41. The first thing we do and the last thing we forget: Catalan phytonymy and popular knowledge, radiating to literature

This post is also available in: Catalan

Joan Vallès 1,2, Teresa Garnatje3, Airy Gras1,3, Montse Parada1
1University of Barcelona, 2Institute for Catalan Studies, 3Botanical Institute of Barcelona-CSIC-ICUB


One of the first activities—if not the very first—that human beings do when they are faced with another living being or an object is give it a name. If it is a person or a thing that has been named before, they will simply try to understand it. When it is a new person or thing, they will label it. It can be argued that at some point every name has been a neologism. Once created, nouns sometimes change, acquire other meanings or find synonyms. Sometimes they end up being the origin of family names or place names. Finally, some names die out or at least become archaic and fall into disuse.

It does not fall to us, as botanists, to go into the history and evolution of names, but it is incumbent upon us to focus in particular on words that designate objects from the nature that we study, namely vegetal ones, a notion under which we group plants, some algae that would not fit the narrow definition of plants, fungi—which include mushrooms and lichens—and a group of microorganisms called blue-green algae, cyanophyta or cyanobacteria. In total, we are talking about approximately half a million species of living beings. If we focus on vascular plants (that is, plants that have a system for transporting sap), which are the most evolved and most of which we commonly tend to recognize as plants (the most typical—with flowers and fruits—being, for example, the rose or the daisy, conifers such as pines and firs, ferns and horsetails), the number falls to more or less 300,000.

Out of these, in the Catalan Countries, a territory of the Mediterranean region that has considerable biodiversity within Europe and highly diverse landscapes from sea level to altitudes of more than 3,000 metres, there are around 4,000. That is the figure for wild native flora, which make up the vast majority of plants here. If we include plants that have escaped from cultivation and are subspontaneous or naturalized, many since long ago (that is, nonindigenous species), we reach about 5,000. Adding cultivated plants, the figure would go up substantially and it would become difficult to keep a count, especially because of ornamentals, some of which are well established among us, while others come and go according to demand and fashions.

The world’s 300,000 species of vascular plants—and, among these, the 5,000 from the Catalan Countries—are candidates for names to designate them. They all have a Latin or latinized scientific name that allows us to unequivocally identify them. The simplicity of the current nomenclature system for plants, which dates from 1753 and was conceived by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, allows us to replace a long description for characterizing a plant with a binomial featuring a generic name and a specific epithet. For example, by saying Digitalis purpurea (didalera in Catalan and foxglove in English), we save ourselves the time of saying, as we did before, Digitalis calycinis foliolis ovalis acutis, corollis obtusis, labio superiore integro.

Anyway, despite the ease and practical value of this system, it makes sense that each language has given a name to the plants that its speakers have encountered. Not all plants have names (popular, vernacular common or vulgar names, each term with some nuance setting it apart from the others), and this is so not just within all languages, but even within the lands where the plant in question grows. It should be kept in mind that some plants come from a fairly small area, which means that they are not well known to people. Others, by contrast, are well known to people, and these are the ones that, as we said earlier, are the object of that first human activity of giving a name. Afterwards, in many cases, there will come (and there has come since long back) the use of that plant that now has a name.

Ethnobotany, the discipline that studies relationships between human societies and the vegetal world and deals with names and uses for and management of biodiversity, allows us to become aware of a matter that is complementary to the human activity of naming plants, in addition to collecting traditional uses and names. Just as one of the first things that human beings do is to give names to plants as soon as they meet them, one of the last things that they do is to forget those names. It is unimaginable that someone would say “this is called a table, but I don’t know what it’s for”, and this is still true if we change table to pitchfork, an instrument that few of us now use, or to even more uncommonly used objects. In contrast it is not uncommon during ethnobotanical interviews to hear, “This plant is called ‘x,’ but I can’t remember what it’s used for.” Use can become less widespread or disappear completely, but the name often continues to be known as a reminiscence of everything that was known about the plant in question (though in some cases, when traditional knowledge has become severely eroded, even memory of the name is lost).

Humankind—that is, the speakers of the world’s different languages—has strengthened its relationships with plants to a considerable extent through names. And precisely because of this, as we have stated, names are the first thing sought or created in meeting plants and the last thing that is forgotten traditional knowledge about them declines, dwindles or becomes depleted. In this regard, the names of plants, phytonyms, can function as indicators of the erosion of traditional knowledge about biodiversity. Before that, however, phytonyms are an important part of cultural heritage (because they are names that enrich one language and all languages) as well as of natural heritage (because they designate elements of nature and are normally associated with additional traditional knowledge about it).

