The plant of the month: cannonball
Sal, Shorea robusta, is a tree from India, the seeds of which give a fat which is an authorized substitute of cocoa butter. I asked an image to an illustrator, and he gave me what resulted as being Couroupita guianensis, the cannonball, a very showy species indeed. This is astonishing, since the trees share no character. My illustrator simply relied on Google Images. By the way, more than 90% of the illustrations labelled "Shorea robusta" on the Internet represent Couroupita ! As a showy species, it is frequently photographed, in contrary to sal.
How can such a crass mistake occur? Fortunately, we have Wikipedia, which gives both answers and photos. The origin could be a labelling error in a botanical garden of Sri Lanka in 1881. The tree then spread to all South Asia. It was taken up in the Hinduist symbolic under the name nagalingam, the stigmat being perceived as a lingam, and stamens as a sacred snake (a naga). A beautiful individual is to be found in front of the Royal Palace at Phnom Penh, duely labelled ’’Shorea robusta’’. Tourists then pelted it with photos, scrupulously copying the false name.
A friend and telabotanist residing at Pondicherry confirms me that it is now part of the Tamil folklore, and that the tree is the floral emblem of the State of Pondicherry.
It could be suggested that labels be changed locally. But the species has taken such a symbolic and ritual importance in South Asia that it will be difficult to convince that it eventually comes from Guyana, and so, was absent from Asia before Christopher Colombus.
Moral of this story: Internet has no responsibility for that, of course, but this example strikingly shows that the most frequent data are not always the good ones, and that we must always check in reliable sources. It should be stressed that Wikipedia, often criticized for being not reliable, has the great merit of emphasizing the error. In the meanwhile, my illustrator, somewhat piqued, had to redraw his illustration.
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