African Names for American Plants

Tinde R van Andel. American Scientist. Volume 103, Issue 4. Jul/Aug 2015.

On a hot, sunny day in July 2011, I walked through the market of Lokossa, a medium-sized town in Benin. The market looked like any other market in Africa: a chaotic ensemble of rickety stalls, standing on muddy ground, piled with locally produced fruits, vegetables, smelly smoked fish, second-hand clothes from Europe, and brightly colored plastic buckets from China.

I found myself in this spot as I attempted to trace the origin of some Afro-Caribbean plant uses I had been investigating across the Atlantic, an opportunity I had while visiting my PhD student Alexandra Towns, who was conducting research on medicinal plants used for women’s health and childcare in this West African country. She was interviewing some herbal medicine vendors when my eyes fell on the dry fruits of Xylopia aethiopica: thin, black, and sausage-like.

The small Xylopia trees grow in secondary forest throughout West and Central Africa. Their dried fruits can be found at every local market, as their spicy smell and peppery taste makes them a popular condiment. Ground with garlic, tomato paste, hot pepper, and several other fragrant African seeds, they are mixed with oil to make the typical West African flavoring sauce for roasted fish. The ground fruits are also added to herbal medicine mixtures to disguise their bitter taste. I knew this fruit and its use, but I was curious to find out its local name in the Beninese Fon language. “Comment-on appelle cette fruit?” I asked the market vendor. “They don’t have a name in French,” she replied, “but in our language, we call them pechereku.” I was dumbstruck: This term was remarkably similar to a word I’d heard for a related plant on a completely different continent.

Seven years earlier, in 2006, I was gathering data for a book on medicinal and ritual plants of Suriname, north of Brazil. In this former Dutch colony in northern South America, half of the population descends from African slaves, brought there in the 17th and 18th centuries to work on the country’s extensive sugar plantations. Afro-Surinamese people are avid consumers of herbal medicine. In particular, Maroons, descendants of escaped slaves that found refuge in the country’s vast rainforests, are widely recognized for their plant knowledge and traditional medicine.

Although home to just 240,000 people, the capital city of Paramaribo has a large medicinal plant market, where dozens of Maroon women sell hundreds of herbs, barks, leaves, seeds, and roots. The tropical rainforest starts right at the city’s outskirts, so most of the herbs are sold fresh, often flowering. This herbal panacea makes this market, and Suriname in general, an ethnobotanist’s heaven. Among the dried fruits that are regularly sold at the Paramaribo market are the small, reddish-brown fruits of Xylopia discreta. Because of their aromatic properties and spicy taste, they are often added to medicinal mixtures to disguise their bitter taste, just like their African cousins. Their Surinamese name? Pedreku.

To an ethnobotanist doing research on herbal remedies and ritual plants, scientific names are of little use in the field. People explain their practices using local terms for diseases, treatments, and ingredients-not with scientific terms. Learning vernacular plant names is essential to be able to engage in any discussion on plants. In Suriname, it struck me that Afro-Surinamese plant names were often quite different from those used by local Amerindians. They are mostly constructed from words in pidgin English, Dutch, or Portuguese, like the possentri (“poison tree”) for the highly toxic Hura crepitans and pankuku wiri (“pancake weed”) for Nymphaea alba, a water lily with flat, round, floating leaves that look like… pancakes.

There were, however, many Afro-Surinamese plant names that I found difficult to grasp because they did not contain any link to a European or Amerindian language. Especially in Maroon dialects, spoken by people of African origin who have lived for hundreds of years in tribal communities in the country’s forested interior, plant names sound exotic. My Maroon informants often did not agree on their pronunciation, and nobody could tell me how to spell them or what they

This 1790s depiction of Loango slaves from contemporary Gabon in Suriname shows how slaves adopted New World plants but also brought plants and knowledge from Africa. Here, they have South American pineapple, cotton, and tobacco, but also in the basket is a large green fruit that looks like watermelon, which is from Africa. (Image by William Blake, influenced by J. G. Stedman.) signified. “That’s just the name of this tree, it does not have a special meaning,” my field guides explained when I struggled to document these terms.

Stubborn scientist as I am, always trying to find significance for everything, I kept on asking for translations of plant names. Why would Saramaccan Maroons call Parkia pendula, the broad-crowned forest giant, awha, when the tree had already the beautiful name kwatakama (“spider monkey’s nest”), after the Portuguese word cama for “bed” and the Carib Indian word kuwata, named for the black monkey that eats the astringent pods of this legume tree?

To find the answers, I had to travel to the Old World, and that’s how I ended up in the market in Benin asking questions about plant names. I had no idea whether the trip would end up being fruitful for this sprouting idea.

But the similarity in name between the African pechereku and the South American pedreku was not the only one I ended up discovering. In all West African markets, people sell black, soursmelling balls, known in French as moutarde Africain, an essential ingredient of a traditional sauce accompanying the regional staple foods of millet and sorghum. These “African mustard” balls are made from the fermented seed pulp of a large, broad-crowned savannah tree. In 1830, botanists described this tree as Parkia biglobosa. The Beninese Fon people had known it for centuries as ahwa, very similar to the name for the species of the same genus in Suriname. Although no mustard balls are made from the South American seeds, the name for Parkia trees was retained on similar morphology alone.

