We like to tell stories about how things get their names, perhaps because we believe names can give us some insight into a thing’s essence or history. It seems we also don’t always agree about what a name means, and so sometimes we tell different stories.
For instance: the avocado. The avocado’s botanical name, persea americana, comes from the name of an ancient tree, the Persea, which, strangely enough, grew in Egypt. The name was chosen by the English botanist Philip Miller (1691-1771), whose great achievement was to name many of the New World’s plants without ever having left England. Miller must have noticed some resemblance between the descriptions of the Old World Persea and the New World Avocado, although what it might have been is unclear. I doubt he ever saw an ancient Egyptian Persea, and, although he writes as if he tried to grow them, I cannot tell if he ever successfully grew avocados or just had descriptions sent to him. Whatever it was that inspired the association, he left no record. The story is lost.
The story I am interested in, however, is not the one about the avocado. I’m curious about its eponym: the ancient tree called Persea. I have been trying to figure out how a plant from Egypt came to be called Persea in the first place.
It turns out there was already a story about this two-thousand years ago. Galen alludes to it in the middle of a long argument against Aristotle and Athenaeus of Attalia:
“[Aristotle and Athenaeus] say that children who are similar to their mothers are made similar by the nutriment [i.e., the nutriment the mother provides to the fetus]. From there they extend a long string of arguments showing just how many alterations in animals and plants are produced by nutriment. Then, they fail to notice they are unable to prove any of the alterations they mention [involves] a change in its species [brought about by the nutriment]. For to begin with, the Persea plant, when it was transplanted to Egypt, did not change its species; instead, when it got useful nutriment, the fruit it had became edible, which hadn't been edible before. ”
τὰ δ’ ὁμοιούμενα παιδία τῇ μητρὶ διxὰ τὴν τροφὴν ὁμοιοῦσθαί φασιν· κᾄπειτα ἐντεῦθεν ἀποτείνουσι δολιχὸν τοῦ λόγου δεικνύντες, ὅσαι διὰ τροφῆς ἀλλοιώσεις ἐγίγνοντο καὶ ζώοις καὶ φυτοῖς. εἶτ’ οὐκ αἰσθάνονται μηδεμίαν ὧν λέγουσιν ἀλλοιώσεων ἐπιδεῖξαι δυνάμενοι τὸ εἶδος ἐξαλλάττουσαν. αὐτίκα γὰρ <οὔτε> τὸ Περσαῖον φυτὸν εἰς Αἴγυπτον μετακομισθὲν ἐξηλλάγη τὴν ἰδέαν, ἀλλὰ χρηστῆς ἐπιλαβόμενον τροφῆς τὸν καρπὸν ἐδώδιμον ἔσχεν, οὐκ ὂν πρότερον τοιοῦτο.
Galen, De semine II 1,37-50 (CMG V 3,1 152,27-156,19 De Lacy = IV 602-605K)
Galen clearly has in mind some story about how the Persea got to Egypt. His source most likely told him it originally came from Persia, but who was his source? I could not find any story like it in Aristotle. So I kept digging to see if the source might have been Athenaeus, the other target of Galen’s attack, and I found an anonymous ancient paradoxographer who says as much. The paradoxographer attributes a tall-tale to Athenaeus, an example of biological warfare gone wrong because of a change in soil:
“Athenaeus says that among the Persians there was a certain tree which bore fatally poisonous fruit. The Persians, at the time when Kambyses waged war against Egypt, imported it to Egypt and planted it in many places so that the Egyptians would be killed when they ate the fruit. Since, however, the tree’s soil had changed, the fruit it produced became harmless. And in fact it was called ‘Persaea’ because it had been planted by Persians.”
Ἀθήναιός φησιν ἐν Πέρσαις εἶναι δένδρον τι θανάσιμον τὸν καρπὸν φέρον, ὃ τοὺς πέρσας, ὅτε Καμβύσης ἐπ’ Αἴγυπτον ἐστράτευσε, κομίσαι εἰς Αἴγυπτον καὶ ἐν πολλοῖς φυτεῦσαι τόποις, ὅπως οἱ Αἰγύπτιοι τὸν καρπὸν προσφερόμενοι διαφθαρῶσι· τὸ δὲ δένδρον μεταβαλὸν τὴν γῆν ἀπαθῆ τὸν καρπὸν ἐξενεγκεῖν, καὶ περσαίαν τ’ ὀνομάζεσθαι διὰ τὸ ὑπὸ Περσῶν φυτευθῆναι.
