- Open Access
Wild plants and fungi sold in the markets of Yerevan (Armenia)
Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine volume 16, Article number: 26 (2020)
The aim of the study was to record wild plants and fungi sold in the capital of Armenia. This is the first large market survey in the Caucasus region. The area of the Caucasus is characterised by a very high diversity of climates, flora and languages which results in very rich traditions of plant use.
Interviews were conducted and photos and voucher specimens were taken during multiple visits made over 4 years. We studied 37 locations and 136 people were interviewed.
As many as 163 plant species, belonging to 44 families and 110 genera, were recorded on Yerevan markets. This included 148 wild food species, 136 medicinal species, 45 species sold for decoration, 15 species of wood and 9 species of insect repellents. Also 14 wild species of fungi were sold, including 12 food species.
The list of plants sold in the markets of Yerevan is very extensive and diverse, and includes many species of wild fruits, vegetables and medicinal plants, some of them never listed in ethnobotanical directories before. A characteristic feature of this market is a large representation of lacto-fermented products. Some of the species sold in Yerevan have never been reported as human food either in wild edible plant word lists or in ethnobotanical publications, e.g. Angelica tatianae, Ferulago setifolia and Heracleum chorodanum. Fungi are also well represented.
The Caucasus is one of the richest regions of Eurasia in terms of biocultural diversity as well as being one of the globe’s most important biodiversity hotspots . In the Caucasus, a large number of climate types and high altitudinal variation is combined with high ethnic diversity. The Caucasus Mountains host more languages than the rest of Europe [2, 3]. The large diversity of economic plants and their uses was recorded by botanists and agriculturalists from the Soviet Union, including Grossgeim and Vavilov [4, 5]. Presently a new era of detailed ethnobotanical exploration of the Caucasus has begun. It consists of detailed ethnobiological exploration (e.g. [6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18]). In-depth local studies have revealed many interesting, and sometimes unique, plant uses.
Open-air markets hold an important position for ethnobotanists and ethnomycologists. Ethnobotanical studies of open-air markets are a frequent topic of ethnobotanical enquiry, as they are places where one can usually find plants that are the most important to a given culture, e.g. commonly eaten fruits, vegetables or medicinal plants (e.g. [18,19,20,21,22,23,24,25,26,27,28,29,30,31,32,33,34,35,36,37,38,39,40,41,42,43,44,45,46,47,48,49,50,51,52,53,54,55,56]). The oldest known ethnobiological market surveys were carried out in the 1920s by Pénzes in Hungary [24, 25] and Polish researchers: in the 1920s in Wilno/Vilnius (now the capital of Lithuania) by Muszyński  and in the 1930s in Poznań, Poland (Szulczewski) [22, 23]. Another important early work based on market surveys is the study of Bye from Mexico .
The ethnobiological diversity of organisms sold in open-air markets in the Caucasus has only been explored in two papers from Georgia, one about medicinal plant mixes in Borjomi , the other on wild vegetables sold in the markets of Kutaisi .
There has always been a great demand for wild plants amongst the Armenian population. They have benefited from the use of various wild plants since ancient times, and they have passed on their traditions from generation to generation. The herbs of the Armenian Highlands were highly praised by the Greek physician, pharmacologist, botanist and author of De Materia Medica, Pedanius Dioscorides . Traditionally, Armenians have used plants as food, medicine, fuel, construction material, dyes for carpet yarns, insect repellent and for other purposes.
The Armenian flora is represented by around 3800 species of vascular plants from 160 families and 913 genera, including 146 endemic species. It is estimated that about 20% of the species composition of the flora of Armenia is in use by its population . Amongst these plants, about 380 species have medicinal applications used in traditional folk medicines, approximately 90 species are used in scientific medicine, and around 320 species are traditionally used edible plants. It is estimated that out of the 1400 species of macroscopic fungi in the country, at least 300 edible, 60 poisonous and more than 120 species with medicinal properties have been recorded. However, the traditional use of mushrooms in Armenia is little studied .
Aim of study
The aim of the study was to document the taxonomic diversity and uses of the wild plants and fungi sold in the capital of Armenia, Yerevan.
