‘Nice Apples’ and Other Problematic Plant Language

How does the language of botany reflect its sexist and racist past?

Plants are not vaginas.

While this seems obvious, Instagram has disabled Stephanie Sarley’s Instagram account because she posts images fingering fruit. Because the images of fruit are evocative of vaginas (and vaginas must be hidden), she has faced censorship on social media.

This sexualization of plants is rooted in the history of botany and scientific terminology. Repeatedly I have the same conversation with several scientists: “Don’t you think it is arbitrary that plants are designated as male and female?” And my fellow scientists respond: “No, because there are differences between male and female plants, such as sperm (pollen) and ovules.”  Endless metaphors reinforce this logic, resulting in the echo chamber that is plant science, where we are taught again and again that plants have male and female reproductive parts. This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the problematic nature of botanical language, which often contains words and concepts rooted in racist, sexist, and cissexist ideas. The categories “male” and “female” were given to plants in order to reinforce white, male supremacy and oppressive systems that persist in science today.

Linnaeus: The father of oppressive taxonomies

Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) was a Swedish botanist and biologist, who created a system for organizing life that became the basis for modern taxonomy and created a Latin naming system for living things called binomial nomenclature. This system is both the basis for much of modern biology and also lay the foundation for “racial hierarchy” and eugenics due to how he classified humans according to race. His study of plants created the scaffolding for modern botany, which includes legitimizing the gendering of plants.

Linnaeus chose to focus on reproductive organs [as the foundation for plant classification]…First he set up twenty-four classes by counting the number of male stamens in the flower; he then subdivided each class into less important orders based on the number of female pistils…In his scheme, the most basic division is between male and female, and Linnaeus gave priority to masculine characteristics. In other words he imposed onto the plant kingdom the sexual discrimination that prevailed in the human world…Through his closed loop, Linnaean classification not only mirrored social prejudice but reinforced it.[1]

The Linnaean classification system was considered revolutionary because Linnaeus  classified plants based on their reproductive systems. However, in pursuing this end, he perpetuated a longstanding practice of ascribing gender to plants and embedded this practice within his classification system, such that science formally recognizes plants as male and female. Not only does the Linnaean system render contemporary botanical language complicit in reinforcing the gender and sex binary, but it also conflates plant and human reproduction:

The Calyx then is the marriage bed, the corolla the curtains, the filaments the spermatic vessels, the antherae the testicles, the dust [pollen] the male sperm, the stigma the labia or the extremity of the female organ, the style the vagina, the german the ovary, the pericarpium the ovary impregnated, the seeds the ovula or eggs. [2]

The gendering of plants is not only an expression of the sexist ideologies of scientists, but also presented challenges for European women participating in botany. Due to Victorian sexual taboos, this system of classification further inhibited female botanists from participating in the field:

Victorian women botanists were still affected by the fallout from Linnaeus’s creation of a binomial classification system for plants in his Species Plantarum of 1753. This revolutionized botany, yet it had turned the singular barrier of Latin language into a double one for female students; not only the difficulty of access to a classical education, but also a problem of sexual decorum. For Linnaeus’s system was based on the claim (originally made in his Praeludia Sponsaliorum Plantarum in 1729) that the reproductive parts of plants paralleled the sex organs of animals. Botany became ‘the most explicit discourse, in the public domain, on sexuality during the mid eighteenth century.’ [3]

Do plants conform to a gender binary?

As someone who studies plants, I find the concept of “male” and “female” plants both oppressive and confusing, reinforcing gender and sex binaries and inaccurately portraying plant reproduction. I do not deny that plants can exchange gametes, that haploid and diploid phases (having 1 or 2 sets of chromosomes) do exist and can be crucial for plant reproduction, but I chafe at the use of the terms “male” and “female.” Linnaeus’ marriage bed metaphor sexualizes me and his classification system considers me inferior. Furthermore, their use fails to capture the complexity and fluidity of plant sexual and asexual reproduction. For example, many forms of sexual plant reproduction require pollinators. Pollinators (bats, bees, butterflies, wind) often help transfer “sperm” to the “ovule” to allow for an embryo (the seed) to be made. The role of these pollinators complicates the tropes of male and female reproduction expressed through gendered plant science.

