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Renegotiating situativity: transformations of local herbal knowledge in a Western Alpine valley during the past 40 years



Mountain environments are fragile socio-ecological systems and the conservation of their biological and cultural diversities— seen as co-evolving, strongly intertwined entities—represents a crucial issue for fostering their sustainability. Very few ethnobiological studies have assessed in the mountainous regions of Europe how local botanical knowledge, which represents a vital portion of the local environmental knowledge (LEK), changes over time, although this may be quintessential for a better understanding of the factors influencing how knowledge and practices are shaped, eroded, or even re-created.


In the current study, we compared the gathering and use of local medicinal plants in the Upper Sangone Valley, Western Italian Alps, Piedmont (NW Italy) as described in a field study conducted in the mid-seventies and published in 1977 and those arising from field research that we conducted in the spring of 2015 and 2018, during which time ethnobotanical and ethnomycological information concerning both folk medicinal and wild food uses was obtained via 47 in-depth open and semi-structured interviews with community members.


In total, one hundred thirty folk taxa represent the past and present medicinal and wild food plant/mushroom heritage of the Sangone Valley: 26 herbal taxa were recorded 40 years ago only; 68 herbal and wild food taxa have been recorded in the current study only; and 36 herbal taxa have been continuously used during the last 40 years. There were no remarkable quantitative differences between the two diachronic medico-ethnobotanical datasets, but the qualitative differences were substantial. The gathering and use of some medicinal plants growing in meadows, forests and higher mountain environments (i.e. Arctostaphylos, Filipendula, Hepatica, Larix, Laserptium, Picea, Polygonatum, Primula, Tussilago and Veronica spp.) disappeared, whereas the collection of plant genera growing in more anthropogenic environments or possibly promoted via popular books and media has been newly introduced (i.e. Aloysia, Apium, Brassica, Crataegus, Epilobium, Fumaria, Geranium, Juniperus, Melissa, Rubus, Rumex, Sedum, Silybum, Taraxacum and Vaccinium spp.).


The findings show a renegotiation of the situativity that for centuries forged the embeddedness of local communities in their natural environments, probably heavily informed in the past by prevalent pastoralist and forest-centred activities and thus by a deeper knowledge of higher mountain and forest environments. The re-arrangement of a more domestic and more “globalized” herbal knowledge system was possibly inspired by new urban residents, who started to populate the valley at the end of the Seventies, when the original inhabitants abandoned their homes for the urban centres of the Piedmontese plain. The current study suggests that future directions of ethnobiological research should more carefully look at the adaptive capacity of LEK systems.


In the past decades, local environmental knowledge (LEK) of mountain communities has increasingly been at the centre of important field researches and public debates as it is nowadays widely considered a precious resource for sustainable development [1,2,3,4,5,6]. The value of LEK, however, has often been perceived in opposition to modernity which draws from the peripherality of the communities and their distance from cities, the main perceived catalyst centres of “modernity”. This assumption, though, has reiterated a long-standing dichotomic model that represents part of the problematic scientific debate which views the LEK of marginal communities in opposition to modernity [7, 8]. The relationship between LEK and modernity has often been described with binary conceptualizations, such as the science of the concrete vs. “the sciences” [9], tacit knowledge vs. scientific knowledge [10], oral knowledge vs. written knowledge [11], Indigenous Knowledge vs. Western knowledge [12] and Traditional Knowledge vs. modern knowledge [13].

“Situated” local ecological knowledge (LEK) refers to a system of knowledge, practices and beliefs that is profoundly embedded within a given socio-ecological endroit [14]. Lauer and Aswani [15] described how LEK in the Western Salomon Islands overcame the distinction between cognitive aspects and other modalities of knowing and how it is deeply intertwined with everyday ecological practices. Ecological knowing and practicing is more than a mere, even complex, system and Whyte [16] argued that this LEK is actually to be seen as a collaborative concept and that scientists, environmentalists and local communities should try to create long-term processes that allow the different implications of approaches to knowledge in relation to stewardship goals to be responsibly considered. In this perspective, the concept of situated LEK has become a useful tool in regional planning linked, in particular, with rural development [17]. More broadly, the debate about situated knowledge, however, highlights the dynamicity of local knowledge and examines the possible drivers of change in order to support local communities and environmental preservation.

