Portmanteau Prunus

This morning at the local farmers’ market, I picked up a couple of nectaplums, which started to become available last week. Nectaplum is a portmanteau of nectarine and plum, and the nectaplum is a hybrid of a variety of nectarine and a variety of plum.

There were also pluots (pluot = plum + apricot) on sale.

And so I was plunged into the mysteries of the genus Prunus (peaches, plums, apricots, cherries, and almonds) and the names for its bewildering collection of varieties and hybrids.

The genus Citrus is at least as bad, but there aren’t nearly as many portmanteaus in the terminology, though there is the tangelo (tangelo = tangerine + pomelo). (If you want a quick headache, go check out the history of tangerines and pomelos.)

But back in Prunus-land: cherry and almond (alone or with noun or adjective modifiers, as in sand cherry and flowering cherry) are both used to cover a number of distinct species, and things are not much clearer for peach, plum, and apricot.

Nectarines are peach cultivars with smooth (rather than velvety or fuzzy) skins.

The plumcot (called interspecific plum in U.S. regulations) occurs as a natural cross between plums and apricots (several different crosses, it seems), but hybridizers (especially Floyd Zaiger) have labored to combine cultivars of plums and apricots in various ways, to produce things called plumcots, plucots, pluots, and apriums. (For me, they’re all pluots.)

Throw in nectarines, and you get nectacots and nectaplums.

Throw in (fuzzy) peaches instead of (smooth) nectarines, and you get peachcots and peach/plum hybrids that apparently have as yet no fixed name in the world of plant suppliers, much less grocery shoppers, though the copulative compound peach-plum ought to do if peachum seems unlikely to catch on (perhaps because it suggests the Peachams of the Three-Penny Opera).

And then, yes, all three: the nectacotum (nectarine + apricot + plum) and the peacotum (peach + apricot + plum).

Over in cherry-land, there’s the cherrycot (sand cherry — not what you think of as a cherry, whether wild cherry, sweet cherry, or sour cherry — crossed with japanese purple apricot) and the cherry-plum.

None of these labels are “scientific”, but you really don’t want to see botanists’ attempts to identify the contributing cultivars of the relevant species and combine these into formulas; Linnean binomial nomenclature doesn’t extend easily to cases like this.

Putting the scientific labels aside, we still have the technical terminology of specialists in the plant world, which builds on the “common names” (the labels of ordinary language) by restricting or extending their reference and by discarding some terms and introducing new labels (through portmanteauing, among other things). Some of this technical vocabulary then filters through to ordinary language, especially via the terminology of commerce, though often it remains in the border country between technical and ordinary language for some time, and crosses over (if at all) at different times in different places (that is, in different social groups).

So I can put pluots on my shopping list without finding anything special about the name (though I doubt that I knew it at all twenty years ago), and I have learned to look forward to the possibility of nectaplums and nectacots at the farmers’ market (though for me these are still growers’ and sellers’ words and I don’t expect non-specialists to know them).

14 Responses to “Portmanteau Prunus”

  1. mollymooly Says:

    The plumcot was improved by mild-mannered Luther Burbank, who by night fought crime as The Cultivator.

  2. *** NoDeli *** Says:

    Actually citrus and citrus hybrids have quite a few portmanteaus. There’s the tangor, the orangelo, and all the (as you point out) tangelos. There’s the citrange, which I always thought of as nonsensical, but it that’s its name nevertheless.

    Then, in the world of Fortunella (kumquat) hybrids, things just become silly:
    limequats, lemonquats, orangequats, mandarinquats, and yuzuquats (yuzu = a Japanese lemon). There’s more I’m forgetting. Under the auspices of a particular university in the Southwest US, I was working a (moro) blood orange + kumquat hybrid. I leave it to you to figure out what I was going to name it.

    Mendelian genetics just lends itself to naming practices like these.

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    To NoDeli: thanks for the wonderful portmanteau citrus data. Much more there than I’d supposed.

    Now, as for (moro) blood orange x kumquat: blorangequat, blodgequat, moroquat, morquat, kumblorange, kumblodge, kummoro, kummor,… I’m partial to the last two of these.

  4. MWarhol Says:

    It’s interesting that hybrids in these two genuses are given portmanteau names, but hybrids in the genus Rubus aren’t. Hybrids whose parents are blackberry and raspberry plants aren’t called a “rackberries” or a “blaspberries”, but are given their own names: boysenberry, loganberry, youngberry, nessberry, marionberry, kotataberry, etc. Many of these are named after the person who developed the particular hybrid (or the place where the work was done), which might have something to do with it. Also, it seems likely that having the word “berry” in the parents’ names (blackberry, raspberry, dewberry, wineberry, salmonberry, etc.) would lend itself to that kind of naming convention.

