This word looks like an elephant – or maybe several large birds – tumbling down a flight of stairs. It has no fewer than four k’s and five syllables. It is, as the currently popular term puts it, really extra. Oh, and if you want even more, it can also be spelled koekemakranka.

Or you can call it by its Linnaean name, gethyllis.

Such a pair, gethyllis and kukumakranka. Like some sweet little kid and a rowdy noisy bird from an animated feature. Whatever this thing is should be partly demure and partly dominating.

Which, in fact, it is.

On Christmas Day in South Africa, if you happen to be in that sere swath of the country known as the Sandveld, go out and see if you can find the blossoms of this plant. They are small and pale and close to the ground, and each has only one. You’ll do better to look for its corkscrew-shaped leaves.

But you’ll find it by following your nose. This demure small plant is very pungent, both when it flowers and when – some three months later – it puts out its finger-sized fruits. The aroma is about as easy to ignore as the bellowing of a bull elephant, I’m told. But fortunately it’s no Durban durian. The smell may be loud and bright, but it’s not a cacophony or caca khaki, it’s more of an olfactory Marimekko: quite pleasant and strawberryish.

The fruit of the kukumakranka, in fact, has a tradition of being used to scent linen drawers and flavour brandy. And I am told it is very good for your digestion. Indeed, some people have speculated that the name comes from Afrikaans goed vir my krank maag, ‘good for my sick stomach’. It doesn’t – in fact, the name comes from the indigenous Khoe language – but you can see where they got the idea. (You can’t? Well, if you heard it it would seem plausible. But remember: etymology by sound is not sound etymology.)

The name gethyllis, by the way, comes from a Greek root meaning ‘bulb’. It’s pretty in its way – there are probably people with Gethyllis as a personal name – but it’s no kukumakranka, is it.

Would you like to know more about this little wonder, so shy to the eyes and knowable to the nose? Here, let me save you some Googling:

From the South African National Biodiversity Institute

A magazine article reminiscence (PDF)

From the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity

From the South African Journal of Botany, for those who, like me, find technical descriptions relaxing

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