Filling the Lexicon: Ecosystems and Agriculture Part 1

I’m still struggling with the problem in my previous post, namely the need to know a bit about everything to create a lexicon consistent with the material conditions in which a conlang is spoken. And since I have a vague intention to use the language in a fantasy novel at some point, agriculture and rural life are fairly important background information.


First, climate, since that dictates what can grow. I’ve been working under the assumption of a subtropical (frost free, at least at sea level) island environment with fauna and flora based around what is native, or at least established long ago, in the Mediterranean and Africa. Think of the various volcanic island chains of Macaronesia, in the Atlantic: the Azores, Madeira, Cape Verde, and the Canary Islands, which vary in climate from temperate to Mediterranean, subtropical, and arid. Because these islands are volcanic and many of the younger ones are centred around a mountain, they also show climatic variations with altitude, with higher altitudes often being colder and wetter, and with orientation, since the mountains create a rain shadow effect.

Staple Crops and Calories

The place to start here is the main energy food for the culture in question. There are a few common types of staple from plants:

  • Cereals
  • Larger seeds and fruits (lentils, beans, breadfruit)
  • Tubers and root vegetables
  • The pith (e.g. sago)

Cereals are a bit boring and the current dominant option in most of the world anyway, so I decided to focus on other options that are either native or long established in the west of the Old World. And when I did that, I realised I didn’t even know what the traditional non-cereal crops of Africa even were, before imports from the Americas and Asia. For example, Nigeria is now a massive producer of cassava, but cassava is native to South America, much like the foreign status of the potato in Europe. Similarly, bananas and plantains are from Asia and didn’t become widespread in Africa until after 600 AD.

The same applies to Europe of course, since much of our diet consists of crops from the Americas and/or Asia: potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, courgettes, aubergines etc. were all unavailable until less than a millennium ago. If you look for non-grain calorific crops that are native to Europe, you find a somewhat disappointing list of vegetables like carrots, parnips, turnips (and later swedes), beets (although not cultivated for their roots possibly until Roman times), none of which feel particularly fitting to a subtropical island, as well as the ubiquitous legumes.

Googling has produced some interesting non-grain domesticated staples native to Africa though. Focusing mainly on crops of non-arid Africa, some examples are:


Some species of yam (Dioscorea) are native to Africa and an important staple in the west of the continent. These are not to be confused with sweet potatoes, which are not native to Africa.

Members of the mint family

Strangely, Africa has at least a couple of staple root crops which are members of the wider mint family. People don’t often think of that family as producing root crops, but Chinese artichoke (Stachys affinis) is also a member of the mint family and a fairly well-known minor root crop. In the African case, there is coleus rotundifolius, the country potato, and coleus esculentus, the Livingstone potato.


While the plantain is not native to Africa, a member of the same family has been grown in parts of Ethiopia as a staple since domestication around 6000 BC. Interestingly, enset is not grown for its fruit, but for its starchy root and pith. The plants are harvested after 4 – 5 years, at which point the yield of a single plant is approximately 40 kg.

Pulses and Legumes

A number of pulses and legumes are either native to Africa or introduced a long time ago. Cowpeas seem to have been an early and major domesticated legume, and there are also many others including the Bambara groundnut and the lablab bean (the latter from Africa but strangely cultivated more elsewhere).

There certainly seems like enough variety here to create a high-yielding sub-tropical agriculture not based on grains and cereals, using only species (or invented close relatives) within a continent of the target area.

Further thought is needed to refine climatic conditions (climatic zones including rainfall, temperatures, seasonality etc. by altitude and orientation) and match that to a set of crop plants capable of feeding people year round, taking into account storability.