Paradoxagraphus Palatinus, Admiranda 18 (Giannini ed. in Paradoxographorum Graecorum Reliquiae, Milan: Istituto Editoriale Italiano, 1965: 354-360.)
The story seems to go like this: After Darius had conquered most of the Middle East, his son Kambyses II set out to conquer Egypt. On his campaign, he brought along seeds from a certain kind of tree. Kambyses knew this tree from his home in Persia and he also knew that it was extremely poisonous. He believed that if he planted it while marching throughout Egypt, the people would eat the fruit, become poisoned, and this would make conquering the land that much easier. But, since the soil in Egypt was so much more fertile than it was in Persia, the fruit from the trees ceased to be poisonous, and Kambyses’ plans destructive plans were thwarted.
Even by ancient standards, this is a pretty fantastic way of trying to explain why a plant in Egypt is called “Persian.” Kambyses would have been playing the long game, and when the trees actually started to bear fruit, I'm pretty sure the Egyptians would have figured out they were poisonous rather quickly. Nevertheless, Athenaeus must have thought his readers would find this story plausible, since he was using it to support a claim he knew they would find less plausible or even implausible—that mothers contribute only nutriment, and not semen, to their offspring, and that the nutriment can still determine a lot of an offspring’s formal characteristics, even its species, something which Athenaeus needs to say to explain why children take after their mothers.
Athenaeus, however, was not the only one to tell this story, and as I looked into it, the details started to become more complicated and more interesting. It turns out, it was generally agreed that there was some story about how the Persea got its name, but there wasn't much agreement about its details. In fact, there seem to have been at least two different versions of the story. Here’s a report on one of them, from Diodorus:
“There are many kinds of tree [in Egypt], and of them, what are called Persaea have fruit that stand out as being extremely sweet. The plant was introduced from Ethiopia by Persians during the time when Kambyses conquered the place.”
ἔστι δὲ καὶ δένδρων γένη πλείονα, καὶ τούτων αἱ μὲν ὀνομαζόμεναι περσαῖαι καρπὸν διάφορον ἔχουσι τῇ γλυκύτητι, μετενεχθέντος ἐξ Αἰθιοπίας ὑπὸ Περσῶν τοῦ φυτοῦ καθ’ ὃν καιρὸν Καμβύσης ἐκράτησεν ἐκείνων τῶν τόπων.
Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca historica 1.34.7 = Agatharchides of Cnidus (~200 BCE?) Jacoby FGrH 2a 86 F, Fr. 19 ll. 89-92. (DNP claims he influenced Posidonius and cite fr. 86)
In the version Diodorus reports, the plant wasn’t brought with Kambyses from Persia. Instead it was introduced from Ethiopia by “the Persians” at the time Kambyses had conquered it. We don’t get an explanation why the introduced it, or even confirmation it was Kambyses himself who did.
In fact, it seems these were two competing versions of the story making the rounds in antiquity. One said the plant was introduced from Persia, the other from Ethiopia. It also seems no one knew which was the right one.
An anonymous commentary on Nicander’s Theriac contains reports of both stories, one which came from a certain Sostratos, the other from Bolos the Democritean:
“The kranokolaptes are seen on Perseia, as Sostratos [says] in his book On Things that Sting and Bite. They say the Perseia, which they call Rhodakinea, was transplanted from Ethiopia to Egypt. Bolos the Democritean says in his book On Sympathies and Antipathies that the Persians had a poisonous plant in their own country and planted it in Egypt, since they had wanted to conquer it for some time. Since [the land in Egypt] was good, [the plant] changed into its opposite and the plant made the sweetest fruit.”