In a recent review that assessed the global literature and analysed the drivers of various types of LEK transformations [18], the authors postulated that the impoverishment of LEK may be driven by globalization, modernization, and market integration. Moreover, they highlighted the unsymmetrical loss of LEK, with losses being more markedly recorded in medicinal and botanical domains.

Changes in LEK measured as knowledge and practices concerning the ecosystem have been the subject of a few studies in recent years [19, 20]. Liu et al. [19] described the industry-, government- and culture-driven changes of LEK of Tao fly fishing culture in Taiwan and found that various external factors have contributed to LEK changes, such as inappropriate government policies, modern science and technology, education and the market economy. Duenn et al. [20] studied the perception of invasive alien species among Rabari pastoralists from Gujarat, India, and the results showed that alien species invasion was not perceived as a major problem; the authors postulated that the adaptive capacity of LEK systems and a slow rate of environmental change directly attributable to alien species may explain this apparent “paradox”.

However, changes in folk botanical knowledge, assessed using comparable research methods (ethnography-based techniques, e.g. face-to-face interviews), remain poorly investigated. Some diachronic comparisons in ethnobotany have been attempted, with interesting results, in Eastern Europe [21,22,23,24,25,26] and, more recently, in Southern Europe [27], while beyond Europe this has been more sporadically done [28, 29]. In particular, in Poland, a comprehensive historical study showed that LEK linked to the gathering of wild green vegetables has gradually decreased, mainly due to replacement by a few cultivated vegetables; this process started in the nineteenth century, but became more pronounced during the twentieth century [22]. Moreover, a review focusing on wild food plant gathering in Europe [30] has underlined not only the decline of “traditional” foraging but also the remarkable emergence of a new, “recreational” foraging, practiced by urban classes, often popularized by trained botanists, organic farmers, chefs, and food activists, and whose real impact among the majority of the population in Western societies has still to be properly assessed. Schunko et al. [31] well demonstrated a decade ago that the motivation of the resurgent popularity of wild plant gathering among organic farmers in Austria is to be attributed to an “internalization” of motivations, i.e. the pleasure of the activity itself, while diverse authors in Europe ([32], and chapters therein [33]) discussed how the resilience or resurgence of foraging may be linked to the increasing attention communities and citizens pay to their local/regional cultural identities and to the perceived healthy properties of the wild food plants.

On the herbal ethnobotanical side, changes in medicinal plant use in Estonia between 1888 and 1994 showed that the use of garlic, hose chestnuts and mint increased, whereas the use of barley, orchids, Paris quadrifolia and Briza media significantly decreased [23], thus supporting the idea that during the past century the utilization of plants depending on human influence was remarkably amplified.

On the other hand, the lack of extensive literature providing diachronic ethnobotanical data is due to the fact that the few field studies carried out decades ago were often conducted by researchers (primarily folklorists or local historians) who were not able to present reliable botanical identifications or, more rarely, by biologists who had never been exposed to the social sciences. We believe that these limitations can greatly affect the validity of comparative works much more than is generally assumed by many researchers. However, in one study that was conducted in the mid-seventies (most likely in 1976) in the Upper Sangone Valley, a tiny valley of the Western Italian Alps [34], researchers documented folk herbal practices via face-to-face interviews with locals. We therefore decided to conduct the current field research in exactly the same area, in order to analyse the ethnobotanical picture 40 years later.

The present paper provides a contribution to the aforementioned debate by exploring the changes in LEK in a Western Alpine valley during the past 40 years, using as a proxy a comparison between the medicinal plants gathered and used by the local community in the mid-seventies and those gathered and used in the years 2015–2018.

