Topic: HistoryThe Black Histories Hiding in Plant Names

Pippin’s golden honey pepper, Aunt Lou’s Underground Railroad tomato, the Paul Robeson tomato. Buried in the names of beloved fruits and vegetables is a rich tapestry of Black life, knowledge and history. In this sneak peak into our landmark Issue 10 (which you can pick up here) Amirio Freeman uncovers these stories, exploring how imperial Linnaean naming conventions continue to threaten essential endemic plant names, along with the ways of knowing and remembering that they embody. Illustration by Farida Eltigi.

By Amirio Freeman

What’s in a Name?

Communities syphoned off to the margins have long found and safeguarded their histories beyond authoritative archives, discovering and forging architectures – from zines to community memorials – that house the three-dimensionality of their past and present lives. Particularly for Black people, plant names are wellsprings of knowledge that dissolve the dominant stories that commandeer our lives around the world.

The names of plants, especially their common ones, have always been evocative and purposeful, telegraphing information about botanical beings themselves – like their colour (Sky Blue Aster) – but also insights about how our vegetal neighbours mediate the day-to-day of humans. Before the imposition of binomial nomenclature, that handmaiden of New World empire-building fine-tuned by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, many of the earliest schematics for naming plants invoked kinship-based worldviews that saw plants as being in relationship with every aspect of our lives, including our health and wellness. Professor Londa Schiebinger, for example, details in her work how the traditional Quechua, or Incan, names for the Cinchona Tree functioned as quasi-technologies that provided data about the plant’s antimalarial properties. Within one of the tree’s ‘folk’ names, Yaracucchu Carachucchu, yara ‘[signifies] tree, cara bark, and chucchu the shiver of the malarial fever.’[1]

An illustration by Farida Eltigi of a man with a bowl of fruit and vegetables behind him

Alongside instructions for material care, many plant names help to facilitate narrative care by encapsulating and foregrounding underknown Black stories – counter-histories of reverence, remembrance, radicalism, and relationality with the beyond-human world that, to borrow from author and scholar Christina Sharpe, have been subjected to ‘accumulated erasures, projections, fabulations, and misnamings.’[2]

A Case Study: A Painter and His Peppers

Pippin’s Golden Honey Pepper: this pepper variety’s name not only teases its flavour profile but also activates a portal into a timeline wherein one of the foremost Black artists of the twentieth century is integral to the long-term existence of generationally beloved plants.

A Pennsylvania-born descendant of domestic workers and enslaved people, Horace Pippin is perhaps best known as a self-taught painter whose works showcase specific moments in the broad expanse of the Black experience. Pippin was also a gardener who collected and saved seeds, many originating from his network of food-industry friends in Black communities across the US Mid-Atlantic region. It’s easy to imagine Pippin puttering around his plot, leveraging his artist’s eye to determine which botanical pairings would engender the most dazzling colour palettes and museum-worthy compositions.

The Pippin seed lore goes as follows. In a gift-economy swap, Pippin traded a selection of his seeds with his friend H. Ralph Weaver, a white grower and beekeeper, in exchange for bee sting therapy: an old-school remedy for a chronically pained arm, the outcome of a World War I injury. Ten years after Weaver died in 1956, his grandson, William Woys Weaver, went to his grandparents’ cellar to comb through his grandfather’s seed stockpile. Many seeds were long dead or had succumbed to ravenous bugs. Fortunately, many more survived in jars secured in a deep freezer, including seeds for a handful of Pippin peppers: the fish pepper, the Buena Mulata, and, of course, Pippin’s Golden Honey Pepper. After salvaging what he could, Weaver, now a respected food historian and seed custodian, helped introduce Pippin’s peppers to the wider public.

In the early 20th century, the cultivation of Black agricultural staples such as the fish pepper, a vegetal product that Black households had grown for decades, used to add sneaky smatterings of heat to seafood dishes and other fare, slowed down as urbanisation unfurled. The threat of losing certain botanical cultural artefacts loomed large. Through amassing and gifting seeds, Pippin effectively saved endangered plants from extinction. A subset of varieties today can be traced back to Pippin’s seeds and, therefore, embody the invaluable imprint of Black folks on the overarching culinary and botanical story of the United States. The name of Pippin’s Golden Honey Pepper serves as a fitting tribute to a critical archivist of Black life in both paint and plants.

