96v Spinach-leaf (-berry) vines

March 30th., 2013

I had originally assigned this pair differently, having C.capitatum in the group pictured on f.17v and Basella alba together with Kudzu vine referenced in relation to  f45r, but  inclusion of what appeared clearly a tendril in f.17v and the sword-shaped leaf on f.45r together led me to remove each from those groups and assign both together to f.96v.


I had not yet published the new post when Ellie Velinska brought it up on the mailing list. She also sees it Chenopodium referenced here.


In publishing the post, I now agree with (and so follow) Dana Scott, and agree with Ellie Velinksa that a Chenopodium s referenced in f.96v ~ even if we are not agreed together about which  Chenopodium! 🙂


The extracts below bear their original date, but March 30th., 2013 (GMT) should be taken as date for the post as a whole.


April 5th., 2012. Strawberry spinach chenopodium capitatumAdditional reference, Watt, J.M. & M. G. Breyer-Brandwyk, The medicinal and poisonous plants of southern and eastern Africa, 2nd.ed. (1967)


As I see it, the way the vine is drawn on f.96v  evokes an immediate association with Chenopodium capitatum, the ‘strawberry spinach’ plant, found across Eurasia and much of northern America. (American sources often imply that it is endemic). The leaves are similar to the form used in the Mediterranean tradition to indicate sorrels, and there is no circumscription mark included on f.96v, which tells us that the subjects of the drawing are found wild.


Both C. capitatum and its near relation Chenopodium foliosum meet these criteria. Both occur naturally in Eurasia, and from there – given the date for our manuscript – we must suppose the ‘base type’ was gained.


Likeness between these two Chenopodiums allow an easy transition from the type of the ‘spinach’ leafed (C. capitatum) to ‘vine-leafed’ (C. foliosum).  The leaves here also bear resemblance to that Indian vine-spinach Basella alba).


Basella alba botanical

For people in SE Asia, Basella alba was most plainly similar to the many other ‘spinach-leaf’ plants native to Asia. They form a large group of plants, altogether,  familiar there in daily life,  as an everyday source of greens, of medicine, of fibers and/or of dyes.  When ripe, B. alba‘s berries become black,- but here (as always) that colour has been replaced  because that part of the plant could not reasonably be omitted.

Basella alba fruits dye

Basella alba fruits

Habit being what it is,  English descriptions of B. alba  saw it called ‘Indian mandrake’ or  ‘Malabar nightshade’  in western herbals despite the fact that the likeness was remote, mandrakes proper having no vine-form. I can only suppose the allusion was to similar medicinal uses, since no legend attaches to B.alba similar to that given the western mandrake.

These days, B. alba is more usually known as the Indian-, Ceylonese- or Malabar spinach-vine. Or simply as ‘climbing spinach’.

It has long been grown  from India to China.

Basella alba Ceylon or Marlabar spinach vine reddye fruits

Thought to have originated in India or Indonesia, it was early established  throughout coastal Southeast Asia and in India, and indeed even as far as northern Africa where B. alba‘s thick, moist and sticky roots are often pounded into a paste and used as a skin salve. A red dye is obtained from the juice of its fruits in India and southeast Asia.


It has been used ‘as a rouge and also as a dye for official seals’ – Ref.


(It would be interesting to know whether it provides one of the reds used in the manuscript. – March 30th 2013).


B.alba was probably regarded by the makers of these pictures less as a true vine than as a creeper since it lacks tendrils.


In that case, a third species which might be referenced here is the ‘Red creeper’ Ventilago maderaspatana Gaertner, (formerly Aquilaria Gyrinops). Known to be a fodder plant, I cannot discover whether its leaves have ever been eaten as a ‘spinach’.


Information about V.madeaspatana , including its appearance, is contradictory over my range of sources, but most agree that this plant too produces a well-known reddish dye (ventilagin) which is still harvested to colour wool, cotton and silk. According to  some sources it is said to be common to Peninsular India, Sri Lanka, and Malay Peninsula but according to others it can be found only in the dry hills of northern India. (for other berry-bearing creepers, esp. those of the western Ghats, Shubhada’s photographs are valuable:  here).


As to medicinal uses for the various tuber-producing ‘spinach’-vines there is so much is available online that I omit any detailed discussion.


As I see, it the usual method in these drawings is to present plants related by similar form, but chiefly according to interchangeable uses, an attitude which results in groupings that intersect, rather than coinciding with, our system of taxonomy.



1.The Kudzu vine and many other identifications first made here were subsequently – sometimes within a week – announced as ‘new identifications’ by “Steve D” in the second Voynich mailing list. “S.D.” apparently believed he was cleverly avoiding credits by applying the identifications at random to a different folio.  He does not appear to have paused to ask whether Kudzu vine or any other of the eastern plants specified in my posts were known to western Europe by the first decades of the fifteenth century.  (Most weren’t!)


2.  (Comment: 2015) Thomas Spande has suggested this represents a vine of Piper nigrum. I don’t know if he is the first to suggest this and Thomas had adopted the careless habit urged upon newcomers by those who did not care to acknowledge their sources, of omitting them.  

There are certainly points in favour of it:  the leaves are similarly shaped, as are the drupes and so on.

Points again include the fact that Piper nigrum grows as ivy does, by clinging tightly to the host. One never sees so lax as the image on this folio.In cultivation as in the wild P.nigrum covers the surface of the wood which supports it – again, as ivy does.

Re-considering the roots of P. nigrum which do not take the form of  tubers,  I must say they could be meant less than literally and offer no insuperable barrier to his posited identification.




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