Plants with surprisingly racist roots


Photos from Canva

Many plant enthusiasts won’t know that these plants have racist roots.

Zaynab Kouatli, Opinion Editor

Like many other plant enthusiasts, I find myself constantly browsing through Facebook Marketplace on the hunt for a new specimen to bring home. I discovered a beautiful trailing plant with soft purple and green tear drop leaves marked as, “Wandering Jew, $15 with pot included.” The name of the plant seemed quite strange, so I did some research and found out that its history was quite dark. What I have come to learn is that many plants have some incredibly racist roots buried deep beneath within their soil.  

Many know of the Tradescantia Zebrina by it antisemitic name, “Wandering Jew.” The derogatory name is rooted in a medieval European folk story about a mythical Jewish man who ridiculed Jesus. The man who mocked Christ was then forced to wander the earth until the Second Coming (if you’re not familiar with theology, the second coming refers to the future return of Christ). The story was fabricated to put Jewish people in a negative light. For that reason, it is crucial that this hateful name is no longer used. 

The Tradescantia Zebrina plant (Photo from Canva)

I know using scientific names for plants can be difficult to pronounce. However, there are many names you can use to indicate the Tradescantia Zebrina that are not malicious in nature. Other than Tradescantia Zebrina, this plant can also be called Inch Plant or Spiderwort. Many have attempted to slightly alter “Wandering Jew” to “Wandering dude.” However, this does not make the name any less racist and should not be used anymore. The stunning Tradescantia should not be tarnished with that kind of association.  

I recently added the Dieffenbachia plant to my collection. I have a couple cats, so I researched if this plant is toxic to animals. To my horror, I discovered that the origins of this plant are quite cynical. The Dieffenbachia has traditionally been called by the name, “dumb cane.” 

The Dieffenbachia plant (Photo from Canva)

The plant contains calcium oxalate crystals, a calcium salt that causes irritation to the mouth and GI tract if it is chewed on by humans or animals. The inflammation caused by these crystals could portray someone as “dumb” which is an outdated way of saying the person is incapable of speech. 

Okay so it is based on science, how is that offensive?  That is where you are false! The toxic properties of this plant were exploited by slavers in the Caribbean to punish enslaved people. We should not use a name that heeds back to the suffering and enslavement of black people. Additionally, “dumb cane” is clearly an ableist, so its best that it is avoided entirely.  

The Croton Codiaeum Variegatum plant (Photo from Canva)

Croton Codiaeum Variegatum is commonly referred to as Croton or the racist name “Mammy.” A mammy is a historical stereotype that is used to depict black women who serve to worked for white families as a nurse to their children. The caricature is depicted as a heavier set, dark- skinned women with matronly behavior and has long been used as a mechanism to mock and dehumanize black women. I think it’s time that we ought to stop associating a plant with an incredibly striking foliage with such an ugly word.  

It is no surprise that so many plants have such racist roots because the heritage of botany, science, and “Western” society itself is rooted in imperialism and corruption. Throughout history the information that is reported from white men has always been considered as the truth, while the black and indigenous communities have been exploited for their knowledge. If you are a member of the plant community, do your part in educating yourself on how plants play a role in upholding systemic injustices.  

I encourage all my fellow green thumbs to retire racist names and create a community that is inclusive for every person. If you want to become a part of the conversation, there are several Facebook groups such as “Omaha Houseplants leaning to the Left” that have taught me a great deal about caring for plants along with uncovering their racist roots buried beneath their soil.