Language and Lexicon


Ethnobotanical knowledge of the Istro-Romanians of Žejane in Croatia
Andrea Pieroni
a, e, *, Maria Elena Giustib, Harald Münzc, Cinzia Lenzarinib, Giuliana Turkovićd, Ana Turkovićd

  1. Department of Pharmacy, School of Life Sciences,University of Bradford, Richmond Building, Richmond Road, Bradford, West Yorkshire BD7 1DP, UK
  2. Dipartimento di Storia delle Arti e dello Spettacolo, Università degli Studi di Firenze, Via della Pergola 48, I-50121 Firenze, Italy
  3. Institut fur Linguistik-Phonetik, Universität zu Köln, Herbert-Lewin-Str. 6, D-50931 Koln, Germany
  4. Žejane 90, Mune HR-51212, Croatia
  5. Department of Social Sciences, Wageningen University and Research Centres, Hollandseweg, 1NL-6706 KN Wageningen, The Netherlands

*Corresponding author.
E-mail address: (A. Pieroni).

Fitoterapia 74 (2003) 710-719 - - Received 7 May 2003; accepted 18 June 2003


An ethno-pharmacognostic survey was carried out in one of the smallest ethnic and linguistic groups in Europe: the Istro-Romanians of the village of Žejane (in Croatia), which has a population of approximately 140 persons, mainly elderly. Using an intensive field participant observation methodology, we recorded about 60 remedies of the local folk pharmacopoeia, and mainly derived from plants. Among them, the uncommon traditions to use homemade vinegar from wild apple (Malus sylvestris) and Cornelian cherries (Cornus mas) for diverse medical purposes, and houseleek (Sempervivum tectorum) against ear pains have been briefly discussed.

© 2003 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.

Study area. The area that was investigated in this study is located in the North-Eastern part of the Istrian peninsula (Fig. 1), in Croatia. This inland karstic territory, characterized by numerous dolines, is called in Croatian Čičarija (in Italian Ciceria), and presents a typical mountainous and sub-alpine flora. We concentrated our field study in the small village of Žejane (in the local language known as Žejàn), inhabited by one of the smallest ethnic and linguistic group of the world: the Istro-Romanians.

Fig. 1. Location of the studied area.

Population. The population of Žejane (about 140 inhabitants at present) is Istro-Romanian. In the nearby regions they were known during the past as 'Čiribirci' in Croatia, and 'Cicci' in Italy. Their original language belongs to the Romanian group, together with proper Romanian, Macedo-Romanian or Aromanian, and Megleno-Romanian or Meglenitic [1] and is listed in the UNESCO Red Book of Endangered Languages as 'seriously endangered' [2].

Istro-Romanian is classified by linguists in two subgroups: the dialect called locally 'žejànski', and spoken only in Žejane, and the dialect called locally 'vlåški' and spoken in a few centres on the southern side of the Učka Gora mountain (Monte Maggiore) located ca. 80 km south of Žejane: Šušnjevica (Susńevice or Šušńevice in Istro-Romanian), Nova Vas (Nòselo or Nosela in Istro-Romanian), Brdo (Bârda in Istro-Romanian), Jesenivik (Sucòdru in Istro-Romanian) and a few other very small villages consisting of no more than 10 households [3,4].

This group probably arrived in Istria around the 14th century (the first records of them date back to 14-15th century [5]) from the Carpathian basin, and were dedicated to pastoral activities. For many years, these Romanian populations have inhabited an area between the Austrian Empire and the Republic of Venice, and became well known in Istria as charcoal burners, coalmen, vinegar producers and traders [6].

Aim of the study. The scope of this field research was to study the use of folk-medical practices among the few remaining people of Žejane.

Previous knowledge on local folk medicine. No ethnobotanical work has been carried out in Istria in the last century. Only a very small folkloric survey was carried out in the 1970s [7], as well as taxonomic-botanical studies [8]. Among the Istro-Romanians, only a phytolinguistic survey on the 'vlåški' dialect has been recently conducted [9], as well as an ethnolinguistic survey on bird and insect names [10,11].