When I discovered that many of my untranslatable Surinamese vernaculars were in fact plant names of African origin, I started to keep notes of corresponding plant names across the Atlantic. The list grew longer and longer, as I scrutinized Ghanaian, Congolese, and Angolan plant names and as my PhD students started fieldwork in Gabon, the Central African country that once was part of the ancient Kingdom of Loango, a major area where the Dutch bought their slaves. Discussion with linguist Margot van den Berg, a specialist on the history of Surinamese creole languages at Radboud University in the Netherlands, further confirmed my idea that so many similar names for botanically related plants across the ocean could not just be coincidence.

How Plant Names Migrated

Nearly 300,000 Africans were enslaved and brought to Suriname between 1658 and 1825, carrying with them little but the memory of their motherland. In order to survive under the brutal conditions of slavery, they had to familiarize themselves with the American flora, which was largely alien to them. How did the forced migration of these Africans to a new environment influence their knowledge of plants? Tropical African and Neotropical forests share less than 1 percent of their total number of species, including domesticated exotics and pantropical weeds. The two continents do have almost 70 percent of their families in common, however.

Very few historic sources report whether enslaved Africans recognized plant species in the New World. There are no firsthand observations on how they learned new plants and replaced African useful species with American ones. Still, by systematically comparing Afro-American plant names with African names for botanically related species, we can trace back the tremendous amount of cultural botanical knowledge that was retained and transferred to the Neotropical environment.

I constructed a database of 2,350 Afro-Surinamese plant names, in both Dutch creole (Sranantongo) and several Maroon languages, from the Naturalis herbarium collections, botanical literature, and recent ethnobotanical fieldwork in Suriname, Ghana, Benin, and Gabon. Strong correspondence in sound, structure, and meaning among Afro-Surinamese vernaculars and their equivalents in African languages for botanically related taxa were considered as evidence for a shared origin. In other words, when Surinamers give a small tree such as Trema micantha the name misobisobi, and a botanically related species (Trema guineensis) is known as musobisobi in a local Gabonese language, we assume that African-bom slaves recognized the Surinamese tree and gave it the African name of its Old World relative.

Our comparison revealed that enslaved Africans recognized a substantial part of the Neotropical flora. The greatest correspondence with plant names from Suriname was found with names from Gabon, Angola, and Benin, the main areas where the Dutch purchased their slaves. Some 20 percent of the Sranantongo and 43 percent of the Maroon plant names strongly resembled names currently used in diverse African languages for related taxa, represented translations of African ones, or directly referred to an Old World origin.

The proportion of African lexical items was more than twice as high among Maroon plant names as among the creole Sranantongo names. Despite the African descent of both groups, Maroons retained more Old World plant knowledge. To survive in the floristically diverse rainforest, Maroons had to use their African botanical knowledge to classify their natural surroundings more deeply than the creoles, who stayed in the human-altered landscape of the coastal plantations.

Maroons did not have to spend their days under forced labor conditions like their enslaved counterparts on the plantations. They could practice fulltime hunting, gathering, and subsistence agriculture, so their exposure to the natural world was more frequent and intense. Their survival directly depended on their skills to use the forest resources. It was their knowledge of African plants that helped people survive in the hostile American forests.

Plant-lovers as they are, Surinamers can still engage in endless discussions on plant names and uses. In their disputes about the right name for an herb, the arguing parties are likely all correct. It is the diversity of plant names and uses, originating from different geographical areas, that makes Suriname’s ethnobotanical heritage so special.

African plant names can also be found in other former plantation societies in the Americas. In Guyana, plant names like “Congo cane” (Costus spp.), “Congo pump” (Cecropia spp.), and “Congo lana” (Eclipta prostrata) suggest that slaves recognized these plants as variants of ones they knew in Africa. Further documentation, comparison, and translation of vernacular plant names on both sides of the Atlantic will reveal many more examples of plant recognition by Africans in tire New World. Given the global decline in languages, cultures, and ethnobotanical knowledge worldwide, more attention to the origin of local plant names can be a useful instrument in cultural awareness programs to promote biocultural heritage.

The greatest gap in knowledge is the translation of African plant names, if we do not know what these names signify, how can we know whether they were translated into creole languages in the Caribbean? Then, an amazing thing happened. Congolese biology student Marie Fundiko knocked on my door. She was interested in studying plant knowledge in her motherland. Due to safety reasons our university does not encourage fieldwork in this part of Central Africa, but the Belgian Botanic Gardens at Meise appeared to have a mysterious cardboard cabinet with more than 8,000 records of local plant names from their former colony Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Marie, a former refugee from the war-raided eastern part of this country, speaks five different local dialects. Her translations of these Central African plant names and their associated botanical specimens will undoubtedly reveal many more connections between Afro-Caribbean and African plant names.

Marie is now merging the digitized information from the cards with other Belgian databases of Central African plant names, plowing through more than 50,000 digitized Congolese vernaculars, correcting misspellings and translating plant names on her way. When browsing though these endless rows of data, most of the Central African names mean nothing to me, but every now and then I recognize something Surinamese. For example, an unknown tribe in the Congolese region of Lukula uses the name mutsangula for the small tree Maprounea africana. I knew that must be the origin of kisangula, the Saramaccan Maroon name for the related tree Maprounea guianensis, whose small leaves are made into a mouthwash to cure toothache.

Linguist Margot and I will soon organize a meeting with ethnobotanists and linguists to discuss the kinds of questions we can address with these databases. How did African plant names change after they were transported to the Americas? What can these plant names tell us about the adaptation of humans in a new environment? Our first step is bringing these groups of scientists together. Those who study plants and those who study languages have until now been speaking two different languages.