Carl’s Crusade

In an interview with It’s Freezing in LA!, food anthropologist, podcaster, and writer Deb Freeman reminds us that more Black stories are waiting to be exhumed from vegetal monikers, like Aunt Lou’s Underground Railroad Tomato. ‘[I] think there’s power in a name. And I think that the real power comes in understanding where something comes from and who sacrificed their time, knowledge, and genius because there’s a skill to this. This isn’t just digging a hole. There’s a skill to this. I think we owe it to these people to find out what the actual origin story is whenever we can find it. And to not only find out but to speak about it. That is part of what drives my work innately: to say their names.’

Freeman’s call to action rings more urgent when grappling with plant nomenclature’s role as a foot soldier of global subjugation.

As a clamorous commercial demand for spices, the exploration of the New World, and an insatiable hunger for empire opened new quarters of the globe up to conquest between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, the range of botanical species legible to the West widened. Prominent botanist Carl Linnaeus christened himself as best-suited to corral the ‘invasion’ of ‘vast hordes’ of plants and their ‘barbarous names’ by establishing an effective naming mechanism. What he came up with, and what would persist as the international standard to this day, is a system of organising Earthly beings by giving them two names: a generic one designating genus and a specific one designating species. Despite never travelling beyond Europe, one of Linnaeus’s most lasting achievements is condensing the vastness of the plant kingdom into tidy, clean-cut name pairings.

Naming imperialism is baked into the DNA of Linnaeus’s apparatus. In Critica Botanica, Linnaeus comprehensively elucidates what to avoid when conceiving vegetal epithets, including ‘European languages except Greek or Latin’, names gesturing toward a plant’s uses, and ‘foreign names (meaning foreign to European sensibilities)’. Linnaeus’ preferences have left us with a botanical registry that valorises the lives of Great White Men (and some women) to the exclusion and belittlement of other peoples of other histories. In the present day, many plant names are selectively commemorative, honouring white presidents (Jeffersonia diphylla), white explorers (Lewisia cotyledon, Clarkia pulchella), and white royals (Victoria amazonica). The Linnaean naming standard has largely invisibilized folk taxonomies with incalculable knowledge that could help us further understand our intimacy with plants – an increasingly important endeavour as the devastation of climate change reaches new scales. The loss of indigenous plant names is akin to setting a library afire.

Linnaeus’s method does occasionally sidestep its own precedents – some plant names are derived from non-European languages; one medicinal plant, Quassia amara, is named for a formerly enslaved Surinamese man with a knotty relationship to colonial projects. However, we cannot wholly separate the method from deracinating, linguistic violence. As writer Jamaica Kincaid recognises, botanists ‘emptied the worlds of things animal, vegetable, and mineral of their names and replaced these names with names pleasing to them; these names are pleasing to them because they are reasonable; reason is a pleasure to them.’[3]

Naming Is Never Neutral

In the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange’s 2022 catalogue and garden guide, the name of a particular tomato variety may catch your eye: the Paul Robeson tomato. The seed’s description doubles as an advertisement and Black history lesson: ‘Russian heirloom. Original seed sent to SESE by Marina Danilenko, a Moscow seedswoman. Named after Paul Robeson, performer of “Old Man River” and operatic vocal artist who was an advocate for equal rights for Blacks. His artistry was appreciated world-wide, especially in the Soviet Union, and hence this tomato bearing his name.’ Here, again, a plant’s name functions like an archaeologist – uncovering and brushing off buried bones of the Black past.

The names we give vegetal life-forms are never neutral: they can possess, remember, wound, rehabilitate, and vanquish centuries of knowledge. We are compelled to consider how naming can be used to design the world we yearn for. Especially as social discourses regarding the politics of monikers and memory press on (who should our public-square statues venerate?), how will botanical names incubate the collective futures we need?

[1] Londa Schiebinger, Plants and Empire: colonial bioprospecting in the Atlantic World, 2004.

[2] Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: on Blackness and being, 2016.

[3] Jamaica Kincaid, My Garden, 1999.

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