Sunday, 19 September 2010

From the Archive: Nuts to You*



After making an obscure reference the other day to 'Nuts to You', my first Passion for Plants (P4P) chat with Simon Marnie in October 2006, I realised there is a batch of strories sitting on my computer but not blogged.

Back in their day these notes were posted on the ABC Sydney Radio pages but haven't survived the ravages of internet time and the remakes of this site. (My earlier chats with Angela Catterns - from 2002-2006 - are still available on the Botanic Gardens Trust pages. You'll notice the occasional borrowing/recycling from these in later posts...)

So...I thought I'd post a few of these from time to time. They still seem interesting, I think, and it means I can send people a URL if they become interested in one of the topics covered. Of course it also means I can post them I'm bereft of new ideas!

But enough preamble, to Nuts to You, or as I termed it yesterday, the Testicle Tree...
You may never look at the low hanging fruit of an avocado tree in the same way again.

I was intrigued to read in the weekly science magazine, New Scientist, that the name ‘avocado’ has an odd anthropomorphic origin. It seems the Aztecs knew the small-fruited ancestors of our commercial avocado well, and called this tree with golf-ball sized fruits, ahuacacuauhiti.

This loosely translates to ‘the testicle tree’. Apparently the fruits were not only smaller but more pendent that those of modern avocado trees.

The Spanish conquistadors had some trouble remembering this name. By 1699, when the British botanist Sir Hans Sloan provided the first English description, ahuacacuauhiti had contracted to avocado.

While this may now be worth a quiet chuckle, when the etymology was revealed to 18th century Europeans it caused quite a stir. The avocado’s suggestive shape and name led to it being banned from monastery gardens.

There are plenty of other plants named after body parts, often based on their supposed health-giving powers. Liverwort, nipplewort and lungwort got their name from the Doctrine of Signatures (or Signs), where plants were used to treat illness of the body part they most resembled.

Even after a plant had been more mundanely named, links were made for medical purposes. Sometimes you have to use your imagination to see the resemblance. An odd example cited by New Scientist is the pomegranate, which means ‘seeded apple’. It was considered good for toothache because when the fruit’s peel is stripped way, the seeds and pith were thought to resemble rows of teeth between the parted lips.

If you want to read more about the origin of the name avocado, or the Doctrine of Signatures, see New Scientist 9 September 2006 and 7 October 2006 respectively. By the way, botanists refer to the avocado by its very tasteful scientific name, Persea americana.

Image: A pair of avocados borrowed from http://qwickstep.com/search/avocado-fruit-tree.html

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