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Traditional knowledge in semi-rural close to industrial areas: ethnobotanical studies in western Gironès (Catalonia, Iberian Peninsula)



The western Gironès is a district located in NE Catalonia (NE Iberian Peninsula). This area comprising 186.55 km2 and 10,659 inhabitants is composed of 5 municipalities encompassing 29 villages, located in the hydrographic basins of the Ter and Llémena rivers.


Following the methodology based on the semi-structured interviews, we carried out 40 interviews with 57 informants, 31 were women and the remaining 26 were men, with an average age of 78.6 years.


In the present study, data from 316 taxa (301 angiosperms, 8 gymnosperms, and 7 pteridophytes) belonging to 89 botanical families were collected. The interviewed informants referred 3776 UR of 298 taxa, 1933 (51.19%) of them corresponding to the food category, 949 (25.13%) to the medicinal ones, and 894 (23.68%) to other uses. In addition, 581 vernacular names for 306 species, subspecies, and varieties have also been collected.


These results reveal the validity of traditional knowledge in the studied area, which can be seriously threatened by the loss of its rural condition and its proximity to industrialized areas.


The Catalan-speaking territories constitute a cultural unity that has attracted the interest of researchers from various disciplines. Since two pioneering PhD theses [1, 2], several similar studies have been devoted to ethnobotanical research in these areas ([3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14], among others), and papers derived from these academic works) with the common objective of collecting, inventorying, preserving, and disseminating the popular uses of plants. The so-called acculturation process taking place in the industrialized areas, in other words the adoption of modern culture to the detriment of the traditional one [15], is the main cause of the loss of this knowledge, which must be available for future generations.

For this reason, the research that was initially focused on non-industrialized areas [16,17,18,19,20,21,22] has now been expanded in industrialized areas due to their rapid loss of traditional knowledge [23,24,25,26,27].

Although ethnobotany, as defined by Harshberger [28], was conceived to study the plants used by a particular human group—not limited to any type of use—most studies have placed special interest in medicinal plants [29,30,31] and secondly in those used for food purposes [32,33,34,35,36]. The studies comprising the whole ethnobotanical knowledge of an industrialized area are less frequent. This situation is explained, according to Gras et al. [37], due to the fact that medicinal and food uses are most related to human health, which is still valid despite the above-mentioned acculturation process. In addition, according to these authors, plants with medicinal and food uses are more susceptible to being potentially used or transformed into commercial products.

The district (in Catalan “comarca”) of Gironès is located in NE Catalonia (Fig. 1), in its turn situated in the NE Iberian Peninsula. Our study was centered on the western part of this district, considering the natural unit constituted by territories under the influence of the hydrographic basins of the Ter and Llémena rivers. The western Gironès is composed of 5 municipalities encompassing 29 villages. The study area comprises 186.55 km2 and 10,659 inhabitants [38] representing a density of 57.14 inhabitants/km2. The altitudes range from 102 m a.s.l. in the locality of Bescanó to 256 m a.s.l. in Sant Martí de Llémena.

Fig. 1
figure 1

Location of the studied areas. In blue, Gironès district, including the study area (western Gironès). The figures correspond to the municipalities studied. 1: Sant Martí de Llémena, 2: Canet d’Adri, 3: Sant Gregori, 4: Bescanó, and 5: Aiguaviva. The intensity of colors is related to population density

The Gironès district has a Mediterranean climate with an irregular rain distribution with relatively wet springs and autumns and dry summers and winters. The mean rainfall increases in SE-NW direction, with values around 1000 mm per year in the North-Western edge. Winters are moderately cold and summers are hot, with an annual mean of 14.4 °C [39].

The landscape of the area was described by Girbal [40] and is very heterogeneous, the low areas are occupied by dry lands, with herbal communities from the alliances Diplotaxion erucoidis and Secalion cerealis. In the mountainous regions, there is an altitudinal gradient, from the calcicolous scrubs of Rosmarino-Ericion with Pinus halepensis. in the lowlands to the beeches with Pyrenean squill (Scillo liliohyacinthi-Fagetum sylvaticae) in the highlands. The intermediate zones are occupied by holm oak forests (Viburno tini-Quercetum ilicis subass. pistacietosum and Asplenio-Quercetum ilicis) and by a narrow belt of oak (Quercus pubescens) in the upper part connecting with beech (Fagus sylvatica).

