The Impact of Two Latin Words for Celery

When I was in elementary school, my Mom would drag me to to church on most Sunday mornings for the 8 o’clock mass. Invariably, I would try to listen to what the priest said for the first five minutes. But he spoke Italian too quickly, and it was different enough from the dialect that we spoke at home that I could not follow the mass for very long. So I let my mind wander, admired the stained glass and stared at the mediocre murals on the walls.

About a half century later, my wife and I only attend mass when people we know have died. Yesterday was such a day. My comprehension of Italian has improved dramatically, but I still chose not to listen to the priest for very long and to distract myself with thoughts of my deceased aunt, math and science until a heartfelt eulogy was delivered by my cousin’s husband.

Perhaps inspired by the subsequent get-together with my Italian relatives and acquaintances, I woke up this morning wondering why there are different words for celery in Italian and in its various dialects. It’s rooted in the fact that when people spoke Latin at the time of the Roman Empire, even then, there was more than one word for celery.

Umbelliferae
The inflorescence of a fennel plant similar in shape to that of the carrot, parsley and celery.

Both parsley and celery, along with carrots, poison hemlock and about 3700 other species,  are members of the Apiaceae (or Umbelliferae) family.  It’s not a coincidence that “Umbelliferae” sounds like umbrella. All plants of this family have an inflorescence that is shaped like an upside down umbrella. Structural similarities between flowers of plants are not coincidences. If a genetic analysis is done, almost invariably, when structures in plants resemble each other, so do overall genetic sequences.

It’s therefore not a shock that when vernacular Latin adopted a word for celery, they derived it from the Greek word for parsley, selinon, and called celery, selinum. This eventually evolved into the currently accepted Italian word sedano. But selinum also morphed into another word, sellaro, still used today by people who speak dialect in villages of Lombardy. Sellaro, as you have probably guessed, became the French word, céleri and the English word, celery. 

More formal Latin, however, used the word appium for celery, hence the family name Apiaceae. This led to another accepted term for celery, appio dolce.  But the consonant p of either appium or appio changed to a c, forming the word accio or acc’ for celery that most dialects of Campania use. Such a transformation is not uncommon. A switch of a p to a c also occurred when “che io sappio” (as far as I know) became “chi sacc?” (who knows?) in Napolitano.

I wish priests would find a way of blending etymology and botany with spirituality. I would attend every Sunday.

 

How to Maintain a Lawn Without Herbicides or Synthetic Fertilizer, Version 2

Although I can appreciate the benefits of grass around the home, I am not a big fan of big lawns. They demand lots of energy and water, and in return, our family, which consists entirely of humans, cannot eat grass. For this reason, we have devoted most of our backyard to a vegetable garden, shrubs, berries and fruit trees. Unfortunately, a borough by-law prevents us from growing tomatoes or other produce in front of our home, so I maintain a small lawn.

Here’s what it looks like today, in early September.

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Although not “impeccable” by conventional standards, it’s quite green, and yet it has not ever received any herbicide or pesticide in its entire 21-year existence. For the last 15 years or so, it has not received any synthetic fertilizer either. So how do I keep it green?

I add used coffee grounds to my lawn throughout the summer. In the spring I also spread a few composted chicken manure pellets with my backyard’s compost in areas that have mostly grass. It also gets some urea(a nitrogen-source) from dogs who pee on my front yard during the winter. What’s wrong with synthetic fertilizer? Aside from being expensive, it inevitably spreads beyond the lawns’ borders, eats away at sidewalks, and runs off into our storm drains and river.

Next we come to the subject of “weeds”. Using such a term demonstrates ignorance of botany, which is a beautiful but underappreciated science. By not using herbicide, I save money, don’t risk health effects and allow plants like bird’s foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) to survive. Before flowering it looks like this patch from my lawn:

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It is a legume so it provides some of its own fertilizer thanks to a bacteria in its roots. If I don’t mow the lawn for a while, the trefoil produces attractive flowers that look these:

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Other non-grass plants worth tolerating are herbs like oregano, which spread to the lawn from the rock garden. If you look carefully, there is also parsley at the bottom center of the picture.  P1170382.JPG

There are three plants that I treat as “weeds” because they would otherwise grow at the expense of the grass, oregano and trefoil. They are dandelions, plantain and crab grass. To remove dandelions and their entire root, I use a tool. But trefoil does compete with them nicely. The other two have shallow root systems and are easy to pluck out with my thumb and index:P1170378.JPG

These were removed a little late. They have flowered and could have already spread their seeds. It’s best to learn to recognize them and pull them out earlier and donate them to the compost pile.

