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The nature of Tibetan plant nomenclature.


The knowledge of the natural world in the so-called "non-modern" human societies is dependent both upon cognitive capabilities proper to the human species and on the features of the environment in which the population lives. Yet the above relationship is not absolute because this knowledge is worked out and organized according to social traditions and technical practice. Popular expertise in the natural world implies, as Friedberg (1) affirms, two processes: firstly the recognition of separate entities from the environment and their designation; secondly the organization of the natural diversity in a coherent system. I would like to point out that the objectives of modern scientific classification and the ones of popular classification are different. The former aims at building a valid classification for the whole plant kingdom, where each plant has a unique place, the latter basically seeks to manage the relations between plants and the people's daily life. This endeavour is always inscribed in a wider representation system that does not include only plants, but also all natural and non-natural objects and their relations to human activities, without a deliberate will of establishing a categorisation. Therefore popular classifications are strictly dependent upon the cultural, social and environmental contexts.

It is worth noting that giving a name to an object represents a priori a true classification because it enables the observer to isolate it from the others. The designation derives from a cognitive process whose aim (apart from the one of giving a name) is to attribute a special role and value to each object and which represents the first stage of its actual use. As Berlin (2) says: "before human beings can utilize the biological resources of a local environment, they must, first of all, be classified", and therefore named. That is why the study of plant nomenclature enables the scholar to obtain significant information on plant conception in human societies with particular reference to their classification and hierarchical status.

This article, concerning the first of the two procedures mentioned above, aims at analysing Tibetan plant names with particular reference to their structure and parameters of attribution.

Conklin (3) is one of the first scholars that have thoroughly examined the structure of popular nomenclatures. In his dissertation "The relation of Hanunoo culture to the plant world" he has proposed a specific terminology to characterise and differentiate the elements composing popular plant designations. Conklin has notably recognised two distinct elements: "basic plant name" and "attribute". The same system has been adopted by several other scholars as Friedberg (4) in her ethnobiological research on the Bunaq from Timor in Indonesia. Since I have adopted this model to represent Tibetan plant designations, its explanation has been dealt with below in the section "Plant name structure and attribution criteria among Tibetans". At the beginning of the 1990s Berlin (5) in his essay on biological classifications has proposed a different model by differentiating two basic structural name types: "primary names" and "secondary names", which respectively correspond to "basic plant names" and "basic plant names + attribute".

The data have been obtained during a research project on the ethnobotany of Tibetan speaking populations undertaken by the author from 1998 to 2001 in different regions of the Tibetan cultural area: Dhorpatan (Baglung District, Central Nepal), the Litang County (Sichuan, China), and the region of Baragaon (Mustang District, Central Nepal) (6). The research fieldwork has been conducted with more than 200 educated and non-educated informants among villagers, nomads, Tibetan doctors, and monks. Participant observation and open-ended conversations have been mostly used as methods of investigation. The plant specimens gathered on the field have been identified in collaboration with professor J. F. Dobremez (Laboratoire d'Ecologie Alpine, Universite de Savoie, France) and have been deposited at the Herbarium of the Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle de Paris, France. A few classical texts of Tibetan medicine and some traditional and modern treatises of Tibetan materia medica have also been employed to analyse plant nomenclature: "The Four Tantras" (rGyud bzhi), the fundamental text of Tibetan medicine (7), probably composed between the VIII and the XII century; its famous commentary "The Blue Beryl" (Vaidurya sngon po), written by the Regent sDe srid sangs rgyas rgya mtsho (8) in the XVII century; "The Crystal Block" (Shel gong) and the commentary to it "The Crystal Rosary" (Shel phreng) (9), two of the most important classical texts of Tibetan materia medica, both written in the first half of the XVIII century; two modern Tibetan pharmacopoeias published at Lhasa (10) and Chamdo (11).

The botanical identifications presented in this article are related to the specimens gathered on the field by the author and to the identifications reported in modern Tibetan materia medica. I point out that, since the botanical identification of Tibetan materia medica may vary according to several factors such as the region concerned and the local traditions, the given identification may represent only one of the possible botanical species to which a Tibetan designation may correspond. I have quoted in the footnotes the reference texts for the botanical identification of the plants that I have not gathered on the field. When the reference is lacking, one should understand that the plant has been gathered during fieldwork and identified by the author. I have indicated the place of collection after the Latin binomial of each plant species reported in the text.


The regions inhabited by Tibetan populations extend in Central Asia over a vast area almost corresponding to the land mass occupied by the Tibetan plateau. Its severe climate and environment have strongly influenced the life of these peoples, who have however managed to live by exploiting its natural resources. As far as plants are concerned, owing to their importance for yak, sheep, and goat breeding, for firewood (also as yak dung), house construction, and medicine, they represent a crucial resource for Tibetan populations. Several plant and mushroom species, lcum rtsa (Rheum palmatum, Litang), spang spos (Nardostachys grandiflora, Litang, Baragaon), and particularly dbyar rtswa dgun 'bu (Cordyceps sinensis, Litang) (12) to name a few, have had and have economic importance, and some of them have become a crucial source of income for many Tibetan communities. During the last decades the market demand for renowned natural substances, many of which coming from the Tibetan regions, utilised in traditional medicines (Tibetan, Chinese, Ayurvedic) and diet, and sought after by pharmaceutical and phyto-pharmaceutical companies, has increased. These various kinds of products, which include many plants, can be bartered or sold for the cash needed to pay taxes or to purchase staple commodities.

In the past, wild plants were often employed as food, and particularly during famines; tools were manufactured with local wood, and several dyeing stuffs were prepared from locally gathered plants and minerals. The situation today is different: following the socio-economic and cultural changes that have mainly occurred since the 1950s, vegetables, most tools and dyes once locally produced are imported from lowland regions. Yet wild plant use is still relatively common in remote villages and among nomadic communities, although the number of plants actually gathered is small. The use of plants as religious offerings in temples and private houses, and in children games is still moderately important in some areas such as the Litang County.

Before starting to analyse plant nomenclature it is essential to define to which extent the knowledge of the plant world is still spread among Tibetans. According to fieldwork data from different regions and the few papers on Tibetan ethnobotany (13), this scholarship may vary in relation to education, profession (herders, traders, medicinal plant gatherers, traditional doctors, monks, etc.) and to cultural influences coming from other regions (e.g., India and China). Yet botanical knowledge is homogeneous throughout the vast area inhabited by Tibetan populations. Owing to the recent political, cultural and socio-economic transformations that have been taking place more or less markedly over the entire Tibetan cultural area, Tibetan traditional knowledge of the plant world, particularly at the popular level, is going to be lost in the near future in the same way as several aspects of the Tibetan traditional lore. In Litang town this phenomenon is actual and noticeable. The new Tibetan generations have not received from their families most of the information on traditional life. That is why the majority of young people do not know plant vernacular names and use, whereas old people do. Yet in the same region young nomads have good knowledge of plants and environment because their way of life is still relatively traditional.