Economically, this area has evolved through different historical periods: prior to the industrial era, it was based on agriculture—mainly cereals—livestock, and forest management for timber and charcoal production and a second period based on textile industry. Currently, these villages do not have their own economy and they have become dormitories for people working in Girona, the capital of the district, with an important economic activity [38]. To sum up, western Gironès is still at least what can be called a semi-rural area, since agriculture is still alive there, but three of its municipalities (Aiguaviva, Bescanó, Sant Gregori) play the above-mentioned role of dormitory to the close metropolitan, industrial area. Additionally, the river Llémena valley hosts an important number of secondary residences for people from the neighboring territory, especially from Girona, the 11th biggest city in Catalonia, with a population very close to 100,000, and head of one of the four Catalonian administrative units (province) including several districts, as among which the one here considered [38].

The main goals of the present study were (i) to collect plant uses and their vernacular names in a semi-rural area, to inventory and preserve this knowledge in order for it to be available to future generations, and (ii) to analyze the obtained results in order to establish some comparisons with similar territories.

Material and methods

Field work

The fieldwork took place from June 2013 to August 2014. We carried out 40 interviews to 57 informants: 23 were individual and 17 concerned 2 people, no one implying a bigger group. Out of the interviewed people, 31 (54%) were women and the remaining 26 (46%) were men. The methodology used was based on the semi-structured interviews [41] avoiding closed questionnaires and direct questions that could have an implicit answer so as not to coerce informants’ answers (Fig. 2). Conversations were developed in the Catalan language, common to interviewers and interviewees. During the ethnobotanical surveys, we not only focused on medicinal and food uses but also asked for knowledge of plants with other uses. The popular names of plants, in Catalan, were also collected.

Fig. 2
figure 2

Exemples of ethnobotanical interviews and some products derived from plants. a Interview in a homegarden. b Hypericum perforatum oil for burns and bumps. c Informants with ingredients to prepare ratafia. d Erica scoparia brooms

We have recorded information on both wild and cultivated plants, and also on plants that can be bought through commerce. Results are presented according to the classification of the folk uses of the species in three main categories: medicinal, food, and other uses. Within the food category, we distinguish the human and animal uses. To define the types of medicinal plant uses, we basically follow Cook’s Economic Botany Data Collection Standard [42].

The plant taxa cited by the informants were identified using the Flora dels Països Catalans [43] and the Flora Manual dels Països Catalans [44], which we basically follow for nomenclature. The allocation of families has been done following the APG IV [45]. The herbarium vouchers have been deposited in the herbarium BCN (Centre de Documentació de Biodiversitat Vegetal, Universitat de Barcelona).

The field work respected the ethical principles of the International Society of Ethnobiology [46] and we had the prior oral informed consent of the informants [47].

Data analysis

The interviews were recorded and subsequently transcribed, and all the information obtained was entered into the database of our research group ( The analyses were carried out with Excel (Microsoft Excel 2007) and XLSTAT (v2007.5, Addinsoft SARL) programs. To analyze the results, we have used the use report (hereinafter, UR) [48].

With the aim of assessing the state of knowledge, studies of quantitative ethnobotany were also performed and the following indices were calculated: ethnobotanicity index (EI; [49]), which is the quotient between the number of plants used and the total number of plants that constitute the flora of the territory, expressed as a percentage; the informant consensus factor (FIC; [50]), which is the quotient between the number of medicinal use reports minus the number of used medicinal plants and the number of medicinal use reports minus one. This indicates the degree of reliability of the uses claimed (higher when closer to 1).

Number of medicinal plants used per informant (P/I), per inhabitant (P/H), and per unit of area (P/km2) were calculated, in order to compare with other territories from which this information is provided only for this kind of useful plants. The linguistic diversity index [51], obtained by dividing the number of folk names by the number of taxa reported, has been calculated to illustrate the cultural richness of the folk plant knowledge.