  5. Ben Zimmer Says:

    There was a Los Angeles Times article a few weeks ago that talked about the history of some of these hybrids. It also mentioned cherums, plerries, and plumegranates.

  6. arnold zwicky Says:

    To MWarhol: I’d considered mentioning the taxonomic thicket of Rubus, where hybrids don’t seem to get portmanteau names, as a contrast to Prunus (and, it seems, Citrus), but I was too lazy to do the research.

    Are there other genera we could look to? These are just the ones I thought of right off the top of my head, from baffled experience.

  7. mwarhol Says:

    There’s Vaccinium, which includes blueberries, huckleberries and cranberries (among others). Blueberry nomenclature is different than Rubus nomenclature, in that each new (or new and sufficiently different) member of the Rubus hybrid club gets christened with a more “specific” name (“That’s not a blackberry that’s a boysenberry.”), while blueberry varieties, although they might have specific names (Chandler, Saskatoon, Ochlokonee, etc.), are all thought of (assuming my telepathy skills are up to snuff) as blueberries, and not as some different, new fruit.

    Strawberry (Fragraria) varieties are similarly named.

    I have seen a description of a blueberry/cranberry hybrid, but no name was given.

    The genus Ribes, the “natural” members of which are gooseberries and currants, is more like Vaccinium in its nomenclature. The varieties within each group are (like blueberries) given “inclusive” names, but there’s also a hybrid of the two which is given an exclusive name: jostaberry.

    I guess Rubus varieties look and taste different enough from one another that they’re perceived as different fruits, whereas blueberry and strawberry varieties don’t, and aren’t.

  8. arnold zwicky Says:

    To NoDeli on Saskatoon berries (serviceberries, shadbushes): Ah, Amelanchier, yet another genus in the rose family (like Prunus and Rubus). Despite the taste similarity of serviceberries to blueberries, the genus Vaccinium is in the heath/erica family (and Ribes is in yet another family; berries come from lots of places).

    In any case, Amelanchier is another taxonomically tortured genus. Sez Wikipedia:

    The systematics (taxonomy) of shadbushes has long perplexed botanists, horticulturalists, and others, as suggested by the range in number of species recognized in the genus from 6 to 33 in two recent publications. A major source of complexity comes from the occurrence of apomixis (asexual seed production), polyploidy, and hybridization.

  9. mwarhol Says:

    I’d forgotten that serviceberry is also called Saskatoon berry. I call it serviceberry or shadblow, and it’s one of my favorite native small trees. It flowers early down here in central Virginia, the blooms coming before the leaves, and it’s a pleasure to come upon one in the woods while walking, or on stream banks when paddling.

    A linguistic note on the name “shadblow”: “Blow” is an old word for blossom, and the “shad” part of the name refers to the time of its flowering; supposedly it blooms when the shad are making their way up rivers to spawn. That phenomenon itself has acquired a political function: the annual shad planking in Virginia, begun as a festive event on the occasion of the shad run, which has become a venue for state politicians to gather informally and demonstrate that they actually are just like the rest of us. Historical linguistics, natural history, and local politics, all wrapped up in one little berry.

    I’ve tasted a few serviceberries, and find them pleasant but rather bland, even compared to blueberries. I much prefer pawpaws and persimmons, both of which grow wild here, and both of which seem not to have the identity problems that so many other fruits have (though that might just be because no one’s looked closely enough yet).

    Thinking about wild fruits reminds me of another genus with many and confusing members: Viburnum. There are several native species, some of which have edible berries, and confusingly and variously applied common names: possumhaw, blackhaw, nannyberry, wild raisin. I don’t know for certain, but I’d guess that they hybridize as promiscuously as shadblow does.

  10. Food and drink postings « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    [...] Prunus (link) nectaplums, pluots, [...]

  11. Pairmanteaus « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    [...] (NOAD)). In some cases, the combination of referents is akin to chemical compounding: a nectaplum (here) isn’t both a nectarine and a plum, but a hybrid of the two (similarly, tigons and ligers, [...]

  12. On the portmanteau watch: Boston, coyotes | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    [...] the combination of referents is akin to chemical compounding: a nectaplum ['nectarine plum'] (here) isn’t both a nectarine and a plum, but a hybrid of the two (similarly, tigons and ligers, [...]

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