Nature Diary 5: What’s in a name?

This post is also available in: Dutch.

There is always discussion about names of plants and animals. Both the ‘simply interested’ nature lovers, using common names of species during conversations and descriptions, as well as scientists, the ones dealing with nature on higher levels and therefore using scientific names, are involved in those discussions. According to the scientists, a scientific name in Latin is the same everywhere in the world, and there can be no doubt as to which species is meant.
It is a fact of life, the use of common names often causes confusion amongst people. Because names of plants and animals are often different in different languages. But the confusion goes sometimes as far as leading to disagreement about the name in the same country, since species in one area are called something totally different than the same species in another place in the same country.

Inflorescence of the Karpata. At the top the red female flowers are in bloom and at the bottom of the stem beige bushy male flowers. In this way, there is no way pollen will fall onto the female flowers, minimizing the likelihood of self-fertilization.

Curaçaoan name confusion

A good example in Curaçao is the confusion about the American Kestrel. In Papiamentu, the animal is sometimes called a Falki and other times Kinikini. Nowadays everyone pretty much agrees that the animal should be correctly called a Kinikini, and that the name Falki  should be used for ‘Witstaartbuizerd’ (White-tailed Hawk). In English the Kinikini is called the American Kestrel and the Falki a White-tailed Hawk. But the latter is a hawk which does not agree with the Dutch name ‘valk’ (falcon) which forms the basis for Falki in papiamentu. It is not a necessity for a common name to be a reflection of the classification and the family in which the animal belongs. However, the confusion about the kestrel still exists among islanders. In Latin they have resolved the case by calling the animal Falco sparverius.

Another great example concerns the well known columnar cacti, the Datu and Kadushi. Not so long ago, during a workshop, we visited Malpais together with a number of park rangers from the Arikok National Park in Aruba. We enthusiastically pointed out the cacti and mentioned the names. They looked at us as if we were totally nuts, which was actually true from the point of view of the names on Aruba. ‘Our’ Datu is called a Kadushi on Aruba. And then try to prove who is right. Both parties are, as a matter of fact, so it was easier to switch over to the scientific name Ritterocereus griseus, the name that is even valid in Tokyo.
But even in the world of scientific names not all is well. Discussions can become pretty spirited amongst scientists, often due to the fact that research indicates that certain types of classifications are wrong. A name change is often the result. But also disagreement over former designations may result in changes.

What’s in a name?

The common names for plants and animals are sometimes too crazy to imagine, and sometimes raise the question where they came from. It is not difficult to imagine a name like the ChuChubi, Papiamentu for the Caribbean Mockingbird, based on the sound produced by the animal. The melodic scales the bird produces sound suspiciously like chu-chu-bi. The Barika hel, a name that translates to yellow belly, used for the Bananaquit, is based on the appearance of the animal, with its distinct yellow belly.
In the plant world the local names are often based on the appearance of the plant in question. An example is the Turk’s cap cactus (Melocactus sp.), which is called the Milon di seru in papiamentu, which roughly translated to melon of the hill. The exterior that looks a bit like a melon combined with the fact that especially in the past the species was rather common in hilly areas have both contributed to the name.

The green seeds of the Karpata. Because the seeds contain the toxic Ricin it is advisable to stay away from these seeds. The level of toxicity of the seeds is a source of discussion around the world, but you can get problems if you would swallow them. Also visible is a dried seedpod of the Karpata, on the verge of opening.

Another good example is the plant known in Eglish as the Castor bean (Ricinus communis). In Papiamentu the plant is called Karpata. This plant originally came from  East Africa and India and is cultivated all over the world, while in many places it has run wild as well. This is also the case on Curaçao and the plant is now found in large numbers in places where people messed around with the original natural environment. In some places in the world the plant can grow to the size of a small tree, but on Curaçao it usually remains a shrub of 1.5-2 meters high, which will die in the dry season.
The plant has a particular way of flowering. The flowers are either male or female. The red female flowers are positioned above the beige bushy male flowers. Very convenient since both types of flowers bloom simultaneously. In this way, it is almost impossible for the male pollen to fall onto the female pistils causing self-fertilization of the plant.

The seeds of the Karpata, a tick look-alike.

After the male flowers complete their job they die and fall off. The female flowers develop into grass-green fruits which eventually dry and turn brown. When thoroughly dry, the seed pods burst open in order to give the seeds a chance to develop into new plants. And those seeds are responsible for the infamous name of the Karpata, which in Papiamentu means ticks. At first sight these seeds are indistinguishable from the fat engorged ticks that sometimes parasitize on dogs on the island. The Latin scientific name for this plant is Ricinus communis, which means something like the common tick, as the name Ricinus is the Latin word for tick.
From these seeds the well known castor oil is extracted, which is still used as fuel and lamp oil. In the past it was used as a laxative as well.


Some common names of species are downright obscene. For example, there is this succulent herb, which smells strongly of pine trees and grows in damp areas such as behind the mangrove fringe at St. Joris. The species is locally known as Puta di luango. Where the name actually comes from is not clear. What is clear, however, is the fact that part of the name represents a not such a proper term for prostitute.

The Tonto di la reina, a beautiful flower with a not so decent name.

An even grosser name in Papiamentu belongs to a very lovely plant that, with some deep purple-blue flowers with bright yellow and white center, shows itself off in a fantastic way. The Latin name of this beauty might already raise some eyebrows, because it is Clitoria ternatea. Looking at the picture you will soon realize where the first part of the name refers to. On Curaçao, in official papiamentu, it is lovingly called the Bonchi di Kokolishi (shell bean), or Zapata di la reina. In popular speech, however, also on Aruba and Bonaire, the plant is called the ‘Tonto di la reina‘, which means the ‘noble part of the queen’.
This plant originally came from Asia, where in many areas wondrous properties are attributed to it, all having a positive influence on the female reproductive organs of humans. Traditionally it was used to cure diseases of the genital organs, such as infertility and sexually transmitted diseases, but also to regulate the menstrual cycle, and as a means of sexual stimulation.

Common names of plants and animals can be a source of headaches, irritation, discussions, and of hilarity. They are elements of our local culture and provide insight into the human urge to classify.

About Michelle da Costa Gomez

One Response to “Nature Diary 5: What’s in a name?”

Read below or add a comment...

  1. virginia says:

    Dear Michelle.

    What’s in a name?
    You can see we have a lot of things to share.
    The ABC islands we can see the different of
    what’s in a name.
    We steal have information to share.
    I enjoy about your information.

    Thanks for all.