Finally, we calculated the recently proposed index of taxon usefulness in mixtures (ITUM; [52]), which is the quotient between the number of citation of this taxon in mixtures and its total citations, whether with simple or complex presentation. This index indicates the exclusiveness of taxa in mixtures when the value is one or closer to one.

Results and discussion

This study contributes information to complete the ethnobotanical knowledge in the North Eastern Catalan linguistic and cultural area, where still a territory is to be investigated before being able to perform a meta-analytic work. It also enlarges the ethnofloristic knowledge of the Iberian territories, which are among the most studied in Europe [27]. We believe that, in general, increasing data on Catalan and Iberian folk plant knowledge provides them with a bigger robustness, apart from contributing new or rare uses and taxa used. Plants having appeared not very long time ago in European folk phytotherapy constitute not the only but a good example of such additions that prospects as the present one can bring to the ethnoflora. Although when first contacting the informants we indicate that we are interested in orally-transmitted traditional uses, in some cases, they report to us that a certain knowledge on a plant use is recently acquired. Just as a case example, Aloe vera does not appear in the pioneering works on Catalan ethnobotany [1, 2], but is importantly present, with ten use reports, in this one. Even if these data may have not been considered in some occasions, a reflection should be initiated on the new incorporations to folk knowledge, which will become tradition and will lead to a renewed paradigm in plant uses.

Characteristics of the interviewees

The average age of the informants is 78.6 years, ranging from 58 to 92, the interval between 78 and 80 years being the one that accumulates a greater number of informants. This average is one of the highest values found in the recent studies carried out in similar areas and only surpassed in the island of Formentera [11].

Most informants were native (74%) and the remaining ones have lived in the area for more than half of their lives. Only 10% are native from the neighboring district of la Selva.

Regarding their work, most of the men have been farmers (18%) or shepherds (5%), while most of the women have combined the farm work with household affairs (23%). Other professions linked to the territory are textile (16%) and hotel (7%) industries, both important economic activities in this area.

Plant species, use reports, and botanical families

Data from 316 taxa (301 angiosperms, 8 gymnosperms, and 7 pteridophytes) belonging to 89 botanical families were collected in the present study. Thirteen taxa have only been determined at generic level and 19 present infraspecific categories. In the first case, taxa—in fact ethnotaxa—were referred to by the informants without specific category. It could be due to several or all species of the genus being used, or to the fact that they were not able to distinguish the taxa. The complete catalog of the recorded useful plants in the studied area is contained in Serrasolses [13], and the data concerning all plants, shown later, are synthesized, arranged by large use categories.

The five best represented families are Lamiaceae (12.39%), Poaceae (9.25%), Rosaceae (7.35%), Asteraceae (6.84%), and Fabaceae (5.55%), which partially coincides with the findings in other territories with similar characteristics [6, 10, 12, 53] and at the same time represents the most common botanical families, apart from Apiaceae and Rutaceae, of the Mediterranean flora [44]. This fact links with the idea that the closer to civilization a plant grows, the more it is used by local people [54,55,56,57].

The interviewed informants refer 3776 UR of 298 taxa, 1933 (51.19%) of them corresponding to the food category, 949 (25.13%) to the medicinal ones, and 894 (23.68%) to other uses. The mean of UR per informant is 66.25, and 5.23 taxa per informant are cited, but these values show very large deviations due to the differences in knowledge that exist between the informants.

Medicinal plants are the most reported in the majority of ethnobotanical works carried out in the Catalan Countries [6, 10, 58]. However, in the present study, food uses are the most cited by the informants due to the collection of a large number of recipes devoted to the preparation of ratafia (see comments on this beverage in 3.5). This traditional Catalan liqueur [59], prepared with the immature fruit of Juglans regia and numerous species of preferably aromatic plants, is still consumed in areas close to the study area [60].

