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EurAsian Journal of BioSciences

Eurasia J Biosci 7, 77-94 (2013)

An ethnobotanical study of wild edible plants

in Bulgaria
Anely Nedelcheva*
Department of Botany, Faculty of Biology, Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski, 1164 Sofia, Bulgaria
*Corresponding author:

Background: This study focuses on the wild vascular plants traditionally used for human
consumption in Bulgaria and its aim is to present data about the richness and diversity of plants
used as a nutrition source, about folk botanical knowledge and to give an impression about their
contemporary state and development in relation to natural plant resources and traditional food
culture. The study covers the period from the end of 19th to the middle of the 20th century.
Material and Methods: The study gathered data from more than 30 ethnobotanical and
ethnographical sources which provide information for the end of 19th to the middle of the 20th
century, in addition to field data collected through semi-structured interviews.
Results: A total of 88 wild plant species, 25 families and 52 genera were identified as edible plants.
Prevailing are representatives of Rosaceae, Amaranthaceae, Amaryllidaceae, Brassicaceae,
Compositae and Polygonaceae. The largest numbers of species are from Allium, Rumex and
Chenopodium. Similar in number are the species which are used as leaves (43) and fruits (38),
followed by young shoots (9), seeds (7), roots (4), bulbs (4) and inflorescences (2). The largest group
is from plants whose aboveground parts are gathered mainly during the spring and used as
vegetables. Important species are Urtica dioica, Rumex acetosa, Rumex patientia, Chenopodium album,
Atriplex prostrata and Amaranthus retroflexus. The fruits are mostly gathered from Rosaceae,
Adoxaceae, Ericaceae and Vitaceae shrubs and trees. The study determined eight major food
groups: fresh greens and fruits, stuffed pies, stewed and boiled greens, boiled cereals, sweets
(boiled fruit products), dried fruits, snacks and lacto-fermented products. The predominant taste is
salty-sour-spicy. Some of wild foods are also used for medicinal purposes and included in
preventing or healing diets.
Conclusions: Todays traditional diet is very different from the past. Bulgaria provides a good
opportunity for ethnobotanical research into wild edible plants as there is much ethnographic data
available, including food culture and botanical observations, as well as the possibility of field study
in rural areas where wild food plants are traditionally used on a daily basis.
Keywords: Balkans, Bulgaria, edible greens, food groups, traditional knowledge.
Nedelcheva A (2013) An ethnobotanical study of wild edible plants in Bulgaria. Eurasia J Biosci 7:

There are two starting points for the study of
wild edible plants: that nothing could be more
natural than the human need for food, clothing and
housing, and that the natural environment is the
logical resource for meeting those needs in the most
effective way. Through gathering, wild plants are
supplied in two large groups: plants for medicine
(herbs) and plants for food. Wild plants grow in
places that border human settlements - some of
them are uninhabitable to humans (forests and
fields, clearings, around rivers, roads), but there are
areas associated with human activity (pastures,
meadows, fields, field margins, corners and ends
around the yards). Their collection is related to the
use of knowledge. Wild herbs, greens and

EurAsian Journal of BioSciences

mushrooms should be collected by knowledgeable

people (Turner et al. 2011, Chevalier et al. 2013).
Abundant ethnographic material from all folk
regions showed that Bulgarians sometimes catch
animals, birds, or fish, or gather plants, fruits,
mushrooms, i.e. they are sporadically appropriated
from the nature. These food materials are called
wild because they are appropriated from nature
directly in the form that can be most useful
(Markova 2011). In this article, wild edibles are
accepted as all plants growing without intentional
cultivation and include predominantly native and

Received: September 2013

Accepted: October 2013
Printed: November 2013


EurAsian Journal of BioSciences 7: 77-94 (2013)

naturalized species. It is also accepted that Edible

wild plants are endowed with one or more parts that
can be used for food if gathered at the appropriate
stage of growth and properly prepared (Kallas
Over the past decade, a number of summarizing
ethnographic studies on food and the nutrition of
Bulgarians were published, based on document
collections, ethnographic archives, regional folklore
studies etc. They draw attention to historical aspects
of food and nutrition, the relationship between
cooking and the gender roles of women and men in
daily food preparation, food as an identification
marker for different ethnic groups, the dietary
characteristics of Christians and Muslims, the
meanings of dinner as a community meal, monastery
kitchen characteristics, the principles of
classification of food and nutrition, food selection
and the current ban on particular foods (Alexiev
2010, Krasteva-Blagoeva 2010, Matanova 2010,
Markova 2011, Georgiev 2013). They all give
valuable information about food sources, including
wild plants. The work of Markova (2011) Food and
nutrition: between nature and culture is an attempt
at ethnologically reconstructing the system of
traditional Bulgarian nutrition by clarifying and
defining the types of food that are commonly eaten.
There are several large botanical reviews on useful
plants, but mainly from the first half of the last
century. Materials for the Bulgarian botanical
glossary, written by Ahtarov et al. (1939), is a
comprehensive and detailed survey organized as a
dictionary of folk plant names, but also includes
some data on the use of plants and in most cases
indicates the region that is the source of the data.
The same book, in a separate introductory section,
provides an analysis of the folk names used in the
botany written by Bulgarian botanist Bozhimir
Davidov. The information presented is based on field
studies and data collected mostly for medicinal
properties and rarely as food, handicrafts etc.
Stojanov and Kitanov (1960) in Wild useful plants in
Bulgaria provide an inventory of useful plants in
Bulgaria, including naturalized alien species. A small
part of the information in this study is the authors'
own observations and their field studies, but in many



