broken walls and narratives

A not so revolutionary blog about feminism, socialism, activism, travel, nature, life, etc.

Archive for the month “June, 2018”

Ten Reasons Why Travel Won’t Make You Better

Top 10 Reasons

Ten Reasons Why Travel Won’t Make You Better

H. Bradford


With the death of Anthony Bourdain, there have been many well meaning articles which encourage people to travel so that they can become better people.  This is a common theme in travel writing- the transformative power of travel. However, I am uncomfortable with this framing- especially the claim that travel makes you better.  Sometimes this claim is qualified by saying that it will make a person more adventurous, more comfortable with strangers, smarter, more flexible, more self aware, etc. I think this is a dangerous narrative, and that believing that travel makes a person better can actually make a person worse.  At the very least, it is a hollow, self-congratulatory platitude for those who have had the privilege of traveling. So, to buck the trend of “travel makes you better” here is a top ten list of how travel doesn’t make you better.

1.Better is Comparative

What is better?  Better is a comparative adjective.  Thus, to argue that travel makes someone “better” means that there is an unnamed subject that the traveler is better than.   Perhaps travel makes a person better than the person they were before they traveled. The comparison is between the past and present self.  More darkly, the comparison could be between the traveler and those who have not traveled. This is problematic because travel is a privilege, which will be addressed later.  While it may seem benign to suppose that travel makes an individual better than they were before they traveled, this argument concedes that the worth of a human being has something to do with how much they have traveled.  Am I a better person because I have traveled? No, the quality of my humanity is no better. I may be more knowledgeable about certain subjects, have some fond memories, or feel proud of confronting my fears but my overall “betterness” is non-existent.  I am no better than the human I was before I traveled and no better than any human who has not traveled.  Really, this vague notion of “better” is inherently hierarchical, as it divides humans (even as individuals) into better and lesser. The danger of this is that, once again, travel is a privilege that not everyone has access to.  It also assumes that travel is intrinsically good.

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Bulawayo, Zimbabwe


2. Better is Subjective

Most people who argue that travel makes you better are probably not intending to divide the world between better and lesser people.  The sloppy comparison is not meant to be harmful. It is just an example of the taken for granted expressions of common speech. When travel blogs argue that travel makes you “better” it is meant to express that travel improves a set of specific characteristics of an individual traveler.  For instance, a travel blog might argue that travel makes a person better at problem solving or better at talking to strangers. Arguably, travel can make someone better at some things. For example, a person who travels frequently may be better at navigating public transportation systems or packing a suitcase (of course, these very specific applications of “better” are not typical of the “travel makes you better arguments” ).  It seems reasonable that a person who packs suitcases often may gain skills in fitting objects into a small space and deciding what not to pack as a matter of experience. Compared to someone who does not pack suitcases, this seems true. However, “better” must still be operationalized. How does one measure the quality of betterness at packing suitcases? The volume of objects that are fit inside? The amount of time it takes to pack said objects?  If these were deemed the measures of “betterness,” travel is not the only act that creates the improvement of these skills, but rather the act of frequent packing that is associated with travel. A person could develop this skill as a hobby, as a competitive sport (the made up sport of timed packing contests), frequent moving, because of work travel, or maybe even playing Tetris. The big idea is that most uses of the word “better” are subjective. “Better” is not an objective measure (as in the packing example, where it is based upon time and volume) but rather personal opinions, emotions, norms, or less measurable qualities.  A person who travels may indeed be “better” at talking to strangers by some objective measures, but this is unlikely to be universally true or true only on account of the travel experience. Finally, the improvement of this skill is only subjectively important. Image may contain: sky, tree, mountain, nature and outdoor

Travel probably has made me “better” at packing and camping… but only marginally.

3.Better is Fleeting

Years ago, I spent a semester in South Korea, I studied Korean history and language.  When I returned to the United States, I maintained my interest in the country for a short time by taking a another Korean history class and reading books.  For a time, it could be said that I was “better” at Korean language and “better” at history (as compared to my pre-travel self and the average American who had not studied these things).  But with time, this knowledge has faded. While I am still more knowledgeable about topics related to Korea than I would have been had I never studied or traveled there, there are still plenty of things I never learned, will never know, and have long forgotten.  The disciplined study of of another language or a country’s history, art, popular culture, music, etc. is a lifelong pursuit that cannot be accomplished simply with a visit, no matter the length. Even becoming an expert in a subject area related to a specific country or area is an ongoing struggle to stay abreast of the latest research.  Without ongoing effort to learn more, question what is known, build upon existing knowledge, and make connections to other areas of knowledge…”better” is subject to entropy. Thus, while travel may make someone “better” in the sense they are more knowledgeable, this kind of better declines with time unless effort is made to maintain or improve upon the original set of knowledge.

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So many forgotten experiences…so much lost knowledge…

Some travel blogs argue that travel makes someone better, not in the area of knowledge, but in personality traits such as flexibility, problem solving, interpersonal skills, etc.  I imagine that these areas are more variable in their decline. A person who learned to problem solve while traveling may have gained a lifelong skill, or, perhaps in other contexts, that same person could become rigid.  On the other hand, some of these traits might grow better with time, irrespective of travel. I imagine that the average person who must work and interact with people would over time improve their interpersonal skills simply as a matter of surviving in a society wherein some level of interpersonal skills are required for maintaining a job, maintaining friendships, and navigating social interactions to meet basic needs like food and shelter.  In any event, whatever “better” is, ultimately it is illusive, temporary, and contextual.


4. Better Rarely Matters

Suppose travel does make a person better in some ways.  I think that my geography skills are probably better than they might be had I never traveled (though my studious roommates who do not internationally travel are much better at geography than I am AND my comrade who has a P.h.d in GIS is infinitely better at geography than I am).  So what? Why does it matter? Why does it matter that I might be better than average at geography or alternatively worse than others at it? My worth as a human being is not dependent upon my geography skills. Knowing geography is useful in some contexts (such as teaching geography, current event literacy, or trivia), but the masses of the world do not live or die by my knowledge of geography.  The masses of the world live and die in poverty, by preventable disease, by the wars inflicted by my own country, and the legacies of colonization exasperated by the inequalities of global capitalism. My knowledge of geography is important only inasmuch as it can be used to understand and dismantle systems of power. Can travel offer insights that can work towards this end? Of course. It can connect people to others, be a tool of solidarity and collaboration, can mobilize others towards common causes, or be a source of education on injustices.  This matters, but only because I value the advancement of social struggle. Travel that makes a person a “better” activist in terms of their effectiveness in advancing struggle certainly has value. Travel that connects and fuels social movements has value. But, almost all of my travel is for pleasure, education, and self-fulfillment. Whatever I gain in the interest of these things, even if I personally become “better”- means little to the rest of the world…which traveling should teach is often entrenched in poverty. What does it matter if I become better at talking to strangers, packing a suitcase, navigating public transportation, or gain the sense I am a more whole person?  What does it matter if I become more knowledgeable about a country’s history or culture? What does better matter unless it is a means to an end? The end of self betterment is not globally liberating. The end of fond memories or confronting fear will not ensure a more just world. Becoming a “better” person simply doesn’t matter. We all die. So the goal of becoming a better person for its own sake is a dead end. Becoming a “better” person…in the interest of becoming a more useful and effective member of movements for social change expands the self beyond an individual life or needs. Of course, this is also draining, disappointing, and doesn’t make for great Instagram photos.  I am not selfless and tireless enough to only travel in the interest of building social change. So, what does my “better” matter, if not for those things? What does anyone’s “better” matter, if not for those things? And, since travel is not required to become better at the things that truly matter (as much as anything matters in the indifferent universe), does travel matter?