Since the beginning of my fieldwork I have realized that most plant names, being they popular or belonging to the nomenclature of Tibetan medicine, are basically devised in the same way. Therefore both of them will be analysed below, it being understood that for each example given I will indicate whether it is a popular or a Tibetan medicine designation.

Tibetan medicine has always been practised by different professional figures with different levels of expertise and medicinal plant nomenclature has been both recorded in medical texts and passed on orally from generation to generation through medical lineages and local medical traditions. Thus practitioners educated in acknowledged medical institutes usually refer to the standard plant names reported on textual sources while independent practitioners and village healers may also use other designations that are known and used at the popular level as well. In the Crystal Rosary the several synonyms mentioned besides medicinal plant standard names often represent popular denominations, which I have come across during fieldwork notably in the Litang County. For example the author of the text above, when describing the plant (Primula sikkimensis, Dhorpatan, Litang) whose standard name according to Tibetan medicine is shang shang dril bu, has added several synonyms. Among these the name chu skyogs me tog, "water ladle flower", represents the designation commonly employed at the popular level to indicate the same plant at Litang.

The examination of the different Tibetan terms employed by educated and non-educated informants to designate plants has shown the existence of a few name types that are basically the same as the ones that other ethnobiologists have recognised among other populations (14). Thus some plants are designated with basic names whilst others are named with basic names and one or more attributes. As concerns basic names, they may be simple, for example sne'u (Chenopodium album, Litang) or compound, as in the case of chu skyur (Rheum alexandrae, Litang), "acid water". The names skyer dkar (Berberis aristata, Dhorpatan) and skyer nag (B. angulosa, Dhorpatan) consist of a simple basic name (skyer pa) to which two attributes have been added to distinguish two varieties of the same plant. The names lug ru ser po (Pedicularis longiflora var. tubiformis, Ladakh, Baragaon, Litang) and lug ru dmar po (Pedicularis przewalskii, Litang) consist of a compound basic name (lug ru, "sheep's horn"), which is shared by both plants, and an attribute. The attributes have the function of differentiating the two similar plants on the basis of their flower colour. Particularly, the attribute ser po, "yellow", points out to the lug ru type having yellow flowers whereas the attribute dmar po, "red", is added to indicate the lug ru type bearing red flowers.

Tibetans essentially devise plant names on the basis of the following criteria: plant features (general aspect, specific morphological traits); environmental settings; cultural significance such as use (technical, as food and medicine, religious, etc.), and symbolic value in the different activities of Tibetan communities. It is worth noting that the above general criteria basically correspond to the ones observed in other populations around the world and that have been shown by several other scholars. (15) Tibetan plant names may also originate from foreign languages, Sanskrit and Chinese above all.

As in the case of other popular denominations, also the Tibetan one is adaptive. Plant names are not difficult to memorise, remember, and use. The employ of a so devised terminology enables the informants to strongly diminish the cognitive endeavour needed to manage rich vocabularies, particularly when, as it happens amongst non-educated Tibetan peoples, the written language is not used.


Notwithstanding some exceptions the nomenclature of medicinal plants (indicated by the informants as gso ba rig pa'i ming: "names of the science of healing") is constant among learned Tibetan doctors independently from their region of origin: practitioners employ the same medical treatises and pharmacopoeias during their education and practice.

On the contrary popular plant nomenclature is extremely variable and the different spoken dialects have to be taken into consideration. Plant designations may vary from region to region, village-to-village, nomadic encampment to nomadic encampment, sometimes even when they are in close proximity. All informants are conscious of this phenomenon, which, as they say, may also concern other natural and non-natural objects.

I have come across such inconsistency of plant denomination while conducting research fieldwork in the Litang (Li thang) County, which is located in the Tibetan region of Khams in the western part of Sichuan Chinese Province. In Litang town and surrounding area some dialects are spoken and accordingly different names may be attributed to the same plant. Particularly my informants have pointed out the existence of plant names in reference to the following dialects: Litang dialect (Li thang skad), Kham dialect (Khams skad), and a few nomadic dialects ('brog skad) spoken in Litang County. Also, mainly learned informants have mentioned some designations which, according to them, are proper to the Tibetan language (Bod yig) (16). They have explained this term as indicating the Tibetan of Lhasa and Central Tibet. In addition several people coming from neighbouring and far off villages and small towns (for example, Garze, dKar rtse; Dzogchen, rDzogs chen; Derge, bDe rge; Batang, 'Ba') usually come to spend the summer in Litang. Therefore I could obtain information on plant designations used in other places. In the case of the dandelion (Taraxacum officinale s.l.,), a plant that is common in all Tibetan regions, I have recorded six different denominations. The plant is named 'o ma me tog (milk flower) according to Litang dialect; two designations are used by the nomads living in the surrounding areas of the same County: nyin dgun me tog (mid-day flower) and ya yi snam bu (woollen cloth ya yi). Tibetan doctors employ the name khur mang, which is proper to the plant nomenclature of Tibetan medicine. Informants from Derge temporarily staying at Litang have reported the two following designations: rnag gi me tog (pus flower) and dog dog me tog (dog dog flower). The transliteration of popular names may be difficult when working with illiterate peoples (the majority of Tibetans): many plant designations used by them should be seen, as reported also by educated people as lamas and Tibetan doctors, as belonging to a dialect which has been transmitted orally, indicated as kha skad (oral language).

A few plants whose use and/or cultural importance are significant throughout Tibetan regions are designated with the same expressions among different and far-off Tibetan communities, for example the different types of shug pa (basically junipers and cypresses), sgog pa (the different types of wild garlic), and the well-known gro ma (Potentilla anserina; Litang).

Over different Tibetan regions the same popular plant names may indicate several similar plants. The popular expressions ser chen me tog (big yellow flower) and ser chung me tog (small yellow flower) are particularly relevant to this context. They consist of a compound basic name to which an attribute is added: chen (big) or chung (small). The two designations are usually employed to indicate tiny herbaceous plants having yellow flowers whose size may vary. As far as their identification according to modern botany is concerned they may indifferently correspond to a few genera and family: according to my field data to Trollius, Caltha, and Ranunculus (Ranunculaceae), and Taraxacum (Compositae). Plants exhibiting morphological traits according to which the two popular names above may be attributed are common over Tibetan cultural regions and, since they don't have any cultural value according to non-educated people, do not necessitate of being named with specific terms. Differently when for example in Tibetan medicine these plants have a use, a specific designation is required. This is the case of Trollius patulus and Caltha scaposa whose popular names at Litang are respectively ser chen me tog and ser chung me tog whereas their designations among traditional doctors are respectively bong nga ser po and rta mig. In the same way gro ma (Potentilla anserina), a plant whose rhizomes nomads occasionally consume as food, being a tiny herbaceous with yellow flowers may have been designated according to the model above as ser chung me tog. However it is named gro ma all over Tibetan regions.