The specific objectives of this study therefore were:

  1. (a)

    to investigate the current ethnobotanical heritage (including both wild food and herbal plant and mushroom uses) of the Upper Sangone Valley;

  2. (b)

    to compare the recorded herbal uses with those recorded forty years earlier;

  3. (c)

    to interpret possible differences in both ecological and/or cultural terms and to discuss the diachronic transformation of local plant knowledge.

Materials and methods

Selection of the ethnobotanical literature

A decade ago, our research group started an investigation on the historical ethnobotanical literature of Italy from 1884 to the 1980s [35, 36] and selected those works which included both reliable botanical identifications (i.e. works indicating voucher specimens, or studies conducted by academic botanists or, even better, botanical taxonomists) and a clear description that the ethnobotanical information was collected via face-to-face interviews. At the end of this months-long work, we obtained no more than a dozen field studies conducted between 1955 and 1980 in NW, NE and Central Italy, which could be considered appropriate for diachronic comparison. Among this restricted group, one study conducted in the mid-seventies in the Western Alps emerged [34]. This particular field study was conducted in the Upper Sangone Valley and subsequently published in an Italian hospital pharmacy journal in 1977. The work was conducted, without the collection of vouchers, by academic botanists via face-to-face interviews with locals, focusing specifically on local wild and cultivated medicinal plants gathered and used in domestic herbal medicine or as a medicinal food (i.e. herbal liqueurs and other food preparations consumed with the express purpose of treating certain illnesses). The work did not document, however, any frequency of quotation, or frequency of use, of the cited medicinal plants, or details regarding the areas in which the plants were collected.

Current field study

The current field study was conducted in the same area where the aforementioned study was conducted in the Seventies: the Upper Sangone Valley, Cottian Alps, Piedmont, NW Italy (Fig. 1). The following small villages were visited: Alpe Palè (N 45° 03′ 56″ E 7° 13′ 32″, Coazze Muncipality, 1356 m a.s.l.; approximately 10 inhabitants); Borgata Tora (N 45° 00′ 33″ E 7° 18′ 11″, Giaveno Municipality, 994 m a.s.l.; approximately 20 inhabitants); Cervelli (N 45° 03′ 13″ E 7° 16′ 06″, Coazze Municipality, 881 m a.s.l., approximately 40 inhabitants); Colle Braida (N 45° 04′ 59″ E 7° 19′ 59″, Valgioie Municipality, 1008 m a.s.l.; 10 inhabitants); Mollar dei Franchi (N 45° 01′ 28″ E 7° 20′ 17″, Giaveno Municipality, 563 m a.s.l.; 50 inhabitants); Roccette (N 45° 01′ 37″ E 7° 17′ 45″, Giaveno Municipality, 780 m a.s.l.; 60 inhabitants); and Prè Fieul (N 45° 01′ 42″ E 7° 16′ 15″, Giaveno Municipality, 1263 m a.s.l.; approximately 20 inhabitants). The main centre of Coazze (N 45° 03′ 07″ E 7° 18′ 02″, 750 m a.s.l., approximately 2700 inhabitants) was also included, since a few inhabitants maintain links to pastures in higher valleys.

Fig. 1

The study area within the lingustic map of Piedmont, NW Italy

The field study was carried out by the two authors with the help of some trained students (see acknowledgments) in the spring of 2015 and 2018. In-depth open and semi-structured interviews were conducted with community members (n = 47, average age 65; 21 interviews were conducted in 2015 and 26 in 2018) in the aforementioned eight settlements. Participants were selected using snowball sampling techniques, focusing specifically on those elderly community-members (e.g. farmers, housewives) who still have connections to an agro-pastoral way of life. Informants were asked about current and recent past gathering and use of (a) local wild food plants; (b) wild and domesticated medicinal and veterinary plants; and (c) mushrooms for food and/or medicine. The second category (b) included both proper medicinal plants and also plant-based medicinal foods (i.e. herbal liqueurs and other food preparations consumed with the express purpose of treating certain illnesses).

