Naming Invasive Alien Plants in Zulu

A working group on invasive alien plants (IAPs) programmes in KwaZulu-Natal are running a pilot study for naming invasive alien plants in isiZulu. This group of people includes environmentalists who come from different parts of KwaZulu-Natal and speak isiZulu in different dialects. Inappropriate naming of IAPs creates communication barrier in involving the public when combating invasive alien species. This also poses a threat to the culture and language of local communities.


“The invasion of alien plants threatens the biodiversity and landscapes of the areas invaded. The objective of this project is to correct the inappropriate use of naming invasive alien plants, to create Zulu names that describe the bad image of invasive alien plants and to evoke enthusiasm and get public involvement when combating invasive alien plants,” explained Jabu Sithole, project coordinator with the South African National Biodiversity Institute.

Necessity for the project

The need for this project was based on the difficulties of educating Zulu-speaking communities about invasive alien plants. “They find it difficult to pronounce and to remember their scientific names and their common names in other languages,” said Jabu. She also said that, in her experience, contractors sometimes named IAPs with names of indigenous plants, failing to point out the physical differences. “For instance if theAdenopodia spicata and Ceasalpinia decapetala grow in the same area, they will clear both. The same applies to the plant uses. Many indigenous plants are used for cultural and medicinal purposes.”

She added that most IAPs do not have Zulu or African names because they originate from other countries. “When working with schools, I am often asked the Zulu names of IAPs. The teachers have expressed their concern that as part of the curriculum they would like to see more Zulu names for IAPs as they teach Zulu-speaking learners.”

Some examples

Bugweed is commonly known as umbhangabhanga whereas it is correctly the name for indigenous pigeon wood (Trema orientalis). Ubhongabhonga is an acceptable name for bugweed.

Ubobo is a name for an indigenous spiny splinter-bean (Adenopodia spicata). An invasive alien plant shrub leucaena is also called ubobo; and the thorny scrambler Mauritius thorn is called ubobo oluncane, as if it is a variety of Adenopodia spicata.

Adenopodia spicata is used by traditional Zulu communities and for medicinal purposes, traditional Zulu knowledge is lost and polluted as people fail to identify and differentiate invasive alien plants from indigenous plants.

The correct name for leucaena is umdungazwe and Mauritius thorn, uvimbangameva.

Project timeframe

The projected started in October 2012 and the projected time for completing phase one is December 2014. The end product is a booklet with the isiZulu names and explaining how they are devised. Phase Two will aim to devise names in other languages and correct inappropriate names. The group meets on quarterly basis and aims to discuss new names in each meeting. They also make use books and dossiers for less common IAPs, especially the NEMBA list.

Members involved in this project include:

North Coast:

Samkelisiwe Msomi and Khulekani Nhleko (Department of environmental Affairs-Working For Water Programme)

Khulekani Nhleko (KZN Department of Agriculture & Environmental Affairs –Invasive Alien Species Programme)


Jabu Sithole and Menzi Nxumalo (South African National Biodiversity Institute’s Invasive Species Programme)

Joel Mlaba (South African National Biodiversity Institute Biosystematics)


Bheka Nxele (EThekwini Municipality-Environmental)

Bheka Memela (Planning and Climate Protection)

South Coast:

Lindelani Zuke (Wildlife and Environment SocietyofSouth Africa)

Jabulani Mpungose (SANBI Environmental Education)

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