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Some of my knowledge from travel is useful when I play trivia with friends

5.Travel is a Privilege:


A major problem with the notion that travel makes you better is that not everyone can travel.   80% of the world lives on less than $10 a day. For most of the world, international travel is not an option because it is simply too expensive.  This means that travel is mostly a source of “betterment” to people from wealthier countries (i.e. often those with colonial histories which enabled earlier economic development at the expense of exploited colonies).  Within wealthier countries where more people may have the leisure time and resources to travel, race, class, gender, sexuality, age, ability, and other sources of social inequality limits who is able to travel and who is not.  I have certainly seen many Australians traveling in Europe, but I would be hard pressed to find an aboriginal Australian among them. This isn’t to argue that aboriginal Australians never travel, but since 19% of the population lived in poverty (in 2014), it would be harder for many of them to afford travel.  16% of Americans live in poverty, but 27% of African Americans live in poverty and 26% of Hispanics. Larger segments of racial minority populations simply cannot to travel on account of poverty, not to mention other barriers such as incarceration or safety issues. 12% of Americans have disabilities. While having a disability does not mean that a person cannot travel, depending on the disability, it could create barriers or restrictions to travel.  Travel safety is also an issue. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, queer, etc. travelers may be restricted in where they can visit to do fear of repression, hate crimes, incarceration, etc. Travel is far easier if you have money, are cisgender male, straight, white, healthy, young, and child free. Of course, there are plenty of people who are not these things and who travel. Still, 63% of Americans have never been outside the country. It is easy to think that Americans are ignorant, xenophobic bumpkins.  In a survey (conducted by a luggage company), 76% of respondents said they wanted to travel but it wasn’t financially possible and 25% said they lacked the time. Only 10% responded that they had no interest. The bottom line is that most people in the world cannot afford to travel or have social barriers to travel. It seems unfair to rate some people as “better” for doing something that is out of the reach of so many more.

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A street in Bridgetown, Barbados



 6.  Not Wanting to Travel is Okay

One of the myths behind travel is that it will open up the world, transforming the traveler into someone who is no longer closed minded, ignorant, prejudiced, provincial, etc.  This implies that people who do not travel are closed minded, ignorant, prejudiced, and so on. Now, I certainly want people to look at the world beyond borders. I want people to think against our foreign policy and national interests.  I agree that society would be better if there was less racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, ableism, and all the other “isms.” But, a person does not have to travel to be an open minded internationalist who wants to end social inequalities.  Travel is not the only means nor the best means to become open minded and globally aware. There are plenty of travelers who travel with their prejudices and ignorance. There are plenty of travelers who change very little after their experience. Travel is not the magic key to betterment.

Most of my friends do not travel.  Yet, all of my friends are aware of the world and committed to social justice.  Some of my friends do not travel due to income, lack of vacation time, health, criminal background, and other barriers.  I have one friend who adamantly says he does not want to travel. Is there anything wrong with this? Why would there be?  Not everyone wants to travel, just as not everyone wants to plant a garden, watch birds, go for long hikes, collect stamps, go to sporting events, attend concerts, scuba dive, or any number of other activities.  Not wanting to travel doesn’t make someone “bad” or stupid, or closed minded, or inferior. It is simply a matter of preference. A person can prefer not to travel, but still have a deep interest in learning about the world and still have a strong commitment to changing social injustices.  Just as a person can travel and be entirely indifferent to social injustice and blind to privilege. There are many ways to learn about the world. Formal education, self-education, employment, community engagement, volunteering, activism, hobbies, etc. can connect individuals to people who are different from themselves and broaden the mind to social justice issues.

7. Travel Can Be Unethical

There are many unethical aspects to travel.  Firstly, travel requires transportation- which generally means using more fossil fuels than one would use if they just stayed home.  Travel can also be a source of waste. For instance, the airline industry produces 5.2 million tons of waste each year in the form of such things as empty bottles, uneaten meals, packaging, etc.

Many countries lack waste management systems, so even if a person wants to recycle or compost, there is a lack of infrastructure to support this, much less the more basic service of garbage collection.  I have certainly littered when in other countries simply because proper trash disposal was nowhere to be found. Increased travel to natural areas can impact plant and animal populations and increased travel anywhere creates more demand for tourist supporting infrastructure such as roads, hotels, stores, and restaurants (which can result in loss of human neighborhoods or natural habitats depending upon where these are built). Travel does not make a person “better” in terms of their environmental impact. Image may contain: mountain, sky, outdoor, water and nature

An underground landfill fire in Grenada- indicating a waste management problem

Travel changes economies.  With the decline of industry in my own region, the economy has shifted more towards tourism.  The impact of this has been the expansion of lower paying, non-union, service industry jobs with higher turnover and greater sensitivity to economic downturn.  Of course, workers can always fight back for higher wages, better conditions, and unions- which has been happening in the service economy, but this takes time and organization.  On a global scale, catering to the tastes of tourists can mean a homogenization or Disneyfication of culture, shift in labor from subsistence to tourist economies or from production to service economies, marketization of culture and environments, privatization of resources, and dependency on tourism (which is a variable source of income), increased reliance on imports (as the economy shifts from producing things to services or to meet the needs of tourists) etc.

At the same time, economies change and tourism fills the gap of industries which once were (but are no longer profitable).  It is very hard for island countries to maintain a global, “competitive advantage” due to trade laws, transportation costs, lack of land, lack of money for capital investment, etc.  For instance, it would be very hard for many Pacific Island countries to be major exporters of produce, since the islands are far from each other, often small, and far away from global markets.  Because of colonization and globalization, subsistence ways of life have been disrupted. Tourism is a way to generate some income and create some jobs. Tourism isn’t necessarily evil and may have the positive impact of injecting money into these economies.  However, the plight of these countries is a complicated mix of colonization, current trade practices, climate change, and tourism. A well meaning tourist can attempt to patronize local businesses or engage in ecotourism, but the global economy is set-up to prohibit the development of some countries and continue the dependency of poorer countries on wealthier ones.  Travel is an aspect of this dependency and the consumption practices of a single traveler, no matter how well meaning, cannot alter the nature of global capitalism. Thus, travel does not make a person “better” in terms of their role in the global economy.