Basic plant names, as mentioned above, may be simple or compound. These expressions originate from cognitive processes which usually produce descriptive or metaphorical expressions. Certain basic names may not have a meaning. I have organised these designations in distinct groups according to their attribution criteria.

Some basic plant names consist of descriptive designations that are related to plant general aspect, specific traits, biological properties of the entire plant or of one of its organs: for example the presence of hair and thorns, flower colour, the production of resin, the property of sticking to objects, taste, plant transformation processes such as blooming, and plant environmental settings. These name types have been called "botanical basic plant names".

Plant names may also be metaphorical and in this case they have been named as "metaphorical basic plant names". They are frequently devised by drawing analogies between plant or plant organ features and other similar natural or non-natural objects. Analogies with animals and common tools are recurrent. Basic plant names may also be related to local legends, most of which show a religious connotation and sometimes explain how a plant has appeared for the first time on the earth.

Other basic plant names have been worked out on the basis of plant utilisation and therapeutic properties. Eventually some basic plant names derive from foreign languages, in particular Sanskrit and Chinese. It is worth noting that a few Chinese plant names have substituted the Tibetan ones.

That is usually the case of plants that have an important economic value for Tibetan populations and that are commonly sold to Chinese merchants coming from lowland China.

The basic name types mentioned above have been analysed in distinct sections, yet one should take into consideration that many of them, notably the compound ones, are devised on the basis of more than one criteria at the same time.


Plant morphological features

Plants may exhibit peculiar morphological traits, which stand out more than others and are immediately perceived by the observer. It is therefore not improbable that their denominations have been devised on the basis of these conspicuous features. So conceived names facilitate the association between the name and the plant and enable the observer to easily recognize and designate it. For example, the term tsher, "thorn", appears in a few compound basic names that designate plants having abundant thorns: spyang tsher, "wolf thorn" (Morina longifolia, Dhorpatan), and tsher sngon, "thorn blue" (Meconopsis horridula, Litang), mdzo tsher (synonym of mdzo mo shing, Caragana erinacea, Litang).


Plant names may be devised on the basis of the taste of specific organs. It is worth mentioning the designations attributed to a slender herbaceous plant common in the Litang County, where it corresponds to Ranunculus affinis, and in many other Tibetan regions. When asking information on that plant, most educated and non-educated informants instinctively picked up its flower, crashed with their teeth its "central portion" (snying po)--as they indicated the flower receptacle with its stamens and carpels--and kept it for a while on the tongue. After a little time they affirmed that its taste was hot and invited me to assess it by myself. Many informants from Litang designate this plant using two compound basic names having similar meaning, both of which include the term tsha, "hot": lce tsha me tog, "hot tongue flower", and kha tsha me tog, "hot mouth flower". The two designations are also used by traditional doctors in all Tibetan regions. Non-educated informants from Litang name another herbaceous plant (Pedicularis kansuensis, Litang) bu ram me tog, "molasses flower", owing to its flower sweet taste.


Basic plant names may be related to the flowering process or to the time of the season when the blooming occurs. The nomads living in Litang surrounding area designate a common herbaceous plant (Taraxacum officinale s.l.) as nyin dgun me tog, "midday flower", because the flower opens when the sun is high in the sky. The same people designate another herbaceous plant (Ajuga lupulina, Litang) as zla ba me tog, "month flower". This expression provides interesting information on the way and timing of the plant flowering. Ajuga lupulina exhibits conspicuous red floral bracts, which superimpose one above the other looking, according to informants, as a small mchod rten. The nomads associate the number of overlaid bracts (considered by them as petals, 'dab ma) to the flowering month. Particularly they affirm that the plant flowering is accomplished on the fifth Tibetan month and that at that time the flower has five series of overlaid petals. I have examined several specimens of this plant in the middle of June, which corresponds to the fifth month of the Tibetan calendar. The nomads' description is accurate and the plant exhibits five or sometimes six layers of superimposed red bracts.

Plant growing

Several traditional doctors from different regions employ the expression 'khri shing, "woody plant (17) that gets coiled around", as a synonym to indicate the plants commonly designated as dbyi mong (Clematis spp.) (18). The expression 'khri shing connotes plants having woody stems that often grow by coiling around other plant branches and stems. It is interesting to observe here the polysemy between the name attributed to the plant ('khri shing) and the one proper to the category to which the same plant belongs, that is "woody climbers" ('khri shing).

The plant indicated as dar ya kan (Lepidium apetalum, Litang) according to the standard nomenclature of Tibetan medicine, exhibits a prostrate aspect, its branches lying rather close to the surface of the ground stretching out in all directions. Informants from Derge name the above plant khan phug, "hole in the house", because, as they affirm, when thriving on house flat rooftops made of earth and branches, its roots penetrate the roof and it may happen that they completely break through it, being visible on the ceiling inside the building.

Other biological features

According to a medical practitioner from Khyung po (east Tibet) the popular name attributed to a slender herbaceous plant (Galium aparine, Dhorpatan, Litang) in that region is phyi 'dzin pa. The meaning of this basic compound name is "that sticks behind". The informant has reported that its leaves has a sticky essential nature (ngo bo 'jar) and may adhere to the cloths of the people that walk amongst them.

At Litang the dandelions (Taraxacum officinale s.l.), from which broken stems a sticky white liquid comes out, are indicated as 'o ma me tog, "milk flower", at the popular level. It is worth noting that in Derge the name used to indicate the plant above has been devised observing the same phenomenon: informants from that region have reported the expression rnag gi me tog, "pus flower".

Flower colour

In a next section it will be shown that the flower colour is often used as attribute to precisely designate plants sharing the same basic name. Yet sometimes compound basic names are devised on the basis of the flower colour. We have already mentioned the plant tsher sngon. The term sngon, "blue", refers to the blue colour of its flowers. In the same way as concerns ser chen me tog, "big yellow flower", and ser chung me tog, "small yellow flower", the term ser is connected to the yellow colour of the flower.

Basic plant names related to plant forms

Berlin defines as "productive" the basic compound names devised on the basis of terms referring to plant forms and "unproductive" the others. Particularly he affirms that "semantic and taxonomic criteria show linguistically complex primary names to be of two structural types, productive and unproductive. Productive forms include a constituent that labels a taxon superordinate to the form in question. In contrast, none of the constituents of unproductive forms marks a category superordinate to the form in question." (19)

Some basic plant names have been devised on the basis of the plant form to which the plant belong. Tibetan people recognize five or four plant forms, listed according to two different models. 1) The five plant forms are mushrooms (sha mo), grasses (rtswa), flowers (me tog), woody plants (shing sdong), and woody climbers ('khri shing). 2) In the second model plant forms consist of four taxa: mushrooms (sha mo), herbaceous plants (rtswa), woody plants (shing sdong), and woody climbers ('khri shing). In this model the categories rtswa (herbs) and me tog (flowers) of the first model are included in a single taxon named rtswa. (20)

The contraction shing figures in several compound basic names of plants included in the woody plant (shing sdong) category, for example 'khyi shing (Lonicera thibetica, Litang), "dog woody plant"; mdzo mo shing (Caragana erinacea, Litang), "dzomo woody plant". The name rtswa a wa (Gramineae, Baragaon), "grass a wa", includes the term rtswa, "grasses". As concerns flowering herbaceous plants (me tog), I have already mentioned several basic names including the term me tog such as 'o ma me tog, lce tsha me tog, and zla ba me tog. As far as mushrooms (sha mo) are concerned, the expression be sha, indicating a mushroom (Tricholoma matsutake, Litang) having considerable economic importance in the Litang County and other Tibetan regions, includes the term sha, which is certainly related to the mushroom category.

