My daughter and I walked through the local garden center trying to find a plant we had admired on a front porch in our neighborhood. It had beautiful magenta and blue-green leaves that spilled from a hanging basket. We wanted to ask for assistance but couldn't possibly have the name right. "I think it's called The Wandering ... No, that can't be it. Can it?" Neither of us wanted to complete the name that kept popping into our heads. It sounded wrong — offensive, even. However, a quick Google search on our phones confirmed we had the correct common name: The Wandering Jew plant. Its scientific name is tradescantia zebrina.
As we become more culturally aware of how damaging inappropriate sports mascots are, it only makes sense that we'd notice racist labels in other areas as well. Many online plant and garden communities have taken to calling tradescantia zebrina "The Wandering Dude."
The good news is there are no rules when it comes to common names for plants, and some plants have many. Tradescantia zebrina is a spiderwort that is also known as an inchplant. But if you want to find it at Home Depot or Lowe's, you'll have to search for "The Wandering Jew" on their websites.
Scientists tend to not like common names because they want identification to be more specific. Dr. Maggie Whitson, associate professor of botany and director of the John W. Thieret Herbarium for Northern Kentucky University, explains: "Countries that many of these common names came out of were predominantly Christian so people were educated in the Bible, they had read the Bible, and had heard Bible stories. So when you attached one of those stories to a plant name it was a common point of reference and a picture immediately came to mind."
Names based on legend became popular because they quickly communicated a dominant feature of the plant. Such is the case with tradescantia zebrina. "Really, the important part of the name is the 'wandering' part because it's a viney spreading plant," says Whitson.
The Christian legend of the "The Wandering Jew" does not exist in the Bible but instead first appeared when a medieval English chronicler told the story of an Armenian man who claimed in 1228 to be Pontius Pilate's doorkeeper. The story says he was cursed to wander the Earth until the Second Coming because he claimed to have punched Jesus on his way to Calvary. According to Britannica.com, the legend became popular again in the early 1600s when anti-Semitism was on the rise. A German pamphleteer updated the story with a recent sighting of "The Wandering Jew." The pamphlet was then translated into many languages, with more sightings of this cursed individual surfacing. He was even reported to be seen in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1868.
As for the botanical side of this legend, I found reference to plants with this common name in horticultural books dating back to the 1830s. Whitson says, "The nice thing about common names is, because there really are no rules, there's no reason why you can't change one if you don't like it."
That's exactly what's happening at the grassroots level in online plant communities. We just need big-box garden centers to grow with the times and sell tradescantia zebrina as "The Wandering Dude."
Bonnie Jean Feldkamp is a wife, mother and award-winning columnist. She is the media director of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. Find her on social media @WriterBonnie, or email her at [email protected] To find out more about Bonnie Jean Feldkamp and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
Photo credit: Quercus2018