Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Brief (and very dubious) History of Chewing Gum

I was passing some wild cherry trees in Weardale this afternoon and noticed this ball of solidified gum exuded from a damaged branch of one of them. Prunus species tend to do this if they're wounded – plum and cherry trees in particular are prone to exude gum if they’re wounded. 

I vaguely remembered that this gum is supposed to be edible and when I got home checked it out in some early natural history books. Curiously the notion of its edibility seems to be based on the same original account,repeated more or less verbatim in books from the 18th., 19th., and 20th. Century (plagiarism has always been rife in natural history writing). It goes as follows:

Hasselquist relates that more than a hundred men, during a siege, were kept alive for near two months without any other sustenance than a little of this gum taken into the mouth sometimes, and suffered gradually to dissolve’.

That comes from William Withering’s 1776 treatise called A Botanical Arrangement of all the Vegetables Naturally growing in Great Britain..., which was the oldest source I could lay my hands on.

So who was the mysterious Hasselquist, who seems to be the original source of this persistently plagiarised information? It turns out that Fredrik Hasselquist (1722-1752), a Swede, was a contemporary of Linnaeus who travelled extensively in the Middle East during his all-to-short life.

I couldn’t find the original source of Withering’s quote on the web but did find another, even more improbable, account by Hasselquist of the miraculous nutritional qualities of chewing gum.

It comes fronm his book entitled Voyages and Travels in the Levant in the years 1749, 50, 51, 52, containing observations in natural history, physick, agriculture and commerce, particularly on the Holy Land, and the natural history of the Scriptures. Remarkably, its available to read on the web, here, courtesy of Google books.

In this passage he’s referring to gum Arabic rather than Prunus gum, but for gum chewers everywhere it's reassurance that, if you are caught in a difficult situation, salvation may come through mastication.

The Abyssinians make a journey to Cairo every year, to sell the products of their country......They must travel over terrible deserts ... the necessities of life may chance to fail them when the journey lasts too long. This happened to the Abyssinian caravan in the year 1750, when provisions being consumed, when they had still two months to travel... they were obliged to search for something amongst their merchandise, wherewith they might support life in this extremity, and found nothing more proper that gum Arabic. This served to support above 1000 persons for two months ... the caravan arrived safe in Cairo, without any great loss of people either by hunger or diseases’. 

Improbable maybe, but I've seen more outrageous claims made in the popular press about purported benefits of health foods.....

Meawhile, back to cherry trees - and you can read about their beautifully fragrant wood at this excellent new blog.


  1. Some useful bushcraft info there, Phil. It does look edible-ish. Tree resins are used in some varnish recipes, I think - wonder if this one is?

  2. Fascinating, Phil. I hope that you made it home in time for tea and didn't have to resort to any of the measures outlined above!

  3. HM. I seem to recall from my days in the SCA that gum Arabic was one of the ingredients I needed to have to mix with my pigments to make paint. I could never find the stuff. Not sure I'd want to eat a constituent of paint, but then some paints were made with egg whites, and other use milk, and we certainly eat those readily enough.

  4. Crikey, I'm so glad I don't have to survive on that!

  5. No sure, some are water soluble and some aren't - but it looks like it would make a good varnish...

  6. It would play havoc with my dental fillings Graeme!

  7. I think you're right Ellen, plant gums are in a lot of artists' paints ... including watercolours, I think...

  8. Edible gum is used in India for making a sweet called Karadantu, which is purported to give strength to new mothers.The sweet is chewy and delicious!Probably gum arabic is used in the preparation.

  9. That's fascinating lotusleaf - I could get very interested in edible plant gums. I've come across another called gum tragacanth that is apparently used to thicken sauces....