Methodology. The fieldwork was conducted over a period of four weeks in August 2002, with the last remaining elderly population of the village of Žejane. Only old people, native of the village and still speaking in their daily domestic life as Istro-Romanian, were interviewed. Ethnobotanical, ethnopharmaceutical and ethnomedical information were collected using participant observation method and semi-structured interviews [12] with 31 persons (17 women and 14 men, aged between 49 and 82), who still retain traditional knowledge (TK) or remembrances of these practices. Voucher specimens of non-domesticated medicinal plants were identified and stored together with more than 40 h of tape, photos and audio-video records at the first author's address. Botanical nomenclature follows the standard works of the Italian and Istrian flora [8, 13].

Results. Natural ingredients representing the folk pharmacopoeia of the Istro-Romanians of Žejane are reported in Table 1 (plants) and Table 2 (animal and other non-locally produced ingredients). In the transcription of the vernacular names of the plants, Istro-Romanian transcription rules were used [4, 9]. Frequency of quotation, disappeared uses, and prevalence of female or male expertise for each taxon were recorded as well.

Table 1: Plant remedies of the folk pharmacopoeias of the Istro-Romanians of Žejane in Croatia
Table 2: Animal, mineral, and other remedies used in folk medical practices among the Istro-Romanians of Žejane

Conclusions. The folk pharmacopoeia of the Istro-Romanians of Žejane present elements of diverse origin: uses, which are very common in the Austro-German area (caraway, Carum carvi; sauerkraut, fermented Brassica oler acea; wormwood, Artemisia absinthium; silver fir, Abies alba; juniper, Juniperus communis) [14], others maybe also learnt and acquired from the Croatians and even which have been widely documented in the past in a broad Central European area [15] (wormwood, dandelion flowers, Taraxacum officinale; elderberry flowers, Sambucus nigra), and others coming from the Venetian coastal area (grape distillate, wine).

Nevertheless, we also recorded uses that seem to suggest the permanence of a few signs of a possible original Romanian folk pharmacopoeia. The most interesting of these recorded practices regards Sempervivum tectorum (houseleek), used among the Istro-Romanians against ear pains, and the a few medicinal uses of homemade vinegar.

A similar use of S. tectorum was recorded in Tuscany [16]; recently, polyphenols from this species have shown antimicrobial activity [17], while the antioxidant [18] and liver protecting activity of its extracts [19, 20] have been previously demonstrated.

Vinegar was traditionally produced in Žejane from wild apples (Malus sylvestris) and Cornelian cherries (Cornus mas). Informants told us that only later in the 20th century they began to buy grape vinegar from the Italo-Venetians along the Istrian coasts (vines were never cultivated in Čičarija) [not true!] and continue in this other way their very old tradition of transporting it to the markets of Trieste and Vienna. The use of vinegar, whose homemade production is frequently mentioned in the Romanian folklore [21], is used in the studied area internally as anti-obesity product, and externally against bruises, fever and headache. This phenomenon should be further investigated in order to understand also the difference in the phytochemistry between grape vinegar and wild apples and Cornelian cherries vinegar. Folk medical practices are represented in Žejane in a mainly female domain, as field studies in other Mediterranean areas [22] have also pointed out: men's expertise is generally circumscribed to veterinary practices, and only rarely, as in case of distillates, play a role in the traditional knowledge related to the domestic cosmos.


Special thanks are due to all the people of Žejane, and especially to Draga and Franjo Turković, Davorka Stambolic; Maria Kukarić, Maria Stankovic, Mario Stankovich, Ana Marmilić, Drago and Josip (Pepo) Doričić; to Cassandra Quave and Prof. Marıa de los Reyes Gonzales-Tejero (University of Granada, Spain), for their help in improving a previous version of the manuscript; to Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Dahmen and Nadia Hense (Institute for Romanian Languages and Literature, University of Jena, Germany), for their bibliographic and kind support in building the first contacts with the last Istro-Romanians of Žejane; to Prof. Goran Filipi (University of Pula/Pola, Croatia), for the precious bibliographic suggestions; to Tullio Vorano (Museum of Labin/Albona) for all the logistic assistance offered. A special thanks to the Land North Rhine-Westphalia (Germany) for the financial support to H. Munz, who received the Bennigsen Price 2001 for young scientists and artists.


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  • Ethnobotanica, Elsevier / Fototerapia - Fitoterapia 74 (2003),ISSN: 0367-326x, 74, 7/8, p 710-719. © All rights reserved.

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