Armenia is a southern Caucasian republic with a total area of 29,740 km2, bordered by Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Iran. Armenia is a mountainous country, dominated by a series of mountain massifs and valleys, with its lowest point at 375 m above sea level and culminating at 4095 m (Mt Aragats—extinct volcano) with an average elevation of 1850 m . About 90% of the country lies at an altitude of over 1000 m above sea level and is located in a seismically active area. It is home to Sevan, the largest lake in the Caucasus (area 1240 km2), a tectonic ditch at an altitude of 1900 m above sea level. The diversity of landscapes, climates (6 basic types, from dry subtropical up to extreme alpine) and orography is an important determinant of Armenia’s vegetation. The lower mountain belt (375–1200 m) is represented by semi-desert or phryganoid formations (i.e. vegetation dominated by small, fragrant, prickly semishrubs of the Lamiaceae, Asteraceae family and Astragalus, Euphorbia genera), gypsophilous or halophilous vegetation, salt marsh areas, as well as the Transcaucasian sand desert. The middle and upper mountain belts (1200–2200 m) are characterised by diversified steppe and forest vegetation, meadow-steppes, shrub steppes and thorny cushion (tragacanth) vegetation. The altitudinal span of the forest belt varies from 500 to 1500–2000 m. The subalpine and alpine belts (2200–4000 m) are covered by tall-grass vegetation, meadows and carpets, with an abundance of biocoenoses, rich species composition and a high level of endemism [60,61,62,63].
Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, dates back to the 8th century BC and is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. It is situated along the Hrazdan River and is the administrative, cultural, and industrial centre of the country, where more than half of the country’s inhabitants are concentrated. According to an official estimate from 2016, the city has a current population of 1,073,700 . The city used to be an important centre for trade and came under siege from the Romans, Arabs, Mongols, Turks, Persians, Georgians, and Russians. These various foreign influences, mixed and evolving for centuries, are still visible today, e.g. in the architecture, traditions, and of course in the use of wild plants or spices in cooking.
The city of Yerevan is divided into 12 administrative districts, and each of them has its own market. The largest markets are located in the Kentron, Arabkir and Malatia-Sebastia districts. Yerevan’s surroundings belong to the Yerevan Floristic Region, with vertical altitudes from 700 to 1700 m above sea level. The main floristic inventory work focused on the region around Yerevan was performed between the 1950s and 1980s. During a period of economic blockade and energy crisis (1992-1995), woody vegetation was extensively cut down, especially in the vicinity of hills around Yerevan, which has led to the increased erosion of soils on hillsides.
The flora of the Yerevan Floristic Region counts 1920 species, from which 46 species are endemic, and 144 species included in the Red Book of Armenia [16, 65]. The low mountain belt of the region (700–1200 m) is covered by semi-desert or phryganoid formations, gypsophilous and halophilous vegetation. There are salt marsh areas as well as the Transcaucasian sand desert. The middle and upper mountain belts (1200–1700 m) are characterised by various kinds of steppe vegetation, shrub steppes and thorny cushion (tragacanth) vegetation [16, 66].
Ethnobotanical and ethnomycological information was gathered using unstructured or semi-structured interviews and focus group discussions with city population and sellers in the markets. The observations were made in Yerevan between 2016 and 2019 in 37 open-air and farm markets, supermarkets, streets shops and other locations where wild plants and fungi were sold (Appendix 1; Fig. 1). The interviews were conducted in every month throughout the year. During the interviews, fresh or dried plant and fungi samples were collected as voucher specimens where possible. In some cases, the plants were also collected from nature. A total of 136 respondents were interviewed. The age of them varied from 20 to 80. Most respondents were women (83%) and only 17% were men. Respondents were asked about the traditional uses of the plants and fungi that were for sale, local names of species, their therapeutic effects and methods of preparation and cooking.
The plants and fungi were identified by the authors using the Flora of Armenia , the Mycoflora of Armenia Soviet Socialist Republic  and Cap Fungi of Armenia . Voucher specimens were deposited at the Herbarium of the Yerevan State University (ERCB—plants, ERHM—fungi). Plant names were updated according to the Plant List . Fungi names follow Index Fungorum .
Some of the taxa included in the list of species (Appendix 2) are often cultivated (e.g. Morus, Ficus, Punica). However, we included them in the list because they also often occur in a wild or semi-wild state.
Altogether 163 plant species have been recorded on Yerevan markets during this study (Appendix 2; Figs. 2, 3 and 4). They belong to 44 families and 110 genera. The most common plant families are Asteraceae (20%), Rosaceae (14%), and Apiaceae (11%). Tragopogon and Crataegus (both 6 species) are used the most. As many as 17 species of fungi are sold in open-air markets including 14 species collected from the wild and three species cultivated for food. Most of the mushrooms, namely 12 species, are wild species sold for culinary purposes (Appendix 2; Fig. 5).