places it is unclearly cited. Thus it is difficult to

distinguish the original ethnographic data from the
general information about plants obtained from
other sources. Such information, but on cultivated
plants, is contained in the book of Stranski (1963)
Wild and cultural plants in Bulgaria. In recent years,
ethnobotanical studies in Bulgaria have partly shed
light on the use of wild plants for food (Ivancheva
and Stancheva 2000, Kultur and Sami 2008,
Nedelcheva 2009, 2012a, b, Nedelcheva and Dogan
2009), but investigation targeting wild food plants
has not been conducted. At the same time, there are
a number of publications related to the edible plants
of neighbouring territories in the Balkans:
Macedonia (Matevski 2010, Pieroni et al. 2013),
Kosovo (Mustafa et al. 2012), Albania (Pieroni 2008,
2010), Bosna and Herzegovina (Redzic 2006, 2010a,
b), Croatia (Pieroni et al. 2003, Luczaj et al. 2013b),
with which Bulgaria is connected botanically,
culturally and socio-historically. An important period
with influence on Bulgarian cuisine is the period of
Ottoman Empire and for this reason, ethnobotanical
studies on edible plants in the territories of Turkey
are very interesting and important (Dogan et al.
2004, 2013, Ertug 2004, Ozbucak et al. 2006,
Kargioglu et al. 2010, Dogan 2012). Bulgaria is
connected with many European countries on the one
hand because of the Mediterranean climate and
Mediterranean floristic elements; on the other hand
it is connected with others as a result of common
processes (including food culture) during the
socialist and post-socialist periods. Edible plants
were the focus of ethnobotanical research in the
Mediterranean European regions (Leonti et al.
2006), Italy (Guarrera 2003, Guarrera et al. 2006,
Lentini and Venza 2007, Mattalia et al. 2012), Spain
(Tardio et al. 2006, Pardo-de-Santayana et al. 2007,
Menendez-Baceta et al. 2012) and other countries
mostly from central Europe: Poland (Luczaj and
Szymanski 2007, Luczaj 2008, 2010a, b, Luczaj et al.
2012a), Slovakia (Luczaj 2012), Hungary (Denes et al.
2012), Romania (Pieroni et al. 2012, Papp et al.
2013), Belarus (Luczaj et al. 2013a), Estonia (Kalle
and Soukand 2012), Sweden (Svanberg 2012),
Cyprus (Della et al. 2006) and Slovenia (Cerne 1992).
Certainly, in recent years there has been growing


EurAsian Journal of BioSciences 7: 77-94 (2013)

interest in edible plants in response to the demand

for new resources for a healthy diet, new markers of
cultural identity and importance, features of
migration processes, ethnobotanical linguistics,
food seasoning, agro-ecosystem development, etc.,
to which a number of recent studies in Europe have
been devoted (Pieroni 2001, Guarrera 2003, Pieroni
et al. 2005, Tardio and Pardo-de-Santayana 2008,
Nebel and Heinrich 2009, Turner et al. 2011, Vanzani
et al. 2011, Di Tizio et al. 2012, Luczaj et al. 2012b).
The history of the use of wild plants as food is in
fact part of the history of the population in this area,
an inevitable result of the dynamic processes of the
structure of the society, the cultural relationships
and the religious characteristics. There is some data
about the life of the ancient Slavs and Bulgarians in
the first centuries after the formation of the
Bulgarian state which can give us an idea about the
food of the two ethnic groups involved in the
formation of the Bulgarian nation - Slavs and
Bulgarians. The Slavs used mainly vegetarian food
and agricultural crops; they prepared different kinds
of bread and used wild fruit as well. The Bulgarians
used to lead a nomadic lifestyle and they had a
mainly dairy and meat based diet. After the
establishment of a settled lifestyle, the difference in
the sources and means of nutrition was wiped out
and it can be accepted that a uniform Bulgarian food
has existed since approximately the 10th century.
After converting to Christianity, the Bulgarians
observed periods of fasts and during these periods
the food was mainly vegetarian. The food of the
Bulgarian Bogomils (the followers of a dualistic,
antifeudal and reforming peoples movement which
came into being in the bosom of the Bulgarian
church in the 10th century and which has found a
wide response and imitation in the society) was
thoroughly vegetarian. The middle of the 17th
century is a period when a lot of new plant species
were introduced - e.g. rice, potatoes, tomatoes,
pepper, corn - and thus the use of wild plants was
reduced. At the end of the 19th century, two types
of food were distinguished - city and peasant. There
were also changes in the ways of treating and
preparing the food. This period completely changed
the meaning and place of wild plants in the current

gastronomical culture of the Bulgarians (Vakarelski

1977, Georgieva 1999, Pavlov 2001, Gecheva 2007).
This study focuses on the wild vascular plants
traditionally used for human consumption in
Bulgaria and its aim is to present data about the
richness and diversity of plants used as a nutrition
source and folk botanical knowledge, and to give an
impression about their contemporary state and
development in relation to natural plant resources
and traditional food culture for the period from the
end of 19th to the middle of the 20th century. Thus
ethnobotanical knowledge of food plants collected
from the wild will be enlarged in one more European
country, which is part of the European
Mediterranean area and part of the Balkan