Basic plant names connected to plant ecological settings

Compound basic plant names may include terms which point out to plant ecological settings. Here follow a few so conceived appellations that Litang traditional doctors and non-educated informants have mentioned: spang rgyan, "meadow-decoration" (Gentiana spp.), spang sgo, "meadow-egg" (a mushroom not identified, gathered in Litang), spang spos, "meadow-incense" (Nardostachys grandiflora, Litang, Baragaon), skam skye (21), " born in dry places" (Pedicularis cranolopha, Litang). The often recurring term spang ("meadow", "grassland") is a general expression indicating all types of meadows, usually dominated by grasses (rtswa) and with a fluctuating number of flowers (me tog).

rDza skyur mo (Polygonum sp.), according to a traditional doctor from Baragaon, is a plant that grows among stones (rdza) or on the so-called rdza ri, "stony mountains".

A compound name may include a term referring to another plant that grows in the same place. For example according to all informants from Litang the mentioned above term be sha points out to a mushrooms (sha) that mostly grows in forests where oak (be do, Quercus sp.) is the dominant tree.


These designations are worked out on the basis of the analogy between the plant or a part of it and other natural or manufactured similar objects such as animals, animals' organs, and common tools. Sometimes, names are given on the basis of tales and legends, many of which have a religious connotation.

Basic plant names devised on the basis of an animal name

Metaphorical basic names often include names of domestic and wild animals living in Tibet (mdzo, dzo; rta, horse; ra, goat; lug, sheep; khyi, dog; bya rgod, vulture) and abroad, particularly in India (glang chen, elephant).

Pedicularis (lousewort) is a genus of semi-parasitic plants, often conspicuous in the alpine zone all over the Tibetan plateau and the Himalayan Mountains. According to the recent Flora of China (22), among the 352 species of Pedicularis present in China, 271 are endemic, and many thrive on the Tibetan plateau. The flower of the lousewort has a corolla, which is two-lipped. The upper lip is hooded and often prolonged into a beak, which may be slightly circular or trunk-shaped. Traditional doctors from different regions identify all species belonging to the genus Pedicularis in the same way. After a rapid evaluation of the general aspect of the plant, they proceed in its identification examining attentively the morphology of the flower, and in particular its beak, which may be called horn (ru, rwa), or nose (sna), according to its shape. When the beak is slightly circular, it is called horn, and the plant is identified as lug ru, "sheep's horn": the beak of the flower is associated with the horn of a sheep. When the beak of the flower does not bend on one side, but it bends directly forward, according to practitioners it looks like an elephant's trunk, and the plant is included in another group called "glang sna", whose meaning is "elephant's trunk". Traditional doctors recognise different types of glang sna according to morphological variations in flower size and position, and leaf position.

During an expedition in the region of Dhorpatan (west Nepal) a Tibetan doctor has explained me the two following plant names as follows: rta rmig, "horse's hoof" (Viola biflora, Dhorpatan): the flower of this violet is similar to a horse's hoof; rta mig, "horse's eye" (Caltha scaposa, Dhorpatan): its leaves are similar to a horse's eye.

In Litang County an edible mushroom is designated byi'u rkang lag, "small bird's feet" (a non-identified mushroom), owing to the morphology of its fruiting body. In the same region the popular name of a slender herbaceous plant (Androsace strigillosa, Litang) belonging to Primulaceae family is mdzo mo sna khrag, "nose blood of a female dzo" owing to its small cluster of red flowers which are associated to the blood that is often noticeable, according to informants, in the nasal cavity of this animal.

The unknown author of a traditional illustrated Tibetan materia medica (23) describes two medicinal plants designated as follows: khyi mjug pa (dog's tail), stag mjug pa (tiger's tail). Observing the illustration drawn by the author both the plants look in some way similar to a tail.

Basic plant names devised on the basis of other objects

Several metaphorical basic names refer to man-made objects: nomads and villagers of the Litang County designate srang ga me tog, "flower of the srang ga [coin]", many plants belonging to the botanical genus Aster, because, according to them, the yellow central part of their flowers is similar to a coin (called srang ga) once in circulation in Tibet.

The nomads of the same region name khu yug rdza ril, "clay pot of khu yug (the cuckoo bird, Cuculus canorus), an orchid (Cypripedium machrantum, Litang) whose flower lip is similar to clay pots (rdza ril) traditionally employed in the area. Also, shog sbra, "paper tent", is the name attributed by them to a type of rhubarb (Rheum palmatum, Litang), a plant of conspicuous size that has large leaf blades, which, according to informants, when overturned, seem as tents (sbra) made of paper (shog). Ut pal ser po (Meconopsis integrifolia, Litang), a well-known plant in all Tibetan regions, is designated by the same nomads as gong bu rkyang shog, "lump kiang (Equus kiang, wild ass) paper". The informants have explained this expression as follows: the term gong bu (lump) indicates the flower, which seems a globular mass, and the terms rkyang and shog are related to the fact that Tibetan wild asses use to eat the leaves of this plant, which have a texture similar to that of paper .

Basic plant names relating historical and mythical characters, to legends and stories.

Some basic plant names are connected to well-known mythical personages, gods, and to their deeds. Sometimes the very origin of the plant is dependent upon them.

Most informants from Litang describe a slender herbaceous named bskal bzang me tog (Androsace thibetica, Litang), "bskal bzang's flower". The term bskal bzang refers to rGyal ba bskal bzang rgya mtsho (17081757), the seventh Dalai Lama, who was born at Litang. Informants have reported that this flower originated at the moment of the birth of the seventh Dalai lama and have added that this plant may be found only at Litang and its surrounding area.

Another interesting designation is 'brug mo ja tshags (Lilium lophophorum, Litang), "Drugmo's sieve for tea". According to the same nomads of Litang County, Drugmo, the wife of Gesar (Ge sar), the muchcelebrated Tibetan epic hero, used the flower of this plant as a sieve for tea. Before completely opening the yellowish-green tepals of this plant are joint at their end. At this stage of the flower blooming the association above is made.

