Fig Latin

There’s something about Latin names. They’re sonorous, authoritative, and sometimes even melodious. Just try rolling these on your tongue… tectona grandis, saraca asoca, dalbergia sissoo, ocimum sanctum, melia dubia, pinus wallichiana, toona ciliata, veronica longifolia, mangifera indica, borassus flabellifer, bombax malabaricum, ficus religiosa, shorea robusta, terminalia arjuna, moringa oleifera, millingtonia hortensis, feronia limonia swingle… And my favourite, gossypium arboreum: what a picture it conjures up!

Gossypium ArboreumOne of the fun things about scientific names, if you are not a scientist, is guessing what they mean. For a long time, I thought ‘sativum’ as in allium sativum’ and ‘pisum sativum’, meant ‘good’. I guess I linked it back to ‘sattvam’ in Sanskrit. Then I discovered that it means ‘domesticated’. Then, I’ve learnt that anything from the families fabaceae and leguminosae is a good guy, whereas anything that is allelopathic is to be shunned. Sometimes you can make an educated guess: longifolia, indica, malabaricum and religiosa mean exactly what they sound like. Camelopardalis, too, if you think about it. But what on earth is a swingle? And why is a llama a lama glama? I haven’t managed to crack those yet, but they crack me up.

This is a very recent hobby of mine, learning the Latin names of things. And it always makes me think of my brilliant sister, who passed away nearly eight years ago. When she was in college, she taught herself Latin from a book. She was the intellectual one of us three. While my brother and I were pretty thoughtless animals, she would talk intelligently to our elders and learn all kinds of things from them from cooking to philosophy. She was a catholic reader, with strong views on everything, which also made her the rabble rouser of the family. She would do geometry riders for fun, and learn reams of poetry off by heart. Though I had, and unfortunately still have, an aversion to any kind of disciplined learning, she introduced me to a lot of great literature and interesting science. But I refused to have anything to do with the Latin.

Suddenly, though, it’s become relevant to my life. And why? So I can explain to a nursery man exactly what kind of plant I am looking for. More often than not they don’t have it because I’ve got it off some Australian or American book or website. But at least I know I’m not getting the wrong plant. And I’ve acquired a healthy respect for those who know all those names. (As I’m in a reminiscent mood today, I will add that I had a great-uncle who, in his time, was the last word in horticulture in Mysore state. His book, Complete Gardening in India, has long been out of print, but is still sought after. Before you ask – no, I did not inherit his green thumb, but I did inherit his love of animals. He once famously brought my aunt an Airedale terrier as a wedding present.) Right now, I’m trying to hunt down a thysanolaena maxima. That’s tiger grass or broom grass to you. Its purple flowers look pretty and turn into that most useful of household things, a broom. But no one in Bengaluru has one, and I think I will have to go and get me one from Assam, where they are native. Though I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it growing wild in Chennai in my young and wild days.



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