8. Travel is Made Possible by Imperialism

From a socialist perspective, imperialism is a stage of capitalism wherein due to declining profits, developed economies look to perpetuate capitalism and avoid crisis by expanding trade into global markets, integrating more workers into their economies, and by destroying economic competitors.  This is the motor behind globalization. As a U.S. citizen, I have found that ease of travel often correlates with degree of integration within the global economy and acceptance of the United States foreign policy. For instance, travel to North Korea is currently banned for most Americans (by our own government), Cuba was historically a place U.S. citizens were banned from traveling to due to our trade embargo, and American travel to Iran was briefly banned last year after the U.S. travel ban.  Ease of travel is a function of U.S. imperialism (but also imperialism in general). For instance, in countries like Belarus and Turkmenistan, I was unable to use my ATM card. This seems like a minor inconvenience, but generally, this also means that these countries are not well integrated into the global banking system. On the other hand, some countries literally use U.S. dollars. All U.S. “territories” (i.e. modern colonies) use US dollars, including Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.  Zimbabwe also uses U.S. dollars. For countries which don’t, I never have any issue converting my money, since it is widely accepted as a matter of our position in the global economy. The same cannot be said for someone carrying Albanian lek, who would be hard pressed to convert their money due to its obscurity and relative lack of value. In most countries I have traveled to, I have been able to find English speakers. Again, this is a matter of both American and British imperialism- which has spread the English language around the world and made it a language of economic and political importance.  Likewise, Spanish and French are also used due to the history of colonialism and imperialism. Infrastructure which today supports tourists, such as ports, airports, and roads, were often built by colonial powers in the interest of extracting resources from these countries or to support military interests (an extension of imperialism). For example, Kinshasa airport was first built by the Belgians, Cairo International airport was first used as an airfield by the U.S. during World War II, Ahmed Ben Bella airport in Algeria was first used by the French in WWII as an airfield, etc. This isn’t to argue that countries do not build their infrastructure on their own, independent of imperialism, but that imperialism has shaped the globe, making it far easier for me to travel than someone from a country that was never a world power.  Can I really argue that travel makes me “better” when my ability to travel has been lubricated by imperialism?

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(In North Korea in 2010)

9. Travel Has No Intrinsic Value

The nature of value is complicated, since the word value is used in a variety of ways.  In a Marxist sense, something has use value if it has “usefulness” or utility and exchange value if it can be expressed in price or traded as a commodity.  Travel is a set of experiences, but not a singular entity or commodity. It may be many commodities which are consumed in the process of travel. In this sense, to my best understanding, travel does not have use value or exchange value, though aspects of travel may possess these things.  Travel can be broken down into meals, hotel stays, flights, bus tickets, tours, and so on, which have exchange value. But, this is a very mechanistic view of what value means.

When most people talk about the value of travel, they are referring not to the economic value, but the value of memories and experiences.   Of course, on an individual level, these things have value. The problem is that some people idealize this value above other experiences. Is the value of travel greater than the value of other things?  It is tempting for some travelers to revel in the freedom of travel and to frame it as superior to such things as working 9-5, having children, settling down, staying in one place, forming routines, being tied down by responsibilities, and so on.  Does travel have more value than working? Well, travel is often a lot more fun than working. But, is the value of fun greater than the value of work? What is the value of work (not in the Marxist sense) but the everyday, more generic sense? I work at a domestic violence shelter, as a substitute teacher, and at a women’s health clinic.  Reproductive health is a heck of a lot more important than having fun! Access to abortion and other reproductive health care is fundamental to the equality of women (or anyone with the capacity of becoming pregnant). If everyone who worked in this field suddenly decided to take prolonged vacations, resulting in the shutdown of reproductive health services (this is an unrealistic scenario)  society would be worse off. My own work in this area is minimal and part time, so it is important not to overstate my own contribution to this area. The main point is that travel is often framed as better than work, but work has a lot of value. My full time job is at a domestic violence shelter- it is hard to imagine that travel, which is done for fun and selfish reasons, is of a higher importance or value.  Travel is important to me, but the social value of sheltering survivors/victims of domestic violence is greater than the value of travel. Leisure travel does not address a social problem or meet a social need. Image may contain: text

I don’t wish to overstate the importance of work, since work can be draining, stressful, exploitative, a source of struggle, and necessity for survival.  Because work is alienating and exploitative, escape from work through travel is idealized. But, escape from work does not improve labor conditions or improve the lot of working people.  It does not alter the conditions of work. Still, people SHOULD work less. There should be more vacation time and more time to pursue anything which broadens the human experience, including travel, hobbies, community engagement, relationship building, education, etc.  Yes, travel is one of the things that can enrich the human experience. But, so can having children, building meaningful relationships, connecting with a community, planting gardens, going for hikes, or any number of experiences. Work also has the potential to enrich the human experience, but to do so, it must be liberated from capitalist exploitation.


10. Travel Can Make You Worse

Finally, there is no rule that travel will make you better (whatever that is).  Travel can make a person worse. By worse, I mean, it can give a person a sense of inflated importance.  It can make someone believe that they are more knowledgeable or have lived a superior lifestyle. Like the character in Rocky and Bullwinkle, who prattled on about his marvelous adventurous, it can make a person a egotistical, elitist, and out of touch.  Look at me! I’ve been there! I’ve done that! I know all about that! I know the best place to stay! I know the best deals! Of course, I fall victim to this as well, since I often write about travel- pretending that I have some important knowledge or insight to pass on.  Well, I am doing that right now- passing on the insight that travel does not make you better! Image result for commander mcbragg

Travel can make you “worse” in other ways.  Travel can be tiring, stressful, socially exhausting, confusing, make people sick, costly, dangerous, frustrating, disappointing, etc.  The toll of the challenges of travel can bring out the worst characteristics in some travelers. I myself have become withdrawn, anxious, depressed, fatigued, frustrated, judgemental, etc. while traveling.  I can hardly say I am my best self when faced with challenges and new situations. I have certainly observed other travelers melt down or engage in maladaptive behaviors to combat or mute the stress of travel.  Excessive eating, drinking, and spending are some ways that others might cope with the hardships of travel. Drinking too much is especially common. While there might be some awesome, cool, well-adapted, roll-with-the punches travelers out there, there are probably many more than have yelled at hotel staff or looked at difference with disgust.

In a material sense, travel can make you worse.  When I spend money on travel, it means that I am not spending money on other things.  I am going to be far worse off in my retirement years because I spent money on travel rather than saving for old age.  I am not building my savings for a rainy day or unforeseen catastrophe. Travel is not the most prudent thing to spend money on.  However, I value the experiences so I continue to spend money on them.

Travel can make a person’s health worse.  I have been fortunate that I have never become majorly ill from travel, but travel does expose people to diseases that they might not otherwise encounter.  I have almost zero risk of contracting malaria or yellow fever if I just stay home…




This may seem rather negative, but I really feel that travel does not make you “better” just as formal education does not make you “better”, having a professional career does not make you “better,” or any number of other things makes a person better.  I enjoy travel, but it does not make me better. In some ways, it makes me worse than others. I would love to travel more than I do. I encourage others to travel. I admire those who travel. However, I don’t know that it is the path to betterment or that such a pursuit is even a worthy goal.  What is betterment outside of comparison, hierarchy, or elitism? In what ways does “better” concede to an economy that makes money by making us believe that we need to be more than what we are? Of course, at some basic level I want to improve upon myself, grow, change, and experience new things.  But does accomplishing this make me better than others or better than my past self? At the core of these sorts of questions is the bigger question of what is meaningful in a world where everything dies or changes, where life is short and harsh for many, and never fully realized by the vast majority of us.  Through the prism of pain and dying, the “best” among us are those who work the hardest to make the suffering in the world less and work to build a world wherein more people can explore their full humanity. Travel can sometimes support this goal, but for me, it tends to be a diversion.

