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On the Significance of Certain Oriental Plant Names in Relation to Introduced Species

E. D. Merrill
Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society
Vol. 78, No. 1 (Oct. 22, 1937), pp. 111-146
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/984661
Page Count: 36
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On the Significance of Certain Oriental Plant Names in Relation to Introduced Species
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Abstract

Following a brief consideration of the significance of the use of plant names in the Indo-Malaysian-Polynesian regions attention is called to the fact that the comparative philologists have made little or no use of the extensive data that are available, although it is manifest that in many cases the name of a particular plant has been transmitted with the plant itself from one people to another, while in other cases early expanding peoples have apparently carried the name and applied it to indigenous species of wide natural distribution. Extensive data are presented on the significance of the name in the case of two pan-tropic manifestly man-distributed species, the coconut and the frangipanni, and one pan-tropic species, Hibiscus tiliaceus, of natural distribution, to emphasize the points mentioned above. In the case of the coconut the conclusions are diametrically opposed to Cook's theory of an American origin, in that apparently the spread of this economic palm was from west to east rather than from east to west, and that it probably did not occur in America until after it was introduced first by the Portuguese and a little later by the Spaniards. The great center of development in its local names is in the Old World tropics, with the niu series in use from Madagascar, through Malaysia to the eastern limits of Polynesia. It is reasonably apparent that here the name was spread with the plant itself. The frangipanni is native of Mexico. One of the crude plant-forms depicted on the 12th century temple of Borobudur, Java, has been identified as representing this plant; if this identification be correct it would mean its presence in Java in the 12th century. The philological, historical, and botanical evidence is wholly opposed to this assumption, and the conclusion drawn is that the crude Borobudur figure does not represent the frangipanni, and that the plant was first introduced into the Philippines by the Spaniards late in the sixteenth or early in the seventeenth century, and from the Philippines was soon transmitted to other parts of the Old World tropics, and with it, to a certain degree went its Nahautl name. Hibiscus tiliaceus was selected as a plant of natural pan-tropic distribution. A study of its local names indicates that those in the hao-bao-bago series were transmitted by an expanding people from Madagascar and India through Malaysia and Polynesia; and as new lands were occupied the name was apparently applied to the plant there found as an indigenous species. It is noted further that this same series of names is applied over the entire region to a number of utterly different and botanically not closely allied species, but in each case plants that have strong bast fibers as does the Hibiscus. The assumption is that in this case the original form meant bast, and was thus applied to unrelated plants that produced strong bast fibers. Following these three cases is a brief discussion of the significance of the Sanskritic, Chinese, and Nahautl plant names in Malaysia and in the Philippines. The conclusions in reference to the first two are that they were introduced into the Archipelago, with the plants themselves, by Indian and Chinese colonizing or trading peoples beginning perhaps 2000 to 2500 years ago, and that the names have persisted practically unchanged since their introduction. The Nahautl series represent plants introduced from Mexico by the Spaniards following 1565 via the old Manila-Acapulco galleon route that persisted for about 250 years. The Sanskritic-Chinese series represent sub-prehistoric introductions from Asia, the Nahautl series introductions from America within the period of modern history, the one paralleling the other.

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