culturally insensitive plant names?

On one of my trips out hiking one of the group went running over to a plant in hysterical full bloom, Pedicularis densiflora, something she referred to as “Indian warrior.” It’s a stunning little plant that’s at least somewhat related to the plants in the genus Castilleja that are sometimes called “Indian paintbrush.”

I can’t say that I’ve had a conversation with anyone about this pedicularis. But in this age of heightened cultural sensitivities and school mascots being changed to less potentially offensive characters I’ve been trying to use the more generic name of “paintbrush” when discussing the castillejas. Most people still know what I’m referring to.

A quick look at Calflora turned up dozens of other California natives that have “Indian” in the name, including Palmer’s Indian mallow (Abutilon palmeri), Indian manzanita (Arctostaphylos mewukka), Indian milkweed (Asclepias eriocarpa), Indian strawberry (Duchesnea indica) and Indian headdress (Tracyina rostrata). I’m not Native American but I wonder if these common names might not be the best to use.

Tradescantia albiflora. Some people call it inch plant--probably a better name for it.

Trying to come up with other plant names that have left me a little queasy I thought immediately about the common houseplant, wandering jew, Tradescantia albiflora. The former owners of my house planted some in a bed, and I’m still trying to eradicate it, twenty years later. I keep telling myself that “wandering Jew” is just a plant name and I’m not being anti-semitic when I take the weeding fork to it.

Algerian ivy is another incredibly noxious plant pest, but I know that it’s named after the country where it originates and not the people who live there. In this case I don’t feeling like I’m committing genocide when I yank it out by the yard. Same goes for all the thousands of other plants named after their country of origin, both in their common and scientific latin names.

Dried leaves of Citrus hystrix

Looking on the web I came up with a couple other plant names that folks might find offensive. Golden Gate Gardener had a note about Keffir lime, Citrus hystrix, and Keffir lily, Clivia miniata. In Arabic, according to one of the commenters on the post, “keffir” refers to a non-believer, something similar to the way “heathen” is used in English. Possibly objectionable. But when the word traveled to South Africa it became a seriously troubling epithet for the non-white population. Ick. I buy the leaves of this lime in Asian groceries for when I make curry or pasta, and I’ll make a point of calling it something else. Thai lime, maybe. As for Clivia miniata, the latin name comes to the rescue. Even my mother–not prone to show off with scientific names–called it clivia.

Plant names are important. They can tell you plenty about the sociology of those who did the naming, and they can shape how you perceive the plant. I’ll try to pay more attention to names when I use them, and I’ll try to reject the ones that really shouldn’t have a place in modern, accepting, pluralistic society.

33 thoughts on “culturally insensitive plant names?”

  1. This is a very interesting post. I had never stopped to think of common plant names in this way. Now, I will probably be thinking all day about the plants in my garden and what I call them. I usually stick to botanical names which is probably safer and much more politically correct 🙂

  2. I’ve always avoided names like Wandering Jew too, though naively I would always have assumed that a plant like Indian mallow was so-called because it was native to – well, India. You live and learn.
    I’d never heard of Keffir lily either – but only of Clivia. So perhaps these names are now dying out. Here’s hoping …

  3. What was a k**** tree when I was a girl, is now a coral tree (Erythrina) for its magnificent deep orange flowers, dripping nectar for the sunbirds. And the leaves you use in your curry are quite simply ‘curry leaves’. Not so convinced that ‘Clive of India’ is relevant to a South African lily. Is ‘Indian’ offensive to Native Americans? Or would it acknowledge a part of their heritage and tradition?

    1. “Indian ” is very offensive to us. Well, to me. I cant speak to every native in every countries feelings, for me its offensive. Why?
      Well first and foremost I am not an Indian, I am an American. My people have never lived in India. That would be like insisting that every white person in Europe are.. I dont know ..Polish.. or Chinese. You started calling us Indians because Christopher Columbus couldnt navigate and thought he was in India and there for everyone were Indians. Instead of correcting it you perpetuate the lie by refusing to call us by anything but the misnomer . I am also Algonquin and Iroquois. Not indian. Thank you.

  4. Well, I think when weeds or bugs are named after some other nation (as the potato beetle of many names), we have a problem. But Indian paintbrush and Indian warrior are beautiful plants, so I’ve never thought twice about that name being a problem.

    I’m usually happy enough if I know the common and scientific name. There are so many other ways in which I commonly get my foot in my mouth on a daily basis, plant names are the least of it.

