What’s in a name?

How about planting your garden with a Sausage tree or a Powder Puff, asks R. Pauline Deborah

January 24, 2014 06:23 pm | Updated May 13, 2016 12:08 pm IST - chennai

Black pearls of Zanzibar

Black pearls of Zanzibar

It’s really fascinating to introduce plants to our friends and guests – ‘Hey, this is Mickey Mouse Plant, Pony tail Palm, Lipstick tree...’

When people of various countries were devising their own local names for a particular species, Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus introduced a common system of nomenclature to facilitate universal identification and avoid confusion. However, many local names are still part of our daily usage.

Despite the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature, local people have come up with funny and weird names, aberrant and noxious names, all to make it easy to identify the plant. These unconventional names are often popular with non-botanists and nature enthusiasts.

Many plants are named after distinguished botanists such as Millington ( Millingtonia hortensis – Maramalli), Patrick Browne ( Brownea grandiceps – Rose of Venezuela), or William Roxburgh ( Cassia roxburghii – Red Cassia). Then there are popular personalities with plants named after them, like the hybrid rose varieties that commemorate Princess Diana, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Marie Curie, Paul McCartney, Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe. Orchid hybrids have been named after Jackie Chan, Margaret Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth II. And there's a King George Rhododendron and an Aishwarya Rai Tulip!

Since the large, brown globose fruits that cascade down the trunk of the Naagalingam tree resemble rusty cannon balls, it's called the Cannonball tree. Though native to tropical America, it has become strongly infused into Indian culture as a sacred tree since the flowers have religious sentiments. It is a lofty, fast-growing, deciduous tree and though not common in the city, it is found in several temples and large residential compounds. Another exotic species Kigelia africana from Mozambique bears large pendulous fruits that resemble sausages and is popularly known as the sausage tree. Its large, showy, stinky, maroon flowers bloom at night to coincide with the activity of bats, which means these flowers are pollinated by bats. Sausage trees are quite common in Chennai. They are excellent shade-giving and sturdy trees. Though exotic, both Cannonball and Sausage trees can be planted as curio specimens in parks and botanical gardens.

The flowers of the Bolivian Calliandra haematocephala resemble the powder puff and it's therefore known as powder puff tree. In fact, the attractive and prominent part of the flower that gives the bristly appearance is actually the stamens. Because of its short and shrubby nature, it is highly recommended as an ornamental plant for narrow roads, medians, apartments and patios. The African Majidea zanguebarica is a rare tree but a great specimen during its reproductive stages. The soft, black seeds look like pearls and it has therefore earned the name of ‘Black Pearl of Zanzibar’. The bright, red and attractive seeds of Aanaikundumani too is a great material for ornamental jewellery, sometimes strung into chains by hawkers as part of their trinket collection. The tropical American Bixa orellana is known as Lipstick tree because of the red dye extracted from its fruits, also used as a body paint for traditional dances. Could this plant be a potential source for a herbal lipstick?

The art of naming plants can sometimes get quite offensive! The clammy cherry ( Cordia obliqua ) is locally called Mookuchazhi Pazham , because of its phlegm-like texture! This is a tree of wild areas and often found in wastelands and along railway tracks. Another tree with a distasteful name is the Wild Almond ( Sterculia foetida ), known in Tamil by an offensive title because of the odour of its flowers. In fact, its botanical name derives from Sterculius , the Roman God of dung, while foetida refers to the putrid smell of its flowers. This large tree is not liked by many because of its unpleasant odour and the large fruits that could damage property, but it has been planted on road medians. This could be avoided.

Plants are also given names that are sometimes derogatory. Who names them? We don't know but they become popular! Sansevieria roxburghiana is known as Mother-in-law’s tongue because the tip of its succulent leaf is so prickly. In fact, it is a therapeutic leaf for earaches. Atalantia monophylla (kaatukichili) is known as Woman’s belly. Albizia lebbeck (rattle pod) is known as Lady’s tongue because of the noisy pod that rattles relentlessly in the wind! The bulky fruits of the calabash tree are attached to the trunk and resemble a container, thus earning it the notorious name Thiruvottukaai Maram. The leaves of the Raintree fold up during dusk to conserve energy, and it has earned the name Thoongumoonchu Maram! The pink flowers of Pseudobombax ellipticum resemble a shaving brush and it's called the Shaving brush flower. It is a slow-growing tree with a swollen base and bright red juvenile leaves. Hiptage benghalensis , an oblivious climber, is known as helicopter plant because its winged seeds come twirling down like a helicopter. Then, there is Crocodile bark, Elephant apple, Monkey’s earpod, Fried egg plant, Bullet wood, Bleeding heart, Bottle brush, Sandpaper, Devil’s tree… it's a growing list. Plants are important. Planting is important. Preserving the planted is even more important. And Shakespeare says it all:

What's in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet !

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.