Study area
The Balkan Peninsula is part of south-western
Europe, a historical crossroads of the ancient
cultures of Europe and Asia and a territory in which a
multitude of ethnic and religious communities live.
Because of its geographical location, Bulgaria is a
country where the culture and history of the people
populating the Balkan Peninsula have been
interwoven. Bulgaria is located in Southeast Europe,
in the northeast part of the Balkan Peninsula. Its
territory is located between 4413 and 4114 north
latitude, 2222 and 2837 east longitude. It is a
European, Balkan, Black Sea and Danube country. It
is bordered by Romania to the north, Serbia and
Macedonia to the west, Greece and Turkey to the
south, and the Black Sea to the east, with a territory
of 110,994 square kilometres (Fig. 1).
The population of Bulgaria is 7,364,570 and
consists mainly of ethnic Bulgarians (84.8%), with
two sizable minorities, a Turkish ethnic group (8.8%)
and the Roma (4.9%). The majority of the
population, or 72.5%, reside in urban areas
(Anonymous 2011). The official language of the
country is Bulgarian, which is a member of the Slavic
linguistic group.
The territory of Bulgaria belongs mainly to the
south eastern province of the Central European


EurAsian Journal of BioSciences 7: 77-94 (2013)

Fig. 1. Map of the study area.

Floristic Region. Bulgarias geographic location is the

reason for the considerable diversity of plants. Many
Mediterranean elements enter along the valleys of
the bigger rivers in southern Bulgaria and along the
southern Black Sea coast. Mediterranean parts exist
even on the southern slopes of the Stara Planina
Bulgarian flora comprises 159 families, 906
genera and 4030 species: 12.8% are endemics of the
native Bulgarian flora, 11% of the total Bulgarian
flora (4102 species), including alien species (Petrova
and Vladimirov 2010, Assyov et al. 2012). Bulgaria
has four clearly manifested seasons and a traditional
seasonal diet. The use of fresh herbs is also seasonal,
which required development of methods for their
storage and all-year-round use.
Bulgarian cuisine is a representative of the
cuisine of south-eastern Europe. It is essentially
South Slavic and shares characteristics with other
Balkans cuisines (Vakarelski 1977). Radeva (1980)
noted that the Bulgarian diet is less closely
connected to the Slavic peoples (according to
guidelines in the past in ethnographic science), but
with Caucasians who live in similar natural and
geographical conditions.
Ethnobotanical data collection
This study was conducted in the 2009-2013
period and gathered data from more than 30
ethnobotanical and ethnographical sources that
provide information for the end of 19th and to the
middle of the 20th century. The field data was
compiled through semi-structured interviews with a


field questionnaire organized to seek the following

information about plants: local name, plant part(s)
used, local mode of preparation, and use in
traditional customs. Data was collected from 53
informants (35 female and 18 male) older than 65
years, living in villages. At this stage, the study did
not seek representation of all or certain folk or
administrative regions.
The list of species is presented in alphabetical
order by Latin name and includes data on family,
local name(s), part used, and mode of preparation
and consumption. Family assignations follow the
Angiosperm Phylogeny Group III system (Stevens
2013) and The plant list database (Anonymous
2010). Approaches from a number of ethnobotanical
studies in Europe (Luczaj and Szymanski 2007, Kalle
and Soukand 2012, Luczaj et al. 2012b) are followed
concerning the registration of highly variable and
taxonomically unresolved species in the list.


A total of 88 wild plants species, 26 families and
52 genera were identified as edible plants. Recorded
data are presented by list of species, families, local
name(s), part used and method of consumption
(Table 1). Only one family (Equisetaceae) is from
spore-bearing plants and one from monocots
(Amaryllidaceae). The most prevalent are representatives of Rosaceae (22.5%), Amaranthaceae and
Amaryllidaceae (10%), Brassicaceae and Compositae
(8.75%), Polygonaceae and Apiaceae (6.25%) (Table
2). The largest numbers of species are from Allium,
Rumex, Malva and Chenopodium. They represent
more than 20% of registered taxa. We can add to
this group some unlisted and variable Rosa species,
Rubus spp. and Taraxacum spp. The list includes 37
species of perennials, 5 species of biennials and 14
species of annuals, 15 species of trees, and 17
species of shrubs (including 5 species of dwarf
The edible parts of plants, their method of
preparation and the taste characteristics of the final
product are given in Table 3. Similar in number are
the species which are used as leaves (43) and fruits
(38), followed by young shoots (9), seeds (7), roots

EurAsian Journal of BioSciences 7: 77-94 (2013)


Table 1. The wild edible plants used as food in the study area.



EurAsian Journal of BioSciences 7: 77-94 (2013)

Table 1. Continued.

