I am currently at JFK airport, waiting to board a flight back to the UK after a wonderful week in New York (for a conference on popular medicine on the ancient world) and Princeton (to give a paper on plants in the ancient world). It has been lovely to catch up with so many of my friends and colleagues and to visit new places. But I have enjoyed this trip for another reason: I have seen more cherry blossoms than even before – I had two springs this year ! I feel a bit greedy! I do love cherry blossoms. One day I hope to witness the cherries blossoming in Japan.
The story of how cherry-trees were allegedly imported into the Roman world is of particular interest to me. According to Pliny, the Roman general Lucullus brought it back to Rome after defeating Mithridates, the formidable king of Pontus (that is, the area around the Black Sea). By the time of Pliny, the tree had apparently travelled across the Ocean ‘as far as Britain’ (Natural History 15,172).
This story should be approached with a good pinch of scepticism. Indeed, archaeologically, the cherry tree is attested well before the first century BCE in Italy and other parts of Europe. How to explain Pliny’s story? I found the answer in Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies. Isidore was a bishop of Seville at the beginning of the seventh century CE. He wrote an encyclopaedic work where he displays a particular interest in the name of things. Book 17 is devoted to plants, and has the answer to all my worries about Pliny’s cherry story:
The cherry is named from the city Cerasum in Pontus, for when Lucullus destroyed the Pontic city Cerasum he imported this kind of fruit from there and named it cerasium from the city’s name. The tree is called cerasus, the fruit cerasium. Before Lucullus these were in Italy, but only a hard variety, and hence it was also called the cornel-cherry.
This must be what happened: wild cherries were indeed to be found in Italy well before the first century BCE, but they were not the delightful, sweet ones that I so love. I am a great admirer of Mithridates, who was multi-lingual and had an interest in poisons and antidotes (let’s forget that he tried them in ways that were far from ethical), and I am glad that we have him to thank, albeit in an indirect way, for the beautiful cherry blossoms and cherries that we enjoy nowadays.
Happy Spring everyone!