To encourage a deeper root network, I rely on rain, and even during dry spells, I water grass only every second day.  To conserve more water I use some water from a rain bucket positioned below the roof gutter. Since the patch of grass is only about 300 square feet, it takes me less than 15 minutes to hose it down.

Hopefully, if you haven’t already adopted similar practices, you will now be willing to save money, learn some botany and spend a little more time outdoors.

Green Grass Without Synthetics

There are benefits to having grass in parks and residential properties. When taken care of, grass becomes a natural carpet on which one can easily rest, play or walk. But to keep Poa pratensis green and thus in a juvenile state requires an investment of energy, an amount that is exaggerated by our questionable habits.

The typical high maintenance option involves buying synthetic fertilizer for spring and autumn applications, herbicide for weeds and pesticides for grubs. Some hire a company to drive around the neighbourhood to periodically spray lawns with the necessary concoction. To avoid the nuisance of a long electrical wire, people buy  gas-powered mowers.  And to prevent leaves and tree seeds from accumulating on lawn, blowers come to the rescue.

Even if people with such habits are aware that making fertilizer is an expensive  process partly because nitrogen does not spontaneously react with molecular hydrogen; even if they know that some fertilizer-pellets inevitably get sprayed onto sidewalks where they damage concrete, induce diarrhea in dogs and end up in storm drains and eventually into waterways and contribute to eutrophication; even if they suspect that the use of pesticides has ecological consequences;  even if they are aware of  the carbon footprint of synthetics and mowers and of the noise pollution of blowers, there is a possibility that they persist with their habits because they believe there is no alternative.

But when there is a will to change, there are always other options. One reason people turn to mass-maintenance techniques is that they plant more grass they can handle. City parks or residents can instead plant more trees, shrubs and cultivate gardens, which is what we did with 2/3 of the lawn we originally had in our backyard. I never spray any of our fruit trees or apply any pesticides to our garden. Instead of synthetic fertilizer, we rely on  a combination of household compost and composted chicken manure.  Grass cannot be eaten, but from July to October we have not needed to buy any tomatoes, garlic, parsley, basil, thyme or Swiss chard. We still have frozen cherries from our tree and we’ve also enjoyed arugula, fresh beans, onions and Mexican peppers, most of which were grown from seed.

P1150783.JPGA city bylaw prevents us from cultivating the front yard, but I manage to sneak in some oregano and bird’s-foot trefoil. They require less water and nitrogen than Kentucky bluegrass and displace  weeds. Since our city does not use pesticides on the grass between our sidewalk and road, dandelions, crabgrass and plantains find their way into our property. But I just pull them out with a hand tool. As an alternative to synthetic fertilizer, mulch from the electric mower is left on the lawn so that essential elements like nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium can be recycled. To supplement the lawn with more natural fertilizer, we let the dog pee on it and then immediately add collected rainwater to prevent “burning”. Due to their carnivorous diets, dogs’ urea is highly concentrated so it easily creates a hypertonic solution that needs to be diluted. In the spring the melting ice and snow takes care of that. Spots that don’t receive their share of dog pee get coffee grounds, which also keep the lawn green.

Abating the effects global warming involves more than reducing the use of fossil fuels for transportation and electricity-generation. They only account for a combined 45% of greenhouse gases(see pie chart below). Just about everything else ranging from reproduction to growing grass and food also impacts climate change. To solve the problem, regardless of the field of human activity, green or technical, we have to conserve and act more benignly towards ourselves and our surroundings.

image
AFOLU is an acronym for agriculture, forestry(deforestation) and other land uses. Its large contribution to greenhouse gases is often ignored in media reports about climate change. Source: www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg3/

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