Specifically, study participants were asked about the local plant name(s) and plant part(s) used, as well as specific details about their manipulation/preparation and actual herbal or food use(s). Interviews were conducted in Italian. Prior informed consent was always verbally obtained prior to the interviews and researchers adhered to the ethical guidelines of the International Society of Ethnobiology [37]. During the interviews, informants were always asked to show the quoted plants or, at least, to describe them. Botanical excursions both around the house and in the mountains were additionally conducted in order to collect botanical specimens, which are deposited at the Herbarium of the University of Gastronomic Sciences. Taxonomic identifications were carried out by the first author according to the Flora of Italy [38], while botanical nomenclature was later standardized using The Plant List database [39]. Family assignments follow the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group IV system [40] and mushroom nomenclature follows the Index Fungorum database [41].

Study area

The surrounding landscape is typical of pre-Alpine and Alpine habitats. Chestnut and beech tree forests dominate up to 1000 m, while higher elevations are covered by fir, pine and birch forests, as well as grasslands with rhododendron and blueberry bushes at over 2500 m a.s.l. The upper part of the territory is occupied by Orsiera-Rocciavrè Natural Park, a protected area of approximately 10,000 ha, established by the region of Piedmont in 1980. The park extends into the Northern Cottian Alps, the boundaries of which run, on average, at an altitude of 1400 m a.s.l., and the most important mountain peaks included within the park reach nearly 3000 m a.s.l. The altitude of thermal zero in winter is 1700 m a.s.l. The territory is characterized by relatively low rainfall, which is among the lowest in NW Italy. On average, maximum rainfall is in May and October and the minimum is in January and July. The geomorphological characteristics of the park territory allow many animal species to find suitable habitat, among them hares, rock ptarmigans, marmots, chamois and mouflons.

As in other valleys in the Western Alps [42,43,44,45], the traditional economy of the communities in the Sangone Valley relied on a multifunctional agricultural model based on small family farms, which combined the cultivation of cereals (mainly barley, rye, and maize) with that of vegetables (such as cabbages, carrots, onions, potatoes, onions, turnips) and fruits (apples, pears). In addition, and more importantly, it also included cattle, sheep and goat pastoralism, which supported local dairy production, while hunting and gathering practices (which included the collection of chestnuts, mushrooms and herbs used for both food and medicine) were mainly carried out in forests and higher pastures. This model was still followed in the early decades of the twentieth century [46]. Despite the importance of agriculture, the manufacturing industry has played a key role in the valley since the late nineteenth century. The Sangone Valley is located on one of the main transit routes between Italy and France [47], and its municipalities are easily accessible from Turin, one of the most important industrial cities in Italy. This allowed rapid development of the manufacturing industry in the valley beginning in the nineteenth century [48,49,50] and fostered the emergence of a mixed household economy that linked wage-earning to multifunctional farming activities. Moreover, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the valley became one of the first destinations for Alpine tourism [51], primary associated with trekking and cross-country skiing, which further complexified the local economy. As in the rest of the Alpine region [52], the post-WWII period marked the decline of agriculture as an economic sector of the valley, with the reduction of cultivated land in the valley [53], as well as specialization of agricultural production (e.g. apples, pears). While in the 1960s and 1970s, the valley experienced fast industrial development, in the following decades, like the rest of the region [54], the economy of the Sangone Valley opened to the service sector, accelerating the agricultural decline. In this transformation, tourism has played a vital role, expanding its reach and encompassing initiatives linked to the promotion of local cultural and gastronomic heritage [55, 56].