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Why Moths Matter and How to Attract Them to Your Garden

Moths Matter

Why Moths Matter and How to Attract Them to Your Garden

H. Bradford


Last week I had the odd idea that I wanted to attract moths to my garden.  The idea is only odd because usually gardeners want to rid moths from the garden.  Even though it is actually a butterfly, the cabbage moth (cabbage white butterfly or small white (pieris rapae)) is the scourge of vegetable growers.  Cutworms generally grow into a variety of species of moths.  Tent caterpillars and gypsy moths defoliate trees. Moths get a bad wrap-taking blame for some of the damage done by their more colorful kin.  But, moths are useful in a number of ways. For one, they are important pollinators of the night shift. As a night shift worker myself, I can celebrate the work of these nocturnal comrades.  Moths create silky cocoons, unlike butterflies, which create chrysalis. Humans have benefited by turning the cocoons of silk moths into a textile. Finally, moths are also a source of food for humans, such as the mopane caterpillars which are farmed and eaten in parts of southern Africa.  Aside from human consumption, moths are food for bats, toads, small animals (Larum, 2018) as well as owls, flying squirrels, song birds, tree frogs (“The Xerces Society » Blog Archive » Gardening For Moths”, 2017).  While there are many reasons why moths are important, the main reasons why a gardener might want to attract moths to their garden is for pollination, food to other garden critters, and as a celebration of their nocturnal beauty.

((Edit Note: the heading image for this post features three moth stock images from canva.  I believe the top one may not be a moth since it is not holding its wings flat.  I did not catch this when I created the image))

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(image from Butterfly

Both moths and butterflies belong to the order of insects called Lepidoptera, though moths tend to be characterized by such things as being nocturnal, holding their wings flat, and making silky cocoons.  Recent research suggests that moths and butterflies have been around for over 200 million years, appearing before the first flowering plants. Traditionally, pollinators were believed to have evolved with flowering plants.  However, the discovery of fossilized wing scales has pushed the existence of moths and butterflies back into history from 130 million years to over 200 million. They were first found in the Triassic Period, which is also when the first dinosaurs also appeared.  Early butterflies and moths are believed to have looked more like moths with drab colors. More colorful butterflies only evolved after the extinction of dinosaurs (Osterath, 2018). So, while moths may not get the same attention as butterflies, their characteristics reach deeper back into history.  Today, they out number butterflies 10 to 1. In the United States alone, there are 11,000 species of moths. They outnumber birds and mammal species of North America combined (Konkel, 2012). Image result for moth fossil

Planting for Pollinating Moths:

As I mentioned earlier, moths are overlooked pollinators.  Most studies regarding pollinators focus on diurnal pollinators like bees and butterflies.  Pollinating moths do so when visiting a plant for nectar, which is used for energy, but some pollinate when visiting a plant to lay eggs.  Many plants are pollinated by both diurnal and nocturnal pollinators. Research conducted on 289 species of plants which are pollinated exclusively or partially by moths, representing 75 taxa of plants found that moths are specifically helpful as pollinators because they travel further, have higher quality pollination, and greater interpopulation gene flow (Konkel, 2012). A study of moths in a Portuguese meadow showed that 76% of the moths that were captured carried pollen on them.  One third of the moths had pollen from five or more plant species (Banza, Belo, and Evans 2015). Moths lack jaws, so they only drink nectar. Because moths don’t groom away or eat the pollen, they move more pollen from plants than pollinators that do (Tartaglia, 2015). Thus, moths are useful pollinators because they visit many plants, travel long distances, and don’t eat pollen.

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White lined sphinx moth from

Most moths are generalists, meaning they don’t require a specific plant to feed their larvae or to draw nectar from.  However, there are a few plants such as Western prairie fringed orchid and senita cacti which depend exclusively on moths for pollination (Young, Auer, Ormes, Rapacciuolo, Schweitzer, and Sears, 2017).  Western prairie fringed orchid is a wildflower found in the Midwest, including Minnesota. The orchid is endangered in Minnesota and federally listed as threatened. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, it is pollinated by “bedstraw hawk moth (Hyles gallii), the wild cherry sphinx (Sphinx drupiferarum), the Achemon sphinx (Eumorpha achemon), and the non-native spurge hawk moth (Hyles euphorbiae).” (   It would be impractical, difficult, and sometimes illegal (depending upon how the plant was obtained) to grow this particular orchid,  however a gardener could grow plants which support the pollinating moth populations. For instance, wild cherry sphinx moth larvae are hosted on wild cherry, plum, apple, lilac, and hackberry bushes.  Adults feed on the nectar of deep throated flowers such as Japanese honeysuckle (Wild cherry sphinx Sphinx drupiferarum, 2018). Achemon sphinx moth caterpillars enjoy grape plants and adults feed on the nectar of Japanese honeysuckle, petunias, and phlox (Achemon sphinx Eumorpha achemon, 2017).  Both species are said to like Japanese honeysuckle in particular, which is non-Native plant available at nurseries. Perhaps because the flowers are white, tubular, and fragrant it is a favorite for those moths. Image result for japanese honeysuckle

Japanese Honeysuckle image from Colombia University

Senita cactus and yucca plants are also pollinated exclusively by moths.  If a gardener happens to live in an area which supports yucca or cacti, growing these to attract moths might be a novel idea.  However, Minnesota is not within the range of the yucca moth. There are some yucca varieties which may be cold hardy to zone five, but since the plant is only pollinated by yucca moths it doesn’t make much sense to plant them outside the range of the moth.  Since most moths are generalists, there are plenty of other plants that can attract them to the garden. It is often suggested that gardeners plant pale colored flowers so that moths can see them at night. Though I am not sure if this is scientifically proven, and may be more useful in helping humans see both the moths and flowers in the dark.  It is also often advised that moth attracting flowers should be fragrant at night. Moth attracting flowers include dianthus, red valerian, campion, soapwort, wild honeysuckle, Sweet William, evening primrose, clematis, and flowering tobacco (Carlton, 2015) Heather, lavender, jasmine, mandevilla, madonna lily, phlox, heliotrope, gardenian, butterfly bush, and spider flower are also popular with moths (Miller, 2009)  In Minnesota, four-o-clocks, petunia, fireweed, dwarf blue gentian, dame’s rocket, madonna lily, scarlet bergamot, common bergamot, and weigelia can be grown to attract adult moths and were rated as excellent by Carol Henderson for attracting wildlife (Krischik, 2013).

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Tobacco hornworm moth from

Although it may seem unconventional, reserving some vegetables for moths or larvae, also would draw moths to the garden.  For instance, tomato hornworms grown into attractive, Five spotted hawk moths (Moth Pollination, n.d.). Hawk moths pollinate tubular plants like honeysuckle, datura, brugmansias. (Thompson, 2015).  They belong to the family Sphingidae, which also includes include sphinx moths. Larger species of these moths, such as the white lined sphinx moth, are sometimes mistaken for hummingbirds, and like hummingbirds they are active in the day (or at least some are) and like large, nectar filled blooms.  As a general rule, flowers that butterflies like tend to also be liked by moths. Light colored, tubular, fragrant, night blooming flowers are also attractive to moths and make for a nice night garden.