As many as 148 plant species are sold for food, 136 species are sold as medicine or are food species with perceived medicinal values, 45 species are decorative plants, 15 plants are a source of wood and nine species are used as an insect repellent.
The largest category of species sold in the markets is those used for food. The most commonly sold and used food species are Rumex crispus, Chaerophyllum bulbosum, Astrodaucus orientalis, Malva neglecta, Falcaria vulgaris, Asparagus officinalis, A. verticilata, Eremurus spectabilis, Urtica dioica and Polygonatum orientale (for authority names cited in the text, see Appendix 2 for plants and Table 1 for fungi).
Wild food plants are used for a variety of dishes (Fig. 6). Young leaves of Stellaria media, Anthriscus nemorosa, Capsella bursa-pastoris, Urtica dioica, Mentha longifolia, Allium spp., Tragopogon spp., and Rumex spp. serve as filling for pies called zhingyalov hats, a type of flatbread stuffed with finely diced herbs. Young leaves of Vitis vinifera are used to wrap dolma (stuffed leaves with meat). Young leaves of Chaerophyllum aureum, fried with eggs, are called tapakats shushan and a similar dish made with C. bulbosum called tapakats mandak. Young leaves of Falcaria vulgaris are also commonly fried with eggs for a dish called tapakats sibekh. Fruiting bodies of Lepista personata and Agaricus campestris are combined with Triticum dicoccon (emmer wheat) for the Armenian pilav—acharov plav.
Inhabitants of the city also use some plants for salads, e.g. Urtica dioica, Portulaca oleracea and Rumex acetosa. Soups are made with different species of Malva and Rumex, and with Puschkinia scilloides. A larger variety of dishes is prepared from Asparagus officinalis, A. verticillatus, Astrodaucus orientalis, Capsella bursa-pastoris, Chaerophyllum aureum, C. bulbosum, Eremurus spectabilis, Falcaria vulgaris, Hippomarathrum microcarpum, Lactuca serriola, Lepidium draba, L. latifolium, Ornithogalum hajastanum, Polygonatum giaberrimum, P. multiflorum, P. orientale, different species of Tragopogon and Rumex.
Artemisia absinthium, Berberis vulgaris, B. orientalis, Carum carvi, Origanum vulgare, Thymus spp. and Ziziphora rigida are used as flavouring. Different species of Thymus and Allium are commonly used for flavouring cheese and curd.
Numerous species are used to make recreational teas, e.g. Rosa spp., Mentha longifolia, Cephalaria gigantea, Origanum vulgare and different species of Thymus. Juglans regia, Prunus armeniaca, Corylus avellana and seeds of Cannabis sativa are used as edible nuts. As for berries and fruits, locals buy Cornus mas, Elaeagnus angustifolia, E. orientalis, E. rhamnoides, Ficus carica, Morus alba, M. nigra, Prunus armeniaca, P. divaricata, Punica granatum, Ribes alpinum, Viburnum opulus, Ziziphus jujuba and different species of Crataegus.
The species which are sold and used most frequently as medicinal remedies in the city of Yerevan include Artemisia absinthium, Hypericum perforatum, Mentha longifolia, Origanum vulgare, Teucrium polium and three species of genus Thymus—T. kotschyanus, T. rariflorus, T. transcaucasicus. The most common types of remedies are those for the treatment of digestive disorders, the common cold and other respiratory problems.
An important segment of wild plants is the wood (Fig. 7) used for manufacturing musical instruments, like Prunus armeniaca (used to make duduk, tar, qyamancha, and zurna), P. divaricata (for saz) and different national handicrafts and souvenirs (the wood of Fagus orientalis, Juglans regia and Prunus armeniaca). Fruit bodies of Fomes fomentarius and Ganoderma lucidum commonly are used as decorative elements.