A Tibetan traditional doctor from Khyung po (east Tibet) has reported that the different types of the plant called shang shang dril bu (Primula spp.) according to the nomenclature of Tibetan medicine have been introduced into Tibet in ancient times by a supernatural being whose body, though covered by feathers, was similar to the one of man, and whose head was like the one of a bird. The name of this personage was shang shang mi ma bya mgo, "shang shang who is not a man and has a bird head". Yet the definitions concerning the term shang shang reported in some Tibetan dictionaries are in contrast with what the informant has reported. According to Chandra Das, Jaschke, and Krang dbyi sun (24), the expressions shang shang and bya shang shang indicate a mythical being having wings and bird's feet and human body. The Tibetan-English dictionary Chandra Das also suggests the following definition: "crane" or "bird of a height of a man that subsists on poisonous drugs". The Dharma Dictionary explains that the term designates a mythical bird, similar to a Garuda, half human, half eagle, which flies playing cymbals. Therefore the informant has probably confused or wrongly explained the description of this being.

During a medicinal plant gathering expedition in Dhorpatan region, the same informant showed me a plant (Cassiope fastigiata, Dhorpatan) which is particularly renowned in his homeland (Khyung po). Its name mkha' 'gro dbu skra, "mkha' 'gro ma's hairs" is connected to mkha' 'gro ma (Sanskrit: dakini) female divinities. Cassiope fastigiata, a plant common throughout Himalayan and Tibetan regions between 2,800 et 4,500 metres, is a dwarf evergreen shrublet belonging to the Ericaceae family. It has tiny overlapping leaves that are morphologically associated to the tiny plaits worn by these supernatural beings.


The two compound basic names ston ja (Potentilla sp., Litang), "autumn tea", and spang spos (Nardostachys grandiflora, Litang), "meadowincense", are related to the use of the plant. The former is a bushy herbaceous once used in Litang as a substitute of tea and which was gathered in autumn, the latter is a well-known plant whose fragrant rhizome is employed as incense and also in traditional medicine. In the same way the term spos shing "incense wood" is used in Litang to designate a tree (Platycladus orientalis, Litang) whose branches are burnt owing to their fragrant scent.

An expression which is added to plant compound basic names throughout all Tibetan regions is sngo tshal, indicating herbaceous plants that are used as food. For example in Litang the popular name of a wild vegetable is chu rung sngo tshal (non-identified specimen).

In all Tibetan area the term sgron me shing (Pinus spp., Abies spp.), "torch wood", indicates a woody plant whose branches were used to fabricate torches.

In Tibetan medicine the plant compound basic name a byag gzer 'joms indicates a plant (Chrysanthemum tatsienense, Litang) used as a painkiller. The meaning of the expression gzer 'joms is "eliminating pain". The author of an ancient illustrated Tibetan materia medica (25) describes a plant whose name is srin dug pa, "germ poison", and whose main property is to eliminate germs.



In Tibetan nomenclature basic plant names that originate from Sanskrit may occur. Owing to cultural and constant commercial interactions between India and Tibet, many plants coming from tropical and sub-tropical Indian regions have been imported in the "land of snows": Indian medicinal plants have been sold on local markets, sought after for their sacredness, used in religious ceremonies, and employed for house building and for dyeing carpets and cloths. Indian treatises of Ayurveda on plants have been translated into Tibetan language. That is why in Tibetan medicine (this medical tradition has borrowed most of its theories and practice from Indian Ayurveda) several medicinal plants imported from India by traditional Tibetan doctors and Tibetan medical institutes have maintained their original Sanskrit names almost unchanged, for example pi pi ling (Piper longum) (26), whose correspondent Sanskrit designation is pippali; ka ko la (Amomum subulatum) (27), whose Sanskrit name is kakkola (28).

Some Tibetan wild plants represent local substitutes for imported ones. These plants, once imported from India, have sometimes maintained their original Sanskrit name. For example the Tibetan name utpala mainly points out (among the others) (29) to several different types of poppies thriving in Tibetan regions (Meconopsis spp.) as ut pal ser po (Meconopsis integrifolia, Litang) and ut pal sngon po (M. grandis, Litang). Yet the same term in Sanskrit (utpala) designates the blue lotus (Nymphaea nouchali) (30). It might be speculated that in ancient times utpala indicated the imported Indian blue lotus. Later on, when some species of Himalayan poppy (Meconopsis spp.) were selected as local substitutes, the Sanskrit name was maintained.


Tibetan plant nomenclature also includes names derived from Chinese language, particularly as far as plants having economic value are concerned. These expressions may superimpose to traditional Tibetan denomination or completely replace them.

The woody plants named as thang shing in Litang County (Abies sp., Picea sp.) are often indicated as sam pa and som pa both by educated and non-educated informants. Also the author of the well-known pharmacopoeia Shel phreng mentions the expression som thang shing as synonym of thang shing (31). This term is probably connected to the Chinese song, which designates pine trees. Rockhill (32) when mentioning that the Rongwa of Kueite designate pines as "sumba", attests the use of this term also in Amdo.The same author reports that "the birch tree is called hua-shu in Chinese, and in the Tibetan of these parts to-hua" (Ibidem).

The bulbs of a few varieties of Fritillaria, which the Tibetans of Litang County and other areas of east Tibet gather and sell to Chinese merchants, are currently designated as "pey mon". Yet the popular Tibetan name of the majority of this plant types is dug med and the Tibetan medicine standard name is a'u rtsi (Fritillaria cirrhosa) (33). The term "pey mon" originates from the Chinese "bei mu" (34). It is worth mentioning the information on this plant reported by the famous botanist Frank Kingdon-Ward who extensively explored the eastern regions of the Tibetan plateau during the first half of the last century. In the north part of Yunnan Province Kingdon-Ward came across groups of Tibetans who were gathering Fritillaria bulbs. They indicated that plant as "pai mu", term that exactly corresponds to its current designation (35). This information shows that the substitutions have not only issued from the recent significant Chinese influence on Tibetan life, but also in the past centuries owing to solid commercial contacts with China and to the presence of little Chinese communities in many small towns, particularly in eastern Tibetan regions.


Attributes, as seen above, consist of adjectives or nouns that, added to the basic name, have the function of differentiating two or more plants sharing the same basic name. When, as it may happen, basic plant names exhibit two attributes, the second one aims at separating two plants that have the same basic name + attribute. According to field data, plant names bearing two attributes almost exclusively appear in Tibetan medicinal plant nomenclature.

Attributes recurring in plant nomenclature at non-educated and educated (particularly Tibetan medicine) levels are usually devised on the basis of the following plant features: flower colour, plant size and gender, environment of growth, region of origin. Attributes may also be metaphorical often associating plant to animal features. Only once I have come across an attribute related to plant use: in Litang region a type of wild garlic (Allium spp.) specially eaten with meat is designated sha sgog "meat garlic" by non-educated informants whilst all the other type names show attributes devised on the basis of other criteria.

