Racism is a disease afflicting every level of society. The symptoms are as obvious as a cross burning or as subtle as a schoolteacher's subconsciously lowered expectations. Its presence casts an ugly shadow across society—unfortunately, even into our flower gardens and the language that scientists use to describe their inhabitants.

Sad to say, a number of racially offensive common plant names long ago slipped into the vernacular of gardening, and some have found their way into horticulture's most important reference books. Sadder still is the fact that several of these offensive names are still in common use. And most amazing has been the reluctance of the horticultural establishment to confront the issue and remedy it with appropriate revision of the offending nomenclature.

A prime example is the term Niggerhead—painfully offensive, yet in use throughout the world as a common plant name. In Australia, Edward Rotherham informs us in his...

The names Nigger's-hand cactus and Niggerfinger cactus have been given by Margaret Martin and her coauthors in the popular Cacti and Their Cultivation (New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1971) for Opuntia clavarioides, a small cactus with bizarre, slender, cylindrical branches. Alfred Graf, author of the widely used botanical guidebook Exotica (East Rutherford, N.J., Roehrs Co. Inc., 1980), gives Nigger-wool as a common name for the New Zealand Wire Vine (Muehlenbeckia complexa), apparently in reference to the basket plant's twining, wire-like purplish brown stems.

Occasionally one can still hear Brazil nuts (Bertholletia excelsa) referred to as Nigger-toes. Meanwhile, horticulturist P.A. Munz's California Flora and California Desert Wildflowers (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1970) lists Niggerhead cactus as the accepted common name for Echinocactus polycephalus, a small barrel cactus native to California's southern deserts.

Zambia floridana, a beautiful dwarf native American cycad, has been called a Coontie, a reference to the tree's long, slender, green leaves. And in Australia, grass trees (Xanthorrhoe minor) are sometimes referred to as Blackboys, apparently because their palm-like trunks, often burned black by grass fires, remind some of Australian aborigines.

A religious or an ethnic reference in a compound vernacular name is bound to connote or imply the existence of an inferior or socially unusual quality. Thus, common names such as Pope's Nose (Proboscides jussieui), Jew Bush (Pedilanthus tithymaloides), and Jew's Mallow (Kerria japonic) have derogatory religious and ethnic origins. Jew's Beard (Tacca chantrieri) is a reference to the tropical plant's whisker-like inflorescence, which to some botanists seems to bear a resemblance to the beards of Orthodox Jews. Other, more appropriate common names for this plant include the Bat-flower and Cat's whiskers (with all due respect, of course, to bats and cats).

The name Coolie's Cap, which makes reference to the pill box-like hats worn by 19th-century Chinese immigrants, is still sometimes used as the common name for Holmskioldia sanguina.

In his book Common Names of South African Plants (Pretoria, Department of Agriculture Technical Services, 1966), Christo Smith points out the unfortunate frequency of use in compound vernacular names of the term Hottentot (as in Hottentot's Head for Strangeria eriopus). Smith writes: "Kaffir is not infrequently used in a derogatory sense to indicate some alleged inferiority..." He then goes on to list 75 common South African plant names that use the term.

In an article in the Cactus and Succulent Journal (51[5]:238-41, 1979), author Bruce Hargreaves wrote about Talinum caffrum, a succulent from Africa's Kalahari Desert, noting, "I apologize for using a racist term; 'caffer,' or `kaffir,' a term derived from the Arabic for unbeliever, is the South African equivalent of 'Nigger'—but I didn't name this plant."

Hargreaves's dilemma stemmed from caffrum's being the scientific rather than popular botanical name; that is, in his scientific writings he had no choice other than to use it. However, we certainly do have a choice in our use of plant names.

How many subtropical gardeners in the United States realize the racially derogatory implications of referring to Kaffir-lilies (Clivia minata or Schizostylis coccinea), Kaffirboom Coral Trees (Erythina caffra), or Kaffir plums (Harpephyllum caffra)?

The origin of some derogatory or racist names that remain in the common botanical vernacular without malicious intent—or so one prefers to think—are so obscure that they are used by people who would never dream of using such obviously offensive common names like Niggerfinger cactus or Coolie's Cap.

The widespread use of Digger pine for Pinus sabiniana is a good example. The tree grows on dry, rocky slopes, below 4,500 feet, on hills bordering California's Central Valley and interior coastal ranges. Sunset Books' widely used New Western Garden Book (Menlo Park, Calif., 1980) designates this tree as a "marker plant"—a plant delineating an important Western climatic gardening zone. (Sunset's Zone 7, "California's Digger Pine Belt," is a several-thousand-square-mile area with hot summers and mild, but pronounced winters.)

