By Arunima Sikder
The science of naming organisms is as old as science itself. Plant names can be repulsive as they resemble complicated Latin words (which they are). You can end up pronouncing Pseudelephantpous as Atlantis and I would understand!
Although Naturalists since the 1700’s had to meticulously observe each twig, each flower, the curvature of dusty pollen to derive plant names for the members of this kingdom, it’s hard to make sense out of them. Hence when I chose the field of plant taxonomy, I often came across the tag of doing a job as boring as watching paint dry.
Being a botanist, I do believe that knowledge of names is the gateway to communicate, exchange information and understand the object in front of you. But have you ever witnessed a plant answering when called? Or move its branches? Me neither!
However, my travels in the past two years got me much closer to making sense out of this!
For the last two years, I have been travelling across Himalayan peaks and valleys, exploring the unique terrains in Northeast India. This biodiverse region of the country supports 43% of the total plant diversity in India. Hence the opportunity to map vegetation in the Northeast had me captivated. It took me from the Brahmaputra plains in Assam across the Teesta river towards the snow-capped Himalayas in the summit of Sikkim. Along the way, the red of Butea slowly transformed into reds of Sterculia, that culminated in bright red of Rhododendrons.
Through mountains, across rivers, I got a glimpse of the roots and beliefs of various indigenous communities in the heart of Himalayas. In each local guide who joined us in the exploration of the forests and each household we visited in the locality; I found them equally acquainted with plants as a botanist would be. However, the taxonomical technicalities were replaced by stories, facts, uses or religious beliefs.
I couldn’t help but wonder, what made these communities so close to nature, and us just as far from it?
Was it the proximity to forests and wildlife and distance from the dusty, cemented highways? John Hildebrand’s quote “Walking through a meadow, calling the plants by name is like entering a room of friends instead of strangers” kept ringing in my head.
Villages are relics of community living, what we now call a society, came into being once our ancestors developed cognitive abilities and started telling stories. Inheritances among the village communities till date are simple- genes, agricultural land and stories. Through stories, knowledge was passed on within a group of people which led to kinship. Forests were the first habitat of humans and hence that is where the stories have been rooted; about majestic animals, healing trees, insects that are delicious or birds that fly in different seasons. Through stories, the origin and meanings of plant names have lived on.
Looking back, I now remember plants by their stories, although their taxonomic peculiarities may have faded.
For example, Oroxylum indicum, “The broken bone tree”, finds its place high in the religious beliefs of the oldest Bhutia tribes residing in Sikkim. “Totola” as they call it, is a name that can be seen on every second shop and hotels of Sikkim. They believe that the white flowers of this plant are a gift from heaven and they decorate their forehead with the buds of this plant during religious affairs. In Assam this tree hails with the name “Dingdinga” and its root and bark powder are valued as a cure for jaundice, orthopaedic pain and breaks. Plants differ in their identification between different ethnic groups. The course of stories and uses are as diverse as their identities. Maybe that’s why taxonomists face more nomenclatural discrepancies than any other naturalists.
A well-known invasive species, Chromolaena odorata is familiar to most locals in the hills or plains as they are seen everywhere- forests, roadsides, home gardens. Banmara (Forest killer) in Nepali and Jarman in Assamese is a common name among the locals, who despite its notorious nature have found its utility in cures of cuts and bruises and hence people don’t mind them hogging up most of the space in their fields.
A curiously twisted solitary tree called the “Monkey ladder tree” (owing to its twisted stem)- Entada gigas, was encountered in the Bongaigaon district of Assam. Unknown to many people it stands solemn waiting for kids to play along its zigzagged branches. We didn’t waste our chance and had a gala time collecting seeds from the huge spiral fruits. However In the state of Sikkim known by the name “Pangra”, I came across the seeds of E.gigas sold in markets which are valued medicinally and used frequently by people.
Plant identities have been preserved carefully for generations through household tasks such as brewing. Brewing alcohol is a part and parcel of the tribal communities of both Sikkim and Assam.
The common factor binding both the processes is the use of dried leaf cakes called Marcha in Nepali and Phetamuli in Assamese. Marcha constitutes of at least ten species of different herbs collected by fellow women of the family from adjoining forests or grasslands and hence the single word “Marcha” represents all ten herbs at once. Whereas in Assam, Phetamuli is a single herb – Clerodendrum sp. that is quite ubiquitous in nature and hence abundant in the forests. The leaves are brewed at ‘Rabha’ houses.
This myth was however busted by our local guide in Bongaigaon, Assam who explained to us that trees like S. asper tend to give out less oxygen at night due to physiological processes. This might lead to a sense of suffocation for a person seeking refuge under the tree. This phenomenon has been perceived as supernatural in the earlier times resulting in such myths. People in Assam though refer to the tree as “Shombara” and use its bark as a toothbrush without any fear.
As a famous author once wrote “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose,
by any other name would smell as sweet.”
This tryst with the flora of the Northeast that I am still continuing, transformed the way I perceive taxonomy. From a dry science subject, it is now a way to connect and to exchange tales.
Igo, roos, tela, trandafir, reste sig, rosa, all these words may refer to the rose, but each synonym stands on a story yet to be revealed. What a plant is called is not just the name given by one taxonomist who believed that it would fit best, but the sum of all its functions, meanings, importance in daily lives and also, sometimes stories that your forefathers left behind.
Arunima is a Ph.D. student working on the Bio-resources and Sustainable Livelihoods in
North East India project at ATREE. She has a Master’s degree in botany from the University of Calcutta. She has been residing in the hilly town of Gangtok for almost a year and has picked up the local language and explored the various fronts of Nepali culture. Arunima is interested in life in the Himalayan foothills and often documents her observations and thoughts in the Blog – ‘Lost in Translation’. She is interested in the vulnerability of forest ecosystems in the Eastern Himalayas and the consequences on human livelihoods.