Herbs, Language, Culture & People
By Alberto Carbo
Historically, throughout the world, herbal medicine has been the primary source of basic healthcare. As a matter of fact, even in our contemporary, technologically advanced world, herbal medicine and traditional therapies continue to be the primary source of healthcare used by at least 88% of the world’s population, according to estimates by the World Health Organization.
When we give this some thought, we can easily appreciate how herbal medicine is inextricably interwoven into the human experience, no matter where you live. This means that, just like food, and language, our relationship with plants, whether for medical or industrial purposes, largely forms part of the culture of the geographical location we happen to inhabit.
Because plants know no borders, many of the same plants, or at least plants within the same family or genus are used over large geographical areas. A lot of times, plants are used similarly, but of course, this is not always the case. A common trait, however, seems to be naming plants according to their use, and this may be one of the most rudimentary ways of applying the Doctrine of Signatures. While perhaps seemingly basic, this is demonstrative, that human interaction with plants is inherently informed by observation and comparison of ourselves with our green friends and the habitats in which they like to grow.
In herbal medicine, we often refer to plants by their botanical name, which is of course in Latin. Just like the languages we hear around the world today; Latin names give us context about the use of the plant or its characteristics, and many times provide fascinating historical context.
With common interests in language, travel, and connecting with others, Tara Baklund and I decided to create a space where we could explore the interesting connections between plant names in different languages, their uses, as well as some of the meanings behind Latin names. In Herbs in Spanglish, we compare the different names of plants in English, Spanish, and Latin.
The Malvaceae family, for example, is broad ranging and grows in temperate as well as tropical climates. Malva neglecta is a plant that has been championed by the likes of Nicholas Culpeper, and yet people in the Peruvian jungle have used the emollient and mucilaginous qualities of its cousin Malachra alceifolia, in a very similar way.
Yarrow, another broad-ranging plant, is a great example of a similarly used herb with similar names. In Spanish, we call it ‘Milenrama,’ or ‘a thousand on a branch,’ which is quite comparable to the French ‘Millefeuille’ as well as to the second part of the Latin binomial ‘millefolium.’ In English, the commonly used name, Yarrow, is said to be a derivative of the Anglo-Saxon name ‘Gearwe’ or the Dutch ‘Yerwe’ and while the comparison between English and Spanish may not be so similar in this case, the use certainly seems to be similar across the board. Lastly, if you are familiar with Achilles, the mythological champion of ancient Greece, you would know that this is whom the first part of the Latin binomial is named after – which explicitly informs us of its use.
Although we are certainly not language experts, it is interesting to note the similarities and differences between plant names across different tongues. Diving down the rabbit hole of language (even of just a couple) not only helps to inform us of the different/similar ways in which people across the world use certain medicinal plants. Of course, we explore all of this in English and Spanish simultaneously, so if you are not a Spanish speaker, but are interested in learning, you may pick up a few things along the way!
- “Who Global Centre for Traditional Medicine.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, https://www.who.int/initiatives/who-global-centre-for-traditional-medicine.
The information provided in this digital content is not medical advice, nor should it be taken or applied as a replacement for medical advice. Matthew Wood, the Matthew Wood Institute of Herbalism, ETS Productions, and their employees, guests, and affiliates assume no liability for the application of the information discussed.