Quantitative ethnobotany

Some quantitative ethnobotany indexes concerning ten territories (the one here studied included) of the Catalan linguistic area are presented in Table 1. The ethnobotanicity index, not having into account the 50 taxa of allochthonous plants recorded, is 22.56% for the studied area; this roughly meaning that between one-fifth and one-quarter of the plants of the area have been claimed as useful by the informants. It occupies an intermediate position in the range of the values obtained for other Catalan-language studied areas The informant consensus factor (FIC) of medicinal information obtained for our interviewees (0.86) is close to the highest values in the quoted areas. Interestingly, this value, accounting for the consistency (thus, reliability) of plant use within a cultural and geographical group, which is an indicative of a generationally transmitted knowledge is higher to those obtained in Mexican areas (0.75, 0.79; [61, 62]). Recently, an ethnobotanical study of medicinal foods used by practitioners in an Indian area shows FIC for the different ailments treated ranging from 0 to 1, but low in mean value (0.26; [63]). The results are similar (with a highest value of 0.72) in a study of medicinal plants in the Greek Aegean Islands [64]. This indicates that the traditional pool of knowledge on plant use and management is still alive in the studied area. Consequently, we can state that there is a high consistency in folk plant knowledge in the industrial European zone considered, where it could have been hypothesized it would be lower, even as compared with less industrialized Asian or American territories, where ethnobiological data are a priori supposed to be high, robust, and less eroded.

Table 1 Quantitative ethnobotany indexes in ten territories (in italic, the one here studied) in the Catalan linguistic area. EI: ethnobotanicity index; FIC: informant consensus factor; MP: number of medicinal plants

Medicinal uses

Our informants mentioned 137 species with medicinal uses and 949 use reports, 81.66% of which are referring to human medicine, 7.06% to veterinary, and 1.37% to both human and veterinary medicines (Table 2). No information was reported for the remaining 9.91%. The mean of medicinal taxa cited by informant is 2.40. This number of medicinal plants, quoted by the 57 informants, is close (slightly lower in ratio taxa/informant) to the one found in an area covering a part of the island of Mallorca, with a comparable number of interviewees as well: 121 taxa quoted by 42 informants [57]. Conversely, a recent study in a Turkish region [65] reports 92 taxa (35% of which with medicinal uses) quoted by 123 informants, i.e., a clearly lower ratio. Similarly, a research in a Myanmar area [66] records 75 medicinal taxa cited by 206 informants. This is also the case in Europe: in the Greek Aegean Islands, 200 informants reported uses of 109 medicinal plants [64]; the authors state that these plants are used, but they do not mention any other plant quoted by the informants and not currently used. This reinforces the above-exposed argument that the ethnobotanical corpus is still relevant in industrialized areas, even in comparison with non- or less-industrialized territories, where the weight of this knowledge is a priori supposed to be higher. There is still time left (probably in its very end) to collect the traditional knowledge on plant uses in industrialized zones, which is basic in order to reintroduce it to the younger generations, or to use certain information to develop a new useful product of higher reach.

Table 2 Medicinal plants reported in the studied area

The 20 most cited species are included in Table 3. Sambucus nigra and Thymus vulgaris, with 81 and 78 UR, respectively, are the species heading the ranking. These taxa are among the most cited in other Catalan territories [6, 10, 12, 53, 58]. Concerning the families, Lamiaceae (164 UR; 17.28%) and Adoxaceae (81 UR; 8.54%) are the most reported ones followed by Asteraceae (79 UR; 8.32%), Rutaceae (48 UR; 5.06%), and Oleaceae (41 UR; 4.32%). Lamiaceae and Asteraceae have a high number of representatives in the Mediterranean flora and Rutaceae include the citrus fruit species, whereas Adoxaceae is among the most cited families because of the medicinal importance of Sambucus nigra. Although Olea europaea, the most relevant species of the Oleaceae, presents medicinal uses as antihypertensive and antihelminthic among others, its high number of use reports is mainly due to the properties of its fruit’s oil as an excipient. One of the 20 top medicinal plants, Hypericum perforatum, is illustrated, prepared for use, in Fig. 2.