Only in the plant nomenclature of Tibetan medicine the attribute may also refer to the strength of plant curative properties or to the medical tradition by which a plant or another are recognized.

As concerns plant name structure, attributes (underlined) may figure at the beginning (bod kyi gur gum, kha che gur gum, bal gyi gur gum), at the end (lug ru ser po, lug ru dmar po) or in the middle (ser chen me tog, ser chung me tog) of the name.

I will now examine the most common types of attributes.

Colours as attributes

These are among the most common attributes that I have encountered during fieldwork and textual sources examination.

All traditional doctors and some non-educated informants have mentioned three main types of spang rgyan, herbaceous plants (gentians) thriving in all Tibetan regions. The type names are worked out by adding an attribute referring to the flower colour: spang rgyan nag po, "meadow black decoration" (Gentana veitchiorum), whose flower colour is dark blue; spang rgyan sngon po, "meadow blue decoration" (G. stipitata), whose flower is light blue; spang rgyan dkar po, "meadow white decoration" (G. szechenyii) (36), having a white flower (sometimes with red shades). In this case the nag po (black) and sngon po (blue) attributes do not exactly indicate the actual colour of the flower of the two spang rgyan types. The term nag po designates the type having a dark-blue flower and the term sngon po points out to the type with a light blue flower. The types recognized may vary from region to region, village to village, nomadic encampment to nomadic encampment according to local tradition and vegetation. For example in Litang at the popular level only two types of spang rgyan are distinguished: blue (sngon po) and white (dkar po). It is worth noting that the above specimen named spang rgyan sngon po is designated spang rgyan nag po by traditional doctors from the same area.

The attributes dkar po and nag po are among the most common both in Tibetan medicine and at the popular level. They usually have the function of differentiating the plant type having a light flower colour from the one having a dark flower colour notwithstanding the actual colour of the flower. For example both khur mang (Taraxacum officinale s.l.; Litang, Dhorpatan, Baragaon) and dbyi mong (Clematis spp.) (37) show two types: the types named dkar po exhibit respectively pale yellow and white flowers, while the flowers of the types indicated as nag po are yellow.

It may happen that the attribute is related to the colour of other plant organs and not to its flower colour. For example, according to a Tibetan medical practitioner from Khyung po (east Tibet), to both a traditional and a modern pharmacopoeias of Tibetan medicine (38), 'khan pa (or mkhan pa) (Artemisia spp., Ajania spp.) includes four types named as follows: 'khan dkar (white) (Ajania tenuifolia, A. khartensis), 'khan skya (grey) (Artemisia sieversiana), 'khan dmar (red), and 'khan nag (black) (Artemisia annua) (39). The white type, having yellow flowers, is so named because of its whitish leaves. The grey type, though exhibiting pale-yellow flowers, is designated on the basis of its pale-green leaves covered with greyish hairs. The designation of the red type is devised on the basis of the red flowers and brownish-red stalks. Eventually the black type, having yellow flowers, is so named because its leaves are dark-green and its stalk is darkbrown.

Attributes related to plant size

Sometimes the adjectives chen (big) and chung (small) are employed as attributes to indicate two plants sharing the same basic name, which show a difference in size.

The medicinal plant me tog lug mig (mutton eye flower) includes, among the others, the types lug mig che ba (big lug mig) (Aster flaccidus, Litang) and lug mig chung ba (small lug mig) (Heteropappus crenatifolius) (40). The former is named chen because its flower is bigger than the one of the latter.

Traditional doctors from different regions describe two types of thar nu: thar chen (big) that in the Dhorpatan region corresponds to Euphorbia wallichii, and thar chung (small) that in the same region corresponds to E. longifolia. The former is indicated as chen because it has bigger and thicker leaves and stouter stalk that the latter.

As far as seabuckthorn (star bu, Hippophae spp.) is concerned, medical practitioners from different regions differentiate its types according to their size by adding to the basic name a few metaphorical attributes which point out to the height of the plant: gnam, "sky", bar "intermediate space", and sa, "ground". The attribute gnam is employed to indicate the tallest type (star bu gnam star). The attribute sa connotes the lowest type, which develops close to the ground (star bu sa star). The attribute bar is used to point out to the type exhibiting intermediate size (star bu bar star) (41) between the other two.

Attributes related to plant gender

Both at the popular level and in the nomenclature of Tibetan materia medica the expressions mo (feminine), pho (masculine) and, if necessary, ma ning (hermaphrodite) occur in plant names as attributes. They are often related to plant size, to other general features, to the morphology of their organs, and notably to flower size and position. The attribute pho often points out to the biggest plant type or to the one having the biggest flowers, whilst the attribute mo indicates the smallest type or the one having the smallest flowers. The attribute ma ning, rarely used at the popular level, designates a plant type showing intermediate features between masculine and feminine types or simultaneous masculine and feminine features.

Shar pa people living in the Shar khum bu eastern Nepalese region employ the attributes pho and mo to indicate two birch (stag pa) types: pho stag and mo stag. Pho stag (masculine birch) has a very hard wood, mo stag (feminine birch) has a softer one. It is worth noting that both masculine and feminine types belong to the same botanical species: Betula utilis. Dobremez (42) reports similar information: Tibetan speaking people of the rGya gsum mdo region in central Nepal also distinguish two types of birch and name them by using similar attributes: "Ils distinguent aussi les deux Bouleaux, Betula alnoides a ecorce blanche qui pousse de 2000 a 3000 metres, tagpa-awo, lit. "Bouleau male" et Betula utilis, a ecorce rose, tagpa-amo "Bouleau femelle".

Traditional doctors differentiate, among the others, three types of me tog glang sna, "elephant's trunk flower" (Pedicularis spp.): pho glang (the masculine type, Pedicularis integrifolia, Litang), mo glang (the feminine type, Pedicularis anas, Litang), and ma ning glang (the hermaphrodite type (43)). The criteria of name attribution described by Litang medical practitioners, based on flower size and position, and leaf arrangement, are described in the table below. It is worth noting that such a classification influences the modalities of administration of each type: masculine plants have to be administered to feminine patients and feminine plants to male patients whereas hermaphrodite plants may be administered to both.

An erudite lama belonging to the rnying ma pa Tibetan Buddhist order and coming from the monastery of dpal yul (45) has explained the origin of the attributes pho, mo, and ma ning: they have been conceived as attributes by using as reference model the cattle reared in Tibet. Particularly the g.yag, 'bri mo, and mdzo mo, respectively the male, the female of the species Bos grunniens and the hybrid resulting from a male yak and a cow. As the informant has affirmed, the male yak is bigger than the cow and the dzo exhibits intermediate features between the two.

Attributes referring to animals

The attributes ra (goat) and lug (sheep) may be employed to designate two plants bearing the same basic name. For example, ra shug (goat junipercypress) and lug shug (sheep juniper-cypress) are two types of shug pa that have respectively needle-shaped leaves and scalelike adpressed leaves. The former is associated by all informants to goat's horns, the latter to sheep's ones. This denomination is employed throughout all Tibetan regions.