ὁ κρανοκολάπτης ἐν ταῖς περσείας ὁρᾶται, ὡς Σώστρατος ἐν τῷ περὶ βλητῶν καὶ δακέτων. τὴν δὲ περσείαν φασίν, ἣν ῥοδακινέαν καλοῦσιν, ἀπὸ Αἰθιοπίας εἰς Αἴγυπτον μεταφυτευθῆναι. Βῶλος δὲ ὁ Δημοκρίτειος ἐν τῷ περὶ συμπαθειῶν καὶ ἀντιπαθειῶν Πέρσας φησὶν ἔχοντας παρ’ ἑαυτοῖς θανάσιμον φυτὸν φυτεῦσαι ἐν Αἰγύπτῳ, ὡς πολλῶν μελλόντων ἀναιρηθήσεσθαι, τὴν δὲ ἀγαθὴν οὖσαν, εἰς τοὐναντίον μεταβαλεῖν ποιῆσαί τε τὸ φυτὸν καρπὸν γλυκύτατον
Scholia in Nicandrum Theriaca 764A
These details make things even weirder. The second story is familiar. But in the first version, why would an Ethiopian plant in Egypt which is also known as Persea come to be called “Rhodakinea”? Did it come from Rhodes? And how did it end up in Egypt?
Then, there’s the deadly spiders. Dioscorides also mentions them in his Materia Medica:
“The Persaea is a tree which grows in Egypt. It bears edible fruit, it is good for the stomach, and on it are found the venomous spiders called kranokolaptes, especially in Thebes. The dried leaves when sprinkled as a fine powder are able to stop hemorrhage. Some report that this tree was poisonous in Persia, but that it changed when it was introduced to Egypt and became edible.”
περσαία δένδρον ἐστὶν ἐν Αἰγύπτῳ, καρπὸν φέρον ἐδώδιμον, εὐστόμαχον, ἐφ’ οὗ καὶ τὰ λεγόμενα κρανοκόλαπτα φαλάγγια εὑρίσκεται, μάλιστα δὲ ἐν τῇ Θηβαίδι. δύναμιν δὲ ἔχει τὰ φύλλα λεῖα ἐπιπαττόμενα ξηρὰ αἱμορραγίας ἱστᾶν. τοῦτο δὲ ἱστόρησάν τινες ἐν Περσίδι ἀναιρετικὸν εἶναι, μετατεθὲν δὲ εἰς Αἴγυπτον ἀλλοιωθῆναι καὶ ἐδώδιμον γενέσθαι.
Dioscorides, De Materia Medica, 1.129
Dioscorides seems remarkably confident about the spiders (maybe the spiders make up for the fact that the tree stopped being poisonous?); but notice his ambivalence about the origin story. He assigns it to people he is not even willing to name, yet he still mentions it even though it adds very little which might be useful for identifying the plant or tell us how to use it.
Galen, too, seems to share this ambivalence:
“Rather than the seed from a chaste tree, plaster the forehead with the yellow leaves of Persaea and an equal amount of Smyrna (myrrh) with Egyptian perfume. I know the Persaea tree to exist only in Alexandria, at least not in any other of the Roman provinces. Some call it Persion and say in Persia the fruit of this tree is deadly, while in Egyptian countries it is harmless.”
ἢ ἄγνου σπέρμα, Περσαίας χλωρὰ φύλλα καὶ σμύρνης ἴσα σὺν μύρῳ Αἰγυπτίῳ κατάπλασσε τὸ μέτωπον. ἐν Ἀλεξανδρείᾳ μόνῃ τὸ τῆς Περσαίας δένδρον εἶδον, οὐ μὴν ἐν ἄλλῳ γέ τινι τῶν ὑπὸ Ῥωμαίοις ἐθνῶν. ἔνιοι δὲ Πέρσιον ὀνομάζουσιν αὐτὸ καί φασιν ἐν Πέρσαις ὀλέθριον εἶναι τὸν καρπὸν τοῦ δένδρου τούτου. κατὰ δὲ τὴν τῶν Αἰγυπτίων χώραν ἀβλαβὲς ὑπάρχον.
Galen, Comp Med Sec Loco XII 569-570 K
I’m not sure why, unlike Dioscorides, Galen doesn’t seem aware that it grows in Thebes, since it seems to have been well-known that it grew there:
“In fact, a tree in the Theban city of Hermopolis, which is called Persaea, is said to drive off many diseases…”
Καὶ ἐν Ἑρμουπόλει δὲ τῆς Θηβαΐδος δένδρον, ἣ Περσαία καλεῖται, πολλὰς ἀπελᾷν νόσους λέγεται...