*collected info, which is not visible in ethnographical and ethnobotanical sources


(4), bulbs (4) and inflorescences (2). Most of the

plants (73%) have multiple edible uses.
Edible greens
The largest group is from plants with
aboveground parts (young leaves (43), shoots and
stems (9), gathered mainly during the spring and
used as vegetables. It is 59.1% of all listed species,
dominated by Amaryllidaceae, Amaranthaceae,
Brassicaceae, Compositae and Polygonaceae (Fig.
Important species are Urtica dioica, Rumex

acetosa, Rumex patientia, Chenopodium album,

Atriplex prostrata and Amaranthus retroflexus, which
had a very wide usage in the past, but are also still
used today. Conversely, many others were found
only in ethnographical sources (Agrostemma githago,
Cardamine spp., Bellis perennis, Lepidium spp.) Most
of these plants are rarely used and more or less
regional or used as substitute, for example in terms
of infertility, famine and etc.
Gathered leaves and shoots were used like
vegetables, as a basic food component in the past,

EurAsian Journal of BioSciences 7: 77-94 (2013)


and etc.) and very rarely fruit (apple, pumpkin)

between the sheets. The pie has different names
depending on the kind of vegetable it contains and
its shape. Various kinds of pottery and appliances
have been created for its preparation and baking. A
special type of meal is the zelnik, which looks like
the banitza but is prepared of two dough sheets upper and lower- with greens in the middle (a filling
of different kinds of green vegetable leaves).
Banitsa or zelnik prepared with amaranth shtir
is called shtirnik, especially in West Bulgaria
(Kyustendil region) (Zahariev 1949) (Fig. 3). The
preferred use of one or other green vegetable for
pie filling is generally regionally differentiated. For
example, Pieroni et al. (2013) report Atriplex
hortensis L. as the most preferred filling in Western
Rheum rhaponticum is endemic and a rare plant in
Bulgarian flora (locality in south-western Bulgaria,
Rila Mts.) (Petrova 2006, Petrova and Vladimirov
but nowadays they are used instead of cabbage and 2009, 2010). Leaf peduncles have a strong sweet
spinach. They are not stored dry for winter. Edible taste and were used as a snack, for pies or for sweets
greens are preferred for raw consumption or as in the past. Data about the use of R. rhaponticum as
ingredients for salad. These two food categories an edible plant is found in old monastery books and
overlap to a large extent. In the past consumption of written sources of recipes and it is also presented in
vegetables seasoned only with salt was more the oldest written documents about traditional
commonly called salad. Vitis vinifera leaves are Bulgarian food culture. The plant could be found in
used for sarma (stuffed with rice or bulgur and/or the gardens of monks from the Rila Monastery
minced meat). They are used in many meat dishes, (Stranski 1953, 1963, Stojanov and Kitanov 1960,
especially in spring. U. dioica is used as single Nedelcheva 2009, 2012a). Today, this plant has lost
ingredient or mixed in vegetarian diets, but never its importance as a food.
The addition of garlic to food is common for the
with meat. In poor regions, people eat nettles mixed
with small quantities of flour for weeks at a time. Bulgarians who also well know its healing qualities.
Using edible greens provides food with a mostly Allium ursinum (wild garlic) is used nowadays as a
sour and sometimes bitter sour taste (Table 3). substitute for garlic in many regions in the country in
There are some traditional combinations of food the spring, and such use is not supported by many
ingredients, such as lamb with sorrel (Rumex spp.) ethnographic data. The leaves and bulbs of the wild
and mint (Mentha spicata L.). These three garlic can be consumed raw, cooked or pickled. It is
components are involved in the preparation of many added to salads and a number of meals. Buttermilk
dishes typical for a festive meal of St. George day with wild garlic is an appropriate cold soup for the
summer. Alliaria petiolata was also used in the past
(6th May).
A traditional dough meal with a filling is the as a substitute for garlic because of its taste and
banitza. It is a pie made of dough sheets with smell. Since ancient times, onion has been used raw
different vegetables (young and fresh leaves or or as an ingredient in many meals. Many species and
shoots depending on the season: U. dioica, Rumex particularly their stems and leaves (over 20 Allium
spp., A. retroflexus, Chenopodium spp., A. prostrata wild species) can be consumed.
Table 2. Taxonomical structure of edible plants in the study



EurAsian Journal of BioSciences 7: 77-94 (2013)

Table 3. Number of plants according to plant parts used, the mode of preparation and taste characteristics.

* male catkins, **spore stem, ***leaf peduncle, **** tuber

The young shoots of some species can be

consumed raw as a snack, in salad, marinated and in
pickle or added to soups (Chaerophyllum bulbosum,
Anthriscus spp., astinaca sativa, Heracleum
sibiricum). The stems of these Apiaceae species have
a thick consistency and they are suitable for thermal
processing or fermentation. Not least, they give
food a specific flavour due to their essential oil
content. Due to the antimicrobial properties of
these oils, they are a natural preservative,
particularly for lacto-fermented foods.
Fruits and seeds
The fruits (including pseudo fruits) of 38 species
(43.8%) were obtained, mostly from Rosaceae,
Adoxaceae, Ericaceae and Vitaceae shrubs and trees
(Fig. 2b). They can be consumed fresh, dried or after
thermal or lacto-fermented processing. Fresh or
dried fruit may be cooked in water until tender and
used to make jams, marmalade or compote (with
macerated whole fruits or pieces of fruits) (Table 3).
The fruits gathered during the summer or
autumn (apples, plums, and pears) are cut in slices
and dried. They are consumed directly or stewed and
sweetened in the winter. Dried fruits (most
commonly apples and pears) are ritual food,
particularly in winter customs (Christmas Eve) - with
the common name oshav. Fresh fruit is cut into
slices and dried on strings or spread on dry and well
aired places. This is superb, basic high-calorie food
for the winter.
Various fruits (including wild Malus and Pyrus
spp., Mespilus germanica, Sorbus torminalis,
Vaccinium vitis-idaea) are stored for the winter,
chiefly as a fruit pickle in vinegar or in brine. The

acetic fruit pickle is more frequent and favourable.

