Bedouin Ethnobotany: Plant Concepts and Uses in a Desert Pastoral World. By JAMES P. MANDAVILLE. Tucson: UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA PRESS, 2011. Pp. xv + 397. $55.
Tracing the etymology of plant names in Arabic is made difficult by several factors, including the numerous dialect terms, use of the same term for different plants, and the lack of fit with current scientific nomenclature. While some terms appear to have been standardized early on in Arabic sources, others remain a mystery. The earliest sources, such as the early ninth-century C.E. kitab al-Nabdt of al-Asmaiclaim, claim to have obtained information from Bedouin informants. Later herbals and botanical texts correlated Arabic and Persian plant names to Greek and Sanskrit terms. In the past three centuries, botanists and travelers have collected plant specimens and recorded usage, although not always with linguistic accuracy. Missing from the literature is an overview not only of plant names currently employed in the Arabian peninsula, but also a systematic description of indigenous plant classification. James Mandaville's Bedouin Ethnobotany is a welcome addition that will be of enormous value to anthropologists, botanists, and historians.
The author spent decades living and working in Saudi Arabia with a focus on the tribes in the Najd region between 1960 and 1975. His text provides details on plant names, descriptions of plants, and current scientific identification. This database would be valuable in itself, but Mandaville draws on the ethnobotanical theory of Brent Berlin's Ethnobiological Classification (Princeton Univ. Press, 1992) to explain how the Bedouin classify plants in the desert. His introduction provides a brief description of Najdi dialect, drawing on the linguistic work of Bruce Ingham. This is followed by chapters on the geography, including vegetation landscapes, and the social context of the Bedouin tribes he worked with. Chapter three, subtitled "An Annual Round of Bedouin Life," explains the seasonal cycle of weather and pastoral activities.
Mandaville's discussion of the plants begins in chapter four with their uses, as told to him by Bedouin informants. Pasture being the primary use, grazing plants are identified according to land quality, growth stage, and seasonality. Plants that are toxic or noxious to grazing animals, especially camels, are also listed. Other plants are noted for fuel and fire making, food, gum and other extracts, medicinal use for animals...