  5. Interesting thought. I could see trying to call it just paintbrush. I’m with Town Mouse, though, that with such a beautiful and popular plant as Indian Paintbrush the name doesn’t seem like a problem to me (though I’m not the one who could really say whether it is offensive or not). Maybe if the Indian Paintbrush fans started wearing caricature t-shirts and baseball hats and doing stupid tomahawk chants in stadiums…

    1. But we are not in india we are not indians.. I would prefer to maybe calling it polish paint brush
      Or Irish

  6. Finally!! Someone has been able to bring this topic out into the light. There have been many times where I wondered what people would say to certain offensive names of plant and bugs. The funny thing is that when I was little, I never thought about plant named being offensive.

  7. I learned the name Indian paintbrush from my dad as a little kid, so didn’t think much about it till later. Then thought maybe some stupid Anglo thought up the name. But I’m with Ryan and Town Mouse on this one, they are some of my favorite plants and so I think of them and their name in a positive light. I also read last year that stories say Indian warriors grow on the sites where Native warriors were slain. True legend or romanticism? Not sure.
    To add another plant, Deborah Small on her Ethnobotany blog refer’s to Miners’ lettuce as Indian lettuce in this post:
    And she is constantly working with Indigenous Californians, often related to food.

    1. It is Romantic lies. Non grew where my father died . He was a warrior. He fought in 3 countries. It is also racist. Just because you don’t feel racist for saying it or that you like the plant. doesnt make it any less offensive. My friend who would never intentionally be racist doesnt “get” why its racist to call spider wort Wandering jude.” I had to explaine the entire story to her and she still didn’t get it.
      The one I don’t understand is “Hidu Rope”. If anyone can explaine I would appreciate it.

  8. Call me insensitive, but I don’t think that Indian Paintbrush or any of the other common names that you’ve mentioned are more or less insensitive than German potato salad, French fries, Belgian waffles, Spanish rice, or any of a myriad of other common names that invoke a place or people of origin.

  9. I guess there are some names that are fairly innocuous. Something like Chinese lantern, is fine, but something like Chinese top hat, or Chinese yellow (I’m making these up!) would NOT be ok – and these names are unfortunately found in the industry.

    There are some names that I feel are just really depressing though – like bleeding hearts, love lies bleeding, widow’s tears, etc. I could maybe do bleeding hearts, but could not do widow’s tears. I’m probably being overly susperstitious, but still…

    Once, I commented on someone’s blog that their trail of tears beans had a depressing name. Now mind you, I realize there are important and often very sad times in history and don’t aim to put my head in the sand, but I was just commenting on the name being sad. Boy did I get an earful (and a review of history).

  10. Wow, I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue lately and here you go with a great post about it. I too have found it hard to say, “wandering jew” though I’ve heard it my whole life. We’ve been looking for those lime leaves to cook with (indeed, different from curry leaves), and I’d wager that many people from the US do not know the degrading meaning of “kaffir.” Sometimes insensitivity is simple ignorance, and that’s remedied by starting discussions like this one. Thanks!

  11. I have been under the impression that calling paintbrush “Indian” was a healthy acknowledgment of cultural history (and I have seen survey data suggesting that slightly more people of American Indian heritage prefer to call themselves “Indians” than prefer to call themselves “Native Americans”). But I can see that the name “Indian Warrior” could be problematic.

    This post also made me question the name of “Chinese houses.” Perhaps a name for the specific type of Chinese house that the flowers resemble would be acceptable, but implying that all Chinese houses look the same way certainly seems like an instance of stereotyping.

  12. I feel that if we were to omit “Indian” from Indian Paintbrush, we would be forgetting our local history and the important uses these plants served before the settlers arrived. Many of these plants are named not because they are meant to be derogatory, but because early settlers observed Native Americans using these plants for various purposes. Perhaps it would put your mind at ease to talk to someone with Native American ancestry about what they think of the names.
    Wandering Jew, however… yeah I’m right there with you on that one!

  13. Everyone–thanks for all your ideas on this topic. It’s great to see everyone bringing something interesting to the conversation and I’ve enjoyed reading and thinking about all your comments. My native plant society has several opportunities to hear of Native American uses of plants, often by people in our local tribes, and I’ll be taking the opportunity to have this discussion with them. Granted, the plant name acknowledges a use of the plant by several tribes, and I appreciate that the name honors that tradition. I’ve seen a few references dropping the “Indian” before “paintbrush,” so I’m not the only one to have thought about this.

    I could see how terms like “Indian headdress” might still be a little more stereotypical, and a plant name that might not as wise to use as the ones that talk about a traditional use of the plant. At least it sounds like that there’s agreement that there are a few of these names that really are best left abandoned to history. I don’t want to forget the names–they really talk about a cultural mindset. But there are better names to use for some of them. And some of the original names I’ve mentioned are probably fine to use. I’ll post what I find out. I’m sure there won’t be agreement on every common name.

