Saturday, 26 December 2015

Fischer’s Lexicon of Slavic beliefs and customs: a previously unknown contribution to the ethnobotany of Ukraine and Poland

  • Monika KujawskaEmail author,
  • Łukasz Łuczaj and
  • Joanna Typek
Contributed equally
Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine201511:85
DOI: 10.1186/s13002-015-0073-8
Received: 28 October 2015
Accepted: 15 December 2015
Published: 24 December 2015



Historical ethnobotanical studies are important, even if they are only descriptive, because they help to throw light on the missing chains needed for diachronic analysis. However, the documentation of traditional uses of plants in some countries, e.g. Ukraine, is still fragmentary. The aim of this contribution is to fill the gap and present a portion of the data set, from western Ukraine, which was collected by Adam Fischer, a Polish ethnographer from Lviv, in the 1930s. These data were originally gathered to be published in the first part of the Lexicon of Slavic beliefs and customs, dedicated to plant uses in traditional Slavonic culture. The idea of writing the Lexicon arose in 1929 during the I Congress of Slavic Philologists in Prague and was intended to be a joint international enterprise, but has never actually been fulfilled.


In this article we used information from south-eastern Poland at that time – nowadays western Ukraine, collected in four provinces, 11 counties and 28 localities by Fischer’s collaborators. The majority of the information was accompanied by voucher specimens, which were determined by botanists at the Jan Kazimierz University. These data are still unpublished and stored on filecards in the archives of the Polish Ethnological Society in Wrocław, Poland. In our analysis we applied two indices: one to measure general plant versatility – Use Value, and another regarding medicinal plants – Relative Importance Value.


In total, 179 plant taxa used in peasant culture in the western Ukraine in the 1930s were registered. The species which achieved the highest Use Values were: Achillea millefolium, Allium sativum, Vinca minor, Hypericum sp. and Juniperus communis. Among the collected plant names, Polish names dominate (59 %) over clearly Ukrainian and Ruthenian ones (31 %). The remaining 10 % of names were of unclear origin or could have been used by both groups. The most salient use categories were medicinal, followed by ritual – chiefly plants used in church ceremonies, followed by animal wellbeing (veterinary and fodder). However we learn very little about plant management in the peasant culture from the data set.


Analysis of the archival data threw new light on plant use and management in the Galicja region in the interwar period. It also increased our understanding of the central role of plants in spheres such as folk medicine, church ceremonies and animal wellbeing.


Historical ethnobotany Archival data Medicinal plants Ritual plants Western Ukraine


Ethnobotanical studies concerning Ukraine

Although ethnobotany is a science which has already amassed a huge amount of field studies and is now largely preoccupied with the theories, principles and processes which explain the field information and observations, the documentation of traditional uses of plants in some countries is still very fragmentary. Even in Europe, the level of saturation with ethnobotanical studies is very uneven. In some countries either archival sources or contemporary field data are very abundant, e.g. [13]. At the other extreme are countries, such as Ukraine, where such studies are relatively scarce. In this paper we present archival data concerning western Ukraine, gathered by Adam Fischer (1889-1943), a Polish ethnographer from the Jan Kazimierz University in Lviv (Polish: Lwów, German: Lemberg, Russian: Lvov).
The ethnobotany of Ukraine, one of the largest and most populous European countries, is a neglected field. It is actually difficult to define this issue due to the changing borders in this part of Europe and the lack of a Ukrainian state until a few decades ago. The territory of present day western Ukraine was:
  1. 1)
    an easternmost zone of interest for Polish 19th/20th century ethnographers, due to the fact that it used to be part of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth until the late 18th century, and after 1918 became once more a part of the Republic of Poland. Ukrainian peasants were thus seen as a natural object of study for a Polish ethnographer, though in many areas Polish inhabitants constituted a large part of the population of western Ukraine. Actually, Ukrainian peasant culture was often idealized as more “unpolluted” and “authentic”, especially during the 19th century Romanticism period [4].
  2. 2)
    an active arena for local Ukrainian patriotic ethnographers. Their efforts, however, concerned mainly the protection of language and songs. This results in a rich folklore literature and a lack of serious works of an ethnobotanical character. To our knowledge, Russian ethnographic literature does not contain any ethnobotanical studies concerning the central and eastern part of Ukraine which, for a few centuries, belonged to the Russian Empire.
All in all, most older ethnobotanical data come from research published in Polish [512]. One of the most important Polish-language contributions to the ethnobotany of Ukrainian people is the work of Talko-Hryncewicz [11], a physician and physical anthropologist who recorded folk medicine including plant medicines from a few places in central and western Ukraine.
Many unpublished materials concerning Ukraine are also to be found in responses to Rostafiński’s questionnaire of 1883 [13, 14]. Only uses and names of wild food plants and mushrooms have been published so far [1518]. Data on wild edible plants in three counties of the Hutsul and Pokucie areas in the Ukrainian Carpathians were also gathered by Adam Fischer in 1934, in an ethnographic questionnaire sent to a few hundred school teachers [19]. This subject was analyzed in a separate publication [20].
Paradoxically, taking into account the scarcity of ethnobotanical studies in Ukraine, the issue of local plant names is a well studied topic, as is the case in Russia. Contemporary knowledge was synthesized by Kobiv [21] in his Dictionary of Ukrainian plant names. Ukrainian plant names related to Ukrainian ethnonyms are also analyzed in the works by the Russian ethnolinguist Valeriia Kolosova [22].
Over the last few years, growing interest in the ethnobotany of Ukraine may be observed – a few papers have appeared on this topic: two concerning the territory of western Ukraine [23, 24] and another two the Maramureş region in Romania, adjacent to Ukraine and inhabited by a Ukrainian minority [25, 26]. A few years ago a monograph of plants involved in the folk beliefs of Ruthenian-Ukrainians in Slovakia was also published [27].