Beautiful Moths:

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Luna moth from

In addition to attracting adult moths, gardeners can consider attracting moth caterpillars to their garden.  For instance, one of the most stunning moths of Minnesota is the pistachio green Luna moth.  However, Luna moths are among the moths that lack functioning mouths.  Thus, a gardener must consider the needs of caterpillars, which eat the leaves of American beech, willow, White oak, Black cherry, black walnut, red maple, sumac, and other nut and fruit bearing trees (Medina, 2012).  The Polyphemus moth is another stunning moth, and like the Luna moth, it is the Saturnidae family.  This family consists of some of the largest moths in the world, including the Atlas moth of Asia, with a wingspan of up to almost 12 inches across.  One of the largest North American moth is the Royal Walnut moth, which has a wingspan of 4.5 inches and is once again, a member of the Saturniidae family (Konkel, 2012).  These moths are more commonly found in the Southern United States, and as the name suggests, the caterpillars feed on walnut and hickory foliage. Since these non-feeding moths live short lives as adults and do not visit flowers, they are not major pollinators.  However, they are large, beautiful moths often with patterned markings including eye spots. Their caterpillars can also be quite large and remarkable. Planting with these moths in mind is more for beauty than function. Rather than planting vegetables or flowers, planting trees or shrubs would attract these moths.  For instance, in Minnesota, the four inch Cercropia moth caterpillar feeds on cherry, linden, maple, boxelder, elm, oak, birch, willow, hawthorn, and poplar leaves. The moth can have a wingspan of up to six inches or more and it has a bright white and red stripe and eyespot (Cercopia Moth, n.d.). The smaller but also striking three and a half inch, polyphemus moth caterpillar eats the leaves of “ash, birch, maple, oak, and willow. It has also been known to eat grape leaves”  (Hahn, 2005). For those who live in warmer regions and feel like trying an interesting hobby or agricultural endeavor, a gardener could attempt to raise silkworms, which once again, are part of the Saturnidae family.  Silkworm larvae feed exclusively on mulberry leaves.  Minnesota is at the edge of the range of red mulberries, but perhaps due to climate change the tree will expand its range.  Mulberries themselves are attractive trees with bountiful, edible berries. Recently, some red mulberry trees were found growing in Southern Minnesota, but they had otherwise not been documented in the state since 1920 (Thayer, 2017).   In short, a “moth garden” might include trees or shrubs that are attractive to the bold and beautiful Saturnidae family.

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Polyphemus moth from


Lighting the Way:

Some online resources for attracting moths to a garden or yard suggest turning on a yard light.  Anyone who has left a porch light on, knows that this draws moths in. However, I am not sure if this is the best way to attract moths to a garden.  Light pollution may actually contribute to the decline of moths. Moths are attracted to shorter wavelength light, with variation across species and between sexes.  For example, male moths are more attracted to light traps than females. Lights that produce heat can kill or harm moths. Artificial lights impact how females lay eggs, sometimes suppressing egg layings, altering where eggs are laid, or resulting in hyper egg laying.  Lights can also confuse moth’s navigation, their eyesight, and delay nocturnal activity. Artificial lights can give advantages to some moth predators and can hinder a moth’s ability to evade bats (Macgregor, Pocock, Fox, and Evans, 2014). For instance, the tiger moth uses clicking noises to evade the sonar of bats (Konkel, 2012).  One theory is that moths are confused by the light, so they behave as if it is day and bats are not around. Light also disrupts the reproduction of moths, as light disrupts female production of pheromones and male moths become distracted from following pheromone trails. When moths reproduce, artificial light impacts the size of caterpillars, causing them to be smaller (Macgregor, 2017). Image result for moths and light

image from

Because moths evolved to be active in the dark, they do not require much light to find their way.  Moths actually have evolved a keen sense of smell and can follow the scent of a flower several kilometers (Tartaglia, 2015).  A male giant silkworm moths can smell a female from up to seven miles away (Konkel, 2012). Moths do not smell with nostrils, but with their antennae (Tartaglia, 2015).  While scientists often use light to attract moths for studies and perhaps turning the lights on from time to time to get a better peek at moths is probably alright, using lights, or at least short wavelength lights is probably not very helpful to moths.   If a gardener wants to create a night garden for human enjoyment rather than moths, perhaps dim solar lights or glow in the dark garden art would be less disruptive. An even safer idea is to observe moths using red filtered light or to attract moths using smells rather than light.  If a person does choose to have yard lights, avoiding blue light (which is more attractive to moths) and turning out lights or putting them on a timer can reduce the negative impact of light pollution. Finally, some moths can be attracted to the yard with smells rather than light and there are several recipes of how to create moth solutions (Macgregor, 2017).  One recipe calls for 454 grams of black treacle, 1 kg of brown sugar, 500 ml of brown ale, and a paintbrush. After simmering the ale for five minutes, add the brown sugar and treacle, stirring and dissolving, then letting simmer for two more minutes. Once the mixture has cooled, it can be painted onto trees or fence posts, avoiding moss and lichen. Another recipe calls for mixing a bottle of wine with 1 kg of sugar, dissolving the sugar into the wine over heat.  This mixture can be applied to cloth or ropes, which can be hung from trees or posts to attract moths (Butterfly Conservation, 2015). Recipes for moth sugaring or wine ropes can be flexible, using whatever is on hand, including old fruit such as bananas, various sorts of alcohol, sugar, molasses, maple syrup, etc. The mixture should be thick and paste like and can be applied to trees or rope (Moskowitz, 2011).

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image from UNC Charlotte Urban Institute


Moth Conservation:

All pollinating insects have been in decline over recent decades, and with them, the plants that they pollinate.  In Britain, ⅔ of the species of larger moths have declined over the last 40 years. Like diurnal pollinators, nocturnal pollinators like moths are challenged by climate change, use of agro chemicals, and habitat fragmentation (Konkel, 2012).  In the United States, the decline of some moths can also be attributed to the introduction of the parasitoid fly between 1906–1986 to control gypsy moths. Compsilura concinnata did little to control gypsy moth populations and attacks 200 other species of moths and butterflies.  Hawk moths are on of them. IIn a study by Young, Auer, Ormes, Rapacciuolo , Schweitzer , Sears (2017)  one third of the species of hawk moth’s studied had declined between 1900-2012, while four species increased.  Control of two of the moths as pests may have contributed to some decline in addition to the introduction of the parasitic fly.

Gardeners can support moth populations by planting trees, vegetables, and flowers that host their larvae or provide nectar to adults.  Being mindful of light pollution is another way to help moths. Gardeners can also avoid pesticides. Even natural pesticides can be harmful to moths.  Bacillus thuringiensis is toxic to larvae of both butterflies and moths (Miller, 2009). Gardeners can also get involved with National Moth Week, which is held the last week of July.  During the week, participants can join citizen science projects to identify and count local moth populations. Participants can also host events and submit their findings to the National Moth Week website (National Moth Week, n.d.).  Of course, these are mostly small scale, individual, feel good activities. To really protect moths, and all of the life on the planet, individuals must move away from backyard solutions to building social movements against climate change, the profit driven waste and destruction of industrial agriculture within capitalism, and the exploitative relationship to nature that the profit system both encourages and cannot escape.  Environmental movements that mobilize all segments of society towards the overhaul of our economic system and which are given weight by the power of workers and the connections to other mass movements are the only way to challenge the large scale destruction of capitalism.  Thus, while planting white flowers and learning more about moths can be a wonderful hobby, it is no substitute for the structural changes necessary for protecting habitats, changing agricultural practices while ensuring an end to poverty and hunger, and thwarting climate change.  Historically, the example of the Peppered moth illustrated the impact of industrialization on the environment.  I think then that aside from being a night pollinator, moths are a symbol of capitalism.