When the gold-seeking Forty-Niners poured into California during the last century, they had little respect for the native people they encountered. Secure in their belief of racial and religious superiority, they mockingly called the Native Americans of the area "diggers" when they saw them foraging for roots and bulbs. Pinus sabiniana's common name originated when the prospectors noted the tree's value to California Indians.

Understandably, many Native Americans find the term digger offensive. A spokesman, who requests anonymity, for the California State Native American Heritage Commission says, "The word 'digger' is very derogatory and insulting to California Indian people." A historical interpreter, who also requests anonymity, for the California State Indian Museum in Sacramento agrees: "To call a California Indian a 'digger' means you are either ignorant or you are purposely trying to insult him. It is a very derisive word." These observers concur in the opinion that the term digger is as offensive to California's Native Americans as the term nigger is to African Americans.

Of course, terms like Niggerhead and Digger pine should have been purged from botanical literature long ago. However, botanical books and magazines containing these offensive common plant names are currently widely available.

Surprisingly, there is a great reticence among botanical scientists to challenge the existence of these racist relics in the garden. Before The Scientist agreed to publish this article, the idea had been rejected by a half-dozen regional and national horticultural and garden magazines. The editor of one scholarly West Coast journal, which represents a number of influential horticulture societies, rejected the idea by responding, "I feel it would stress the sociological implications at the expense of the botanical. Into an article [on plants] the origin and implication of the vernacular name might fit with a sentence or two." A prominent California horticultural society also shied away from a discussion of racially derogatory common plant names. The editor of the society's journal commented: "The subject is inappropriate and appears to create a quarrel where there isn't one at present . . . your charge of racism is a little dramatic, I feel."

On the bright side, some editors have taken an active role in eliminating racially offensive colloquial names for plants. James C. Hickman, editor of The Jepson Manual—a botanical reference work soon to be published by the University of California Press--reports that, in the manual, "Echinocactus will be called 'clustered barrel cactus,' a simply descriptive name. Pinus sabiniana will be called 'gray pine' or 'foothill pine.' " However, Hickman notes, "Because it is so widely and innocently known as 'digger pine,' we included a note asking people not to use that name because of its pejorative origin. I think this is better than not mentioning the issue at all." Hickman adds, "The other name I know of that will not be used is 'wandering Jew,' for Tradescantia fluminensis; it will be called spiderwort—which is possibly derogatory toward arachnids."

Additionally, Hickman notes, "The dilemma, of course, is that truly colloquial or truly common names cannot be controlled, but are a matter of usage. I believe our challenge as authors and editors is a long-term one of swaying usage toward less offense without leaving innocents high and dry."

Those who continue to use racially offensive plant names should be challenged. Elizabeth Knoll, sponsoring editor for science and the history of science at the University of California Press, says, "I will make it a point of telling the authors and the advisory board members—if they don't have the sense to realize it already—that racist and derogatory terms are unacceptable." However, she expresses her concern that "the very nomenclature of some sciences carry racial prejudices. My guess is that other scholars could point out more examples—a depressing and important undertaking."

The problem of purging racist common names from gardening's vernacular is relatively simple compared to the much more complex problem of expunging racially based scientific names, such as Erythina caffra, Harpephyllum caffra, and Talinum caffrum.

The issue of derogatory proper botanical names is more troublesome. If scientists persist in using them, and insist on their being published verbatim, writers and editors of botanical journals should, at a minimum, footnote their own objections when clarity or expedience dictates the use of a proper plant name that has been derived from a racially offensive term.

The use of a racial epithet as an accepted, published botanical common name perpetuates and legitimizes bigotry, even if it does so unintentionally. Botanical editors, botanists, and gardeners should know common names such as Kaffir-lily, Digger pine, and Niggerhead cactus are racial slurs, and they must play a forceful role in eliminating their use. To do less would leave the appearance of condoning bigotry in botany.

The enlightened efforts of Knoll, Hickman, and others like them are laudable. Without their efforts, young African American or Native American scholars, perhaps just developing an interest in botany, will understandably be discouraged and disillusioned to find racist terms in botanical literature.

One can only imagine the damage that already has been done in this regard.

Melvin Hunter is an Atascadero, Calif.-based science writer specializing in botanical subjects.

Interested in reading more?

Become a Member of

Receive full access to digital editions of The Scientist, as well as TS Digest, feature stories, more than 35 years of archives, and much more!
Already a member?