The local language of the Upper Sangone Valley, referred to by locals as patois, is Franco-Provençal (also known as Francoprovençal, Arpitan or Romand), which is mainly used only in the domestic arena by elderly community members; both standard Italian and the Piedmontese dialect are largely dominant among the middle and younger generations and in all communication with external visitors. Franco-Provençal represents a dialect group within the Gallo-Romance language family, which is also spoken in East and Central France, Western Switzerland, NW Italy, and in two tiny enclaves in SE Italy. Its current use within the domestic arena is decreasing, although some organizations are attempting to preserve this linguistic heritage through cultural events, educational platforms and some publishing activities [57].

Data analysis

The medicinal botanical data recorded in 2015 and 2018 were tabulated and compared with those arising from the medical-ethnobotanical fieldwork that was conducted in the mid-seventies in the same area [34] via a matrix describing the plant genera traditionally gathered and used for medicinal purposes nowadays and/or 40 years ago, which was then visualised in a Venn diagram.

Additionally, the recorded plant reports were qualitatively compared with the most comprehensive worldwide wild food plant compendia [58, 59], the Italian medical ethnobotanical database [60], an ethnobotanical survey carried out in a nearby valley one decade ago [61], and a few recent, sporadic ethnobotanical studies conducted on the Italian side of the Alps [62,63,64,65], in order to point out possible novel reports (i.e. reports not previously recorded in the Italian ethnobotanical literature).

Moreover, the most important written popular sources of herbal knowledge published in Italy from the 1970s until now were also considered [5, 66,67,68,69,70,71,72], in order to qualitatively assess the possible correspondence between “new” recorded herbal customs and their recurrent presence in this literature.


Plants and mushrooms for food and medicine in the Sangone Valley

In total, one hundred thirty folk taxa (i.e. taxa linked to a single folk plant/mushroom name) were recorded, representing the past and present medicinal and food heritage of the Sangone Valley (Table 1):

  • 26 taxa used as medicine were recorded 40 years ago only;

  • 68 taxa were recorded in the current study only—as locally gathered plants/mushrooms for food only (33 taxa), for medicinal uses only (23 taxa) or for both (12 taxa);

  • 36 taxa have been continuously used during the last 40 years.

Table 1 Local wild food and medicinal plants gathered and used in the study area

Wild food plants and mushrooms still represent an important source of ingredients in the study area today (Table 1). The most important groups of wild food plants are leafy vegetables and mushrooms, which are normally gathered in the spring and autumn, respectively. Most of the recorded wild food and herbal plant reports were previously reported in a few sporadic ethnobotanical studies conducted on the Italian side of the Alps ([60], and references therein [61,62,63,64,65];). Among the traditional and most distinctive recipes, it is worth mentioning the resilience of a soup made with violets called müshe morte (“dead flies”), as the cooked flowers resemble flies.

Cross-temporal comparison

Figure 2 shows the comparison between the past and current herbal uses of the recorded plant genera. We deemed that considering plant genera and not species was more appropriate given the possible discrepancies in species identification between the datasets and taking into account that under-differentiation does occur for herbaceous plants in the study area (one folk plant name may sometimes correspond to diverse used botanical species within the same genus, see Table 1).

Fig. 2

Venn diagram showing the overlap between the medicinal plant genera gathered in the Seventies and those gathered in 2015–2018 in the Sangone Valley. D: cultivated genera or genera growing in anthropogenic environments; genera mainly growing in forest and higher mountain areas are underlined, while genera very commonly used nowadays are in bold type

Despite the possible limitations due to the lack of data on the frequency of gathering/use of medicinal plants recorded in the Seventies and the fact that a number of medicinal taxa are not commonly gathered and used nowadays (see Table 1), there was no remarkable quantitative difference between the two medical ethnobotanies (53 recorded herbal genera in the Seventies and 59 in the current study) but qualitatively the difference was substantial.


The renegotiation of situated LEK

Overall, the data analysis suggests a profound change of herbal LEK which is linked to the very way people lived, and now live, in the valley.

The data collected in 1976 show botanical knowledge linked to different ecosystems in the valley, as well as knowledge of specific, local species. Wild species traditionally gathered in more remote mountain areas could be linked to the disappearance of pastoralist and forest-centred activities, which were prominent in the study area many decades ago.