Table 3 List of the 20 most cited species, representing 61.12% of use reports

Our informants referred 50 (36.5%) allocthonous taxa with medicinal uses. This high percentage of allocthonous taxa in the western Gironès is an evidence of both the acculturation process and global market influence. About two-thirds (32) of allochthonous plants recorded are archaeophytes, and only ca. one-third are neophytes (15) or plants not present in the territory and purchased through commerce (three). This nuances the effect of globalization, which is, nevertheless, significant, with 18 out of 137 taxa (13.1%) having been introduced in relatively recent times. In addition, some taxa that could be classified as archaeophytes, since their expansion is not related to the Columbian exchange [67], have been recently introduced, in fact, in popular medicine. This is the case of Aloe vera (and other species of the genus used for similar purposes), which could have been introduced as ornamental (and in some cases escaped to the wild) in rather remote times, but are used as medicinal only in recent times; in some cases surely by direct essay in plants cultivated as ornamental and in other cases probably influenced by commercial products based on these plants. In any case, the presence of so-called exotic (allochthonous) plants in European folk medicine would undoubtedly be a good subject for further studies.

The results from the most reported parts are concordant with other Catalan language areas [5, 6, 12], the aerial part being the most cited (306 UR; 32.24%), including young aerial, sterile aerial, flowering aerial, and fructified aerial parts; followed by flowers and inflorescences (213; 22.44%), and fronds or leaves (147; 15.49%).

A total of 101 types of medicinal uses have been compiled, in which anticatarrhal (59 UR; 6.22%) and stomachic (58; 6.11%) are the most frequent. Conversely, grouped by organic systems disorders, the first positions are exchanged, i.e., digestive system disorders occupy the first position, followed by respiratory system disorders (Fig. 3). The seven first histograms in this figure, altogether accounting for almost three-quarters (73.2%) of medicinal uses, basically represent the kind of remedies mostly used in pharmaceutical ethnobotany or folk medicine and in phytotherapy in general, importantly focused on chronic and usually not very severe illnesses [50, 68, 69]. This does not at all preclude ethnobotany from being a solid basis for drug development, as already stated by Chadwick & Marsh [70] and recently confirmed, for instance, with the application of artemisinin and derivatives as the most important antimalarial drugs [71]. In this respect, some of the uses recorded in the present study, apart from those addressing mild ailments—which are also important for everyday life—could be worthy of further research related to the development of drugs against cardiovascular, mental or immune system disorders, or as a cancer preventive.

Fig. 3
figure 3

Organic systems disorders, in percentage, quoted in Gironès

The mode of preparation is not very variable. With just two preparation forms, we collect almost 50% of reports. Tisane, including infusion and decoction, is the most commonly used form, reported 324 times, and represents 34.14% of forms, followed by remedies without pharmaceutical form (146; 15.38%).

The number of medicinal plants per informant (MP/I) is 2.40, comparable to the results obtained in Castelló and Ripollès, but lower than in Guilleries (Table 1). This is due to the fact that the number of medicinal plants cited does not increase proportionally to the number of informants but, as the sample grows, the citation of new species becomes less and less frequent. In the same direction, the average of citations for plants does not grow when we increase the number of informants, but tends to stabilize [72].

The number of medicinal plants per inhabitant is slightly higher value than neighboring areas such as Cerdanya or Ripollès and lower than Alt Empordà (Table 1). The number of medicinal plants per km2 (MP/km2) is 0.73, much bigger than those calculated in Cerdanya, Alt Empordà, les Guilleries, Ripollès, and Montseny. We believe that these data are useful to compare territories, but it has to be taken into account that they do not basically depend on the informant sampling but on the total population or extension of each studied area.

This study has also inventoried 55 plant mixtures with 80 different taxa; the 3 most reported species are Thymus vulgaris with 16 citations and present in a 29.09% of mixtures, Triticum aestivum (14; 25.45%) and Rosmarinus officinalis (13; 23.64%). These mixtures were used to treat 28 diseases, and if we group the diseases by organic system disorders, respiratory, and pregnancy, birth and puerperal disorders are ranked in first position, both with 20% of mixtures. The first disorder is associated with human use and the second one with veterinary use as a postpartum coadjuvant, results that in accordance with those mentioned in Gras et al. [52]. The number of species per mixture varies largely from 1 mixture to another, ranging from 2 to 28 species per mixture and the average number of taxa or ingredients is 3.31. The mixture with the highest number of taxa is a poultice for pneumonia treatment.