By imposing the male-female paradigm on the plant kingdom (and rest of the animal kingdom), scientists have created systems for humans to see this false dichotomy reflected by the “natural order” of the world. This outdated heteronormative (conforming to traditional gender roles based on conventions of heterosexual relationships) version of plant reproduction is not in any way representative of the myriad methods plants use to reproduce. Plants participate in clonal, “asexual” reproduction, which immediately transcends the male-female paradigm. The term “selfing” or self-pollination refers to plant reproduction in which gamete exchange occurs within the same flower (these plants are known as hermaphroditic, bisexual, or androgynous). The selfing and cloning performed by plants disrupts the flawed Linnaean strategy of creating “human equivalencies” to explain plant reproduction. Reinforcing the gender binary through botanical terminology normalizes a harmful gender binary, fundamentally excluding trans and gender nonconforming people, while not fully characterizing the complexities of plant reproduction.

As a woman who does botanical fieldwork, the logistics of having a vagina in the field are a constant reminder that my body is considered inferior. From the simple act of peeing outdoors in a desert with no trees to the moment my period comes at the exact wrong time and a tampon, diva cup, or any sort of flow stopper is nowhere in sight, the most basic bodily functions are not talked about but I have regularly felt the shame when I bleed through my pants in a science class (on multiple occasions). From the inconvenience of these mundane tasks [4] to the sexual harassment reported by people working in outdoor spaces, I often feel vulnerable in my body when outdoors. [5] I am constantly confronted by Linnaeus’ view of human and plant anatomy, both in conducting my research and living in a body that has been classified as lesser-than.

What do plants have to do with white supremacy and colonialism?

The Linnaean classification system, which extends beyond plants to include humans and other life forms, created a foundation for scientific racism and modern eugenics.  Linnaeus’ racist ideologies manifested themselves in the violence that resulted from botanical exploration. Linnaeus was a huge proponent of botanical cultivation and exploration for profit, a practice which contributed to the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the development of plantations which used slavery to grow plants for imperial profit. [6] Botanists contributed to and were complicit in this practice.

Nation-building through conquest has often required scientific knowledge to allow for exploration, conquest, and profit. Science and technology have often fueled the rise of nations and the conquering of other groups. Beginning in roughly the 18th century, botanists played a key role in European conquest, participating in expeditions to find plants for profit. Upon arrival at “newly discovered places” – which were often already communities that had been established for thousands of years – the botanists would “find” “new” plants and claim them as their own to be used for the profit of the empire being built.

Plants carry names that further reinforce the integration of white supremacist human conceptions of sex and gender into plant science. For example, the discourse around native and invasive species, a hot topic in the botanical world, reflects how pervasive conceptions of plants according to human and social constructs insinuate themselves in botany. Species are deemed introduced if they arrived in America after the arbitrary date of 1492 (when Columbus “discovered” the “New” World, thus catalyzing the violent colonization and genocide of indigenous people in the “New” World): “As usual, the nativist dream of eradicating the interloper is intertwined with a fantasy of restoring the landscape to its ‘original’ condition.” [7] The language of invasion is racially coded, referring to “oriental exotics” and descriptions of plants as having agency and acting with aggressive or destructive intentions that take resources away from native plants. These tropes echo anti-immigrant sentiment in America. While on a garden tour at a place that prides itself in planting exclusively native plants, the tour guide described Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) as a “thug plant.”

The designation of plants as male and female and gendered metaphors goes hand in hand with the objectification of conquered people and places. For example, terms such as “virgin landscape,” often used to describe “empty and pristine wildernesses” simultaneously erase and sexualize the people and places being conquered. Colonialism, and the foundations of white supremacy upon which it lays, contributed to both the violent conquest of people and the gendered, heteronormative language often found in botany and ecology.