Attributes referring to the environment where the plant grows

Traditional doctors from Baragaon distinguish the different types of a krong by adding to the basic name a few attributes referring to the place where the plant grows: nags a krong, "forest a krong", spang a krong (Arenaria glandulifera, Baragaon), "meadow a krong", et brag a krong, "rocks a krong" (46). In the same way another traditional doctor from Baragaon has reported that mtshe ldum includes a few types: spang mtshe, "meadow mtshe", brag mtshe, "rock mtshe", and chu mtshe "water mtshe" (47).

The attributes g.yung, "domestic", and rgod, "wild", are employed in all Tibetan cultural regions both by educated and non-educated people to differentiate plants having the same basic name that grow in contrasting environmental settings. The former often indicates plant types that do not thrive at high altitudes, for example in the forested lower valleys (rong) (48), near villages and in house gardens (ldum ra). The latter usually differentiates the plant types considered wild (rgod) because they grow on the mountains (ri la) at high altitude (sa cha mtho po) where the climate is harsh. Traditional doctors from Litang distinguish the two types chu ma rtsi g.yung ba, "domestic chu ma rtsi", and chu ma rtsi rgod pa, "wild chu ma rtsi", (Rheum pumilum, Litang). According to them, chu ma rtsi g.yung ba (Polygonum hookeri) (49) is easily found on the bottom of the valleys near streams, among herbaceous vegetation and pebbles whereas chu ma rtsi rgod pa, as I have also observed, thrives at high altitude on the mountains characterized by the so-called spang nag, "black meadows" or "dark meadows" (50). Sometimes only one of the two attributes is used. Among the two types of the plant called ram bu at the popular level at Litang, the one to which the attribute rgod is added (ram bu rgod pa, wild ram bu, Polygonum viviparum, Litang), according to the informants, grows at high altitude on the shady side of the mountains (srib), whilst ram bu thrives near streams in the lower valleys and in the villages. The data are corroborated by the famous Tibetan materia medica Shel phreng (51), but here the type called at Litang ram bu is designated ram bu g.yung ba.

As concerns the two types of dwa ba (Arisaema spp.) distinguished by the author of the Shel phreng, it is reported that: "the dwa ba that grows on the mountains is the wild dwa ba, the one that thrives in cultivated fields is the domestic dwa ba". (52)

Sometimes the attributes consist of place names. They may not indicate stricto sensu the region where the plant grows as with gur gum. Educated and non-educated Tibetans in different regions distinguish three types of this plant: kha che gur gum (Crocus sativus) (53), bod kyi gur gum (Calendula officinalis, Dhorpatan, Litang County, Ladakh), and bal gyi gur gum (Carthamus tinctorius) (54). Each attribute is probably connected either to the region from where the type of saffron is or was traditionally imported or it may indicate a local substitute. As a matter of fact kha che gur gum (gur gum of Kashmir) is principally imported from Kashmir, bal gyi gur gum (gur gum of Nepal) does not thrive in the wild over Tibetan regions, and is still imported from nearby areas, in particular, according to my informant from Khyung po, it has been mainly imported from Nepal and India. Bod kyi gur gum (gur gum of Tibet), the less appreciated substitute, is probably so named because it is grown in house gardens throughout Tibetan regions.

Attributes referring to the plant form to which the plant belongs.

Sometimes the attribute is related to the plant form to which the type belongs as with ku sha (Tysanolaena maxima) (55), the sacred plant imported from India, which has a Tibetan type called rtswa ku sha (grass ku sha) according to Litang villagers.

Attributes related to plant therapeutic properties

Attributes often referring to the quality of the plant figure as second attributes, in particular the terms mchog, "superior", which indicates the type having the best therapeutic properties; 'bring, "intermediate", which specifies intermediate therapeutic properties; dman, "inferior", designating the types having weak therapeutic properties (56). Several types of well-known medicinal plants are categorized according to the above criterion as below: hong len mchog (Picrorhiza scrophulariiflora) (57), hong len dman pa (Lagotis glauca) (58); ug chos mchog (Incarvillea grandiflora, Litang), ug chos dman pa (Incarvillea arguta, Baragaon); spra thog (Leontopodium dedekensii, Litang) and spra ga dman pa (Gnaphalium strackeyi, Litang).

Plant having a basic name and two attributes

When a plant designation consists of a basic name and two attributes, the second attribute has the function of differentiating two plants that exhibit the same basic name + attribute. No informants at the popular level have reported so devised expressions, which only figure in the nomenclature of Tibetan medicinal plants. I will mention an example taken from a modern Tibetan materia medica. As shown above, in Tibetan medicine three types of spang rgyan are designated by adding to the basic name an attribute according to the flower colour of the plant (59). The white type, indicated as spang rgyan dkar po, "meadow white decoration", includes a sub-type designated by adding a second attribute, particularly the term chung ba, "small". The sub-type name is therefore spang rgyan dkar po chung ba, "meadow small white decoration" (Gentiana algida) (60).


The rapid transformations occurring in Tibetan societies have been affecting the local ways of living and thinking. Notably the relationships between man and nature have changed, and the traditional knowledge of the environment is only spread among a part of the population. As far as the plant world is concerned, only the old generations and in general Tibetan people who still conduct a relatively traditional way of life have a good knowledge of it and in particular of plant nomenclature. Among Tibetan medical practitioners the situation has been evolving in the same direction.

While independent practitioners may have an in-depth plant knowledge, several of the new Tibetan doctors educated in modern Tibetan Institutes are more specialised and, owing to the development of an industrial production of medicines, do not thoroughly know plants.


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(1.) Friedberg, 1997: 6.

(2.) Berlin, 1992: 4-5.

(3.) Conklin, 1954: 115-128.

(4.) Friedberg, 1990: 84.

(5.) Berlin, 1992: 26-61.

(6.) I am grateful to the Museum of Archaeology of the University of Cambridge (Frederick Williamson Memorial Fund) and Padma A. G. (Switzerland) for supporting part of the fieldwork.

(7.) g.Yu thog yon tan mgon po, 1992.

(8.) sDe srid sangs rgyas rgya mtsho, 1982.

(9.) De'u dmar dge bshes bstan 'dzin phun tshogs, 1994.

(10.) Karma chos 'phel, 1993.

(11.) dGa' ba'i rdo rje, 1998.

(12.) Boesi 2003; Winkler 2004.

(13.) For example see Sacherer, 1979.

(14.) See Conklin, 1954; Berlin, 1992; Martin, 1996; Friedberg, 1990.

(15.) Ibidem.

(16.) Educated informants have reported that these designations and the ones proper to Tibetan medicine often coincide.

(17.) I have translated the term shing as "woody plant" and not as "tree" because all educated and non-educated informants from different Tibetan regions use it to indicate both trees and shrubs.