Nicephorus Callistus Xanthopolus, Historia ecclesiastica, 10.31.20-22
Galen also does not mention the spiders. Maybe he had a different source for the story.
At any rate, it seems we now have a plant in Egypt, called Persea, which is covered in deadly spiders (especially in Thebes), which comes either from Persia or Ethiopia, is good for stomach aches and stops bleeding.
And what about the other name mentioned by Sostratos, “Rhodakinea”? One might think this is explained by something Theophrastus says:
“The nature of places makes a great difference relative to bearing or not bearing fruit, as in the case of Persaea and the date-palm. The first bears fruit in Egypt and in similar places, but in Rhodes it only comes to the point of blooming…”
εγάλη δὲ διαφορὰ πρὸς καρπὸν καὶ ἀκαρπίαν καὶ ἡ τῶν τόπων φύσις, ὥσπερ ἐπί τε τῆς περσέας ἔχει καὶ τῶν φοινίκων· ἡ μὲν ἐν Αἰγύπτῳ καρποφορεῖ καὶ εἴ που τῶν πλησίον τόπων, ἐν Ῥόδῳ δὲ μέχρι τοῦ ἀνθεῖν μόνον ἀφικνεῖται...
Theophrastus, Inquiry into Plants, 3.3.5
It’s clear Theophrastus or his source thought the plant grew in Rhodes, and it might have taken the name “Rhodakinea” from there. But Theophrastus, at least, thinks that the Persea is a native tree (ἴδια δένδρα) of Egypt, and he only says that some tried to move it—unsuccessfully—to Rhodes.
So it’s anybody’s guess how it got to Rhodes in the first place. It doesn’t bear any fruit up north so it must have been cultivated; and in Theophrastus’ version of the story, the plant was not introduced to Egypt at all, but was native to Egypt.
And contrary to what some people think, Theophrastus never says the Persea is grown in Persia. He speaks of something called a Median or Persian apple (τὸ μῆλον τὸ Μηδικὸν ἢ τὸ Περσικὸν καλούμενον) at Inquiry into Plants 4.4.2, but he never says it grows in Egypt, and says that people do not eat it, but use it for perfume, for keeping moths away, and as an antidote for poison and breath-freshener. This was probably something like a citron.
Regarding the Persea, on the other hand, Theophrastus, like Diodorus, mentions it has nice, sweet fruit:
“Some plants are not able to sprout at all in certain places, others sprout but do not bear fruit, like the Egyptian Persaea at Rhodes, but as you proceed south it produces, but only a little, and only there does it produce nice, sweet fruit.”
Τὰ μὲν οὖν ὅλως οὐδὲ βλαστάνειν ἐνιαχοῦ δύναται τὰ δὲ βλαστάνει μὲν ἄκαρπα δὲ γίνεται καθάπερ ἡ περσέα ἡ αἰγυπτία περὶ Ῥόδον, προϊόντι δὲ οὕτω φέρει μὲν ὀλίγον δὲ καὶ καλλικαρπεῖ καὶ γλυκυκαρπεῖ ἐκεῖ μόνον.
Theophrastus, Causes of Plants II 3.7 (cf. Inquiry into Plants 4.2.5)
Whatever plant Theophrastus and Diodorus were talking about, assuming they were the same, it does not seem to be the one Athenaeus was talking about. There’s no mention of Persia, no mention of biological warfare, and no explanation why there is a plant growing in Egypt called “Persian.”
But it also means these are at least two stories, each about different plants called Persea, both growing in Egypt.
Pliny seems to be aware of the confusion and tries to sort it out, apparently using Theophrastus as an authority, but confusing it terribly. He distinguishes the peach (persicae), which he says grows in Egypt and was transplanted in Rhodes (with the results Theophrastus describes) from the Persea, an entirely different tree, which he says resembles the myxa, a tree that grows cherry-like fruit:
“On the whole, it appears from the name itself that the Persica is not native to Asia [sc. Asia Minor] and Greece, and also that it was introduced from Persia […]. For the peach tree (Persicae arbores) was only introduced lately, and with difficulty, inasmuch as in Rhodes, which was its first place of sojourn after leaving Egypt, it does not bear at all.