Catalan can be considered one of the languages whose names of plants and allies have been the focus of significant collection and study. The teacher and botanist Francesc Masclans i Girvès initiated these activities and was their main driver, starting in 1948 with a modest work about the Virgin in Catalan and Spanish names for plants and continuing and concluding with two encyclopaedic volumes of Catalan phytonyms, published in 1954 and 1981 (the second was a revised and expanded edition). Masclans also published a book on Catalan names for mushrooms, but our focus here, as already mentioned, is vascular plants. In the two encyclopaedic volumes, Masclans gathered, respectively, approximately 6,000 names for 1,800 plant taxa and 9,000 names for 3,000 taxa.

Masclans’s work was the starting point for a study that went on for around twenty years under the auspices of Termcat (Catalan Terminology Centre) and that made possible the publication, in 2014, of a book and a website that bring together 35,000 Catalan names for around 6,500 plant taxons. For more information, readers will find, at the end of this text, the references for these and the aforementioned Masclans works. The figures are remarkable. The quantity of species for which there is a name in Catalan is very high. Considering that there are around 5,000 species of native or naturalized vascular plants in the Catalan Countries, and also that some are not known by Catalan names (for example, those whose distribution has been very restricted), the quantity of foreign plants that have received names in Catalan is far from negligible. This indicates not only that Catalan has been used to name many of the Catalan Countries’ plants—something that in itself is important—but also that Catalan has been used to give names to a large number of plants that are either grown by people here or simply live in other parts of the world. This is a positive indicator of the language’s vitality.

In parallel to this work, ethnobotany research in Catalan-speaking areas has produced a very robust corpus of phytonymic data. At present, our research group’s ethnobotanical database contains approximately 87,000 reports of phytonyms from almost 2,700 informants. These reports correspond to over 11,000 popular names (including variants) from around 1,600 plant taxa. Many of these names, which reflect traditional knowledge of the vegetal world in the Catalan Countries, now appear in the most recent aforementioned compilation, but others that do not appear could be used to update the compilation. To give a few examples to illustrate the phytonymic wealth of different areas, in the counties of Alt Empordà, Ripollès, Garrigues, the island of Mallorca and the central counties of Valencia, respectively 1,105, 804, 849, 1,401 and 2,138 plant names applying to 523, 457, 410, 517 and 514 taxa have been collected. This ethnobotanical database, made within the framework of the Institute for Catalan Studies’ research programme, will become publicly accessible, starting in 2020 with a version that, among other information, will contain plant names.

According to the creation process behind vernacular phytonyms, there are two types. On the one hand, there are those with a scholarly formation, such as descàmpsia flexuosa (Deschampsia flexuosa), created by a botanist who, in line with the approach essentially taken in the United Kingdom, favours each plant that exists within an area having a vulgar name. On the other hand, there are names with a popular origin. Many more of these, at least in Catalan, are created and sometimes nuanced or changed by the people. Of this latter group, some are ubiquitous in the linguistic domain—such as rosa (Rosa sp.; ‘rose’) or clavell (Dianthus sp.; ‘carnation’)—and others are particular to a dialect or linguistic variant—for example, farigola/timó (Thymus vulgaris; ‘thyme’) and romaní/romer (Rosmarinus officinalis; ‘rosemary’). Among phytonyms, there are many cases of synonyms—for instance, saüc, saüquer, saüquera, sabuc, sabuquer and bonarbre for Sambucus nigra (elder)—and of polysemy—for example, àrnica for a dozen species, including Arnica montana, Inula montana, Pallenis spinosa and Hypericum perforatum—as well as of a combination of the two—for example, til·ler, tell and tilloler, sometimes with adjectives as modifiers, though sometimes without them, to denominate various species of the genus Tilia).

In terms of the formation patterns of these words, an area in which there is still much to be studied, there are names that derive from scientific names, while others allude to some morphological or ecological aspect of the plant, to some curative property (often in accordance with the theory of signature from medical anthropology, according to which humankind has believed that plants bear indications of what they can be used for) or, in other cases, to geography, flavour or smell. There are plant names that refer to people—herba de Sant Joan (Saint John’s wort), Hypericum perforatum, among other species with this name in Catalan—or to places (camamilla de Núria or camamilla de Rojà, Achillea ptarmica susbp. pyrenaica). Phytonyms have been very productive for Catalan family names—we are thinking here of last names such as Alzina, Bruc, Roure and Rovira, the latter of which is a synonym, though no longer a widely used one today, for roureda (‘oak forest’)—and toponyms (place names such as Lloret, La Jonquera, Figueres and Poblet, the latter of which comes from Populetum, ‘poplar grove’, Populus nigra).