The informant consensus factor (FIC) for mixtures data is 0.56, a lower value than in the recent before-mentioned study, devoted to plant mixtures in two Catalan territories [52]. The index of taxon usefulness in mixtures (ITUM), calculated for all taxa with more than three use reports in mixtures, is lower than 0.50 in almost all cases, except in Triticum aestivum (0.50) and Lavandula stoechas (0.67). The results show that there is not a trend of exclusiveness of taxa use in mixtures, but taxa used in mixtures are also employed alone.

Food uses

Food uses are the most reported by the informants in this area: 224 taxa belonging to 66 families constitute an important dataset, accumulating 1933 use reports. Six of these taxa have only been determined at the genus level, and from the remaining 218 ones, 3 of them have infraspecific categories. All of these results show a clear difference with other studied areas, where the medicinal uses predominate over food uses [6, 10, 58]. We do not have a clear hypothesis that explains this surprising result, but although some biases could have occurred in the interviewing process, the importance of crops and the proximity of the markets are two factors that need to be taken into account in this area.

Concerning the destination, a 70.67% of these taxa are used in human food, a 28.30% in animal feed, and there is no information for the remaining 1.03%. The mean of food taxa cited by informant is 3.42 for human food and 1.42 for animal feed.

The most reported families for human food consumption (Table 4) are Lamiaceae (272 UR), Rosaceae (174 UR), and Asteraceae (126 UR). These are families well represented in the Mediterranean flora as in the case of medicinal plants, and some of them comprising relevant categories for human food such as aromatic plants and fruit trees. The rare families concerning both the number of species and number of use reports usually correspond to taxa acquired through commerce. The five species that have received more citations are Mentha spicata (50 UR), Reichardia picroides (37 UR), Laurus nobilis (36 UR), Arbutus unedo (35 UR), and Rubus ulmifolius (34 UR). These are wild species, but Laurus nobilis is also very frequently cultivated near houses. Additionally, Reichardia picroides, one of the most well-known food (and also feed) plants in the Catalan linguistic area [34, 58] and in other Mediterranean areas [32, 73], is a wild species, which, as reported by Maggini et al. [74] in a study in Tuscany involving cultivation of several ecotypes, seems to be a promising vegetable crop, with nutraceutical properties. Further research in this sense in different areas would be desirable to confirm this point.

Table 4 Food plants reported in the studied area

Fruit (including fructification in the gymnosperms) and infructescence are the most used plant parts (29.28%), followed by aerial part, including the whole plant sometimes used in the same way by our informants (27.6%), flower and inflorescence (17.28%), and leaf (14.2%). Regarding the preparation forms, two of them are nearly tied at the top of the ranking; the first one, the beverage prepared with alcohol (39.02%) for the importance of traditional liqueur called ratafia, and the second one, the raw plant (20.79%), which is not really a form of preparation because it implies the direct use of raw material. The plant cooked in several ways (16.76%) and condiments (16.25%) are the two categories that follow them.

As an example of alcoholic beverages, apart from punctual quotations, we collected 6 complete receipts of ratafia in the studied area, the most diverse in terms of plant taxa comprising 76 species. All of them (including the young Juglans regia fruits with a few incisions made) are put together in maceration in a big glass bottle with an anisate alcohol, conserved typically 40 days in an external part of the house, and then filtered and, if necessary, corrected in sugar. After this, and with a final graduation around 23°, it may be consumed as a pleasure and medicinal liqueur. Some of the plants ready to prepare ratafia are shown in Fig. 2.

To illustrate a few food elaborations, Urtica dioica, usually known as a medicinal plant—also employed as such in the studied area—appears as one of the wild plants with more variation: it may be scalded and then either seasoned and consumed as a vegetable or prepared in omelet, and it may be boiled and eaten in soup. Sambucus nigra flowers are consumed in a very common way in northeast Catalonian areas [10, 34], the so-called brunyols or bunyols. These are kind of pastry prepared coating the flowers with a pasta made with floor and water, frying them in very hot oil, and finally seasoning them with salt or sugar, depending on the use of the product with salty food or as a dessert. Additionally, and more originally, the flowers (optionally together with tender leaves) of this species are prepared and consumed in omelet.

For human food, the use of cultivated and wild plants is similar in percentages: 44.62% of the taxa used are cultivated and 55.38% are wild. Contrarily to what one could expect, with crops dominating the market, the relevance of wild food plants is high.