This is the way in which the fruits were preserved for
the winter historically. Nowadays fruit pickle is not
commonly used. The fruits are preserved better in
wine, which elevates their taste.
The use of R. canina as a food plant is typical in
the poorer regions as well as those with unfruitful
soils. The use of R. canina is a sign of poverty, and has
been the main food and vitamin source in these
regions for many years, according to data from folk
songs and legends. Brier jam is very famous and
common - it has a complicated recipe and is a time
consuming procedure. Special wooden devices and
containers are made for its preparation. The names
of many settlements and areas in Bulgaria originate
from the folk name of R. canina, Bulgarian (Bg):
shipka (Ahtarov et al. 1939, Stojanov and Kitanov
1960, Stranski 1963).
The use of the walnut seeds (Juglans regia) and
hazel bush seeds (Corylus avellana) is wide. They can
be consumed raw or dried and added to many meals.
These seeds are a valuable source of nutrition during
the winter. The edible chestnut (Castanea sativa) has
a very limited distribution throughout the country
(south-western Bulgaria, Belasitsa Mts.). Its seeds
are consumed roasted or boiled (as a sweet) or as a
bread flour ingredient.
Aquatic plants are not preferred as food. One of
the exceptions is Trapa natans which is aquatic
edible plant. Water chestnut has fresh fruits that
taste like chestnuts; they are boiled or baked like
potatoes, or prepared as bread flour (Stojanov and
Kitanov 1960, Stranski 1963).

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Underground parts
Underground parts have a relatively limited use
(9.9%): roots (4), bulbs (3) and tuber (1) from
Amaryllidaceae, Apiaceae, Compositae and
Amaranthaceae (Fig. 2c). The bulbs of Allium spp.
were widely used as a substitute for onion.
Chenopodium bonus-henricus is used as an ingredient
and emulsifier in traditionally prepared sweet
halva, as in other Balkan areas (Pieroni et al. 2013).
The use of underground parts is more common in
mountainous and rural regions and increases in
periods of scarcity, mostly as a substitute for potato
(Redzic 2006, 2010a).
Food groups
The study outlined eight major food groups with
wild edibles: fresh greens and fruits (raw), salads,
stuffed bakery products (pie), cooked meals
(stewed, boiled, roasted or fried greens, including
boiled cereals), sweets (boiled or macerated fruit
products), dry fruits or greens, lacto-fermented
products (vegetable pickle and fruit pickle) and
bread ingredients (Table 3). The taste is culturally
distinct, and the predominant taste of Bulgarian
cuisine is salty-sour-spicy (Markova 2011). Wild
edible plants are food ingredients that cover all the
main taste categories. Fruits are the main ingredient
in sweets. Edible greens are cooked together with
meat and give the dishes a salt-sour taste of dishes.
More than 70% of all recorded foods are
characterized by a salty-sour taste (Fig. 4). Plants
such as Allium spp., Alliaria petiolata and
Nectaroscordum siculum are used as a substitute for
onion and garlic in food preparation and are mainly
responsible for the spicy character of the food.
Bulgarians often add sourness to cooked meals. The
sourness is used instead of vinegar and gives the
soup sour taste. In the past, people in poor regions
usually used as sour the wild unripe fruits (V. vinifera,
Cerasus spp., Berberis vulgaris, Ribes spp.) as well as
the leaves of Rumex spp. and Oxalix acetosella.
Symbolic plants
The traditional holidays of the Bulgarian people
involve the preparation of ritual food, which consists
mainly of ritual breads. Wild plants play a significant
role in their decoration. They are also used as
symbols (e.g. putting buds of the cornel-tree in the


Fig. 2. Systematic structure of the main food groups in the

study area. a) Edible greens, others (Adoxaceae,
Caryophyllaceae, Campanulaceae, Equisetaceae, Oxalidaceae, Portulacaceae, Rosaceae, Urticaceae), b) Fruits and
seeds, others (Berberidaceae, Cannabaceae, Cornaceae,
Grossulariaceae, Moraceae, Juglandaceae, Lythraceae,
Vitaceae), c) Underground part.

bread as a symbol of health and abundance). Some

plants are an unalterable part of Bulgarian traditions
and represent an obligatory part of the table
prepared for religious holidays (Valchinova 1995,
Marinov 2003a, b). A clear example of this is the
selection of meals for Christmas Eve (24th
December), which is entirely vegetarian, and
commonly comprised of vegetarian sarma stuffed
V. vinifera or cabbage leaves, oshav (stewed dried
fruit-mainly plums and pears), walnuts, hazelnuts,

EurAsian Journal of BioSciences 7: 77-94 (2013)


Fig. 3. Relationships between food groups and taste patterns.

Fig. 4. Banitsa or zelnik prepared with amaranth

(Amaranthus retroflexus) shtir is called shtirnik
especially in the Western Bulgaria (Kyustendil region).

dried fruits and boiled cereals.