Plant names are both natural and cultural heritage. The cultural aspect, beyond their belonging to popular culture and their enrichment of language, is further strengthened by the very productive role of phytonyms in the literature. It goes without saying that nature is often a source of inspiration in literary creation. When Jacint Verdaguer compares the Canigó mountain to a magnolia and describes its parts based on a description of the flower, he reveals a little more than inspiration: botanical knowledge that in his case—and leaving aside the consulting of specialists that he is known to have done—came from a special interest in nature. Aside from this, popular plant names (and sometimes their traditional uses) carry substantial weight in Catalan literature. This is not surprising, because writers are, before anything else, people—a part of the people that has created, maintained and transmitted Catalan’s huge ethnobotanical corpus. Let us look at some examples of botanic and ethnobotanical knowledge of Catalan literary figures.

The lines “La ginesta floreix / i arreu del camp hi ha vermell de roselles. / Amb nova falç comencem a segar / el blat madur i amb ell les males herbes” (Salvador Espriu; “The broom flourishes / and all around the countryside is the red of poppies / with a new sickle we start to reap / the ripe wheat and with it the weeds”) denote this poet’s knowledge of the flowering of various plants, its coincidence with the harvest and the presence (before the widespread use of pesticides) of weeds in cereal fields. “El verd rosat, que espurna el tamariu / i anuncia les tardes de l’estiu” (M. Àngels Vayreda; “the rosy foliage that sparkles on the tamarisk / and announces the summer evenings”) indicates that this author knows when the tree that she evokes flowers and what colour those flowers are. Similarly, Joan Brossa shows his knowledge of the ecology of the trees that he refers to in “Vora del llac creixen verns, pollancs i saules” (“By the lake grow alders, poplars and willows”). With phrases such as “Cabells blancs com l’escorça dels bedolls” (“Hair white like birch bark”), “Rentar vestits negres amb aigua bullida amb fulles d’heura” (“Cleaning black clothes with water boiled with ivy leaves”), “Herbes remeieres i plantes perfumades per cuinar: poliol, sajolida, romaní, fonoll, maladuix” (“Medicinal herbs and perfumed plants for cooking: pennyroyal, savory, rosemary, fennel, marjoram), and “Infusions de valeriana per calmar la desesperació” (“Valerian infusions to soothe despair”), M. Àngels Anglada exhibits not only botanical knowledge (which allows her to make a highly original comparison for the colour of hair) but also ethnobotanical knowledge about the uses of many types of plants. Turning to a classic author, Joanot Martorell displays good knowledge of plants used for textiles when he writes in Tirant (all English versions come from the David Rosenthal translation): “Plaerdemavida, en scusa de traure un drap de li prim per al bany, obrí la caixa” (“Pleasure-of-my-life, with the excuse of taking out a fine linen wash cloth, opened the chest), “La Viuda se despullà tota nua e restà ab calces vermelles e al cap un capell de lli” (“Then the widow stripped down to her red stockings and linen cap”) and “féu-lo saltar en un terrat que y havia e donà-li una corda de cànem” (“She made him jump onto the roof and threw him a hemp rope”). Finally, had he not had considerable knowledge of popular phytonymy, Josep M. Llompart would never have been able to make his “Camí florit” (“Florid path”), a poem of 48 words that contains 38 phytonyms and ends with “i en l’aire color de vauma, / l’esgarrifança d’un poll” (“and in the mallow-coloured air, / the shiver of a poplar”).

At the interface between people and plants, between nature and culture, between botany and linguistics, the phytonymic corpus is a fundamental element of heritage for any human group, and phytonymy, especially the most common, popular rooted, traditional and ethnobotanical form of it, constitutes a vast and interesting field for investigation and disseminations from many standpoints.

Sources of further information

Masclans, F. (1954). Els noms vulgars de les plantes a les terres catalanes. Barcelona: Institut d’Estudis Catalans (Arxius de la Secció de Ciències, XXIII).

Masclans, F. (1981). Els noms de les plantes als Catalan Countries. Barcelona: Editorial Montblanc-Martín i Centre Excursionista de Catalunya.

Vallès, J., Parada, M. (2019). Etnobotànica i fitonímia: plantes, noms i cultura popular a l’Alt Empordà. In: Jornades de la Secció Filològica a Castelló d’Empúries. Barcelona: Institut d’Estudis Catalans, in print.

Vallès, J., Agelet, A., Bonet, M.À., Garnatje, T., Muntané, J., Parada, M., Raja, D., Rigat, M., Selga, A. (2005). “Algunes qüestions entorn de la fitonímia i els aspectes lingüístics de l’etnobotànica.” Estudis de Llengua i Literatura Catalanes, 51, p. 273-293.

Vallès, J., Veny, J., Vigo, J., Bonet, M.À., Julià, M.A., Villalonga, J.C. (2014). Noms de plantes. Corpus de fitonímia catalana. Barcelona: Termcat – Centre de Terminologia and Universitat de Barcelona. Online at: https://www.termcat.cat/ca/diccionaris-en-linia/191.