Saturday, August 18, 2012

A Hard-to-Pronounce Name for a Hard-to-Love Plant

Tweeblaarkanniedood. Please don’t ask me how to pronounce it. I’ve been fooled by Afrikaans before, and I’ll bet that the spelling is not phonetic. According to this Flickr user and a few other sources, tweeblaarkanniedood translates not as “typed while drunk” but as “two leaves cannot die,” which either sounds like a motto for some weird club or the tagline for a movie nobody wants to see. Regardless, the meaning seems appropriate when you see what this plant looks like.


Giant leaves rolling and tumbling like waves in a surreal desert landscape in a dream shared by Georgia O’Keefe and Salvador Dali. Truly, the tweeblaarkanniedood — perhaps better known by its scientific name, Welwitschia mirabilis — won’t give you the warm cuddlies that you’d get from some dumb, obvious flower like a gerbera or something. But it’s commanding, you have to admit. These plants can live for 1,500 years, possibly even longer, which means that the specimens alive today have seen a great deal of history — or would have if they weren’t rooted into the Namibian desert. You may also be surprised to learn that they’re gymnosperms, meaning they’re related to pines and gingkos. Now, you may have noticed that these plants don’t much resemble pines or gingkos. It’s true. The genus Welwitschia comprises just this one specimen. And it’s pretty much on its own all the way up to the order Welwitschiales.

Elusive pronunciation aside, I like tweeblaarkanniedood as a name for this plant. The plant is long-lived and fascinatingly messy-looking, and it makes me happy when the structure of a word reflects the thing being referring to. (And yes, I realize that to a South African, that word may not sound weird. To my American ears, it does. We just don’t hear those letters in that order nor in such great numbers.) I’m happy to know that something with such a name is held in esteem in its native country. Scope out the tweeblaarkanniedood on the Namibian coat of arms. That isn’t some puddly, green alien that’s disrupting the symmetry beneath the shield.

Other creatures with names of note, any one of which could have bene the subject of its own post had I not discovered the tweeblaarkanniedood:

This is a hoatzin, a South African bird that’s also known as the stinkbird on account of the fact that it smells like shit. (The tweeblaarkanniedood, I should point out, does not have a reputation for smelling like shit.)

And this succulent is the Dudleya taskiae, better known to the world as the Santa Barbara island liveforever. Name notwithstanding, it’s super endangered. Let’s not make this one really awkward, people.

There’s a relative of quinoa that goes by the name Strawberry Blite, which suggests a cross between Strawberry Shortcake and Rainbow Brite that turned out to be evil. (And obvs, such a creature would be evil.) It’s edible but toxic in large amounts.

And finally, the sneezewort. It, um, makes you sneeze, which would make the story of its name fairly straightforward if it wasn’t also known as bastard pellitory, fair-maid-of-France and goose tongue, among other names. Wikipedia does point out that its scientific name, Achillea ptarmica is notable because ptarmica comes from a Greek word meaning “sneeze,” ptairo. And doesn’t that sound like an accurate, evocative word for sneezing?

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