Concerning animal fodder (Table 5), the most reported families are Poaceae (153 UR), Fabaceae (105 UR), and Brassicaceae (70 UR) the five more cited species being Zea mays (56 UR), Brassica napus (46 UR), Quercus ilex (37 UR), Medicago sativa (34 UR), and Triticum aestivum (28 UR). In general, these species are consumed raw (43.88%) or air-dried and preserved (39.12%). The most used parts of plants are the aerial part that sometimes includes the whole plant (41.68%), leaves (19.74%), and seeds (14.1%). These grains can be given directly to the animals or processed in order to obtain flour or fodder.

Table 5 Fodder plants reported in the studied area

For animal feed, the percentage repartition is similar than for human food: 44.44% of taxa used are cultivated and 55.56% are wild, again accounting for the importance of food plants in the region considered.

Other uses

This category, arranged in Table 6, includes uses that are neither medicinal or food. This is a melting pot with numerous subcategories. Most probably, in societies currently much more dependent on natural resources at an ethnobotanical level, many subcategories could be treated independently, because they would receive a big number of use reports, but we have realized that in our cultural area, where many uses have only few reports based on ancient memories, it is practical to treat all of them together (Gras et al. 2016). We have collected 894 UR concerning 125 taxa, 8 of them only determined at the genus level. These taxa belong to 47 plant families, Fagaceae (136 UR, 15.21%), Poaceae (117 UR; 13.09%), Ericaceae (109 UR; 12.19%), Cannabaceae (69 UR; 7.72%), and Fabaceae (48 UR; 5.37%) being the most cited.

Table 6 Plant with other uses reported in the studied area

The five most reported species are Quercus ilex (66 UR; 7.38%), Celtis australis (63 UR; 7.05%), Arundo donax (48 UR; 5.37%), Erica scoparia (44 UR; 4.92%), and Laurus nobilis (39 UR; 4.36%). This top list reflects the persistency of a rural bottom still alive in the studied territory, since these plants are importantly used for agricultural practices, e.g., Arundo to grow Lycopersicon esculentum or Phaseolus vulgaris plants, Celtis to elaborate forks and Erica (as its specific epithet claims, indicating an old use) to make brooms (Fig. 2).

Even if we treat all of them in a single category, thus comparable with the medicinal and food ones, the different uses (subcategories) are also addressed, and those regarding the present study can be observed in Fig. 4. We emphasize the importance of the artisanal uses (231 UR, 25.84%) comprising the making of shoes, toys, and brooms among others, agrosilvopastoral management (170 UR, 19.02%) and timber (127 UR, 14.21%). Some of these categories correspond to professions that no longer exist but that have had a lot of relevance in the past and are, in some cases, transformed to sell their products as touristic objects.

Fig. 4
figure 4

Other uses, as a percentage, quoted in Gironès

Regarding the parts of plant used, which are closely related with their uses, the most reported are the stem and trunk (364 UR; 40.72%), followed by the aerial part and the whole plant (253 UR; 28.3%), and the fruit and infructescence (65 UR; 8.50%).

Vernacular names

In this study, 581 vernacular names for 306 species, subspecies, and varieties have been collected, comprising 2892 reports. Ten taxa have been mentioned by the informants without any popular name. This is a very small percentage of the phytonyms recorded, and reflects that, in a few cases, the informants do not know (or, more often, do not remember) the name of a plant. The most reported taxa are those with a single or a few vernacular names as a general trend, as is the case of thyme (Thymus vulgaris), which has been mentioned 52 times with a unique popular name (farigola in Catalan language). In contrast, the species designated with more vernacular names are the cultivated ones, due to the names of landraces of several taxa that have also been quoted by the informants.

The ethnophytonymy index [53] shows a high value (32.6%), meaning that roughly one-third of the plants in the studied area have at least one folk name, comparable to the results from other Catalan territories, such as 35% in the Pallars district [5], 31% in Alt Empordà district [10], 29.8% in the island of Mallorca [12], 28% in the Montseny mountain massif [6], and 18% in Castelló province [1]. The allochthonous ethophytonymy index proposed by Carrió [12] calculates the rate between taxa having a vernacular name in non-Catalan languages (even for those taxa having also some Catalan names) and the total number of collected taxa. In the present study, the value is very small (4.7%, due to a few Spanish names) as compared with the one obtained in Mallorca (27.8, due to some names in Spanish and French languages; [12]), indicating a more culturally homogeneous informants’ pool.

