book are not cultivated any more. Their variety may interest breeding companies and farmers, says Abe.

Abe, a master student at Wageningen University, got into the Japanese agriculture around 1800, by reading a rare booklet. He examined the Japanese catalogue that botanist Philipp Franz von Siebold received as a present in the 19th century during his stay in Japan and took it to Leiden. Abe, a Japanese student in the Organic Agriculture programme, was the perfect person to examine this book, says his supervisor Tinde van Andel, who holds a special chair in Ethnobotany.

Abe studied the 191 drawings of Japanese crops in the book, read the Japanese names and explanations and found several surprising perceptions. Von Siebold introduced the lily as an ornamental plant in the Netherlands for his beautiful flowers, but the lily was mainly cultivated in Japan for its bitter but tasty bulbs. He also introduced the burdock, known as a weed in Holland with prickly balls that stick to your clothes. But the Japanese eat the root of this plant. And also the radish originates from Japan. The book shows more than ten different cultivars of the radish. None of those looks familiar with the modern radish.

The variety of grains in Japan in 1800 was surprisingly big, says Abe. Japan is known for its rice, but there are also varieties of millet, barley and buckwheat in the botanical catalogue. This shows that the Japanese were not living in splendid isolation before the arrival of Von Siebold in 1823, as is often thought, but that Japan had trade relations with Portuguese and Chinese traders, says Abe. He found pictures of pepper plants in the book that have to be introduced to Japan by the Portuguese.

Half of the crops in the book are not cultivated anymore in Japan. Maybe they grow as a weed now, maybe they still exist in backyards. But a number of crops in the old book are still present and hot. Like the shiso, a herb that is quite trendy in New York sushi bars at the moment. Or the wasabi, the expensive Japanese spice that is very hard to grow. But also ‘our’ orange carrot is in the Japanese catalogue. The scientific name the Japanese gave to the carrot revealed that this carrot was imported, but Abe isn’t sure from which country this carrot originated.

What can we do with this knowledge? Abe, who just graduated, would like to do more research on these forgotten Japanese crops. ‘They teach us that we need to value our crop heritage before it disappears.’ The crops may be of use for breeding companies that want to develop traditional breeds with better tastes. But the information in the book may also help breeders to breed more resilient cultivars, given the fact that the catalogue shows several drought resistant old crops.