What’s in a Name?

Updated: May 13

By Lyla Amini, Community Fellow


After a few false starts, spring is finally in full swing here in Augusta County.


We’ve stayed busy prepping garden beds for planting, setting up irrigation systems, and germinating seeds that will later be transplanted into the fields. Over the last several weeks, I’ve spent countless hours in the greenhouse, filling trays with soil, dropping a seed into each cell, and awaiting signs of delicate cotyledons unfurling from within the seeds and poking through the surface of the soil.


In the time that I’ve been seeding and familiarizing myself with these different plant varieties, I’ve also been repeatedly struck by the poignancy of some of the racialized, derogatory common plant names written across the seed packets and used openly in a farming context. Of course, racism infiltrates every element of society, and botanical nomenclature is no exception.


Darki, common name for Petroselinum crispum, is a parsley variety grown on the AMI Farm at Augusta Health. It is also a racial epithet used against Black people circa 1775 (1).


Another is Orient Express, which is the common name for Solanum melongena, an eggplant variety that originates from Asia. The number 7 subway train in New York was called the Orient Express in a pejorative reference to Asian passengers from the neighborhood where that train services (2).


Racialized plant names contribute to continued normalization and complicity in regards to problematic, derogatory, offensive language use. The racist insinuations of common plant names go far beyond just these varieties. After taking note of the pejorative terms used so casually in writing and speech around plant names, I needed to understand the context and degree to which this occurs, and what efforts exist to decolonize botanical taxonomy.


Niggerhead cactus, Digger pine, Kaffir lily, Coolie’s cap, and wandering Jew spiderwort are just a small sampling of the racist, ethnophaulic common plant names designated and openly used in myriad well-known publications, some of which I have named at the end of this blog.


The pejorative names of plants aren’t just limited to popular common names – scientific names such as Talinum caffrum and Erythina caffra both have roots in the word kaffir (3). Kaffir is a pejorative term that dates back to at least the 1670s and has been used against many different groups of people, including “infidels” or non-religious people, non-Muslims, Christians, East African pagans, Bantu people in South Africa, and Black Africans in South Africa regardless of ethnicity (4).


There remains significant reticence among botanical scientists to address and redress the language that perpetuates and legitimizes bigotry within botanical nomenclature. Publications that contain and continue to use offensive plant names are widely available (5).


A thorough examination of the origins and intent of racist names is beyond the scope of this blog, but I strongly believe that we as farmers, gardeners, botanists, scientists, botanical editors, and anyone else interacting with plants in any way should take an active role in objecting to and eliminating the use of racially offensive colloquial (and scientific) names for plants.


In place of epithets, we can elect to use descriptive words. This can be done on a small-scale, individual level as well as by higher-ups such as editors and publishers. Though popular common or colloquial names may be difficult to control or steer, there is also significant space and agency for more communication with authors, advisory board members of botanical organizations, farm-based nonprofit organizations, scientists, etc., to insist against and refuse the use of racist and derogatory terms.


For example, Pinus sabiniana, a gray-ish pine tree that generally grows on rocky mountain slopes below 4,500 feet, can and should more often be called foothill pine or gray pine, instead of digger pine (6). Digger, for context, if you are not aware, was a term used by colonial settlers and gold miners in California against indigenous peoples and in reference to food foraging. As stated by the California State Native American Heritage Commission: “The word ‘digger’ is very derogatory and insulting to California Indian People” (7).


Decolonizing names, publications, and collections, such as efforts underway at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, is a way, albeit only one way amongst many others, to disrupt the mechanisms which continually uphold systemic racism, and is one all can and should participate in (8).



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Some foundational botanical publications containing racist, ethnophaulic common plant names:


New Western Garden Book (1980) by the Editors of Sunset Magazine

Flowers and Plants of New South Wales and Southern Queensland (1982) by Edward Rotherham

Exotica (1980) by Alfred Graf

California Flora and Desert Wildflowers (1970) by P.A. Munz

Cactus and Succulent Journal (51[5]:238-41, 1979) by Bruce Hargreaves

Cacti and their Cultivation (1971) by Margaret Martin

New Zealand Flowers and Plants (1963) by John Salmon

Arctic to Eastern Siberia: Circumpolar Arctic Flora (1959) by Nicholas Polunim

Common Names of South African Plants (1966) by Christo Smith


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References (used as footnotes):


https://www.etymonline.com/word/darky#:~:text=also%20darkey%2C%20darkie%2C%20colloquial%20for,%2B%20%2Dy%20(3)

https://www.nytimes.com/1988/11/20/magazine/long-island-city-woodside-flushing-stops-along-way-no-7-line-orient-express.html

https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=kaffir

https://www.hoytarboretum.org/racism-in-taxonomy-whats-in-a-name/

https://theconversation.com/director-of-science-at-kew-its-time-to-decolonise-botanical-collections-141070

https://conifersociety.org/conifers/pinus-sabiniana/

https://www.the-scientist.com/opinion-old/racist-relics-an-ugly-blight-on-our-botanical-nomenclature-60358



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