Figure 2 clearly shows that the gathering and use of plant genera that, accordingly to the Italian botanical reference flora [38], mainly grow in pastures, forests and higher mountain areas (underlined in the figure) has ceased, while the collection of cultivated medicinal plants or medicinal plants growing in more anthropogenic environments [38] has been newly introduced. This is similar to what has been observed for the patterns of change in wild food plant knowledge in Europe [22, 30].

Thus, the research shows a form of LEK that encompasses the entire complexity of the valley, which is compatible with the specificities of local multifunctional farming. This adaptive strategy [73] involves horticultural activities carried out in fields in the lower parts of the valley, hunting and gathering practiced in the forests and summer dairy farming and milk processing conducted in the high pastures. Moreover, plant knowledge was remarkably focused on medicinal uses of herbs. In a country in which a National Health System was instituted only in 1978 [74], the availability of medical treatments and drugs was limited. In this respect, the use of local plants and remedies was a fundamental resource for families; a resource embedded in and specific to the place.

Forty years later, herbal LEK has been transformed, as has the way the community inhabits the Sangone Valley. Dwelling is the result of the different activities a community or an individual performs in the landscape and on the basis of this activity they experience and know their surroundings thereby developing their knowledge [75, 76]. In this respect, the transformation of LEK is the result of a nonlinear history [77] of demography, education and economy.

On the demographic side, while most of the Alpine Valley in the country faced rapid socioeconomic transformation after WWII [52], which led to the abandonment of the valley [78], the Sangone Valley experienced the opposite. Thanks to its position close to Turin and on the main corridor between Italy and France, like neighbouring Val di Susa [47], during the past 40 years, the valley has been repopulated (see Table 2). While from the 1940s to 1960s local inhabitants abandoned the valley, the repopulation of the valley is linked first of all to the opening of a large car manufacturing facility in Rivalta in 1967, as well as other factories in other municipalities in the Sangone Valley [79]. Due to this industrialization, new factory workers, coming from all across Italy [80], have settled in the municipalities of the valley since the 1960s. Moreover, since the 1980s, the valley has been the destination of a new wave of immigrants. In this case, it has been mostly professionals and other people from Turin, who decided to move away from the city looking for better accommodation and environment. Due to the landscape and overall affordability of houses, these newcomers settled in the valley, enriching the cultural diversity of the place. In regard to LEK, these new inhabitants, most of the time, have had little or no knowledge of the valley and its environment but have enriched the culture of the place by bringing with them knowledge concerning different plants from their home communities [81].

Table 2 Population change in the municipalities of the Sangone Valley

This period has not only transformed the demography of the place but also deeply affected the family economy of the valley. As in other parts of the Western Alps [82], it has coincided with a deep transformation of the local economy. In particular, it is linked to a crisis of the multifunctional farming system. Attracted by new and more lucrative jobs in industry or the service sector, locals have abandoned agriculture as the main field of activity. At the same time, the agricultural sector has moved towards industrialization, abandoning traditional practices or marginalizing their role. The same has happened with the role of wild plant and mushroom gathering, which have been relegated to being a marginal hobby with the sole main exception of mushroom harvesting, and in particular boletus mushrooms, which have become a key landmark product for the Sangone Valley, celebrated through advertising and local events, such as the mushroom food festival in Giaveno.

Finally, on the cultural side, as in the rest of the region, the second half of the twentieth century marked a crisis in the transmission of traditional knowledge, as well as environmental knowledge [83]. The crisis was not linked just to the passage from orality to written knowledge, a process that has been vastly explored [11, 84,85,86], but rather to the expansion and differentiation of (written and oral) sources that compose the mediascape [87] of a local community. In this regard, current environmental knowledge is not the result of a linear intergenerational transmission of knowledge, nor just the result of a process of legitimate peripheral legitimation undergone by the individual within the local community [88]. Rather, it is the assemblage of information gathered by individuals based on their interaction with other members of the community as well as with experts, their formal education and popular literature and also with the information gathered from mass media.