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Peppered moth image from



Moths are really fascinating.  I have already begun planting with moths in mind and will be on the lookout for these overlooked garden visitors.  Perhaps I’ll even try to participate in National Moth Week this July. Moths are important pollinators, far more plentiful than butterflies, some of the largest insects, misunderstood and under studied, and both economically destructive and important.  At the same time, there are imperiled by habitat loss, light pollution, pesticides, and climate change. I am convinced that moths matter and are worth learning more about it. One of the tragedies of life is that most of the life around us remains anonymous, unknown and unseen.  I lack the time and discipline to uncover the nature of the hidden world around me. In the night, there is a world of moths (among many other creatures). Some lack mouths and live a short time. My senses are muted by capitalism and my own life is too short to learn and do all that I wish to.   Life is truncated by labor and confined by the resources of class. I like moths though. They are night workers like me.


Achemon sphinx Eumorpha achemon (Drury, 1773). (2017, July 30). Retrieved June 15, 2018, from


Banza, P., Belo, A. D., & Evans, D. M. (2015). The structure and robustness of nocturnal Lepidopteran pollen‐transfer networks in a Biodiversity Hotspot. Insect Conservation and Diversity, 8(6), 538-546.


Butterfly Conservation. (2015, September 15). Retrieved June 15, 2018, from–wine-roping.html


Carlton, M. (2015, September). Flowers for Moths [PDF].


Cecropia moth. (n.d.). Retrieved June 15, 2018, from


Hahn, J. (2000, August 15). It’s a hummingbird, it’s a moth, it’s a what? Retrieved June 15, 2018, from


Hahn, J. (2005, August 15). Giant silk moth caterpillars. Retrieved June 15, 2018, from


Konkel, L. (2012, July 27). 7 Things You Don’t Know About Moths, But Should. Retrieved June 15, 2018, from


Krischik, V. (2013). Butterfly and moth garden plants. Retrieved June 15, 2018, from

Larum, D. (2018, April 04). Moth Gardening Information ? What Plants Attract Moths To The Garden. Retrieved June 15, 2018, from

Macgregor, C. J., Pocock, M. J., Fox, R., & Evans, D. M. (2014). Pollination by nocturnal Lepidoptera, and the effects of light pollution: A review. Ecological Entomology, 40(3), 187-198. doi:10.1111/een.12174


Macgregor, C. J., Evans, D. M., Fox, R., & Pocock, M. J. (2017). The dark side of street lighting: impacts on moths and evidence for the disruption of nocturnal pollen transport. Global change biology, 23(2), 697-707.


Macgregor, C. (2017, July 17). Like moths to a flame: National Moth Week, and how you can help our nighttime wildlife. Retrieved from


Medina, M. (2012, May 20). The Gardener’s Eden. Retrieved June 15, 2018, from


Miller, S. (2009, June 21). Pollinators on second shift: Moths. Retrieved from


Moth Pollination. (n.d.). Retrieved June 15, 2018, from


Moths of Minnesota. (n.d.). Retrieved June 15, 2018, from


Moskowitz, D. (2011, December 28). Sugar Baits for Moths: Winter Fun. Retrieved from


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Osterath, B. (2018, January 11). Rethinking evolution: Butterflies came first, flowers came second | DW | 11.01.2018. Retrieved from


The Xerces Society » Blog Archive » Gardening For Moths. (2017, July 21). Retrieved from


Tartaglia, E. (2015, June 25). The Year of the Sphingidae – Pollination. Retrieved June 15, 2018, from


Thayer, S. (2017, May/June). The Rarest Tree | Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Retrieved June 15, 2018, from


Thompson, K. (2015, July 21). Forget butterflies – it’s moths you need to entice to the garden. Retrieved June 15, 2018, from


Wild cherry sphinx Sphinx drupiferarum J.E. Smith, 1797. (2018). Retrieved June 15, 2018, from


Young B, Auer S, Ormes M, Rapacciuolo G, Schweitzer D, Sears N (2017) Are pollinating hawk moths declining in the Northeastern United States? An analysis of collection records. PLoS ONE 12(10): e0185683.

Growing Injustice: Several Problematic Plants


Growing Injustice: Several Problematic Plants

H. Bradford


Warm weather is finally here, so I have spent the last two weeks readying my garden for the season.  Since I’ve been planting more, I have plants on the brain. Lately, I have been thinking about plants and issues of racism (and in one case, anti-semitism).  Some plants have some very questionable names. Other plants have racially sensitive histories that social justice minded gardeners should consider. Plants like Wandering Jew, Kaffir lime, Nyjer seed, Indian Paintbrush, and even Collard Greens may be taken for granted by most growers, but contain issues of race and ethnicity.  Thus, the following blog post offers an overview of some of these offenders, so that we can grow gardens as well as a more just world for everyone! (The list of problematic plants is not comprehensive. I also did not cite sources within the text, but a list of links that I drew from can be found at the end).

Wandering Jew:

If you visit a greenhouse, you may find a plant called a Wandering Jew.  There are several plants that bear this name, including three species of spiderwort plants, four species of dayflower, and two other plants.  The spiderwort species are the sort that seem most commonly used as indoor plants. A few years ago, a local greenhouse recommended a Purple Wandering Jew plant for our home, since they can grow in lower light conditions.  The employee assured my housemate and I that there was nothing antisemitic about the bushy, viney plant. Nearly Natural 27 in. Wandering Jew Hanging Basket The term Wandering Jew comes from 13th Century Christian folklore.  The character is a Jewish man who was said to have taunted Jesus before he was crucified.  As punishment for his taunt, he was cursed to walk the Earth until the return of Christ. In some stories, his clothes and shoes never wear out and after 100 years, he returns to being a younger man.  He was a perpetual traveler, unable to rest, but able to converse in all of the languages of the world. This is not based on any actual Biblical story, though it may have been inspired by the story of Caine and European paganism.  Much like Big Foot or ghosts today, Europeans of the time believed that they had actually seen this character. For hundreds of year, even into the present day, this character has appeared in literature and art. Image result for wandering jew art

Gaston Malingue’s painting “The Wandering Jew”

While the character is very fictional, the antisemitic context the character was born from is not.  In 1290, Edward the I expelled all Jewish people from England. During the middle ages, Jews were banned from owning land.  They were also barred from trade guilds. Medieval cities also relegated Jewish populations to certain areas. In the 14th century, Jews were expelled from France, Germany, Portugal, and Spain.  Expulsions and exclusion from various economic activities provided a material reality for the idea that Jewish people were outsiders or wanderers. Thus, “The Wandering Jew” represents not only a person, but a stereotype regarding the nature of all Jewish people.  This stereotype has been used in modern times to incite hate, such as the Nazi film entitled “Der Erwige Jude,” which revived and modernized the medieval myth and envisioning modern Jewish people as criminal, lazy, and perverse cosmopolitans who controlled the world through banking, commerce, politics, and the media.  The idea of the Wandering Jew has

