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Naming of plants

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When I do a plant species post, I normally provide the plant’s scientific name and common name. The common name will typically be in vernac but common names can also be in English, Afrikaans, French, Portuguese, etc. These names are usually people-and-places-specific. For example, In South Africa, Nguni people call Aloe ferox, umhlaba while White people call it bitter aloe. This means within the same country you can have different race groups calling the same plant species with different common names. The differences in plant names do not just lie at the racial level, they are also at the ethnic level.   

For example, among Nguni people Aloe ferox is called umhlaba by Zulu people and ikhala by Xhosa people. Among English speaking people, depending on where you are in South Africa, Aloe ferox may be called bitter aloe or red aloe. Same thing with Afrikaans, Aloe ferox can either be called bitteraalwyn or bergaalwyn

It’s not just the common names that differ among the different groups of people, as I’ve mentioned it in other posts that the uses and preparation methods tend to also differ by culture, race, creed, caste, etc. For example: if you Google how to prepare Aloe ferox, you will notice that the majority of white people prepare aloe by extracting the gel-like flesh found inside the leaves and this gel-like substance is then used to make juices as well as cosmetic products. This is very different from how my grandfather prepared Aloe ferox. My grandfather used to boil the whole aloe leaf, without removing the gel-like flesh inside the leaf, and he would drink the concoction as a tonic to cleanse the blood and to treat gastro-intestinal issues. 

I read a post on Quora – a knowledge sharing platform where a person asks a question and other people contribute their answers. On the post a person asked whether they “can boil aloe vera leaves then drink it as a medicine”. The majority of the answers were no, in fact I think it was all of them, which said no you shouldn’t boil aloe one of the reasons given was “because it will damage the nutrients inside the aloe”. 

If you visit the department of agriculture, forestry, and fisheries website, there is an article on preparing aloe. According to the article, you can boil the leaves of aloe in water and use the decoction for medicinal purposes to treat arthritis, eczema, toothache, sinusitis, conjunctivitis, stress, and stomach pains. 

Quora is an American social website, and the DAFF platform is a South African agricultural website. The answers provided on both websites are probably correct for the audience of those websites. As we’ve all evolved to adapt to the environment, we each find ourselves in. Our nature and nurture have conspired to bring about our current state, hence the differences in what we do and how we do what we do. For Americans, maybe due to their genetics (and temperaments) it might not be healthy for them to boil aloe. I don’t know, I’m not an American.  

A Nugget

The reason that common names differ is, in part, is due to how people name things in different cultures and races. For example, the English names for aloe (bitter aloe and red aloe):

  • bitter aloe comes from the bitter taste of the sap
  • red aloe comes from the fact that the flowers of this aloe are reddish orange

The Zulu name umhlaba comes from the fact that the leaves’ edges are spiny or “ayahlaba”, hence the name umhlaba. The common names are usually based on the physical characteristics of the plants. The common names can also be based on what a plant is used to treat, for example, the plant named indabulaluvalo (Kalanchoe paniculata) is used to treat uvalo (anxiety). These are just two methods of naming plants, different people use different systems to name plants.

Let’s suppose you only know the common name of a particular plant species in your language. If you go to a herbalist that also only knows the common name of plant species in their language. Communication between the two will be challenging and confusing, to say the least. The two people can mitigate this challenge and confusion by trying to learn or memorize the all the common names. But, when considering the number of languages spoken in South Africa, Africa, and the world – trying to memorize the common names of plants might seem like an impossible task. In South Africa, there are eleven languages. In Africa, there are about three thousand languages. And in the world, there are about seven thousand one hundred and forty languages.


The common names of a plants vary depending on where you are in the world and who you are speaking to. Hence, a standard was created for all people to use when communicating to avoid confusion and misunderstanding. This standard is the same in all countries, so that wherever you are in the world and whoever you speak to, you can talk about the same plant even though the common names are different. This is standard is known as scientific naming of plants. 

Scientific names are universal names for biological species, namely, animals (including human beings) and plants. For plants, scientific names are also known as botanical names. Scientific names are binomial phrases – meaning they contain two-word phrases. The first word in a scientific name is called a genus and the second word is called a species. Both the genus and species are category rankings in plant taxonomy. Plant taxonomy is the science of naming plants using a classification that is based on plant behavior, genetics, and biochemical differences. The plant taxonomy includes the domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. The scientific name only includes the last two categories, namely, the genus and the species. The genus usually starts with a capital letter and the species name is written in lowercase. The scientific name is usually written in italics and can either be in Greek and or Latin. You don’t have to be a scientist to use a scientific name. Scientific names come in handy especially for genera where all the species have the same common name. For example, isigqki-somkhovu is a common name for most if not all species in the Encephalartos genus. Hence, if you want a specific type of Encephalartos species you must know the scientific name of that species. Admittedly, pronouncing some scientific names can be a challenge since they are usually in Greek and or Latin, in such cases the common names come in handy.

In conclusion, both the scientific and common names of plants serve an important purpose. The common names are useful for communication among local people and the scientific names help dispel the confusion and misunderstanding created by the many different common names. 

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