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(Re)naming a Plant – the Magic in a Name

To many, calling a name equals casting a spell, as names are often assigned with magic or spiritual power. Such belief spreads widely geographically among different tribes. In modern days, we know that an alien name also triggers part of our brain to generate the feelings of fear, rejection and avoidance. And you may have guessed, “japanese” indicates an exoticness for Europeans, who have seen the wild spread of this once foreign plant. We would like to ask you - is a name simply a name? Can we give this demonized plant a new name? 

Brief answers by botanical philosopher Norbert Peeters and ecological advisor Sus Willems are attached, for your kind reference.


A title picture with Japanese Knotweed for a related article by Leyang Fu -

The Magic in A Name 

A name is like a vessel, carrying lore, beliefs, and mysteries. Our ancestors passed on interesting yet similar tales around names. To many, calling a name equals casting a spell, as names are often assigned with magic or spiritual power. Such belief spreads widely geographically among different tribes.[1] Yet we do not need to trace a thousand years back to draw an example, as nowadays parents still convey their best wishes when naming a newborn - a harmless superstition. Calling a name, in a sense, evokes feelings. 

Every self-introduction, every first encounter, and every unknown to know starts from the name. When we hear of the Japanese knotweed, instead of stopping on the tip of the tongue, the syllables go all the way to our brain and decompose to easily recognized patterns. Inevitably, an instinctive classification will be triggered by our brains’ cognition function. Is the name familiar? Is it exotic? Before we realize it, the amygdala - an almond-shaped region of the brain that detects fear - generates negative or mixed feelings in preparation for any potential danger.[2] And you may have guessed, “japanese” indicates an exoticness for Europeans, who have seen the wild spread of this once foreign plant.[3]

An alien name will only facilitate the exclusion and rejection. We perceive and portray it as exotic and non-indigenous to pave the way for a targeted eradication, as a seemingly justified response to the havoc wrought upon the “native” (a questionable adjective) ecosystem. But what if we cast a small, simple spell by renaming the plant? Would it reversibly affect our attitudes towards it? 

Let’s Cast a Spell

Naming the Knotweed as something else is a starting point of this tiny piece of modern witchcraft. But to incur magic, we need to know the spell itself - the way to name a plant. How are they usually named? Besides the botanical Latin nomenclature devised in the 18th century, mythological characters,[4] bygone folklores,[5] and even traditional knowledge [6] could be rich repositories. To Baduy people in Indonesia, for instance, Awi apus (Gigantochloa apus) is a bamboo that is believed to have the property of removing diseases, as awi means “erase” in local language.[7]

More sentiments instilled in the naming would also help our magic. In indigenous philosophies, the names of a plant could change at different times of year, indicating a flowering or fruiting season.[8] In Chile, Mapuche people connect deeply with the Araucaria, a type of tree both sacred and as family members to them. The Araucaria share the same name with the Mapuche people in their language as Pehuén.[9] In this sense, the intimacy attached to a certain plant fosters a stronger spiritual link, which transcends the boundary between human and nature. When we cast the spell (a new name), with something romantic, metaphoric or merely amusing, we are calling the spirits living inside a plant, not simply assigning a non-sentient scientific name to it. And then, we wait for a slowly-arriving epiphany - you feel closer with the plant. 

Shake Off the Prejudice! 

The moment we start to name something, a tiny spectacle glitter. It gains an eternal life in the stream of human language. And there is nothing new about renaming a plant.[10] By renaming the knotweed, we embark on the first step of a journey to learn about this well-known stranger. To enrich the renaming efforts, we hereby present some thoughts that are shared generously by the experts in the relevant field. 

As noted by botanical philosopher Norbert Peeters, the species name does not necessarily have to suggest the natural habitat of a plant like “japonica” does, it could also indicate other distinctive patterns. Visual wise, he suggested the names “Fallopia mellifera ('honey bearing')” and “a name that links to the specific leaf shape of the Japanese knotweed: ‘Fallopia truncata’ (truncate bottom of the leaf).” The other alternative names could be “honey knot” or “crimson rocket”. The former adds some dear sweetness, and the latter is due to the striking growing speed of knotweed. This way of thinking is natural but inspiring enough: by carefully observing the plant, everyone would notice some common characteristics and realize the reason behind the naming. 

Sus Willems, an ecological advisor, has a different opinion on this. He regards Japanese knotweed as “a perfect name” given its special traits. It bears some “oriental connotation” - also reflected in asia-originated martial arts - which is “being patient and humble”, and defending itself with minimum energy when attacked. Another notable thing is that the knotweed has a massive underground network which grants it mobility to move quickly and efficiently. Even though this article does not dedicate to remain the name unchanged, it is still an interesting perspective to offer.

We would like to invite our dear readers to also rethink and leave your ideas regarding an alternative name for this very demonized plant. Let's shake off the prejudice and start anew! 

Thanks to

Botanical Philosopher: Norbert Peeters 

Ecological Advisor: Sus Willems (Duizend Knopen Ontward)


[1] In The Golden Bough, James George Frazer noted that from the Inuit in the north to the Mapuche in the South, names count as a person’s distinctive part, transcending a mere label or mark. It is deeply believed across different tribes that a material link exists between the name and the physical body. See CHAPTER XXII TABOOED WORDS, The Golden Bough (1922): A Study in Magic and Religion [abridged edition], 1 Volume.

[2] Hartley CA, Phelps EA. Changing fear: the neurocircuitry of emotion regulation. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2010 Jan;35(1):136-46. doi: 10.1038/npp.2009.121. PMID: 19710632; PMCID: PMC3055445.

[3]Previous Mediamatic blogs:

[4]Iliana Ilieva. (2021). Names of botanical genera inspired by mythology. In GSC Biological and Pharmaceutical Sciences (Vol. 14, Issue 3, pp. 008–018). GSC Online Press. 

[5]Kimmerer, R. W. (2015). Braiding sweetgrass. Milkweed Editions.

[6]Hidayati, S., Franco, F.M., Suhaimi, A. (2022). Folk Plant Names Are Condensed Forms of Traditional Knowledge: Case Study with the Urang Kanekes of Banten, Indonesia. In: Franco, F.M., Knudsen, M., Hassan, N.H. (eds) Case Studies in Biocultural Diversity from Southeast Asia. Asia in Transition, vol 19. Springer, Singapore. 


[8]Georgina Reid. (2019). Say My Name: On Speaking the Indigenous Names of Plants. 

[9]Jakelin Troy. (2019). The Guardian. Trees are at the heart of our country – we should learn their Indigenous names. 

[10]SCIAM. (2020) Change Species Names to Honor Indigenous Peoples, Not Colonizers, Researchers Say.