These racist names are also often sexualized and exotified. [8] In the illustration accompanying this article, there are excerpts torn from gardening magazines which feature the sexualized language used to discuss plant reproduction, the exotification of invasive plant names, and the primacy placed on native plants, but not native people. For example, magazines sell seed variety called “Sweet Sultan,” “Jet Black or Nigra: This variety was mentioned in 1629 and was planted in the gardens at Monticello by Thomas Jefferson” a prominent slave holder, and “Basil, Siam Queen Thai.”  Other examples of sexually charged botanical captions include: “Bodacious brassicas,” “The irresistible Epimedium: Exquisite flowers, delicate foliage, and easy dispositions make them perennials to pant for,” [9] “Ecologically desirable,” “Roses for hips,” “Sneaky, Sexy Orchids,” and “What I learned of the prostitute orchid forced me to revise my estimation of what a clever plant is capable of doing to a credulous animal.” [10] The practice of slut-shaming plants contribute to and normalizes slut-shaming humans.

I am asking scientists who do not question the fact that plants “are male and female” to consider the influence of misogynistic science on my field of study and on my body. Linnaeus’ legacy sexualizes me, yet also still makes space for me, as a white cis woman within his system. As a white female scientist I face regular sexism, but also benefit from white feminist efforts that advance white women in STEM fields without addressing huge racial disparities that also exist in STEM.

These sexualized, gendered, and racialized plant names and reproductive processes reflect injustice and oppression in the human world. We must interrogate how and why we organize plants according to the Linnaean system and reimagine anti-oppressive conceptions of plant reproduction, naming, and language.

[1] Fara, P. (2012). Erasmus Darwin : sex, science, and serendipity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[2] Philosphica Botanica, Carl Linnaues 1751 from Bloom: The Botanical Vernacular in the English Novel by Amy King

[3] C. M. (Caroline Mary) Jackson-Houlston, “‘Queen Lilies’? The Interpenetration of Scientific, Religious and Gender Discourses in Victorian Representations of Plants,” Journal of Victorian Culture 11, no. 1 (July 2006): 84–110, doi:10.1353/jvc.2006.0005.

[4] There have been some exciting efforts to fight the menstruation taboo for people experiencing periods in the field http://www.nature.com/news/fighting-the-menstruation-taboo-in-the-field-1.19372

[5] The article “Out Here, No One Can Hear You Scream” follows the stories of people who have experienced sexual assault in national parks http://highline.huffingtonpost.com/articles/en/park-rangers/

[6] Botany was “hand in hand with European colonial expansion….Mercantilism flourished through the fecund coupling of naval prowess to natural history. Eighteenth-century botanical exploration followed trade routes, as naturalists of all stripes found passage on trading-company, merchant marine, and naval vessels headed for European territories abroad. Because most physicians and surgeons were trained in botany in this period, naval and royal physicians as well as East and West India Company surgeons stationed in Europe’s far-flung colonies all contributed to worldwide plant collecting networks….The botanical sciences served the colonial enterprise and were, in turn, structured by it”— Schiebinger, Plants and Empire

[7] Andrew Cockburn, “Weed Whackers,” Harper’s Magazine, September 2015, http://harpers.org/archive/2015/09/weed-whackers/.

[8] The exotification of tropical plants and indigenous women from tropical regions cannot be separated from one another given the history of collectors taking advantage of indigenous women and local knowledge. In addition to introducing sexually transmitted diseases, European explorers had sexual encounters with indigenous women. For example, “The female dancers found it advantageous to keep their eccentric visitors [Joseph Banks and Captain Cook] happy…His [Banks’] special flame was Otheothea, the personal attendant of a high ranking woman, Purea- or Queen Oberea as she was mistakenly called by the Europeans, who misheard her name and elevated her rank because they were insensitive to fine social distinctions between people they lumped together as an inferior race. During the Dolphin’s visit Purea had taken over Wallis’ social agenda. She distracted him from perpetrating further carnage amongst islanders by entertaining, massaging, and feeding him”—Fara, Sex, Botany and Empire: The Story of Carl Linnaeus and Joseph Banks.

[9] The accompanying title on the American Gardener magazine cover was “Hooked on Epimediums: An addict confesses.”

[10] A white man, Michael Pollen, wrote the National Geographic article caption about the prostitute orchid and the sneaky, sexy orchid.

Sophie Duncan is a queer robot beep-booping her way through grad school one rusty, robot heartbeat at a time. She likes plants (ALOT ALOT) and dabbles in the sophisticated science of caring for pet-rocks. When she’s not making weird things with glue and paper, she thinks about how shooting stars are the universe’s garbage. or something.