(18.) See note 37.

(19.) Berlin, 1992: 28.

(20.) Boesi, 2004: 52-62.

(21.) Only traditional doctors know this term, which is proper to the materia medica of Tibetan medicine. The popular designation is lug ru ser po.

(22.) Zhengyi W., Raven P.H. (eds.), 1994.

(23.) Boesi, 2008.

(24.) Chandra Das, 1992: 1230; Jaschke, 1992: 556; Krang dbyi sun, 1998: 1867.

(25.) Boesi, 2008.

(26.) Karma chos 'phel, 1993: 11.

(27.) Ibidem: 37.

(28.) See also Meyer, 1983: 45; 1977: 200-201.

(29.) In Tibetan medicine, the name ut pal may also designate a few types of buttercups (Ranunculus spp.) and aster (Aster spp.).

(30.) Sharma et al., 1993: 430-431; Nadkarni, 1999: 859-860.

(31.) De'u dmar dge bshes, 1994: 254.

(32.) Rockhill, 1894: 88.

(33.) dGa' ba'i rdo rje, 1998: 319.

(34.) Kun-Ying Yen, 1992: 85.

(35.) Kingdom-Ward, 1990: 176.

(36.) The reference for the three botanical identifications above is dGa' ba'i rdo rje, 1998: 234-235.

(37.) Clematis species are spread throughout Tibetan regions. The majority of Tibetan doctors differentiate two types of dbyi mong: white (dkar po), designated dbyi mong dkar po and black (nag po), named dbyi mong nag po. In most regions the former corresponds to Clematis montana. The pharmacopoeia Shel phreng (De'u dmar dge bshes, 1994, 245) also mentions a third type indicated as dbyi mong khra bo (khra bo, "multi-coloured"), which is considered an inferior (dman) variety. In a modern Tibetan materia medica dbyi mong nag po corresponds to Clematis orientalis and dbyi mong khra bo to C. pseudopogonandra (Karma chos 'phel, 1993, 108). In the region of Baragaon dbyi mong nag po corresponds to Clematis buchaniana. Some practitioners of Ladakh (India) have indicated as dbyi mong dkar po the slender herbaceous Pulsatilla wallichiana, which belongs to the same botanical family of Clematis: Ranunculaceae.

(38.) De'u dmar dge bshes, 1994: 301-302; dGa' ba'i rdo rje, 1998: 178.

(39.) Botanical identification of the types of 'khan pa according to dGa' ba'i rdo rje, 1998:178. This treatise does not indicate the botanical identification of the red type.

(40.) dGa' ba'i rdo rje, 1998: 263.

(41.) As far as the three types of star bu are concerned (Boesi, 2006, 88), it is difficult to find the exact correspondence between their Tibetan designations and the botanical species.The data given by the informants are often inconsistent.

The cause of these differences is determined by the difference of height that this plants may attain in contrasting ecological settings. In particular, several informants have pointed out to Hippophae rhamnoides subsp. turkestanica both as star bu sa star and star bu bar star in the Indian region of Ladakh. The same appellations might be valid with H. salicifolia whose size may also vary in relation to climatic conditions. It might also be suggested that the latter plant, attaining nearly the height of 5 metres in very favourable ecological conditions, is also designated star bu gnam star, as it has been shown with the Nepalese regions of Dolpo (Lama, Ghimire, Thomas, 2001: 79). The type star bu gnam star is usually described by the informants as a woody plant of big size thriving at relatively low altitude in the so-called rong forested deep valleys. In a recent Tibetan pharmacopoeia (dGa' ba'i rdo rje, 1998: 131) star bu gnam star is identified as Hippophae rhamnoides and star bu bar star as Hippophae neurocarpa. According to my fieldwork data, in the region of Baragaon the type named star bu sa star corresponds to H. tibetana. The same identification is given in the two texts quoted above.

(42.) Dobremez and Jest, 1976: 71.

(43.) I have not the opportunity of collecting ma ning glang in Litang. In modern Tibetan pharmacopoeias the botanical identification of this type of glang sna is not reported.

(44.) I point out to each flower that composes the inflorescence.

(45.) The complete name of the monastery is dpal yul rnam rgyal byang chub gling.

It is located in east Tibet (Pelyul County, Sichuan Province).

(46.) I could observe only one of the a krong types mentioned by the informants. No text of Tibetan materia medica attests the existence of a such conceived distinction.

(47.) According to dGa' ba'i rdo rje (1998, 269), brag mtshe corresponds to Ephedra equisetina, spang mtshe to E. gerardiana and E. minuta, chu mtshe to Equisetum diffusum.

(48.) Most educated and non-educated informants from Litang have described as follows the so-called rong areas: they are characterized by forests, in particular thick forests (shing nags mthug po), deep and narrow valleys (lung pa chen po), big rivers (chu chen po), snowy mountains (gangs ri), good soils (sa yag po), warm temperature (tsha ba), usually a good amount of precipitation (char pa mang po), and the presence of farmers (zhing pa) (Boesi, 2005, 36).

(49.) dGa' ba'i rdo rje, 1998: 199. I could not observe this plant on the field.

(50.) This type of spang has the following features: good soft (mnyen po) soil, abundant lush grass (rtswa) and many flowering herbaceous plants (me tog).

(51.) De'u dmar dge bshes, 1994: 358-359.

(52.) Ri las skye pa'i dwa rgod yin, zhing las skyes pa dwa g.yung ste / De'u dmar dge bshes, 1994: 283-284.

(53.) dGa' ba'i rdo rje, 1998: 100.

(54.) Karma chos 'phel, 1993: 16.

(55.) dGa' ba'i rdo rje, 1998: 173.

(56.) See also Cardi, 2004.

(57.) Karma chos 'phel, 1993 : 255.

(58.) Ibidem: 257.

(59.) dGa' ba'i rdo rje, 1998: 234-235.

(60.) Ibidem.
Table 1--Types of Tibetan plant names

Name type              Tibetan name

Simple basic name      sne'u  (Chenopodium album)

Compound basic name    chu skyur (Rheum alexandrae)

Simple basic name +    skyer dkar (Berberis aristata)
attribute              skyer nag (Berberis angulosa)

Compound basic         lug ru ser po (Pedicularis longiflora
name + attribute       var. tubiformis)
                       lug ru dmar po (Pedicularis przewalskii)

Table II. Types of me tog glang sna in Litang.

                   Flower          Flower
         Type      size (44)       position      Leaves

         pho       big flowers     apical        radical leaves
                                                 numerous, cauline
                                                 leaves (if present)
                                                 not numerous

Me tog   mo        small flowers   not apical    little differencein
glang                                            the number of
sna                                              radical leaves and
                                                 cauline leaves

         ma ning   intermediate    apical/ not   leaves similar to mo
                   size between    apical        or pho or to both
                   pho and mo
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Author:Boesi, Alessandro
Publication:The Tibet Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Mar 22, 2007
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