“It is false that it is poisonous and causes torturing pain when grown in Persia, and that, when it had been transplanted into Egypt by the kings to use as a punishment, the nature of the soil caused it to lose its dangerous properties. For the more careful writers relate this of the Persea, which is an entirely different tree, resembling the red myxa, and which has refused to grow anywhere but in the east. It also, according to the more learned authorities, was not introduced from Persia for punitive purposes, but was planted at Memphis by Perseus, and it was for that reason that Alexander, in order to do honour to his ancestor, established the custom of using wreaths of it for crowning victors in the games at Memphis. It always has leaves and fruit upon it, fresh ones sprouting immediately after the others. But it will be obvious that all our plums also have been introduced since the time of Cato. (Loeb trans., modified)”
in totum quidem persica peregrina etiam asiae graeciaeque esse ex nomine ipso apparet atque e perside advecta […]. nam Persicae arbores sero et cum difficultate transiere, ut quae in Rhodo nihil ferant, quod primum ab Aegypto earum fuerat hospitium.
falsum est venenata cum cruciatu in Persis gigni et poenarum causa ab regibus tralata in Aegyptum terra mitigata. id enim de Persea diligentiores tradunt, quae in totum alia est, myxis rubentibus similis, nec extra orientem nasci voluit. eam quoque eruditiores negaverunt ex Perside propter supplicia tralatam, sed a Perseo Memphi satam, et ob id Alexandrum illa coronari victores ibi instituisse in honorem atavi sui. semper autem folia habet et poma subnascentibus aliis. sed pruna quoque omnia post Catonem coepisse manifestum erit.
Pliny, Natural History, XV 13, 45-46
Pliny believes the Persica only recently arrived in Rome, a fact borne out by archaeological evidence. He also says it was first in Persia, then Egypt, then Rhodes. He, too, is trying to make sense of stories about it growing in Egypt, and it seems he has conflated Theophrastus’ discussion of the sweet fruit of the Egyptian Persea with Theophrastus’ other description of the inedible Persian apple (τὸ μῆλοντὸ Περσικὸν). Theophrastus said it was the Persea which travelled to Rhodes, not the Persikon. The latter had no connection to Egypt at all.
Pliny’s story was influential. The peach tree is still called prunus persica, the Persian plum. Here’s a note from the entry in Wikipedia:
‘The scientific name persica, along with the word “peach” itself and its cognates in many European languages, derives from an early European belief that peaches were native to Persia. The Ancient Romans referred to the peach as malum persicum “Persian apple”, later becoming French pêche, hence the English “peach.” The scientific name, Prunus persica, literally means “Persian plum,” as it is closely related to the plum.’
It is now generally agreed the peach originated in China, but the story of how it got to Europe remains as obscure for us as it was for Pliny.
As for the Persea, following certain unnamed authorities, Pliny abandoned the story that the Persea was brought to Egypt from Persia. He replaces it with the story, in his mind more reasonable, that the tree was brought to Egypt by Perseus, presumably after his visit to the Kingdom of Ethiopia. Hence, the name.
Today it is generally thought to be the same as Mimusops schimperi, a tree sacred to the ancient Egyptians, found in the tombs of Ramses II and Tutankhamen, and likely native to Ethiopia. But of course we can’t know any of this for sure.
Finally, to add to the confusion, Miller used Persica as the genus name for peaches (see illustration above), and Persea as the genus name for Avocados...
Plutarch, by the way, had no truck with any of this etymologizing. He simply states how the plant was used:
“Of the plants in Egypt they say that the Persaea is consecrated especially to the goddess, because its fruit resembles a heart and its leaf a tongue.”
τῶν δ’ ἐν Αἰγύπτῳ φυτῶν μάλιστα τῇ θεῷ καθιερῶσθαι λέγουσι τὴν περσέαν, ὅτι καρδίᾳ μὲν ὁ καρπὸς αὐτῆς, γλώττῃ δὲ τὸ φύλλον ἔοικεν.
Plutarch, Isis and Osiris 68 (Moralia 378C)
There’s a lesson here.