The presented list of useful plants sold in Yerevan consists of diverse categories, including both food and medicine, as well as other smaller categories. This diversity of plant uses brings studies of both southwest and southeast Asian markets to mind. In Table 2, we put together other publications on the ethnobotany and ethnomycology of markets in different parts of Eurasia. Out of studies concerning more than one plant category, the largest number of species was recorded in the market of Bodrum, Turkey, with as many as 390 species . In Turkey, similarly to Yerevan, large numbers of wild vegetables and medicinal plants are sold. The number of edible plants recorded was 143 but the number of fungi species was 7 (compared to 17 in our study). Unfortunately, we do not have lists of plants from other large towns of the Caucasus region to make local comparisons. In Kutaisi in Georgia, Łuczaj et al.  have recorded sales of 26 species of wild vegetables, while the number of species sold in Yerevan is much larger, with as many as 65 different species. In contrast to Yerevan, few wild vegetables are sold in the open markets of Central Europe, e.g. Poland and Hungary [41, 53] (mainly Rumex and Allium ursinum), and only a small portion of medicinal plants is sold [41, 53], though in the early 20th century, the medicinal sector in the markets of Poland was an important part of open-air markets [21,22,23]. But still, even in the 1920s and 1930s, the number of edible and medicinal plants for sale was lower than in contemporary Yerevan. On the other hand, the number of fungi sold in the markets of central Europe is higher than in Yerevan. For example, in southeastern Poland Kasper-Pakosz et al.  recorded the sales of 32 species, including 20 wild ones. Earlier in the 1930s, Szulczewski  recorded as many as 56 fungi species in Poznań. Of course, the number of species of fungi sold in Yerevan is still quite high—higher than in most south Asian markets. The large choice of wild vegetables and wild edible fungi must reflect the strongly herbophilic (sensu Łuczaj ) and mycophilic  approach of the inhabitants of Yerevan.
Most of the plants sold in the markets are relatively common. The main source of plants are the surrounding steppes and forests (Fig. 8). Only few species come from high altitudes or (semi)deserts. However, four Armenian Red List species have been recorded on Yerevan markets . This includes three plant species: Acorus calamus with endangered status—EN B 1 ab (i, ii, iii, iv) + 2 ab (ii, iii); Castanea sativa, endangered—EN B 1 ab (iii) + 2 ab (iii) and Ferula szowitsiana, vulnerable—VU B 1ab (ii, iii, iv) + 2 ab (ii, iii, iv), as well as one species of fungus, Pleurotus eryngii, vulnerable—VU. We suspect that F. szowitziana, A. calamus and P. eryngii can be affected by harvesting from the wild, as C. sativa is cultivated.
A characteristic feature of Yerevan markets is the many species of lacto-fermented products sold in jars. These include many wild plant species. In our study, we recorded 26 species of plants preserved in this way, including as many as 11 species from the Apiaceae. The wide use of wild Apiaceae as food, e.g. from the genera Heracleum, Anthriscus, and Chaerophyllum, seems to be a characteristic feature of the whole Caucasus area (e.g. [6, 14, 17, 74] and Anna Janicka-Galant, Łódź, pers. comm.). We recorded also 9 species of fungi, which are used as lacto-fermented products, e.g. from the genera Agaricus, Lactarius and Pleurotus. The context of fermented foods and their documentation is important due to their growing popularity and possible health benefits [75, 76].
Apart from wild foods that are commonly found in Caucasian, European and south Asian markets, some of the species sold in Yerevan have never been reported as human food either in wild edible plant word lists or in ethnobotanical publications. These include some plants from the Apiaceae family: Angelica tatianae, Ferulago setifolia and Heracleum chorodanum. Two species (Heracleum antasiaticum and Bilacunaria microcarpa), also from Armenia, have only recently been reported as food a few weeks ago .
Surprisingly, Senecio leucanthemifolius subsp. vernalis is sold as a wild vegetable. This genus of ragworts is famous for a high content of pyrrolizidine alkaloids which have a hepatotoxic and carcinogenic effect on humans . Thus, further studies are needed to assess the safety of some species sold in the market. Similar controversies were discussed for the plants sold in a Georgian market where Symphytum, also rich in these alkaloids, is sold for consumption . Arum orientale, with acrid and irritating properties due to the presence of crystals of oxalic acid, is another controversial species. As described in Appendix 2 only thorough drying and further thermal processing ensures the safe consumption of this plant.
There is a large overlap between medicinal and food species (Appendix 2). This overlap is expressed for example by the use of the same species for teas both for recreational use and medical purposes, and as spices (e.g. Artemisia, Thymus, Hypericum perforatum). Medicinal attributes of wild foods are also widely known. Good examples of plant use on a food-medicine continuum include the fruit syrup from Morus alba and M. nigra or sweets made from the cones of Pinus kochiana, which are sweets used for the treatment of coughs and respiratory system diseases. The powder of Glycyrrhiza glabra roots and rhizomes added to the traditional Armenian bread (lavash) is used for the same ailments. The persistence of such a food-medicine continuum occurs in many societies throughout the world [78, 79], including Eurasia [80,81,82,83].
