What’s a ‘liana’?

Reading time: Less than 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: liana…

I had never heard or seen the word liana before reading the marvellous Maggie O’Farrell memoir I am I am I am. Here is how O’Farrell used the word:

Oxygen masks swing like lianas from the ceiling and human beings are tossed into the air.

From the context, I understood that she was referring to something long and swinging. But what could it be? It turns out that a liana is a  long-stemmed, woody vine rooted in the soil but that uses trees to climb up to the canopy to gain access to well-lit areas of the forest. (See photo at the top of this post.)

While lianas are characteristic of tropical moist deciduous forests found in South America and parts of Africa, there are also temperate lianas, for example the members of the Clematis family.

Lianas compete with forest trees for sunlight, water and nutrients from the soil, which means that forests without lianas grow more fruit. Further, trees with lianas have twice the probability of dying. The word liana is not a taxonomic grouping; instead, it’s a description of the way the plant grows – much like the words tree and shrub

The term has been used since 1790, an  apparent misspelling of the French word lianes, which is a derivative of lier meaning to bind. Use of the word peaked in 1950.