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How plants get their common names

How plants get their common names 

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Besides scientific name, which comprise the genus, species name, and authority, plants also have common names or vernacular names. These can be in Zulu, English, Afrikaans, Venda, Sotho, Pedi, depending of where you are in the world.

How a plant gets its common name depends on the language, culture, and tradition. In general, a plant’s common name comes from one of three places: its morphology, its locality, or its use.

Most English and Afrikaans names of plants are based on morphology and occasionally locality. Most Zulu names are based on use and morphology and occasionally locality. 

  1. Morphology

Morphology refers to the biology of the plant, i.e., its form and structure. This includes the plant’s appearance, colour, size, odour, taste, and behaviour. Morphological traits can be either genetic (internal or unobservable) and phenotypic (external or observable).

  1. Appearance – A plant that gets its common names from its appearance is Zanthoxylum capense. In English it is called knobwood, in Afrikaans it is called knopdoring and in Zulu it is known as amabele. All three names come from the fact that the tree’s stem has large corn-shaped knobs that resemble a woman’s breasts or a maiden’s breasts, known in Zulu as amabele entombi which is another name of this plant. Umlungumabele, another Zulu name of this plant, refers to white person’s breasts. 
  2. Color – A plant can get its common name based on the colour of the leaves, fruits, bark, or roots (or bulb). For example, ababomvu is a perennial herb known scientifically as Eleutherine bulbosa. The plant got the name ababomvu due to having a red bulb that resembles a red onion. The red bulb is used to treat menstrual pain and high blood pressure.  
  3. Size – Any plant name that includes the suffix names elincane or elikhulu, typically indicates the size of the species within a genus. For example, iboza elincane (Plectranthus ambiguus), indicates that this type of iboza is smaller than the average. Ibutha elikhulu (Alberta magna) tells you that this tree is bigger than the average ibutha. Other examples include: icena elikhulu (Aloe pruinosa). Idangabane elincane (Commelina eckloniana), idangabane elikhulu (Aneilema aequinoctiale), imbuya encane (Amaranthus thunbergii), imbuya enkulu (Amaranthus hybridus)

The size does not only refer to the large or small size of plant tree. It could also be that the plant parts (such as the leaves, flowers, or roots) are larger or smaller that the average.

Side Note

  1. Smell – A well-known plant that gets its name from its smell is unukani, scientifically known as Ocotea Bullata, or stinkwood in English. The name unukani means “what are you smelling” and this is because of the trees’ bad smell. 
  2. Taste – A plant named after its taste is imbilikicane ebabayo, scientifically known as Chenopodium murale. The leaves of this plant are eaten as a leafy green and they have a very bitter taste, hence the name ebabayo
  3. Behaviour – A plant that gets its name from its observable behavior is ibukenyakatho, an evergreen tree that is scientifically known as Vepris lanceolata. This plant grows on the coastal and riverine forest areas and it always faces or leans northward, hence the named ibukenyakatho which means facing north. The tree is used as a protective charm against umkhovu. The roots are used to treat infertility in women. The leaves and twigs are used to make herbal tea. The leaf extracts are used to make essential oil. 
  1. Habitat / Locality

Besides morphology, plants can be named after a geographical location or a particular habitat. For example:

  • The plant named ingwavuma, scientifically known as Elaeodendron transvaalensis, is named after a place in Zululand called Ngwavuma.
  • Ugudlathukela (Argemone mexicana), gets its name due to growing along the Tugela river.
  • Ugudlumngeni gets the name because it grows along the Mngeni river.

Ugudlumfula (Osteospermum monilifera) and amabele omfula (Typha capensis) get their names from growing near a stream of water. 

  1. Medicinal (or Other) use

Plant common names are also based on uses:  

  • Abangqongqozi (Araucaria heterophylla) – Is a conifer tree whose name means “knocking on the door”, referring to the fact that the bark is used to make an infusion that can knock on the door of a lost lover, to cause them to remember you. Hence, the bark is used as a love charm. 
  • Umganu (Sclerocarya birrea) – Is a tree whose name comes from the word “ukugana”, which means to get married. For that reason, the bark is used to make an emetic mixture for a person who is getting married or who wants to get married. The plant is used as an emetic love charm. 
  • Ibohlololo and umjuluka (Aptenia cordifolia) – Are the names given to a plant that is used as an anti-inflammatory and antiperspirant agent. The name ibohlololo is derived from the term “bohla” which means “to calm or deflame”, referencing the plant’s anti-inflammatory property. The name umjuluka is derived from the word juluka, which means to perspire or sweat, referring to the antiperspirant property.
  • Euclea genus – Species in this genus are known as chithamuzi or dungamuzi. These plants get these names because they are used to break up a family, home, or marriage or to cause someone to abandon a family, home, or marriage. These species include: Euclea natalensis, Euclea divinorum, Euclea daphnoides, Euclea coriacea, Euclea crispa, and Euclea undulata
  • Icwaningi is the name of a shrub known as Capparis tomentosa. The term icwaningi means research and this plant is used for divination purposes.  
  • Iflamashini (Sida rhombifolia) – The name iflamashini means aeroplane and the plants gets the name because it is used as a substitute marijuana, which is used to get high.  

KwaZulu Natal is the province with the largest population in South Africa. It has the highest number of traditional medicine vendors and different vendors can call the same plant by a different name because the same plant can be used for different things. For this reason, it is wise to know the common and scientific names of plants.

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