Postcard no. 4 from South America

Updated: 6/04/14

February 2007

Peru, the Land of the Incas

Schinus molle

My previous postcards were created in a similar way: the result of observations I had made in a few days or weeks. I downloaded the important and significant ones into a letter to be shared with my readers. The principal reason for adding an issue in the “postcard” is its relevance to the flora of Israel.
I recently arrived in the land of the Incas in the highlands of Peru, with its capital Cusco, and toured the vicinity with a fantastic tour guide – Romulo Lizarraga – who was born in Machu Picchu. Two days provided me with so much material that I can hardly keep things to myself.
I found another good old friend in its land of origin. Schinus molle is known in Israel mainly as an ornamental tree. A few specimens escaped cultivation with the aid of birds, and established themselves in disturbed ground. This made me decide to include it in the list of plants of the Flora Palaestina Area (Danin 2004). On the way from Cusco to the Incas’ Sacred Valley, there were plenty of S. molle plants, of shrub or tree size, on hill slopes and by riversides and roadsides. I asked Romulo about it, using the Latin name, S. molle, and had another surprise: the local name in Qechua (the language of the Incas’ descendents) is “molle”. When providing the Israeli epithet, the Hebrew names committee thought that “molle” came from Latin (= soft, tender = Hebrew: RACH) and not from Qechua (not so many people in Israel speak Qechua).

Spartium junceum

One of the shrubs blooming now is our friend Spartium junceum. In Peru it is clearly of Mediterranean origin and grows here in disturbed ground, on highly grazed slopes, in riverbeds, near roads and railways. It is blooming in places now as if it was in the Judean Mts., on Mt. Carmel or Mt. Hermon in springtime. Most interestingly, the vernacular name for it in the land of the Inca’s is Retama. I saw a restaurant in Cusco named Retama, but to hear it now, specifically relating to Spartium junceum, was a real pleasure. I often used the “retamales case” to demonstrate the history of scientific and common names. The name “rotem” is first mentioned in the Bible (1 Kings 19:4-5), when Eliyahu (Elias – Elijah) escaped from the Ba’al prophets and sat under a rotem in the desert. This name also appears in the Mishna and the Talmud. In Israel, Jordan, Sinai (and possibly other places) the Bedouin adopted the name “rotem” for Retama raetam. They call it “ratam”.
We had a Bedouin guide in Sinai named Ratimeh.

Retama raetam

In Hebrew nomenclature and scientific botany the term ROTMIYEEM is used for plants like Retama raetam, which shed their leaves shortly after they sprout out of the new stems; the plants assimilate by means of their green stems and therefore the whole group is called stem-assimilants (Rotmiyeem in Hebrew). They are regarded as drought resistant plants. Links for such plants in our flora are: Genista, Jasminum fruticans, Calicotome villosa, Farsetia aegyptia and many others.
The common Spanish name of the stem-assimilant plants of the Leguminosae is “retamales”. The Arabic-Moorish impact on the Spanish language and culture is clearly evident. In 2003, in Tenerife, Canary Islands, I was surprised to find a vegetation belt of “retamales” and thought how much more fun Eliyahu could have had there under the “rotem”. I learned here how far a plant name can be distributed by language and culture through millennia: from the Judean Desert to Cusco. There are additional stem-assimilants in the flora of Peru, but here we are dealing with Israel.
I also wanted to write about the high diversity of crop plant varieties and the huge areas of corn and potato cultivation I saw in the Andes at various elevations, but I think a postcard on these issues should be written by an expert on cultivated plants.


  • [tableofcontents All the previous issues of “Flower Talk”, “Useful Plants” chapters, “Plant Tales” issues, postcards from South America and more…]