Moreover, “global” remedies emerged as a new phenomenon with three genera (Melissa, Taraxacum, Vaccinium; highlighted in bold type in Fig. 2) that are now widely used but were not even collected forty years ago. In particular, the gathering and use of Alchemilla, Crataegus, Melissa, Silybum, Aloysia, Betula, Fumaria, Taraxacum and Vaccinium spp. may have been spread via popular herbal literature printed during the past four decades in Italy [66,67,68,69, 89], possibly reinforced first by TV programs and later, during the past decade, by some popular Internet sources and social media [70,71,72]. In the case of Epilobium angustifolium, a research group has, for example, recently linked the increase in popularity of its herbal use in Eastern European countries to a clear influence of popular literature, likely spread by the work of Austrian herbalist Maria Treben, whose writings have been best-sellers in many countries during the past three decades, and also by a number of Russian internet sources [90].

Undoubtedly, the changes that the valley has experienced have transformed local communities and their knowledge. In light of this change, the transformation in LEK this research has pointed out does not suggest a de-situated local environmental knowledge, i.e. depleted and eroded by modernity, as commonly assumed in the literature after the postmodernist turn triggered by the seminal work of Lyotard [91]. Our research, instead, suggests that current herbal LEK is the result of a different way of living in the surroundings that answers to present-day social, economic and cultural needs. As pointed out by Nygren [92], LEK is not antithetical of globalization and modernity, but rather it is embedded in this complexity. The making of this knowledge is complex and comes full of friction [93], through which experiences and knowledge developing inside and outside the locale are assembled. Moreover, the observed co-evolution of LEK reflects the transformation of the local socio-ecological system [7]. Thus, the case of the Sangone Valley shows the plasticity and dynamicity of LEK and outlines a circular relationship between environmental change, social change and LEK in which LEK is mutating in response to the transformations of society and the environment. On the other hand, their change also modifies the very way in which the community sees its society and its surroundings.

Despite the major limitation of our study (the lack of data concerning the frequency of gathering/use of the medicinal plants 40 years ago), this circularity suggests that herbal LEK in the study area is not simply eroded or disappearing, but tangible and present, and thus always, but differently, situated. These findings challenge, to some extent, the main conclusions of most ethnobotanical studies that demonstrate or postulate an erosion of medicinal plant knowledge everywhere in the world, especially among the younger generations. This assumption should perhaps be analysed with more caution, also because nature-related knowledge may be affected by the so-called shifting baseline syndrome [94]; that is, fluctuations in several factors (such as the availability of plant resources and plant knowledge that can differ over the course of a lifetime) may cause changes in the reference (baseline) of different generations [94].

Moreover, this finding seems to confirm what Vandebroek and Balick [95] pointed out a few years ago in their pioneering work on the botanical knowledge of Dominican migrants in NYC, in which they showed a statistically measurable increase of knowledge associated with migration and urbanization. The findings are in agreement also with those showing the Estonian evolution of herbal plant knowledge during the past century, during which the use of medicinal plants depending on human influence was remarkably amplified [23].

Ultimately, our data suggest that future directions of research should more carefully look at the adaptive capacity of LEK systems [20], especially in urban environments or sites influenced by urban processes, and avoid the assumptions that some folklore-driven approaches have too hastily proposed by romanticizing “the good old times”.

LEK and rural development in the Alps: from museums to participatory planning?

If the above is true, however, what is the role of LEK in alpine development and the development of the study valley?