With this history in mind, calling a rambling, hard to destroy plant a “Wandering Jew” does not seem like the most culturally sensitive nomenclature, to say the least.   Interestingly, the Swedish Cultural Plant Database (SKUD) has changed the name of the “Wandering Jew” plant as well as another plant with an anti-semitic name (Jew Cherry which we know as Chinese Lantern Plants).  I am uncertain what SKUD renamed the plant to, but perhaps Purple Spiderwort, Variegated Spiderwort, or Wandering Spiderwort might be some good ideas. There are other plants with “Jew” in their title and these should be changed as well.   While not a plant, no one should call a wood ear mushroom a Jew’s Ear. I could find no similar examples of plant names that are unflattering/prejudiced towards Christians or other religious groups, but if there were and even if the group did not share the same history of oppression and genocide, there seems no reasonable argument to use derogatory common names.  If I saw such plants at a local store or greenhouse, I would suggest a name change to the manager.

Collard Greens:

A few years ago, I planted collard greens.  I was curious about this vegetable and wanted to grow it because I enjoy trying new things.  However, my housemate suggested that the name was racist since it sounds like “Coloured Greens.”  The leaf green is associated with African American cuisine, so it seemed plausible that the name may have had a more racist origin.  Thankfully, it doesn’t! The word Collard comes from “colewort” in Middle English perhaps influenced by Old Norse “kal” for cabbage, and earlier still, kaulos, which is Greek for stalk.  The “Col” and collard is found in other words like cauliflower, kale, coleslaw, German kohl for cabbage, etc.

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While the leafy green is more prominent in the cuisine of the Southern United States, it is also used in Brazilian, Indian, and Portuguese cooking.   It was cultivated in Greek and Roman gardens 2000 years ago as is closely related to kale. Prior to this, it is theorized that wild cabbages were in cultivation in Europe 3000 years ago and up to 6000 years ago in China.  Leafy cabbages were also grown in Mesopotamia. While collard greens in particular (in contrast to other leafy cabbages) have long been consumed by Europeans, the history is not devoid of racism or contention. A controversy arose a few years ago when Whole Foods Co-op suggested that customers buy collard greens and prepare them with ingredients such as cranberries, garlic, and peanuts.  Some African Americans felt that this was cultural appropriation of a vegetable used in their cuisine and food gentrification of a vegetable by white people who have recently discovered it and have now re-imagined it as something trendy. This critique is not unfounded. Afterall, Neiman Marcus sold out of their $66 frozen trays of collard greens in 2016. Historically, collard greens, like many members of the cabbage family were poor people food.  (Though Romans actually esteemed cabbages as medicinal and a luxury.) Members of the cabbage family are cool season crops with mild frost resistance, making them part of winter staples or lean time food. Image result for neiman marcus collard green African Americans came to the United States as slaves and were only allowed to grow a small selection of vegetables for themselves.  Collards were one of them. While the vegetable is not African in origin, the methods of preparation were. West Africans use hundreds of species of leafy greens and prepare them in ways that maintain their high nutrient content.  Enslaved Africans found fewer wild greens here and came to rely on collards, which were brought here by the British. (Depending upon where the slaves were taken from, they may have been familiar with leafy cabbages as in the Middle Ages, cabbages of various sorts were traded into Africa through Morocco and Mali).  They are unique among cabbages in that they can continue to produce leaves over their growing season. They can be harvested for months when other vegetables quit in the cold weather. Collards helped slaves to survive due to their productivity. For this reason, poor white people also grew collards. It is a cheap, productive, healthy plant.  Although white Southerners grew the plant, it was a marginal crop to European settlers and African Americans deserve credit for popularizing the use of greens and their preparation. Image result for collard greens

image from

I love plants.  I love gardening.  I have no problems eating vegetables.  But, collard greens do raise the question of how white people (at least those who aren’t poor and from the south) should approach collard greens.  On one hand, when food is gentrified, the cost goes up for those who have traditionally eaten it. For instance, after kale was deemed a superfood, its cost rose 25%.  If food prices rise, it can drive poor people to unhealthier, cheaper foods. Collard greens are also a problem when they are commercialized and fetishized. Judging by the tone and content of internet articles on this topic, I don’t know that most African Americans would take issue with a white individual growing a small amount of collard greens for personal, private use for love of gardening and attempting to try new vegetables.  In the case of Whole Foods and Neiman Marcus, it represented capitalizing on and changing the culinary traditions of Black people. The foods were presented in inauthentic ways, devoid of history, and for profit by cashing in on a contextless notion of the exotic. Since the vegetable is tied to the traumatic history of survival and slavery and has cultural importance (such as a feature of New Year’s meals) it isn’t something to take lightly.   Collard greens have double the iron and protein than kale and 18% more calcium, so there may be legitimate reasons that many people should grow them. Personally, I am curious about many vegetables. Does my curiosity “Colombusize” the culture, culinary traditions, or agriculture of others? In small ways, yes. My hope is that I can be mindful of my decisions and the history/power embedded in even the simplest things.

Nyjer Seed:

Anyone who wants to attract finches to their yard may be familiar with nyjger seed, which is also called thistle seed.  The seed does not come from the thistle plant and the name “nyjer seed” seems suspiciously like another n word. When I was a kid, the seed was spelled “niger” which also makes the seed a little suspicious.  We pronounced it in a way that is similar to Nigeria or Niger in Africa. Unfortunately, some people did not pronounce it this way and instead thought it was pronounced like a racial slur. The bird seed industry actually changed the name of the seed because it had confused people or had been mispronounced.  Nyjer is the 1998 trademarked name of the Wild Bird Feeding Industry. Image result for niger seed While the name might suggest that the seed came from Nigeria or Niger, nyjer seed actually comes from the Guizotia abyssinica plant which grows in the highlands of Ethiopia.  I found a reference to the seed being called Nigerian thistle, which to me indicates that whomever named the seed must have had some confusion about the geography of Africa or, perhaps generically called it “niger” seed as a stand in for Africa itself.  Nigeria, Niger, and the Niger River are all located in West Africa whereas Ethiopia is in East Africa. The genus Guizotia contains six species, of which five are native to Ethiopia. A distribution map of the species shows that it grows naturally in some areas of Uganda, Malawi, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sudan.  It also grows in India, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Nepal. The plants found in and around India are believed to have been brought there long ago by Ethiopian migrants, who also brought millet to the region. Therefore, Nyger seed really has nothing to do with the countries of its (former) namesake and represents a sort of “imagined Africa” rather than any geographical or botanical reality. Image result for niger seed ethiopia