The linguistic diversity index, which expresses the linguistic richness of a territory independently of its flora, reaches a value of 1.90 (almost two names per plant, in mean), comparable to those obtained in l’Alt Empordà (1.94) [10], Navarra (1.87) [75], and Montseny (1.76) [6].

It is interesting to remark that a certain number of folk plant names are linked to their uses. For instance, Achillea ageratum is called in Catalan language herba del fàstic (“disgusting herb”), since it incites vomiting; herba cuquera (“worm’s herb”) and herba fetgera (“liver’s herb”) allude, respectively, to the antihelminthic use of Agrimonia eupatoria and the hepatoprotective use of Anemone hepatica (the latter bearing the same indication in its specific epithet); Centaurea aspera, an hypoglycemiant plant, is named flor del sucre (“sugar’s flower”); nap de bou (“cow’s rape”) announces the use of Brassica napus to feed cattle; bruc d’escombres (“broom’s heather”) confirms the specific epithet of Erica scoparia, which is used, as other Erica species, for broom elaboration. All kind of plant uses are reflected in some vernacular names. We believe that an in-depth research on folk phytonyms (in different areas of a language and in different languages) and of scientific plant names that reflect plant uses is an interesting field of research, still scarcely or not at all addressed in ethnobotany.

Concluding remarks

This study has revealed that traditional knowledge is persisting in the studied area if we take into account the numbers of taxa quoted and of use reports, as well as the values of the calculated indexes and despite the proximity to the highly urbanized areas. We have detected a significant number of allochthonous useful plants, and we believe that this subject should be particularly addressed in ethnobotanical studies in other areas throughout the world. The food plant use dataset is particularly important. Conversely, although the knowledge remains in the memory of our informants, the medicinal use of plants is substantially smaller than it used to be (informants often speak in the past of these uses) in their daily life, proving the erosive process in plant traditional knowledge and use that our industrialized societies are experiencing. In this sense, our research helps to alleviate this deterioration and to inventory this heritage, making ready for dissemination and reintroduction to younger generations of the society, who have suffered acculturation, and also for further studies in drug or other useful products development. In any case, even though the current ethnopharmacological pool is eroded and less employed as opposed to some decades ago, as we have shown, the number of medicinal plants and uses recorded are clearly higher than in less industrialized areas, where uses are more persistent. This applies, even more, for the food ethnobotanical corpus and, again to a lesser extent, to the ethnobotany of non-food and non-medicinal plant uses, finally showing the general solidity of ethnobotanical tradition in the area studied, which is now recorded and, thus, protected.


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The authors want to thank the informants for sharing with us their knowledge and their time. Samuel Pyke (Botanical Garden of Barcelona) is also acknowledged for his revision of the English language, Josep M. Suñé (Universitat de Barcelona) for his advices regarding pharmaceutical preparations and forms, and Joan Veny (Institut d’Estudis Catalans) for his continuous help in phytonymic questions. This research was supported by projects 2014SGR00514 and 2017SGR1116 from Generalitat de Catalunya (Catalan government) and PRO2017-S02-VALLES from the Institut d’Estudis Catalans. AG benefited from a predoctoral grant of the Universitat de Barcelona (APIF 2015-2018) and a predoctoral contract of project CGL2017-84297-R of the Spanish government. Finally, we acknowledge support of the publication fee by the CSIC Open Access Publication Support Initiative through its Unit of Information Resources for Research (URICI).


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TG and JV coordinated the study. All authors (AG, GS, JV, and TG) participated in the design of the research, data collection, and results discussion. All authors wrote the manuscript and they read and approved the final manuscript.

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Gras, A., Serrasolses, G., Vallès, J. et al. Traditional knowledge in semi-rural close to industrial areas: ethnobotanical studies in western Gironès (Catalonia, Iberian Peninsula). J Ethnobiology Ethnomedicine 15, 19 (2019).

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