In the Bulgarian Orthodox Church tradition, the
Lenten fast prior to Easter is the time for a
vegetarian meal, mostly based on edible greens
gathered in the spring (U. dioica, Rumex spp.,
Chenopodium spp., A. prostrata and A. retroflexus,


Bread and bread ingredients

Bread is the most basic food of the Bulgarians
and the word bread is often used in the sense of
nutrition in general. It is prepared mainly of wheat,
rye and in more rare cases, of corn flour (Vakarelski
1977, Georgieva 1999). In this study, 10.2% of listed
plants are used for bread flour or as bread
ingredients. In some periods of bad harvest in the
past or if the families were poor, substitutes were
added to the flour, it was entirely replaced by rose
hip flour (R. canina), or young male catkins of C.
avellana (pollen and buds) were mixed with the
bread flour. In one of the oldest written sources,
dedicated to the Life of St. Ivan Rilski, it is noted that
he had been using brier flour for the framework of
small flat loaf (a kind of bread). This is one of the
first written documents that gives information
about the use of fresh and dried brier as food,
especially for survival (Nedelcheva 2009, 2012a).
Acorn flour (made of baked and ground acorns)
was used in periods of plagues, disasters, poverty
and hunger (Ouercus frainetto). The fruit of Sorbus
aria was also mixed with bread flour in the past. The
dried and ground fruit of Crataegus was sometimes
added to the flour to give it a sweet taste. Flour was

EurAsian Journal of BioSciences 7: 77-94 (2013)

made of Trapa natans and was also mixed with bread

flour (Stojanov and Kitanov 1960).
Medicinal foods
Many of the traditional foods have strong healing
and strengthening qualities and are used for
medicinal purposes and included in a prevention or
healing diet (Georgiev 2013). This is of great
importance especially for vegetable foods. A
number of the plants that are edible are also used in
folk medicine because of their healing qualities. The
jams and the jellies prepared from cornels (Cornus
mas) have an astringent effect, while those prepared
from Rheum rhaponticum have a laxative effect. The
soup (or other meals) of U. dioica, nettles, is
generally used for strengthening the body especially
for a weakened body after a long illness, anaemia
and as a natural blood purifier.
Invasive species
A. retroflexus and Helianthus tuberosus were
recorded in the surveyed area as edible plants. A.
retroflexus is a widespread weed used today mainly
for forage. It is an invasive alien species. H. tuberosus
was cultivated as an ornamental plant in the past
and nowadays has great potential to be a serious
threat to biodiversity and natural resources. For
now, its popularity and use is limited and it is
cultivated in private farms in small quantities. Still, it
rarely occurs in ruderal habitats (Petrova et al. 2012).
Poisonous plants
Strong folk botanical culture is shown in the use
of some poisonous plants as food (the aril of the
seeds of yew (Taxus baccata L.), the fruits of bladdercherry (Physalis alkekengi L.)) after appropriate
processing (treatment, gathering of the nonpoisonous parts only or their use in a limited time
period of the development of the plant). Well
matured fruits of Sambucus ebulus are used for jam
and as food dye (dried or fresh), although the unripe
fruits are well known to be poisonous.
Folk plant names and folk nomenclature
Some traditional plant names are a true
reflection of their edibility and the adjective edible
(Bg: yadliv or edliv) is often added to folk names.
This approach in the traditional botanical
nomenclature is usually used for species that are
edible as an exception in comparison to those that


are similar (Bg: yadliv kesten (edible chestnut)

Castanea sativa vs. konski kesten (horse chestnut)
Aesculus hippocastanum L.). For a number of species,
and mainly for those whose leaves are used for the
preparation of salads, the traditional name is a direct
reference to the dish (Bg: salata Lactuca,
Taraxacum). The adjective edible is used mainly to
describe mushrooms in order to distinguish edible
mushrooms from poisonous ones. It is rarely used
for qualifying higher plants. Most traditional names
for the plants used as food reflect their gustatory
characteristics, taste and aroma (Bg: kiselets, kisel
buren, (sour weed) Rumex, sladak buren (sweet
weed) Atriplex) or morphological forms. Most of the
names are old and accompanied the migration of the
peoples. The names were transmitted from person
to person and thus absorbed and changed according
to the spirit and customs of the Bulgarians, mostly
with Slavic and Bulgarian origin (dub Quercus,
louk Allium, dryan Cornus, leska Coryllus, glog
Crataegus, loza Vitis, lapad Rumex and etc.)
(Ahtarov et al. 1939, Nedelcheva and Dogan 2009).
In folk botanical nomenclature, all edible greens are
called zelenini or zelenii. These names are based
on name of green colour zelen and the local name
of cabbage Brassica oleracea L. zele. In this way, all
leaf vegetables are well distinguished and separated
in folk knowledge. The other old name of wild edible
greens is trevi neseeni, which means grasses which
are not sown, and is visible how the folk
nomenclature defined the category wild.
The list of species included in this study
represents around 2.18% of Bulgarian flora. This
proportion would be greater, if plants used as food
seasonings and beverages were added, but that is
not the subject of the present study. At this stage of
the study, comparing representativeness of the flora
with similar studies in the Balkans and Europe would
be premature and incorrect.
The systematic structure of established species is
comparable with those for neighbouring regions.
The absence of some species is notable, such as
Gymnosperm (Pinaceae), Boraginaceae, Convolvulaceae, Crassulaceae, Dioscoreaceae, Fabaceae,
Araceae, Dioscoreaceae, Orchidaceae etc, which are
listed as food plants in Mediterranean areas. The


