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A Swede By Any Other Name

A Master Gardener friend who recently traveled to the UK brought me back a packet of seeds. Specifically, ‘Gowrie’ rutabaga seeds from a company called Mr. Fothergill’s.

Except because these are British seeds, they’re not called rutabaga, they’re called swede. The packet does include the botanical name of the plant (Brassica napus napobrassica) so if you’d never heard of swedes and didn’t recognize the picture, you could look them up – I hope all our American packets of rutabaga seeds do the same!

This got me thinking about vegetable names that separate us by a common language, or divide us by different ones, or in general confuse us. I’ll give a few examples below, and please tell your own stories of vegetable name mix-ups in the comments.

Let’s start with swede. The etymology of this word is pretty simple: it’s a Swedish vegetable, introduced into Scotland and hence the rest of the British Isles, and named after its origin. Interestingly, the Scots call them neeps (most often served mashed), which derives from the same Latin napus that’s part of the botanical name. Our American name rutabaga comes from a Swedish dialectical word, rotabagge, but in more standard Swedish it’s called kålrot – kale or cabbage root. Remember, all these brassicas or cole crops are closely related, and they often have similar linguistic roots to go along with their botanical ones.

Another vegetable known by several English names is eggplant or aubergine. The latter is a French word also used in the UK, originally derived from Arabic, and has also come to mean a purple color similar to that of the most popular sorts of eggplants. But egg + plant means a plant that bears fruit looking like eggs; many Solanum melongena fruits were originally small and white (and you can still find that type if you look). That melongena specific epithet comes from Latin also via Arabic; the modern Italian word for eggplant is melanzana. This word got twisted into mela insana, which translates as mad apple. It was once rumored that eating eggplants made you crazy; is this because of nightshade family alkaloids or a bad Italian translation? In India, eggplant is called brinjal, which actually comes from a Portuguese word.

And then there’s zucchini, known in Britain as courgette. Zucca is Italian for squash or pumpkin, so zucchini is the diminutive – a little squash. Please note that zucchini is the plural form of the Italian word, which may have something to do with the large numbers in which we usually harvest these vegetables. Courgette is also a diminutive, from French courge, meaning squash or vegetable marrow. Yes, and what about those marrows that we hear about in British gardens? Well, if you’ve ever missed harvesting a zucchini (or zucchino) at its ideal petite size, and let it grow into something resembling a fat baseball bat, you’ve grown a marrow.

I seem to spend a lot of time explaining to people that potatoes and sweet potatoes are not varieties of the same plant, that in fact they belong to different families and are grown very differently in the garden. The confusion of course is in the common name; if I could just refer to them as Solanum tuberosum and Ipomoea batatas no one would get mixed up, right? I used to think that “sweet potato” derived from “potato” – the Spanish for potato is patata, and it makes sense that another underground tuberous vegetable would adopt the same name. It’s a bit more complicated than that: both potatoes and sweet potatoes originate in the Americas, and patata is apparently an invented word combining the Taino (Caribbean language) batata (sweet potato – see the botanical name) and the Quechua (Peruvian language) papa (potato). So, you can’t hybridize the plants, since they are far from the same species, but you can hybridize the words. Just make sure you don’t bury your sprouting sweet potatoes deep in a trench, or wait to plant your potatoes until May. And do eat your Ipomoea batatas leaves, but leave that Solanum tuberosum foliage alone.

Finally, since this is Grow It Eat It’s Year of the Pepper, let’s talk about where our names for the genus Capsicum come from. The original pepper in English was black pepper, the spice Piper nigrum, which was imported into Europe from India and other tropical regions. South American pepper plants were given the same English name because of their spicy taste. The original word in the Nahuatl (Aztec) language was close to our modern chili (or chilli or chile – and the proper spelling is a big can of hot stuff that I am not going to open here). Sweet peppers were bred later from these original hot fruits, and given particular names based on their types and uses (as are the many kinds of hot peppers). The fruits we know as bell peppers are known in some places as capsicums, which is the genus name (derived from Latin or Greek). But many other languages use words related to that Latin piper (black pepper) – think paprika, or pepperoni (flavored with capsicum fruits).

The language of the vegetable garden is complicated, confusing, and fun!


By Erica Smith, Montgomery County Master Gardener

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