In the Sangone Valley, as well as in other areas of the Western Alps, LEK was mostly interpreted as a fragment of intangible heritage; pieces of ancient knowledge preserved only in fragments [96,97,98,99]. With this approach, LEK has been placed at the centre of a process of heritagisation and museification, culminating in the development of ethnographic museums as well as specific tourism and commercial communication campaigns [56, 100]. In this sense, LEK has been turned into an ethno-commodity [101] aimed at addressing cultural and economic issues related to tourism and food business development. However, as pointed out by Comaroff and Comoraff [102], such an approach, even if rewarding in the short term, furthers the cultural and economic dependence of the local community on the outside because it triggers a vicious circle of cultural production in which local communities promote and inflate traditional knowledge in order to suit the needs of tourists and the market. Thus, despite the lexicon and premise, this approach to LEK risks not fostering a real opportunity for sustainable development.

Moving away from this approach by recognizing the importance of LEK as an expression of the actual and current relationship between community and environment, LEK becomes an essential tool for the interpretation and planning of the alpine landscape. In a context in which dynamic, decentralised, participatory planning is recognised as a key tool for sustainable development [102], LEK and its diachronic analysis become a tool for interpreting the transformation a region is undergoing. In particular, LEK can contribute to understanding the movement of the anthropogenic frontier, and therefore the abandonment or intensification of the use of areas in the territory. In our research, this is the case, for example, for the forest and the higher areas of the Sangone Valley. Local ecological knowledge can also help to interpret transformation in the use of the landscape that is not linked directly to economic dynamics, but rather to cultural change. In our research, this is the case for the impact of new popular literature and media in shaping local botanical knowledge, expanding proficiency with exotic plants in front of the loss of knowledge of native species. Lastly, LEK can contribute to developing targeted initiatives in environmental conservation and rural development programs.

Overall, this approach supports the design of better initiatives in the field of rural development, fully embracing the challenge presented by the social change the entire Alps is facing.


This paper has focused on the transformation of LEK in the Sangone Valley, using folk medico-botanical knowledge as a proxy. The analysis pointed out that the change that botanical knowledge and practices concerning medicinal plants have undergone are mainly represented by ceasing collection and use of a few plants growing in higher mountain environments and by the introduction of new customs linked to species growing in anthropogenic milieus or spread by popular herbal sources. These changes are possibly linked to the social, cultural and economic transformations the communities of the valley have faced over the past 40 years. In light of this complex interconnection, the presented data suggest that LEK has not been eroded, but re-arranged. Moreover, these changes, even though profound, have not de-situated LEK from the valley, but rather have defined a new configuration in the relationship between communities and their environmental surroundings. In this respect, we argue that the present configuration of LEK should not be considered a corrupted or fragmentary form of a romanticized ancient and pristine condition. The complex connections between changes in LEK systems and the social, cultural and economic transformations that the valley experienced in the past few decades further suggest that the value of local botanical knowledge does not merely lie in its heritagisation, but rather in its germane implementation as a tool for fostering resilient strategies of sustainable development.

Availability of data and materials

Original dataset of the work published in 1977 is available at the authors’ address and in Table 1. Datasets of the work conducted in 2015 and 2018 are presented in Table 1.


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Special thanks are due to all informants who generously shared their local plant knowledge, and to students Maria Ambrosetti Maria, Beatrice Guzzi, Monica Nabaasa, Cristiana Pedrazzini Cristiana, Philipp Oggiano, Maximilian Henkel, Gherardo Marazzani, Luca Nicola and especially Paolo Rossino, who gathered some of the data presented in this article.


This study was partially funded by the University of Gastronomic Sciences, Pollenzo, Italy.

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AP and MFF designed the study, framed the theoretical and methodological settings, collected and analysed the data and addressed the main trajectories of the outcomes and discussion; they drafted the first version of the manuscript, which was later revised and approved by both authors.

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Correspondence to Andrea Pieroni.

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Fontefrancesco, M.F., Pieroni, A. Renegotiating situativity: transformations of local herbal knowledge in a Western Alpine valley during the past 40 years. J Ethnobiology Ethnomedicine 16, 58 (2020).

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  • Ethnobotany
  • Alps
  • LEK
  • Social change
  • Mountain development