A study of Philippine medicinal plants is a journey into a world of confusing nomenclatures. Well, perhaps not so confusing to the serious student of botany who may actually feel comfortable traversing the landscape of Latinized scientific names, but for the occasional plant dabbler, for the weekend gardener, or for the occasional query and foray into the world of Philippine herbal plants, it is quite an unfriendly and intimidating gumbo of Latin and a dizzying variation of local names.

Latinus intimidatus, Latinus migrainosus
Unless you are the serious student of herbology with roots of essential botanical Latin, or an altar boy in your childhood days with your rote of Latin-mass, or an ivy-leaguer in your distant past who suffered through years of curricular latin, or some Latin-proficient self-studied geek, you probably suffer from an obscure and sometimes disabling condition called Latinus intimidatus, or a variant condition, Latinus migrainosus.

And the official demise of the language has not helped. Latin - decades before the turn of the millennium - has been suffering its slow death, the euthanistic hemlock finally delivered by the church edict to de-Latinize the mass services. Latin is dead, dead, dead. . . surfacing only in those occasions for literary indulgence - the occasional quote for that touch of erudition or elitism, or written with its impressible and decorative italics.

But alas, in the lexcion of the botanical world, Latin persists.

Blame Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) who brought order into botanical nomenclature with his "binomial system," a nomenclatural system that has survived and prevailed, despite the nasty fates of the classic languages.

The binomial plant name consists of a "Genus" first name with a capitalized first letter, and a "species" second name (lower case), both usually italicized. Examples: For Bayabas, Psidium guajava (Psidium - genus, guajava -species).

While the Genus-part of the name may or may not tell anything about the plant, the species-part is usually descriptive of a particular detail or characteristic, color, origin, habitat. or a person commemorated: Examples: Mimosa pudica (makahiya) - from pudicus meaning 'shy.'

Mimosa pudica  pudicus - shy  Makahiya  Bashful mimosa
Amaranthus spinosus   spinosus - spiny  Uray  Thorny amaranth 
Phramites vulgaris  vulgaris - common  Tambo  Common reed 
Helianthus annuus annuus - annual Mirasol Sunflower
Cassia fistula fiistula - hollow like a pipe  Kanya pistula pipe tree
Paederia foetida  foetida - stinking, evil-smelling Kantutan  
Lycopersicum esculentum  esulentus - edible Kamatis Tomato
Allium sativum  sativus - planted, cultivated  Bawang Garlic 
Viola odorata odoratus - scented, fragrant Violeta Sweet violet

Latin endings of the Genus and species names usually suggest gender: masculine ending in -us, -er, -is; feminine ending in -a, -ra; neuter in -um, -rum. In Greek, masculine ends in -is and ins; feminine in -ix and -odes. Species names suggesting a person usually ends in -ii.

The burgeoning botanical world of nurseries, cultivation and hybrids, necessitated a third nomenclatural name, the "cultivar" for 'cultivated variety,' usually in non-italics, initially capitalized, and in single quotation marks, that follows the Genus and species binomial designation. 

If Latin or Greek is intimidating, the lists for Philippine common names can be downright migrainous. Many common names are shared by the plants from a different Family or Genus. For example, Boto-botonesan or phonetic variations are shared by four plants of different Genus: (1) Mutha (Cyperus rotundus) Boto-botones (2) Gatas-gatas (Euphorbia hirta) botobotonis, botbotonis, botonis (3) Botoncillo (Gomphrena globosa) botbotonis, botones-botonesan, and (4) Botonesan (Hyptis capitata): bababañga, liñga-liñgahan.

Somestimes when phonetically pleasing and easy to the roll of the rural tongue, the Genus part of the scientific name gets adopted for a common names: examples: Gimelina (Talungud, Gmelina elliptica, rais madre de dios) and Likuala (Balabat, balatbat, Licuala spinosa).

It is not unusual for widely distributed plants to have more than 20 common names - names from different regions, provinces, tribes and dialects. Often, there are variations within the same region, province or tribe, names that probably evolve from phonetic misuse and misspellings, but surviving through repitition. Such an example is Alagasi (Leucosyke capitellata), below, with its profusion of 36 (!) common names . If I may add another one to the already lengthy list, it is probably the same as the scouring plant known as "As-is" or "is-is" in the Quezon area, a variation of the Tagalog name: "Isis ngipin." Another, Anabiong, has 37 common names!

Common names

Alagasi (Bis., Tag.) Halagasi (Tag.)
Alangasi (Bis.)  Hilagasi (Tag.)
Amagasi (Bik., tag.) Hinagasi (Tag.)
Anagau (Bik.) Hinlagasi (P. Bis.)
Anugas (Bik.) Isis ngipin (Tag.)
Alalasi (Bon., Ilk.) Karikasin (Neg.)
Aragasi (Bik., S. L., Bis.) Lagasi (Tag., C. Bis.)
Ararasi (Bon.) Laglag (P. Bis.)
Arasi (Bon.) Lalasi (Ig.)
Bahibahi (P. Bis.) Langasi (Bis.)
Bauaua (S. L. Bis.) Lapsik (Ig.)
Bilan-bilan (Sub.) Layasin (Tag.)
Bunkilan (Yak.) Liasin (Tag.)
Damakadios (P. Bis.) Manombila (Buk.)
Gasigasi (Sul.) Sagombibilan (Mbo.)
Ginagasi (Tag.) Salagiso (Bik.)
Gugutu (Ig.) Salasi (Bon.)
Haganasi (Bik.) Tinagasi (Bik.)

But if one can get beyond the migraines and the exasperation, the Common Names lists provide an interesting etymological opportunity, a fascinating journey into regional colloquialism and rural patois. The plant Clitoria ternatea Linn. is called in the Tagalog area as Pukingan and Puki reyna. A close examination of the vine's flower may well suggest the mindset of the nomenclator. Some names derive from herbal effects or plant characteristics: Loko-loko (crazy in the head) , Baho-baho (foul smelling), tintatintahan (containing a color or dye). 

And, whence the names: Lamon-babae? Kantutan?

Additional Source
Plant Names Explained (Botanical Terms and their Meaning)
published by Horticulture Publications (2005)
A survival book for the part of the nomenclatural travail and anguish that is Latin- or Greek-induced.
It provides an easy to read A-to-Z in Genus, species and cultivar names.