Name Changes for Plant Taxa

I was uploading photos of two plants, Medeola virginiana and Lobelia inflata, when I noticed that their common names have been changed from Indian Cucumber-root to Cucumber Root, and Indian Tobacco to Puke Weed. Is this because the word “Indian” is insensitive, or is there another reason for the change of common names. However, I still see Monotropa being listed as Indian Pipe.
The main reason I am asking is because I don’t really understand.

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This appears to be someone on iNat specifically taking it upon themselves to make the change. For each species both common names are widely used, but the ‘Indian XXXX’ formulation is far more common in general use, and is what most non-iNat sources use.

I’d be interested to know if the person making the changes is of Native descent or not. Being of Native American descent myself, my experience is that, with few exceptions, names like this don’t bother many of us.

This is in contrast with species like Pinus sabiniana or Mitchella repens that had an explicitly pejorative and offensive common names, which have rightfully been retired, although in the latter case there is still quite a lot of debate over whether the S-word in question is actually pejorative or not.

There are good reasons to revisit the common, and scientific, names of many species with an eye to cultural sensitivity and respect, but it’s also important to know where that over-applying that sensitivity and respect stops and becomes something else entirely.

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I’ve noticed that switching between Indian and Ghost Pipe. Another one I’ve come across (though not yet on iNat) is changing Jack-in-the-Pulpit to Jill-in-the-Pulpit, particularly if the plant in question appears to be a female (e.g. fruiting), which is silly from a biological standpoint because they are paradioecious and can flip their gender back and forth from year to year. I’ve settled on just giving these “corrections” a shrug and smile and move on with using the scientific names.

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I’m curious what your preferred name is for Conopholis americana, another one that falls into this category. We have switched to calling it Bear Corn on our spring wildflower hikes.

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I’ve only ever heard it called Bear Corn or American-cancer Root, but looking up other names I see why you posed the question.

At the moment the S*** word is considered offensive to many, regardless of the actual etymological origin or original use (which is not resolved), so I suggest avoiding using it in any names as it will be offensive to many.

I can’t speak for everyone, not by a long shot, but names like Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja sp.), Indian Warrior, aka Warrior’s Plume (Pedicularis densiflora), Indian Cucumber Root (Medeola virginiana), etc are generally inoffensive as they’re names that are more descriptive rather than derogatory.

Again, I cant speak for everyone, but my experience in my 50 years is that most Native People in the US are more amused or indifferent at being called ‘Indians’ than offended, broadly taking the attitude of, “Well, you fellas messed the names up, now deal with it,” and commonly referring to themselves as ‘Indians’.

That said, there are absolutely some groups that express vocal and vociferous insistence that everyone use either ‘Native People’ or ‘First People’, and they do have valid points and even more valid grievances, the latter of which most of us with Native ancestry very much agree with.

In short, lots of varying opinions, be mindful, but don’t go overboard, and avoid names that are clearly considered derogatory.

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I don’t think the word “Indian” should be removed from common names. The very fact that a tribe near me uses “Indian Tribe” in their official legal name is enough proof to me that the word isn’t really offensive to most. I’ve been told by people of Native American descent that no matter what term you use some people will be offended, so in the end it doesn’t really matter what term you use.

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I have seen Indian Pipe, Ghost Plant, and Ghost Pipe used. Not sure which is most commonly used.

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I changed the default common name for Cucumber Root, but not the others. Note that I did not remove the common name Indian Cucumber-root, I just changed the default, which is the name typically displayed for the organism.

There have been several previous discussions about this issue on the forum. The general consensus has been if there are multiple common names for a taxon, but some of them are considered offensive or colonial, use one of the other ones as the default. Do not, however, invent new common names or delete widely-used existing common names without discussion.

@tiwane gave the following guidance: “If the name is questionable, is there another less questionable existing name that can be used as the default? Probably best to use the latter name as the default and maybe strikethrough the questionable one.”

As for whether “Indian cucumber-root” is questionable, I understand that many people, even Native Americans, are not offended by it. However, other people are offended by it and consider it colonial, not to mention inaccurate as it has nothing to do with India. I imagine the users who made the other changes had similar motivations, but I can’t speak for them.

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I really appreciate this conversation. Isn’t it interesting how names reflect the perspective of the namer. Most of the “Indian” names are made by white people who see something similar to their cultivated plant, and affix “Indian” to denote that it is different. Indian cucumber. Indian tobacco.

When the plant doesn’t map on to a cultivated plant, but does into another wild plant that they know of, they called it “False”. False lupine. False Solomon’s seal. I think it’s incredible that one colonial expansion touched another colonial expansion, such that people who had probably never seen an elephant in person were aware enough of elephants that they could look at a flower in western North America and see an elephants head. (Pedicularis groenlandica.) Once seen, never unseen.

