National Geographic : 1947 Jul
More Native Mexicans HERE are more native Mexicans and something of the way in which they got their present common names. FRANGIPANI (Plumeria rubra): In at tempting some detective work on the origin of the word Frangipani as applied to our plant, it was learned that the name was that of a French pastry made from almonds, sugar, and cream. This seemed to lead nowhere, for the pastry was named for its inventor, the Marquis Frangipani, a French general. But Frangipani (or Frangipanni) is not a French name; it is basically Italian, and we also learned that it goes back to an old Roman family that first came into prominence during the Middle Ages. This might seem to be a dead end in our search if it were not for another clue. There was an old perfume called Frangipani distilled from the flowers of a red jasmine. Then in another work we discovered that the subject of this sketch once was called "Tree Jasmine." Here is the link. Now let us try to fit the facts together. First it should be noted that the very fra grant red jasmines most likely to have been used in perfumes seem to be Asiatic; but is it too impossible to suppose that a fragrant red jasmine might not have been brought to Rome from Asia during the days of the Empire? On previous pages we have dealt briefly with the history of the introduction of such plants into Roman gardens. From old writings we know there was keen rivalry among the Romans for the acquisition of these exotics and so, if such a remarkable plant were being grown by a particular family, what would be more natural than for their friends to ask: "Have you seen the new plant which the Frangi panni's have blooming in their garden? Such red flowers! And so fragrant!" Having come from distant Asia and lacking a local name, it would become "Frangipanni's plant," later to be shortened to "Frangipani." There is nothing unusual in this, for it is a common practice. Forsythia honors an Eng lish horticulturist, William Forsyth, and Wis teria (with a slight change in spelling) com memorates the name of the Wistar family of Philadelphia (page 47). How the name Frangipani became trans ferred from the perfume-yielding red jasmine to the sweet-scented, reddish-flowered tree of the opposite picture probably never will be known, but there are literally hundreds of such instances. Among these many name-transfers is that of the Marigold. There is only one true Marigold, the Pot Marigold of Europe (page 19); yet the yellow and orangey Mexican flowers on the opposite page also are called "marigolds." And we must not forget that there was a time when our Frangipani also was called "Tree Jasmine." While some of this may seem to be speculation, there are so many similar cases that I have come to the conclusion that the word Frangipani traces back to quite a different plant once grown by that old Roman family and named for it. The species shown here is native in Mexico; it occurs wild also in Central America and northern South America. It is commonly planted in tropical regions and often has escaped, especially in the West Indies. Other tropical American species of Plumeria with white or yellow flowers are known (again, one of them is Mexican). These also are often planted, and hybrids are grown. FRENCH AND AFRICAN MARIGOLDS (Tagetes, several species): The trail of the French and African Marigolds is less encum bered with speculation than that of the Frangipani. The genus Tagetes is entirely American, its twenty or so species ranging from New Mexico and Arizona southward into Ar gentina. Those which immediately concern us are native in Mexico. From various evidences it seems most likely that these plants were grown in the old pre-Conquest gardens. Also we know that they found their way into the early Spanish-American gardens and soon were sent to Spain, from whence they were carried to monastery gardens in Africa and France. By the time these plants reached northern European gardens all knowledge of their real origin had been lost. Being yellowish orange, in England they were called Marigolds (from "Mary's Gold"); but to differentiate them from the native European Marigold (now called Pot Marigold) they became French Marigolds and African Marigolds; these names then came to us from England. Several modern garden forms of the taller "African" Marigold (Tagetes erecta) with its larger flower heads and the smaller, usually reddish-suffused "French" Marigold (T. pa tula) are shown here as well as a few of the wild species of the genus, some of which also occasionally find their way into our gardens. I once was in a Mexican store as a shipment of seed from the States was being unpacked. Two of the gaily-colored packets interested me, especially when the proprietor proudly assured me they were "new in Mexico." I smiled in wardly, for I had seen them wild in the hills. After centuries of travel and two Atlantic crossings, the "African" and "French" Mari golds had come home.