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1911 Encyclopedia Britannica


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The seed of Lens esculenta (also known as Ervum Lens ), a small annual of the vetch tribe. The plant varies from 6 to 18j in. in height, and has many long ascending branches. The leaves are alternate, with six pairs of oblong-linear, obtuse, mucronate leaflets. The flowers, two to four in number, are of a pale blue colour, and are borne in the axils of the leaves, on a slender footstalk nearly equalling the leaves in length; they are produced in June or early in July. The pods are about in. long, broadly oblong, slightly inflated, and contain two seeds, which are of the shape of a doubly convex lens, and about s in. in diameter. There are several cultivated varieties of the plant, differing in size, hairiness and colour of the leaves, flowers and seeds. The last may be more or less compressed in shape, and in colour may vary from yellow or grey to dark brown; they are also sometimes mottled or speckled. In English commerce two kinds of lentils are principally met with, French and Egyptian. The former are usually sold entire, and are of an ash-grey colour externally and of a yellow tint within; the latter are usually sold like split peas, without the seed coat, and consist of the reddish-yellow cotyledons, which are smaller and rounder than those of the French lentil; the seed coat when present is of a dark brown colour. Considerable quantities of lentils are also imported into the United States.

The native country of the lentil is not known. was probably one of the first plants brought under cultivation by mankind; lentils have been found in the lake dwellings of St Peter's Island, Lake of Bienne, which are of the Bronze age. The name adas (Heb.)-i) appears to be an original Semitic word, and the red pottage of lentils for which Esau sold his birthright (Gen. xxv. 34) was apparently made from the red Egyptian lentil. This lentil is cultivated in one or other variety in India, Persia, Syria, Egypt, Nubia and North Africa, and in Europe, along the coast of the Mediterranean, and as far north as Germany, Holland and France. In Egypt, Syria and other Eastern countries the parched seeds are exposed for sale in shops, and esteemed the best food to carry on long journeys. Lentils form a chief ingredient in the Spanish puchero, and are used in a similar way in France and other countries. For this purpose they are usually sold in the shelled state.

The reddish variety of the lentil (lentillon d'hiver ) is the kind most esteemed in Paris on account of the superior flavour of its smaller seeds. It is sown in autumn either with a cereal crop or alone, and is cultivated chiefly in the north and east of France. The large or common variety, lentille large blonde, cultivated in Lorraine and at Gallardon (Eure-et-Loir), and largely in Germany, is the most productive, but is less esteemed. This kind has very small whitish flowers, two or rarely three on a footstalk, and the pods are generally one-seeded, the seeds being of a whitish or cream colour, about s of an inch broad and a in. thick. A single plant produces from loo to 150 pods, which are flattened, about 4 in. long and z in. broad. Another variety, with seeds similar in form and colour to the last, but of much smaller size, is known as the lentillon de Mars. It is sown in spring. This variety and the lentille large are both sometimes called the lentille a la reine. A small variety, lentille verte du Puy, cultivated chiefly in the departments of Haute Loire and Cantal, is also grown as a vegetable and for forage. The Egyptian lentil was introduced into Britain in 1820. It has blue flowers. Another species of lentil, Ervum monanthos, is grown in France about Orleans and elsewhere under the name of jarosse and jarande. It is, according to Vilmorin, one of the best kinds of green food to grow on a poor dry sandy soil; on calcareous soil it does not succeed so well. It is usually sown in autumn with a little rye or winter oats, at the rate of a hectolitre to a hectare.

The lentil prefers a light warm sandy soil; on rich land it runs to leaf and produces but few pods. The seeds are sown in March or April or early in May, according to the climate of the country, as they cannot endure night frosts. If for fodder they are sown broadcast, but in drills if the ripe seeds are required. The pods are gathered in August or September, as soon as they begin to turn brown - the plants being pulled up like flax while the foliage is still green, and on a dry day lest the pods split in drying and loss of seed takes place. Lentils keep best in the husk so far as flavour is concerned, and will keep good in this way for two years either for sowing or for food. An acre of ground yields on an average about II cwt. of seed and 30 cwt. of straw. The amount and character of the mineral matter requisite in the soil may be judged from the analysis of the ash, which in the seeds has as its chief ingredients - potash 34.6% soda 9.5, lime 6.3, phosphoric acid 36.2, chloride of sodium 7.6, while in the straw the percentages are - potash 10.8,, lime 52.3, silica 17.6, phosphoric acid 12.3, chloride of sodium 2.1.

Lentils have attracted considerable notice among vegetarians as a food material, especially for soup. A Hindu proverb says, "Rice is good, but lentils are my life." The husk of the seed is; indigestible, and to cook lentils properly requires at least two and a. half hours, but they are richer in nutritious matter than almost any other kind of pulse, containing, according to Payen's analysis, 25. of nitrogenous matter (legumin), 56% of starch and 2.6% of fatty matter. Fresenius's analysis differs in giving only 35% of starch; Einhoff gives 32.81 of starch and 37.82% of nitrogenous; matter. Lentils are more properly the food of the poor in all countries, where they are grown, and have often been spurned when better food could be obtained, hence the proverb Dives factus jam desiit gaudere lente. The seeds are said to be good for pigeons, or mixed. in a ground state with potatoes or barley for fattening pigs. Theherbage is highly esteemed as green food for suckling ewes and all kinds of cattle (being said to increase the yield of milk), also for calves and lambs. Haller says that lentils are so flatulent as to kill horses. They were also believed to be the cause of severe scrofulous, disorders common in Egypt. This bad reputation may possibly be. due to the substitution of the seeds of the bitter vetch or tare lentil,, Ervum Ervilia, a plant which closely resembles the true lentil in, height, habit, flower and pod, but whose seeds are without doubt possessed of deleterious properties - producing weakness or even paralysis of the extremities in horses which have partaken of them.. The poisonous principle seems to reside chiefly in the bitter seed coat, and can apparently be removed by steeping in water, since Gerard, speaking of the "bitter vetch" ( E. Ervilia ), says "kine in Asia and in most other countries do eat thereof, being made sweet by steeping in water." The seed of E. Ervilia is about the same size and almost exactly of the same reddish-brown colour as that of the Egyptian lentil, and when the seed coat is removed they are both of the same orange red hue, but the former is not so bright as the latter. The shape is the best means of distinguishing the two seeds, that of E. Ervilia being obtusely triangular.

Sea-lentil is a name sometimes applied to the gulfweed Sargassum vulgare.

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Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Lentil'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. 1910.

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