Forgotten plants, forgotten names | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

Forgotten plants, forgotten names

/ 04:05 AM January 13, 2021

Frank Lamson-Scribner (1851-1938) was an American botanist and pioneering plant pathologist whose name does not ring a bell in the Philippines. Not even in scientific circles, despite his significant publications on very obscure topics, such as “Weeds of Maine” (1869), “Diseases of the Irish potato” (1889), “Fungus diseases of the grape and other plants and their treatment” (1890), and “American Grasses” (1897).

In 1904, the Bureau of Agriculture in Manila published Lamson-Scribner’s “List of Philippine Agricultural Products and Fiber Plants” as one of its informative bulletins. After surviving 15 units of college Natural Science subjects, I don’t normally gravitate to such dated literature, but this work was engaging as it provided obscure English names to plants, vegetables, and fruits Filipinos encounter on a daily basis. I know that ampalaya is the most hated vegetable among Filipino children. I know it under its Spanish name amargoso, the Spanish word for bitter, but I didn’t know the English name of ampalaya is “Balsam apple”!


Everyone knows camote is sweet potato and camoteng kahoy is cassava or yucca, but do you know its obscure name is “Adam’s needle”? Garlic used to be known in Spanish as ajo; that’s why garlic soup on a Spanish restaurant menu is sopa de ajo. Its native name is bawang. I always thought linga referred to sesame seeds, not knowing it had a more complicated name: ajonjoli. Every Filipino knows what an atis looks and tastes like. Its scientific name is anona squamosa; its English name isn’t custard apple (anonas) but sugar apple or sweetsop, while soursop is the guyabano. I thought I learned something new associating malunggay with moringa, now added to pan de sal as a food supplement for lactating mothers, but in English, it’s horseradish tree!

Some years ago, I wrote about our balimbing being the English coromandel gooseberry. But what about fruits and vegetables we won’t find in a supermarket anymore? Payong ahas is agaric or mushroom; alibangbang, which has acidic leaves good for vinegar or sinigang, is called St. Thomas’ tree; alipai is a native fruit; dalisay is described as a native almond; antipolo we know as a place with a venerated image of the Virgin Mary that was found on a tree whose fruit is known under the names rima, camansi, and bread fruit. Another obscure fruit is the iba, also known as banquiling, rendered in English as the otaheite gooseberry. Lanzones as boboa or bulahan? The list gives the name persimmon to three different fruits: mabolo (the fruit of the kamagong tree), zapote, and bolongaeta, whatever that is.


There were seven kinds of citrus fruits mentioned: citrus notissima is known as limon or dayap; citrus medica is known as a lemon in English, limon real (royal lemon) in Spanish, or dalayap; citrus aurantium is described as a large lemon whose native names are cagel or cahil; citrus mitis is the small lemon or limoncito in Spanish, calamansi in Tagalog, or calamunding in Kapampangan; citrus documana is the grapefruit, pomelo, orange suha, or lucban; citrus reticulata are small oranges in English, naranjitas in Spanish, sintones to us; and last but not least, citrus torosa or cabuyao.

There were two types of patola: the obscure patolang wak and the common luffa acutangulus, best described in English as “dishcloth gourd,” which is dried and bleached for use in scrubbing and scouring; another variety, luffa aegyptiaca, was used by the Japanese as lining for hats and slippers. There were two types of squash: calabasang puti, white squash, is the upo, while the red one, calabasang pula, is also known as the round one or calabasang bilog.

Why explore a century-old list of Philippine plant names? Because it opens us to another world when people were familiar with things we can only imagine today, like susong calabao or susong damulag, described as “a small native tree growing in Luzon, the scarlet fruit, that contains sweet and milky sap [that] is edible. It is somewhat mawkish and insipid to the taste.” What about the cluster fig or tibig na lalaqui, described as “a shade tree growing by the streams on Luzon. The fruit is small and is much relished by children, and also by cattle. The tree is highly valued by the natives for the reason that the roots yield drinking water.”

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, Frank Lamson-Scribner, Looking Back, Philippine history, Philippine plants
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