Have you heard of the spongy moth?

Lymantria dispar caterpillar on foliage 
photo by KV Salisbury
Larva of Lymantria dipar, the Spongy Moth

Yes! Yes you have.

The spongy moth is the new common name for Lymantria dispar the insect formerly known as the Gypsy moth.

Why the name change? The Entomology Society of America recently voted to change the accepted common name of this invasive pest to Spongy Moth to acknowledge the problematic use of the term ‘Gypsy’. Gypsy is a derogatory term referring to the Romani people, a nomadic group of European people. Now the common name, instead of using a derogatory term, references the spongy nature of the moth’s egg masses. The ESA has begun a Better Common Names project understanding that often common names are used without thought or understanding about the context in which they were first used.

While the ESA is focused on the insect world, the same problems occur with the common names (and scientific names) of plants as well.

Hoyt Arboretum highlights some of the racism in the taxonomy of plants in their blog post: Racism in Taxonomy: What’s in a Name? The Houseplant Hobbyists also posted a blog featuring the troubling stories behind some of the common names of the houseplants found in so many of our homes. If you are interested in learning more:

In the past we have had some fun with our plants’ names and we have expressed our frustration with seemingly constantly changing plant names but we also need to address some of the problematic plants on our lists. Sorghastrum nutans is one example.

Sorghastrum nutans - Yellow Prairie Grass 
Photo by K V Salisbury
Sorghastrum nutans – Yellow Prairie Grass

Sorghastrum nutans – listed as Indiangrass – recommended common name: Yellow Prairie Grass – why? the term Indian may be offensive to the indigenous people of this area. If you want to look more into this – check out this research paper on restoring indigenous names in taxonomy. Remember many of the names we know for plants were given to the plants by European colonizers without any regard to the existing names used by indigenous cultures of the area.

Like most in the green industry we have a lot to learn and a lot of work to do. Changing common names, creating newly accepted common names is relatively low hanging fruit. We all need to raise awareness about this issue, gently remind people about the preferred and appropriate names and advocate for the change of problematic scientific names as well.

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