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Yoyi’ is African velvet tamarind and not blackberry

Sun, 25 May 2014 Source: Pacas, Idris

The best way to communicate is to say or write information in a manner that enables the listener or reader to decode the message in only one possible way. Writing or speaking in ways that permit subjective interpretation leads to ambiguity.

The extreme cases occur when some consumables especially fruits are misnamed and the misnomers appear to take over the place of the correct names. A good example is the popular black fruit which the Ga people call ‘yoyi’. (See photo above. To see the fruit clearly, double-click on the photo to make it large.) What do you call this fruit in English language? All the people I spoke to call it ‘blackberry’. The origin of this wrong name—Generational error syndrome— remains mystifying and perplexing. The correct English name for the fruit is African velvet tamarind.

We will use both the common and botanical names to establish the correctness of the aforementioned name. All the three words are important and together they make up the correct name. Dropping any of them will leave a name that refers to a different crop.

Let us start our analysis from the last name—tamarind. Tamarind is a completely different tree botanically called Tamarindus indica (the species name ‘indica’ reflects its falsely declared India origin). The tamarind fruit (see photo attached) contains a brown sticky pulp that tastes tartly sour and/or sweet. This sour and/or sweet taste is also found in the fruit which is misnamed blackberry. The similarity in taste accounts for the presence of the word ‘tamarind’ in the name ‘African velvet tamarind’. In the Upper West Region of Ghana, the Waala people call tamarind ‘puhee’. They use its pulp to make a drink called ‘puhikuong’ meaning ‘tamarind water’. Anytime, you visit the Upper West Regional Capital, Wa, ask for this refreshing drink!

We move to the next word, velvet. The velvet probably describes the fine powdery brown pulp surrounding the seed of African velvet tamarind (see the photo attached). Adding ‘velvet’ to tamarind, we get ‘velvet tamarind’. The term ‘velvet tamarind’ is the common name referring to three different, but closely related trees. All these three trees bear fruits which contain the velvet pulp. These trees, however, can be distinguished in several ways but I will focus on their origin and botanical names. Botanically, they are Dialium cochinchinense (native to southeast Asia), Dialium indum (native to south and southeast Asia) and finally Dialium guineense (native to Africa).

To refer explicitly to that velvet tamarind which is indigenous to Ghana and to other African countries, we attach the toponymic adjective ‘African’. Hence, the correct name of the fruit widely misnamed in Accra as ‘blackberry’ is African velvet tamarind. In its botanical name, Dialium guineense, the species name ‘guineense’ referring to Guinea confirms its African origin (compare another indigenous African crop called oil palm which is also botanically named Elaeis guineensis).

Using our limited knowledge in botany, we can further justify the weirdness of the term ‘blackberry’ when used to describe African velvet tamarind. Blackberry refers to a completely different and an unrelated fruit produced by several species of plants botanically termed Rubus spp. (Note that sp. is singular, but spp. is plural. Always insert full stops at the end of these abbreviations.) Blackberries are black in colour. Also, they are berries (fleshy fruits containing juicy pulp with many seeds embedded in the pulp, eg, tomato and orange). Blackberries are thus succulent fruits which are true berries. They are temperate crops too.

On the other hand, African velvet tamarind; which is a leguminous plant just like tamarind, dawadawa tree, flamboyant and groundnut; produces a fruit botanically termed pod. Notice that before licking the tartly sour/sweet pulp surrounding the seed of African velvet tamarind, you must crack the pod by pressing on it. This cracking is similar to that done to groundnut pod when we want the seeds. In consequence, African velvet tamarind is a dry fruit, and not a berry. Therefore, it still remains mysterious as to how it got the word ‘berry’ as part of the wrong name. However, the black colour of the exocarp (outermost fruit wall) most probably misled our foreteachers to erroneously attach the term ‘black’ to the name. Hmm!

Again, using our common knowledge in English orthography, we notice that the term blackberry is different from the brand name, BlackBerry, given to mobile phones. First, the name ‘blackberry’ is a common noun whereas the brand name, BlackBerry, is a proper noun. Second, the words are compounded differently. Blackberry is a solid word in sentence case (only the first letter is capitalized at the beginning of a sentence or in titles), but BlackBerry is in CamelCase (a word in CamelCase contains capital letters in between smaller ones, eg, WordPad, SuperSport, iPhone and ProCredit).

The need to identify plants uniquely is particularly relevant in areas of nutrition and medicine. For example, a patient on diet who accidentally violates his / her diet is never spared by the wrongly ingested food. Thus, herbalists and dieticians make every effort to identify distinctively the plants or animals whose parts are used in making their products.

Botanical names serve this purpose better for all crops. One common name in one place may refer to another crop at a different place. A typical example is pawpaw. In Ghana and in most other African countries, what is called pawpaw is actually papaya. Their difference is superbly established botanically. Papaya, known among the Akans as ‘bofre’, is botanically called Carica papaya. Conversely, pawpaw, also spelt papaw, is a common American fruit botanically termed Asimina triloba.

Consequently, in non-technical text where clarity is the key, botanical names are usually parenthesized by the English names as in the sentence that follows: Bring 10 tubers of potato (Solanum tuberosum) and 10 vines of sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas). Writing scientific names in parenthesis means that you do not bother yourself pronouncing them when reading the text: you only keenly peruse them for further clarification if necessary.

In some situations, however, one plant has two or more botanical names (eg, tomato which is Lycopersicon esculentum, Lycopersicon lycopersicum or Solanum lycopersicum). In technical sense, only one of the names is botanically valid: the rest are termed botanical synonyms. Unlike synonyms in English language which may be substitutes, botanical synonyms are invalid names. Most botanical synonyms arose because in the early days of botany like other sciences, most botanists were describing and naming plants independently. Thus, different scientists ended up giving different names to the same plants.

Using the Law of Priority, botanists have agreed that the first correctly published name of any plant is the valid botanical name. Thus Solanum lycopersicum, published by Linnaeus in 1753, is the valid name of tomato. Horticultural documents, however, maintain synonyms that are popular to facilitate the reading public to know the crop being mentioned. A prize example here is Butyrospermum parkii referring to shea tree. Butyrospermum parkii, published in 1865, translates from Latin like this: ‘Butyros’ means butter and ‘spermum’ means seed; Butyrospermum simply means butter-containing seed. The species name—parkii—is derived from the surname of the Scottish explorer Mungo Park, the first European to reach the Niger River.

Unfortunately, shea /pronounced to rhyme with tea/ was named Vitellaria paradoxa by Carl von Gaertner 1807. Hence, the botanically valid name of shea, the crop which is fast catching up with cocoa in the confectionery industry, is Vitellaria paradoxa. Exactly why SADA never included shea in its afforestation programme remains another mystery. Anybody who thinks shea is a wild tree that farmers should not plant is JOKING. As part of my MPhil project, I have been able to use in vitro methods to regenerate it.

Never hesitate in dropping a comment. So valuable are they that we spent time reading them. This document is part of the Generational Error Series. Appreciate it? Thank a teacher! Interested in a soft copy, drop your email address at the Comments column.

Long live teachers! Long live Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana!

Idris Pacas: 020 910 15 33

Columnist: Pacas, Idris