  14. Wow! I really look forward to your follow-up posts on this one. In the Pacific Northwest, we have some names that could send you around the bend, but we also have some beautiful place names inherited from native peoples that no one who hasn’t grown up here can begin to pronounce.

  15. This post has been in the back of my mind for a while, and today I happened to be editing a local wiki page about paintbrushes immediately after having tried to explain in a gardening forum that unconscious political biases are still political, no matter how unconscious they may be. I looked at the sentence on the wiki page about paintbrushes’ history of being used as red dye, and wondered why exactly this history was portrayed in the plants’ name as being first and foremost a detail about historical Indian use of the flowers, rather than simply about historical human use of the flowers. Neither the name “paintbrush” nor the name “Indian paintbrush” really conveys the historical use of these flowers all by itself, so it occurred to me that as long as further explanation is going to be required anyway, the “Indian” detail could be moved from the plant name into that further explanation without actually making that detail particularly less well known.

    And suddenly it didn’t seem appropriate to use the name “Indian paintbrushes” anymore. So I edited the page and changed it to just “paintbrushes.” I changed my mind from my earlier comment here. 🙂

  16. What about “mother-in laws tongue”has thick, vertical sword shaped leaves. The leaves are dark green and are accented with lighter green bars going horizontal along the blade like leaves. Some varieties have a yellowish colored border along the leaves. Its Latin Name: Sansevieria. There is an insensitive name if ever I heard one.

  17. I came here looking for commentary on “wandering jew”, which I’ve been hesitant to say but wanted to know if that was a no-no once and for all. I think the answer most of the time is, if you have to ask, the answer is yes.

    This was a lovely post. Many commenters have used reasoning such as, “I think it’s pretty, so it isn’t offensive”, which takes a personal opinion and layers it on top of hundreds of years of oppression by a culture you don’t belong to. Let’s not forget that the word “Indian” is ingrained because a white guy got lost and thought he was going to India. That’s like someone thinking you look like their friend and calling you Andrea instead of your real name, only at a much, much greater magnitude.

    Our language (European descendants in North America) is heavily biased, so yes, we will have to use different words or stop using words we think are “pretty”. I’m sure someone 50 years ago though the term “negress” sounded lilting on the tongue, but we can’t cling to hurtful words and still claim progressivism. It’s not killing anyone to change– some argue, “They’re just words!”. Well, if they are just words, it won’t be so hard to not say them. 🙂

  18. … except wandering Jew has cultural significance to the Jewish people. It’s based on an important part of the religious identity. The Jewish people wandered through the desert and were also wandering after exile. The fact that Jewish heritage is a nomadic one is a source of pride to some because the identity of the Jewish people remained despite their adversity. In the Torah, we are told to remember these events and how God had delivered his people.

    I know this article is 10 years old. But I have noticed a trend in people calling it a “wandering dude”. To me, this is more offensive than anything. Please do not erase the rich Jewish history. There has been too much of such a thing.

    1. Wandering jew is based on an offensive medieval Jewish folktale that said Jews were cursed to wander because they reject the divinity of Jesus. As a jew, I use Wandering Dude. It reminds me of the Big Lebowski.

  19. When I was growing up I was taught that an Indian (Native American) prayed to the Great Spirit that once in his life he could have colors beautiful enough to paint the morning sun. When he woke up he found a buffalo skin and pots of paint that were glorious shades of red and orange. He immediately began painting the sunrise, throwing the brushes over his shoulder as he finished with them. When the painting was complete, he turned around and the paintbrushes had turned into beautiful flowers, the shades of the morning sunrise. I’ve seen these flowers in spring in Texas and New Mexico and this is how I know these flowers as Indian Paintbrush.

  20. I want to note, for anyone who comes across this page and the comments, that “wandering jew” is not about ancient Israelites wandering in the desert for forty years.

    The term actually refers to a horrifically racist caricature and legend created in medieval Western Europe. The earliest known recorded telling is from 1223 CE (aka AD), in a chronicle—basically a long-term community log for a church congregation—in Bologna (present day Italy).

    The legend is, a Jewish man mocked Jesus while Jesus was on the way to be crucified, and Jesus cursed the man to live and wander the earth until the Second Coming.

    The wikipedia article on the legend documents the origin and historical use fairly thoroughly.

  21. Curious about “Hindu Rope?” I bought one today, but I am uncomfortable calling it that. Is it insensitive use that name for the plant?

    1. Interesting… I haven’t seen that name used in a while and see the plants around with just their species name. Maybe other folks are worried about the name too.

    2. Because it’s taking a culture/religion and making it into a novelty item. There’s also the racial stereotype of the “Indian rope trick”.

  22. What should we be calling the noxious invasives that are taking over the Pacific Northwest–English Ivy and Scotch (or Scot’s) Broom?

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