Saturday, 13 April 2013

BOTANY and NAMES - BioDiEt


Gangadhar Panday
Actor & short filmmaker. Author runs Babul Films to spread ecological awareness.
Email: gangadhar@babulfilms.in

    Yes. It is about names like you all thought of, yet it is not. Not, because I am not talking about the Botanical Nomenclature - the formal, scientific naming of plants; and definitely not about ICN or International Code of Botanical Nomenclature - ICBN.
     It is all about the places that are named after seeds, fruits, plants, trees and anything that is botanical.
    It is pertinent here to rewind my timeline by a couple of months. After having written the first article on Botany and Cinema (Light Action and Camera with Plant Sciences, published on Indian Botanists Blog-o-Journal on December 6th 2012), I was struggling to find more material for my next article. True, I was busy with Cinema and in promoting my recently formed NGO and trying to find a sustainable revenue model for it. Having worked for the Government for almost three decades, I realised that it is not an easy task adjusting to the open market conditions. Rabish Chandra gently reminded me about my next text with pictures. A kind of panic started in me and I was feeling more helpless, for the topic demanded heavy research and in depth knowledge, a really time consuming process.

    If there is a will, there is always a way – our (Babul Films) biodiversity awareness project BioDiEt - Biodiversity Etymology came in handy. And that is how I come up with this article.
     Etymology is the study of the history of words, their origins. Toponymy is the more precise word which means study of place names (toponyms), their origins, meanings, and use. Shrubbery is as old as the sand, sea, stone, streams and stars; and among the first things that humans interacted with. It is but natural that when the need arose to name a place, one strong option was to name it after the vegetation endemic to that place. Why do people name places after flora? The possible reasons are: it is easy to remember, they serve as useful landmarks, because of their abundance in the area, due to their economic importance and source of livelihood, etc., When the vegetation is cleared to make the area habitable, as mark of memory or to reflect their love for the trees the streets/villages are given the name of the trees. It is sure a better way to give names of plants with life than dead and dry numbers like 1, 2,.., 24 etc., On a funny note it can be said that it is as neutral as it can be and has less scope for politicising! This ensures that there can't be any political fallout! May be you run out of divine names or famous people from the area and hence turn to trees and plants! In the modern times people resort to this to give a touch of ‘green’ or make their ventures ‘eco-friendly’ to attract buyers.

A HOLLYWOOD paradox: From the famous name sign LAND is gone and WOOD remains. 
Now what remains on ground is only the LAND and the WOODs have disappeared completely.
    Here, unintentionally, I am drawn to cinema, my love. That is strength of the bond between botany and cinema! Hollywood and many other ‘woods’ preffixed by Bolly, Tolly, Kolly etc., all refer to different cinema industries. But what is the connection between ‘woods’ and films?
    It is interesting to know how Hollywood got its name. It is believed that the city of Hollywood got its name from the abundance of toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) shrubs in the area. Toyons (also known as California holly), are a large shrub or small tree in the rose family and are extensively used for home landscaping. They have evergreen leathery leaves with serrate [toothed/jagged] edges. Flowers of the toyon appear in large panicles of creamy-white around June and give off a spicy odor [this is where Cinema fails now, hope in the near future we will also be able to smell the scenes]; they are very attractive to bees. The clusters of bright fruits were used for decorations during christmas and New Year. Also the fruits are consumed in a drink as well as drying, roasting, and grinding them into a meal.
Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia); Photo: www.natureathand.com
    The following words are much used typonyms: walnut, oak, pine, willow, cherry, orchard, maple, orange, bloom, garden, bagh, etc., It is common to find the word ‘topu / tota’ suffix in Telugu place names which means a garden. Eg., KannavaritoTa in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh. Similarly the word ‘bagh’ suffix can be found widely in South Asia. Eg., Basheerbagh, bagh-e-am [Public Gardens] in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh. The city Kendal (located in central Java in Indonesia), is named after the tree Kendal [Cordia bantamansis]. Thatichetlapalem, a locality in Visakhapatnam is named after Indian palm tree [tati in Telugu]. Travelers used to take kallu [a beverage from palm tree] and rest here. Taticherla in Anantapur gets its name from palm tree.
    Botanical toponyms work the other way too. Tangerine, the citrus fruit is named after a city in Morocco. There are many such examples. Place names can also be a big source of debate and confusion. Pondicherry [presently called Puducherri and popularly known as Pondy, a Union Territory of India] has got nothing to do with ‘cherry’ though the name suggests so. Consider this amusing story: Spelt as ‘Poudicherry’ by the French ‘Puducherry’ it means ‘new village’ in Tamil, later, the hand-written ‘u’ was mistaken for a ‘n’, and the misspelling ‘Pondicherry’ stuck. Such anecdotes and historical accounts are many.
     Here are two internationally famous places having botanical names.
   The Avenue of the Baobabs is a group of famous trees in western Madagascar. The Baobab trees, up to 800 years old, did not originally tower in isolation over the serene landscape of scrub but stood in dense tropical forest. Over the years, as the country’s population grew, the forests were cleared for agriculture, leaving only the famous baobab trees.
    The Cedars of God is a small forest of about 400 Cedar trees in the mountains of northern Lebanon. They are among the last survivors of the extensive forests that thrived in ancient times. The Cedars of Lebanon are mentioned in the Bible over 70 times. The ancient Egyptians used its resin in mummification and King Solomon used the famous trees in the construction of the First Temple in Jerusalem.
    The list and descriptions are endless. The examples are given to just kindle your curiosity.
   To generate awareness about plants and trees, an integral inalienable part of human life that need urgent attention to save from extinction, Babul Films has initiated the project BioDiEt – Biodiversity Etymology. It is a database of place names that relate to biodiversity elements. You can send in your entries to add to this. You can also win exciting prizes. The link is www.babulfilms.in/biodiet

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