Tunas and purslane

David Wright dcwright at prodigy.net.mx
Sun Nov 6 21:42:07 UTC 2011

Estimado Jonathan:


For the moment I only have the 2010 digital version of the 1942-1946 IB-UNAM edition, which is incomplete (it only has books 1-7, so itzmiquilitl is not included), and a digital facsimile (from Google Books) of the 1790 edition in Latin, which lacks the illustrations. In the latter edition “YTZMIQUILITL” is at vol. 2, p. 468 (book 10, chapter 48). I just noticed that there is another species of tetzmitl, called “TEPETETZMITL”: vol. 2, p. 469 (book 10, chapter 50), that we can add to the list of varieties of plants containing itz(tli) + mi(tl).


“Blade” is probably not the best term in English, because when taken out of context (“almond-shaped blade”) it evokes prismatic obsidian blades, which are quite different in form and manufacturing technique. The resemblance between obsidian almond-shaped sacrificial knives, the leaves of some plants, and some varieties of obsidian projectile points is only approximate. Obsidian knapped into a sacrificial knife or projectile point seems to have been associated with certain plants in the ancient Nahua minds. (Translucent green obsidian would look even more like a leaf than black or grey obsidian.) The biggest difference in shape between this sort of object and a purslane leaf would be the latter’s lack of a point.


That a 16th century Nahua scribe-painter made such an association is evident in the Codex Mendoza, in the pictorial sign for Itzmiquilpan (f. 27r), mentioned earlier in this thread. See:




The latter link includes Antonio Peñafiel’s etymology, first published in 1885, in which he incorrectly associates the syllable “mi” with “milli” (the /l/ shouldn’t be assimilated) instead of “mi(tl)” (the latter having been recorded by Hernández in the chapter you just mentioned).


The Itzmiquilpan-purslane link is much clearer in the Otomi toponym, since the same Otomi word is used for both the place and the plant. The Nahuatl associations between specific words and botanical species are turning out to be harder to work out.


To sum up, the strongest connection between Portulaca oleracea and a plant with the words itz(tli) and mi(tl) that I’ve seen so far is the association of “itzmitl” and “verdolaga” in the Acatlán dictionary, together with your identification of “tetzmitl” as “Portulaca oleracea”, although there are other varieties of itzmitl: aitzmitl and tepetetzmitl. The verbal description of the “itzmiquilitl” in the Florentine Codex fits well with P. oleracea, while the drawing labeled “itzmiquilitl” in this manuscript doesn’t look like purslane, nor does it appear to coincide with the verbal description. The morpheme quilitl refers to edible leafy plants, so it looks like the itzmiquilitl is the itzmitl that people liked to eat, among the wider category of plants called itzmitl.


Here are my transcription, phonemic version, and translation of the Nahuatl text in the Florentine Codex (vol. 3, f. 287r [book 11, chapter 3]) (I hope all of the characters survive the journey through cyberspace):


¶ Itzmiquilitl, mouiuilanani, cel

patic, matitilactic, matitilac

ton, ixiaiaoaltoton paoaxoni.


Ītzmīquilitl mohuīhuilānani celpahtic mātītilactic mātītilactōn īxyayahualtotōn pāhuaxōni


“La hierba comestible de flecha de obsidiana es rastera, tierna y verde, con las ramitas gruesas y las hojitas redondas; se cuece en la olla”.


Thanks again for sharing the fruits of your work in Guerrero and your comments on the 16th century sources, all of which have been very useful.


Un abrazo,




P.S. I have one more question: in the 1790 edition of Hernández (loc. cit.) I don’t find the seven types of itzmiquilitl that you mention. Is this in another chapter?


De: Jonathan Amith [mailto:jdanahuatl at gmail.com] 
Enviado el: sábado, 05 de noviembre de 2011 16:41
Para: David Wright
CC: Nahuat-l
Asunto: Re: [Nahuat-l] Tunas and purslane


Hi David,


The reference to obsidian is for itzmiquilitl "Del itzmiquilitl o verdura parecida a las puntas de itztli de las flechas." There are 7 varieties given all said to be "siemprevivas".  Whether the itsmi- here is different than the roots in tetsmitl/a:itsmitl... who knows? But the drawing is definitely different than a verdolaga (Hernandez, Libro 11 Cap. XLVIII). They are all called siempreviva, which is often a term for Sedum spp. (one could look into 16th century Spanish terminology). In the comentaries to Hernandez this is suggested to be aTalinum, a genus that used to be in the same family as verdolaga. The commentaries seem to be missing in the published version for the plants on II:13, i.e., the seven types of itzmiquilitl.


The blades of the Portulaca oleraceae don't look much like obsidian blades to me!

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