Common Plant Names

Common plant names or common names of plants, also called vernacular names, local names and country names, are the names used to refer to specific plants as contrasted to scientific names, botanical plant names or Latin names. Their usage may be restricted to a small tribe having a unique dialect, a province, a region or a country. Others, oftenly in English, are used with wide international recognition. Many publications separate the English common names from the vernacular names.

The main advantage of using common plant names is ease of usage and common understanding in certain geographical areas and, conversely, the prevention of confusion among the laymen who do not understand Latin. Latin names are also difficult to memorize. For these reasons, some organizations and government agencies are attempting to create a list of official names based on the country’s native or official language.

It will be a great advantage to those who are engaged in disseminating or learning the fundamentals of crop farming and to the agricultural extension workers if they are also familiar with common names. However, It is impractical, even preposterous, to try to convince the layman to memorize and use scientific names.

On the disadvantage, many common plant names cause confusion not only locally but internationally. Worst, unscrupulous plant traders can easily invent common names for personal profit with total disregard to the possible injury, financially or physically, that it may cause.

In the Philippines, ginseng became so popular among men as a medicinal plant, primarily for its purported aphrodisiac property. It was even featured on a national television. The root is harvested from the base of the trunk downward, washed, and inserted into a wide-mouthed bottle with wine or liquor. Some use the stem and leaves.

But this ginseng is not the same as that world famous plant which belongs to the genus Panax. It is actually Jatropha podagrica, also known by the common names Buddha belly plant, gout plant and bottle plant. Just like physic nut (Jatropha curcas), also commonly called "tubang bakod," "tuba-tuba" and "kasla", and other plants of the genus Jatropha, all parts of the Buddha belly plant are poisonous when ingested. Jatropha plants may contain hydrocyanic acid (Begg and Gaskin, 1994).

How Buddha belly plant came to be called ginseng is difficult to establish, but it is believed that it started from ornamental plant nurseries which sell the plant for profit.

- Bangkok or Thailand kalachuchi for Adenium obesum (Impala lily or desert rose). “Kalachuchi” is the Filipino name for Plumiera acutifolia (Temple flower, Graveyard flower, Frangipangi) (Merrill, 1912). "Lily" and "rose" may likewise mislead.

- Bell pepper and chili or hot pepper belong to the genus Capsicum but black pepper is the common plant name for Piper nigrum.

- Chinese bamboo for Dracaena godseffiana (gold-dust dracaena or spotted dracaena). D. godseffiana is not a member of the bamboo family but of the Agavaceae. It has very slender stems and leaves with whitish spots (Steiner, 1986).

- Corn (Zea mays) is also called maize. But in England, corn refers to wheat and, in Scotland, rye or barley (herbarium.usu.edu, accessed May 21, 2010).

- Gensan mango for a plant which is not among the various species under Mangifera but probably Spondias cytherea, a close relative of Spondias purpurea (red mombin, Spanish plum, siniguelas). Potted plants on sale became a hit.

- Indian ricegrass for Achnatherum hymenoides, but it is not a close relative of either rice or wild rice (herbarium.usu.edu, accessed May 21, 2010)

- Money tree for Ochna kirkii (Mickey mouse plant). The common name was used by nurserymen who sold the plant in potted form. Within a short time, it became popular as a lucky plant, supposedly having magical charm which promotes financial success to the grower.

-Onion (Allium cepa) is known as bawang besar in Brunei and Malaysia and bawang Bombay in Indonesia (scribd.com, accessed Sept. 21, 2010). But bawang is also the common plant name for garlic (Allium sativum), also known as "ahos", in the Philippines.

- Traveller’s tree (Ravenala madagascariensis) is also called Traveller’s palm. But it is neither a tree nor a palm, it only looks like a palm plant. It belongs to the banana family, Musaceae (Steiner, 1986).

- Alagasi (Leucosyke capitellata) has 35 other common names in the Philippines (stuartxchange.org, accessed Sept. 20, 2010).

Merrill, E.D. 1912. A Flora of Manila. (1976 reprint). Manila: Bu. of Printing. p. 369.

Steiner, M.L. 1986. Philippine Ornamental Plants and Their Care. 3rd ed. Las Pinas, Metro Manila: M & L Licudine Ent. 233 p.