From South America

(About plants, with linguistic digressions.)

Two notable plants of the season in my neighborhood: the tree jacaranda and the perennial flower alstroemeria. Both gorgeous, and both originally from South America.

(A jacaranda tree in South Pasadena CA, and a florist’s assortment of alstroemerias in various colors.)

1. The jacaranda. Many small jacarandas now in bloom in Palo Alto — mostly of a deeper purplish blue (or bluish purple) than the Pasadena tree.

From Wikipedia:

Jacaranda … is a genus of 49 species of flowering plants in the family Bignoniaceae, native to tropical and subtropical regions of Central America, Mexico, South America (especially Argentina, Brazil, Peru and Uruguay), and the Caribbean. It is also found in Asia, especially in Nepal. It is found throughout the Americas and Caribbean, and has been introduced to Australia, New Zealand, India, Fiji, Portugal and parts of Africa. The genus name is also used as the common name.

… Several species are widely grown as ornamental plants throughout the subtropical regions of the world, valued for their intense flower displays. The most often seen is the Blue Jacaranda Jacaranda mimosifolia

J. mimosifolia (‘mimosa-leaved’) grows throughout tropical and semin-tropical areas of the world; it

is regarded as an invasive species in parts of South Africa and Queensland, Australia, the latter of which has had problems with the Blue Jacaranda preventing growth of native species (link)

The name comes from Tupi-Guarani, a widespread language family in South America; the family has lent English the words

jaguar, tapioca, jacaranda, anhinga, carioca, and capoeira (link)

According to OED2, the original was jacarandá, with accent on the final syllable, and the dictionary lists a pronunciation with accent on this syllable as a variant in English. In Brazilian Portuguese, the initial consonant would be [ž] as in azure, but the consonant is nativized as [ǰ] (as in Jack) in English (and as [h] in Spanish). On the meaning:

Name given to various trees of tropical America yielding fragrant and ornamental wood (called, in common with various other timbers, rosewood); esp. to those of the genus Jacaranda (family Bignoniaceæ).

The wood of any of these trees.

A drug obtained from a tree of the genus Jacaranda.

OED2’s cites:

1753   Chambers’s Cycl. Suppl.,   Jacaranda,..a name given by some authors to the tree the wood of which is the log~wood, used in dying and in medicine.

1830   J. Lindley Introd. Nat. Syst. Bot. 92   The fine Jacaranda or Rosewood of produced by a species of Mimosa.

1851   Illustr. Catal. Great Exhib. 1353   Writing table, of Jacaranda wood.

1887   New Sydenham Soc. Lexicon (at cited word),   Jacaranda, in the form of a fluid extract of the leaves of J. procera, chronic catarrh of the bladder.

Note that the connection between names and species is not at all straightforward. On rosewood (from OED3 Sept. 2010):

1. The fragrant wood of either of two Canary Island bindweeds, Convolvus floridus and C. scoparius, from which a rose-scented aromatic oil is obtained; (also) either of these plants. Cf. rhodium n.1 1. [from 1633]

2. Any of several kinds of valuable fragrant, close-grained timber, mostly from tropical leguminous trees of the genus Dalbergia, esp. D. nigra of South America (more fully Brazilian rosewood), and D. latifolia, the blackwood of the East Indies (more fully Indian rosewood), used esp. for making furniture and musical instruments. Also: a tree yielding this wood.

The true rosewood of commerce is that imported from South America, esp. from Brazil, where the name jacaranda is applied to Dalbergia and to several species of Machaerium. [cites from 1660]

3. With distinguishing word: any of various other, mostly tropical, trees that yield timber of a similar appearance or use to rosewood (sense 2); the timber from any of these trees.

Dominica rosewood n. the princewood, Cordia gerascanthus, of the West Indies.† Moulmein rosewood n. Obs. a tree of the genus Millettia, prob. M. peguensis, native to Burma (Myanmar).

African, Burmese, Jamaica rosewood: see the first element.

4. Any of several West Indian trees of the genus Amyris (family Rutaceae); esp. the candlewood, A. balsamifera, from which an aromatic oil is obtained; (also) the wood of any of these trees.

5. Any of several Australasian trees having a fragrant or reddish timber; esp. (more fully Australian rosewood) the rose mahogany or pencil cedar, Dysoxylum fraserianum, and any of several acacias; (also) the wood of any of these trees.

And on logwood in OED2:

a. The heartwood of an American tree (Hæmatoxylon Campechianum) used in dyeing; so called from being imported in the form of logs.

It is used to some extent in medicine as an astringent. The alleged use of logwood in colouring spurious or adulterated port wine was at one time a frequent subject of jocular allusion. [from 1581]

b. The tree that yields this wood. [from 1652]

So jacaranda sometimes refers to rosewood and sometimes to logwood, as well as to trees of the genus Jacaranda. Whew!

2. Alstroemeria. Or alstrœmeria, as OED2 has it. The etymology is straightforward. The short version:

modern Latin, < the name of Claude Alstrœmer, Swedish naturalist (1736–96)

A plant of the genus of tropical American amaryllidaceous [‘amaryllis-like’] plants so named, esp. cultivated for their flowers.

Wikipedia has a slightly longer story (and somewhat different dates):

Alstroemeria … commonly called the Peruvian Lily or Lily of the Incas, is a South American genus of about 120 species of flowering plants. Almost all of the species are restricted to one of two distinct centers of diversity, one in central Chile, the other in eastern Brazil. Species of Alstroemeria from Chile are winter-growing plants while those of Brazil are summer-growing. All are long-lived perennials except A. (Taltalia) graminea, a diminutive annual from the Atacama Desert of Chile.

The genus was named for the Swedish baron Clas Alströmer (Claus von Alstroemer 1736 – 1794) by his close friend Carolus Linnaeus. The plant was first described by the French botanist Louis Feuillée. The plant’s seeds were among many collected by Alströmer on a trip to South America in 1753.

… Perhaps the most fascinating- and telltale- morphological trait of Alstroemeria and its relatives is the fact that the leaves are resupinate [a truly wonderful word, though not of much use in daily life], that is, they twist from the base so that what appears to be the upper leaf surface is in fact the lower leaf surface. This very unusual botanical feature is easily observed in the leaves on cut flowers from the florist.

… Many hybrids and about 190 cultivars have been developed, with different markings and colors, ranging from white, golden yellow, and orange, to apricot, pink, red, purple, and lavender. The most popular and showy hybrids commonly grown today result from crosses between species from Chile (winter-growing) with species from Brazil (summer-growing). This strategy has overcome the problem of seasonal dormancy and resulted in plants that are evergreen, or nearly so, and flower for most of the year.

Most cultivars available for the home garden will bloom in the late spring and early summer.

As they are now in Palo Alto gardens, including the Elizabeth Gamble Garden (one of the delightful features of Palo Alto). They are also available in profusion as cut flowers in the local farmer’s market.

(The Palo Alto market is sometimes billed as the farmer’s market, sometimes as the farmers’ market, sometimes as the farmers market. All three versions can be justified. Apostrophes are the devil.)

4 Responses to “From South America”

  1. mae Says:

    Jacaranda is also one of those words that gets into people’s heads and they love to say or think it. Haven’t you written about words like that?

  2. mae Says:

    Does Zippy love the word jacaranda?

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