I have a goal to learn more of the names given by tribes in my area of Montana, as recorded by the ethnobotanists, anyway. Those are far more varied between tribes and languages than even the colonial common names. Some of the references they make are not immediately understandable, but many reflect the ecological relationships or tribal uses of the plant.

I guess my contribution to the conversation is that 1) I don’t know who is changing the names or why. 2) When I go back to my observations and see weird new names, it is very confusing to my limited mind. 3) Linnaean binomials are helpful in their relative stability (but, goodness, you taxonomists!) 4) I wish there was a way to choose my own common name from a list, since they are so subjective and regional, and a good common name is usually the one with the best mnemonic value.

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This is a great observation - I’ve been noticing the same thing with organisms containing the word “Jerusalem” - it seems to generally mean “false”, and I have been wondering if it’s anti-semitic in origin, though I haven’t been able to find much on the origins of these names.

Jerusalem artichoke, not an artichoke
Jerusalem oak, looks a little oak-ish but not related
Jerusalem crickets, not true crickets
Jerusalem cherry, a solanum
…and so on.

In general, I’m in favor of moving away from naming organisms after countries or ethnic groups - I prefer descriptive names. “Grey pine” is an objectively better name for Pinus sabiniana imo, because just the name gives you a pretty good idea of which of the local pines it refers to.

Even when it manages to not be offensive, it tends to cause confusion over the origins of the species - I’ve seen people uprooting “Argentinian” Biddy Biddy (Acaena pinnatifida) because the name caused them to think it wasn’t a California native plant. Sigh.

Please don’t call out any specific users here on the forum, but note that taxon history should be capturing name changes, so anyone can see who’s making changes to common names. You could flag the taxon and tag the users, asking them about the changes, or message them directly.

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Thank you for changing the name for Medeola virginiana. I often use iNaturalist when teaching and feel so ashamed when the names given to us are colonial and/or offensive and then someone has to awkwardly shout it out in class or say something like, “well this is the name iNaturalist uses, but we need to use something else” because they know it is offensive. I appreciate @taitsougstad 's point that though it may seem to be inoffensive with the name Indian is in the name, these names are really just Euroentric names, and thus colonial. For those who don’t feel negatively affected by colonialism, these names might seem insignificant, but to me they are Eurocentric, colonial and therefore erase Native existence. And just, we can do better.

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In case anyone’s interested, here’s an essay by a native Ojibwe woman about why using the term “Indian” is problematic: https://hechingerreport.org/student-voice-dont-call-me-indian/

And here’s another article on the subject (by a non-native person) that also discusses the history of the word “squaw”: https://historyboots.wordpress.com/2013/11/13/why-cant-i-call-them-indians-anymore-a-question-and-a-few-answers/

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I understand a lot better now. Thanks for all of that feedback and answers.

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This source says that Jerusalem artichoke is a corruption of girasol or girasole (sunflower in Spanish and Italian, respectively). Not sure whether that’s true, of course.

Well, looking a few of these up in Wikipedia:
Jerusalem oak was originally Ambrosia mexicana, but it turns out the Mexico is its introduced range (and it isn’t even Asteraceae); it was subsequently Chenopodium botrys and is now Dysphania botrys, and is known to be native to the Mediterranean region. Of course, you are correct that this does not explain the name, since it appears that it was called Jerusalem oak while it was thought to be a Mexican native.

Jerusalem cherry, again Wikipedia is no help, but I did find this article which theorizes,

The name is a misnomer, as the plant does not bear real cherries and is not native to Jerusalem or the area. One theory as to the origins of its name is that a gardener brought back the seeds or plants from someone’s private garden in Jerusalem and simply attached the country’s name to the plant without researching its true native land. Several other plants with the Jerusalem name also have little to do with the country itself. One authority hypothesizes that Jerusalem is a substitute for a foreign or exotic country when the plant’s namer doesn’t have a background to attribute to the plant

Which is rather like the convoluted origin of the name for the turkey.

As to the Jerusalem cricket, Wikipedia does provide an explanation:

Several hypotheses attempt to explain the origin of the term “Jerusalem cricket”. One suggests the term originated from a mixing of Navajo and Christian terminology, resulting from the strong connection Franciscan priests had with the Navajos in developing their dictionary and vocabulary. Such priests may have heard the Navajos speak of a “skull insect” and took this as a reference to Calvary (also known as Skull Hill) outside Jerusalem near the place where Jesus was crucified.

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