EurAsian Journal of BioSciences 7: 77-94 (2013)

presence of significant differences in the registered

families is primarily due to edible greens, while
plants which are used because of their fruits and
seeds are mainly representatives of Rosaceae,
Adoxaceae, Ericaceae, Fagaceae and Vitaceae, as
reported for many study areas (Guarrera 2003,
Dogan et al. 2004, 2013, Guarrera et al. 2006, Leonti
et al. 2006, Tardio et al. 2006, Lentini and Venza
2007, Pardo-de-Santayana et al. 2007, Dogan 2012,
Mattalia et al. 2012, Menendez-Baceta et al. 2012).
Although the species from Apiaceae, Brassicaceaeae and Compositae are well represented in this
study, they were used rarely and more or less
regionally, or as a substitute for vegetables, for
example due to infertility of the land and famine.
People's memory of them as food plants is almost
completely lost. Conversely, in areas with a
dominant Mediterranean climate, the use of plants
from the Asteraceae, Brassicaceaeae, Apiaceae
families as edible greens is very common (Dogan et
al. 2004, Dogan 2012) and nowadays they are sold in
the local markets (Dogan et al. 2013). This finding is
similar to the data of Redzic (2010a), who reported a
species list related to stress situations and necessity
in, for example, times of war.
The use of wild plants has four well defined
seasonal characteristics, as a result of the climatic
characteristics of the study area, because of the
need to preserve food, and widely applied
conservation practices. The use of plants, and more
precisely separate parts of them, as food is a
reflection of the empirical experience of the people,
which has lasted for thousands of years.
The results of this study show the predominant
role of edible greens (59.1%), followed by fruits and
seeds (43.18%) and underground parts (9.9%).
Edible greens play a dominant role in the salty sour
taste of foods in Bulgarian cuisine. Nowadays, no
more than four species of edible greens are in active
use by people. In contrast, many of listed species of
plants used for fruits continue to be collected and
used. Traditional folk knowledge of fruits is well
One of the most symbolic and emblematic plants
in the Bulgarian flora is the nettle (U. dioica), which is
used widely even nowadays. For instance, when you



first eat nettle in a year you should say: We got to

the green again this year, which means that this
year we survived despite the bad winter weather
and that the spring is coming with its abundance of
food. This saying is used even nowadays but with a
change in the meaning, and mainly in order to show
that the winter passed this year without many
illnesses and difficulties. There are a number of
sources that show the value of the nettles as food in
the Bulgarian cultural heritage. There are many
famous proverbs such as When a Greek is born,
their first words are dried mackerel, while the
Bulgarian would say nettles, Green zelnik with
nettles, Silk carries, nettles eats. A time will
come when youll wear silk and eat nettles, etc. It is
also a plant with healing and colouring qualities.
Many of the names of regions and settlements in the
country originate from the name of the nettle. The
use of Urtica urens L. has also been reported in some
areas of the Balkans (Dogan et al. 2004, 2013, Dogan
2012, Redzic 2006, Luczaj et al. 2013b). It was not
confirmed for this study area, however. In the field
studies, many informants clearly described U. dioica
as edible and U. urens as not edible, not
Unlike many other areas of the Balkans and
Europe (Dogan et al. 2004, Redzic 2006, 2010a), the
use of young leaves and shoots from Malva spp. is
not part of Bulgarian cuisine (excluding the use of
immature seeds as childrens snacks in the past),
while the plant is well known as a medicinal herb.
Generally, people accept the traditional
importance of food and psychologically associated
food with healing practices or conditions of
psychological stress (pregnancy, illness, age)
(Messer 1984, Markova 2011). This study recorded a
large number of species that were used in times of
scarcity and poverty, mostly as ingredients of bread,
substitutes for potatoes, a source of vitamins in the
early spring, etc. Here, established species in this
group were also used under the emergency
conditions of the recent war in Bosnia and
Herzegovina, as can be seen in the works of Redzic
(2006, 2010a, b).
The use of a large number of species for the
preparation of bread flour is very typical of poor

EurAsian Journal of BioSciences 7: 77-94 (2013)


regions in the Balkans. Redzic (2006, 2010a)

reported that over 16% of edible plants were used
for this purpose, which is comparable to the 10.2%
found in the present study.
The plains, mainly in the northeast and south
parts of the country, are rich in fertile and easily
arable lands. Agriculture there is more easily
developed and wild plants have been replaced by
cultivated ones as food. On the other hand, new
meals may be a mixture between wild and cultivated
plants. In this way, the diet of the Bulgarians
becomes more varied and at the same time more
nutritious. In the mountainous areas, there is less
diversity in edible plants - mainly the fruits and seeds
of some of the plants. Here, striving to ensure their
nutrition, the people in a number of cases have used
untypical sources of food or vegetarian species
which replace other traditionally used plants (e.g.
the male flowers/catkins of the hazel bush are
added to bread flour) (Radeva 1984, Gramatikov
1992, Markova 2006).