The importance of local products that are often derived from wild food for Armenian economy was already noticed by Pieroni and colleagues . In their paper, they made a list of wild products that could become important trading items to local inhabitants. Some of them, such as products made from the fruits of Rosaceae trees and shrubs and from Eleagnus spp., are already on sale in Yerevan. We would go even further and say that the many interesting lacto-fermented Apiaceae made in Yerevan could even become internationally recognised as part of a healthy cuisine, on the aforementioned wave of popularity of lacto-fermented products in general . Pieroni et al.  and Slow Food  used the term foodscouting to describe the activity of looking for valuable local traditional food products. Market surveys play a large role in foodscouting as well. In countries with a very rich ethnogastronomic heritage like Armenia, food stalls enable the documentation of new foods and new processing techniques. We advocate for the documentation of plants sold in markets of selected urban centres in all the countries of the world. So far, we lack such documentation from other countries of the Caucasus, Central Asia and many East Asian countries.
Another interesting feature of Caucasian markets is the sale of dried wild vegetables. They are sold either in loose form (e.g. Ornithogalum hajastanum in Fig. 3) or entwined into circles for further boiling in winter. Drying wild vegetables and preserving them for winter is a sign of their high cultural importance and has survived as a practise only in few countries, mainly China . In the past it was also recorded in Europe, e.g. in the present territory of Belarus, but the practise is now obsolete .
The Yerevan markets are rich in wild edible and medicinal plants and wild-collected fungi (sold mainly but not only for food). They are similar to other south Asian countries in this respect, and they are richer in edible and medicinal species than European markets. It is particularly worth noting the large number of lacto-fermented products for sale.
Further studies of plants and fungi sold in traditional open markets need to be made in other large towns of the Caucasus as well as in most countries that are not highly industrialised.
Availability of data and materials
For voucher specimens, see the “Methods” section.
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The research was partially financed by the National Geographic grant GEFNE 192-16 (2017).
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The list of the surveyed markets
1. Arabkir Market - farm market, 53 Komitas Ave
2. Open-air market, 49 Marshal Baghramyan Ave
3. Open-air market, Komitas St
4. Parma Supermarket, 79 Marshal Baghramyan Ave
5. Mergelyan Shuka - farm market, 2 Hakob Hakobyan St
6. Shirak Bazar - open-air market, Gyulbenkyan St
7. Yeritsyan & Sons Supermarket, 21 Vahram Papazyan St
8. Gyughamej Eco shop, 18 Hrachya Qochar St
9. Nor Zovq Supermarket, 19 Gulakyan St
10. Aygedzor Supermarket, 2,1 Proshyan St
11. Skyurik Supermarket, 3,1/1 Nalbandyan St
12. Pak Shuka - farm market, 5 Mesrop Mashtots Ave
13. Open-air market, 7 Mesrop Mashtots Ave
14. Open-air market, 31 Mesrop Mashtots Ave
15. Open-air market, 50 Abovyan St
16. Open-air market, 7 Koryun St
17. GUM Market - farm market, 35 Movses Khorenatsi St
18. Open-air market, 52 Arshakunyats Ave
19. Fruit & Vegetable store, 50 Arshakunyats Ave
20. Street shop, 46 Arshakunyats Ave
21. Kayarani Shuka - farm market, Sasuntsi David Square
22. Open-air market and streets shops, Garegin Nzhdeh Square
23. Streets shops, 3 Yeghbayrutian St
24. Open-air market and streets shops, 23-25 Azatutyan Ave
25. Zeytun Market - farm market, 51 Paruyr Sevaki St
26. Fruit & Vegetable store, 123 Armenak Armenakyan St
27. Streets shops, Avan Alma Ata St
28. Streets shops, Marshal Babajanyan st
29. Malatya Agricultural Market, Raffi St
30. Nor Nork Farmers Market, Samvel Safaryan St
31. Palace Farmers Market, Nansen St
32. Streets shops, 14 Mikoyan St
33. Aresh Market, 80 Azatamartikner Ave
34. Streets shops, 111- 113 Muratsan St
35. Farmers Market, 15 Shinararneri St
36. Tsiran Supermarket, 44, 1 Tigran Petrosyan St
37. Gavar Fruit & Vegetable store, 10 Tigran Petrosyan St
About this article
Cite this article
Nanagulyan, S., Zakaryan, N., Kartashyan, N. et al. Wild plants and fungi sold in the markets of Yerevan (Armenia). J Ethnobiology Ethnomedicine 16, 26 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13002-020-00375-3
- Open-air markets
- Edible plants and fungi
- Food plants
- Medicinal plants