  Field of Nyjer Seed plants in Ethiopia

While in the United States, most people feed the oily black seeds to birds, it is used in the cuisines of India and Ethiopia.  It has been been grown in Ethiopia as an oil crop since antiquity and today, makes up 50% of Ethiopia’s oil seed production. Overall, the main producer of commercial nyjer seed is India, followed by Myanmar and Ethiopia.  About 50,000 metric tons of the seed are imported each year into the United States. It is the only commercial bird seed which is largely imported. This seems to be a tremendous amount of seed- which ultimately goes to bellies of wild birds!  The use of nyjer seed seemingly follows the rise of the U.S. as a post-war global power. Bird feeding became more common through the 1950s, which resulted in demand for commercial bird food. As people increasingly fed birds, it became apparent that certain seeds were likely to attract different (more socially desirable) species of birds.  Nyjer seed was adopted as a bird food in the United States in the 1960s. The first tube feeders used for the seed became commercially available in 1972. In the late 1960s, the seed had to be treated with heat, because it was often accompanied by the seeds of invasive weeds. All nyger seed imports must be subjected to 250 degree heat sterilization treatment. Image result for niger seed ethiopia

image from Northwest Nature Shop

Despite small scale experiments, Nyjer is not currently grown in North America, and in an experiment between N.A grown seen and Ethiopian seed, the birds preferred the Ethiopian grown seed.  Reading between the lines, it is important to think about what the import of this seed actually means. Various countries have tried to grow this seed, including the Soviet Union under the guidance of Ivan Vavilov.  However, the plants do not yield enough seeds to make it economically viable. The region of India which produces the most seed is Madhya Pradesh, which is the sixth poorest part of India (per capita GDP). The regions which grow the seed are also home to ethnic minorities, such as Nagar Haveli which is the home of the Warli tribe.  While I could find no articles which specifically addressed the plight of nyjer seed farmers, it stands to reasoning that because the center of production for these seeds are underdeveloped countries (and even greater underdeveloped regions within those countries) that the work conditions of those farmers is probably characterized by low pay, long hours, and hard work.  Since some of these countries actually used these seeds as an oil and a human food, the movement towards exporting the seeds to the West as bird food has likely reduced its use as a subsistence crop. Finally, the fact that it has not been viable in the agriculture of more developed countries means that it is probably a labor intensive crop (and our labor is too expensive due to labor laws, organization) hence, the fact that it is imported rather than domestically grown.

Personally, I love birds.  I want to attract finches to the yard and provide them with a fatty, seed that they love.  At the same time, it certainly represents a lot of privilege that I can buy imported seeds (sometimes eaten by humans) to give to the birds.  The origin of the seed itself is obscured by its name. There seems to be a lot wrong with nyger seeds. I think that my task as a socialist is to learn more about the specific labor conditions related to the seeds (since there is not a lot of information out there).  If there was more awareness regarding the seeds, perhaps there would be more interest in fair trade or better working conditions for those producers. It is also possible that I could try growing my own seeds for the birds rather than relying on expensive imported seed.  Nyger seed as been experimentally grown on a small scale in Minnesota. I think it is a fascinating seed with a wealth of history. At the same time, more should be done to illuminate the history and economic conditions of the seed.

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Image from The Zen Birdfeeder


Kaffir Lime:

About a year ago, I picked up some gardening books from the library.  One of the books was about growing citrus indoors. It introduced me to the Kaffir Lime.  I really didn’t think anything of this name at the time. It sounded vaguely Middle Eastern, but I didn’t associate it with any particular meaning.  Little did I know that kaffir is actually a racist term. The k-word is a racial slur in South Africa. The k-word was used in Arabic to describe non-believers, but was used by European colonists in South Africa to describe the African population.  The word is so offensive, that there have been legal actions taken against those who have used the slur in South Africa. The name of the lime itself may come from Sri Lanka, where the lime is grown and where there is an ethnic group which self identifies as kaffirs.  It is also possible that the fruit literally referred to non-believers, as it may have been named by Muslims who saw it cultivated by non-Muslims in Southeast Asia. However, because the word is racially offensive in most other contexts and considered hate speech in South Africa, a different name is an order.  In Southeast Asia, the fruit is called Makrut, which has been suggested as a viable name change. Image result for kaffir lime

Indian Paintbrush:

While this example is not as offensive as the k-lime, there are many plants that are named “Indian x” such as Indian Paintbrush, Indian posy (butterfly weed), Indian Blanket (Firewheel), Indian pipe, Indian grass, etc.  There are many North American plants which have common names which invoke something related to Native Americans. However, the way that these common names are used are not accurate, flattering, or supportive of Native Americans.  For instance, Indian Paintbrush sounds quaint. As a child, I imagined that perhaps the flowers were really used as paint brushes by Native Americans. Indian Paintbrush, also called Prairie Fire, was used as a leafy green, medicine, and shampoo by some Native Americans.  But, it was not used as a paintbrush. While the flower may resemble a brush covered in bright red paint, it could easily be called Paintbrush plant. Using the word “Indian” invokes something wild, mythical, or even something silly (such as literally using the plant as a paintbrush).  It reduces Native Americans into an idea about something primitive, whimsical, or even non-existent rather than actual, living people, with actual uses for plants. This is true of the other plants as well. Many of the “Indian” plants are wild plants that are not commonly domesticated (though some are used in ornamental or “Native” gardens.  There is also a colonizing tone to these names, as these are not the names that Native Americans themselves gave the plants but imagined names from colonizers and their descendents. There are often alternate common names for these plants, so there is no excuse to call them names which invoke a mythical idea of Native Americans. Better yet, maybe some of the plants could be given names from actual Native American languages.  This would demonstrate that Native Americans knew, used, and named these plants long before the arrival of settlers. For instance, Ojibwe called the Indian Paintbrush plant Grandmother’s Hair (though I don’t know what this translates to in Ojibwe). Since plants were used by many tribal groups for different purposes, it would be difficult to determine which language should take precedence over another. At the very least, I think it is important to be mindful of language and consider existing alternative names (which I haven’t always been, since I was raised calling certain plants Indian Pipe or Indian Paintbrush).

Image result for indian paintbrush

image from Wikipedia


There will always be some people who feel that these issues are no big deal.  Some of these people feel that there is nothing offensive about using traditional plant names or that they know a Jewish person who doesn’t mind “Wandering Jew” or a Native American friend who likes to call plants Indian Paintbrush or Indian Grass.  The world is diverse and certainly there are diverse opinions on these matters. To those folks, this probably seems like much ado about nothing. On the other hand, others may feel that issues of racism or oppression in general are much bigger than the kind of bird seed we use or what we call a lime.  It is better to focus on the big picture than get caught up in the nuances of language. As for myself, I feel that this is a fascinating topic to think about and that to me, it uncovers subtle and not so subtle ways that various kinds of oppression are built into something as simple as what we call a plant or what we grow in the garden.  For me, thinking about these topics is intellectually satisfying (I am interested in learning more about the history of plants) as well as a way for me to be a better, more mindful activist. At the end of the day, helping to grow social movements is far more important than the plants that we grow and know. Growing as an activist means working with others in organizations towards social change, but also the internal change that comes with challenging assumptions and rethinking what is taken for granted.  With that said, hopefully this post helps others to grow in how they think about plants, but also their place in society.

Sources on Wandering Jew:
Sources on Collard Greens:

A Letter to the Newgrorati: Of Collards and Amnesia$66-collard-greens/1589488/


Nyger Seed Sources:


K-Lime Sources:

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