influence of Ottoman cuisine and folk medicine. The

foreign influence on techniques of preparation and
the consumption of food and wild nutritive sources
has led to the creation of the unique Bulgarian
traditional cuisine (Vakarelski 1977, Markova 2011).
Though it has passed through many stages of
cultural influence and yet survived, todays
traditional food and diet is strongly changed.
Fortunately, in the last decade, there has been a
return to natural food and the Bulgarian cooking
culture is a part of that. The development of rural
tourism has led to a revival of Bulgarian national
cuisine and the use of traditional national sources of
food supply, such as wild plants.
Knowledge of the use of wild plants in the
Bulgarian diet is original and unique in its character.
At the same time, it is inseparable from the
traditional culture of the Balkans and Europe.
The present study showed the function of wild
edible plants as a sign of the ethnic and cultural
identity of Bulgarians but also reveals the vital
importance of wild plants to building the typical
taste and characteristic methods of preparing and
eating food. Wild edible plants are an important part
The use of wild plants by the population reflects of Bulgarian patterns of culture.
Bulgaria provides a good opportunity for
the social structure of society and therefore the
social differentiations in nutrition. Along with ethnobotanical research into wild edible plants
cultural and socio-economic development, attitudes because it provides much ethnographic data,
toward wild food sources are changing. For a long including observations on food culture and botany,
period after the sixties of the last century, the use of plus the possibility of field observations in rural
wild edible plants was considered a sign of poverty areas where wild food plants are traditionally used
and low social status. This factor in the loss of on a daily basis. This study and its data will be the
traditional knowledge has been reported in other basis for further cross-cultural and geographical
studies (Luczaj and Szymanski 2007, Luczaj et al. analysis.
2012b, 2013a).
The influence of other cultures during different
historical periods is obvious, mainly in the ways of
I would like to thank all informants who
preparing and preserving the plants, as well as in the
way of cooking various meals. This is suggested by generously gave their time to be interviewed.
written sources mainly from the period of the
Bulgarian Renaissance and reflects the strong

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Bulgaristandaki Yenebilir Yabani Bitkiler zerine Etnobotanik Bir alma

Giri: Bu alma, Bulgaristanda geleneksel olarak tketilen yabani vaskler bitkiler zerine younlamaktadr ve
almann amac; gda kayna olarak kullanlan bitkilerin eitlilii, halkn bitkiler hakkndaki bilgisi konusunda veri
salamak ve bitkilerin gnmzdeki durumlar ile doal bitki kaynaklar ve geleneksel gda kltr ile ilikili olarak
geliimi hakknda bilgi vermektir. alma, 19. yzyln sonu ile 20. yzyln ortalar arasndaki zaman dilimini
Materyal ve Metot: Bu almada, 19. yzyln sonu ile 20. yzyln ortalar iin bilgi salayan 30 etnobotanik ve
etnorafik kaynaktan veri toplanm ve yar-yaplandrlm grmelerle elde edilen arazi kaynakl verilerle birlikte
Bulgular: Bu alma sonucunda 88 yabani bitki tr, 25 familya ve 52 genus yenebilir bitki olarak tanmlanmtr.
Rosaceae, Amaranthaceae, Amaryllidaceae, Brassicaceae, Compositae ve Polygonaceae temsilcileri baskn trler
olarak gze arpmaktadr. En ok Allium, Rumex ve Chenopodium trleri mevcuttur. Bunlar, yaprak (43) meyve (38),
gen srgnler (9), kkler (5), tohumlar (6), yumrular (3) and infloresens (2) eklinde tketilen bitkiler izlemektedir. En
byk grup, genelde bahar mevsiminde toprak st ksmlar toplanan ve sebze olarak tketilen bitkilerdir. nemli
trler Urtica dioica, Rumex acetosa, Rumex patientia, Chenopodium album, Atriplex prostrata ve Amaranthus retroflexustur.
Meyveler ounlukla Rosaceae, Adoxaceae, Ericaceae ve Vitaceae al ve aalarndan toplanmaktadr. almada sekiz
byk gda grubu belirlenmitir: taze yeillik ve meyveler, sebze ili hamur ileri, gve ve kaynatlm yeil bitkiler,
kaynatlm hububat, tatllar (kaynatlm meyve rnleri), kurutulmu meyveler, kuruyemiler ve mayalanm rnler.
Baskn tatlar, tuzlu-eki-baharatl eklindedir. Yabani bitkilerden bazlar ayn zamanda tbbi amalarla da kullanlmakta
ve nleyici ve tedavi edici diyete dahil edilmektedir.
Sonu: Gnmzde, geleneksel diyet byk oranda deiiklie uram durumdadr. Bulgaristan, eitli sebeplerden
tr yenebilir yabani bitkilerin etnobotanik aratrlmas asndan iyi bir frsat sunmaktadr. Bu sebepler arasnda,
gda kltr ve botaniksel gzlemler gibi etnorafik veriler salamasnn yansra, yabani yenebilir bitkilerin gnlk
hayatta geleneksel olarak kullanld krsal kesimlerde arazi almas imkan vermesi saylabilir.
Anahtar Kelimeler: Balkanlar, Bulgaristan, geleneksel bilgi, gda gruplar, yenebilir yeil bitki.