Each garden is rich with stories, we don’t have to look far to know them.
Take the quintessential English garden.
Our gardens are the product of centuries of plant acquisitions and cross-breeding. These acquisitions and experiments would not have been possible without the British experience of empire. Those experiences found echoes in other ways too.
The garden city movements of the early 20th century recalled the bucolic colonial hill stations, settlements in the foothills of the Himalayas and elsewhere (Sierra Leone and Kenya to name but two) which were created by colonial settlers as exclusive refuges from colonised people. Similarly the garden cities of Welwyn and others created bucolic homes for the early 20th centuries new middle classes, refuges from cities wreathed in choking smogs and where housing was often crowded and insanitary.
These rarefied conditions created an idealised home-away-from-home. The hard work was done elsewhere, and by others. In the hill stations of Ootacamund and Darjeeling they found expression in vast tea gardens to feed the appetites for the brown stuff back home, where the estates were overseen by white male colonialists and the hard work carried out largely by native women. The power equations in that situation seem very toxic to us now, just as they often were for the women involved then.
In some cases empire involved the wholescale importation of plants to other parts of the world where they could be grown, harvested, and processed for profit; in others they enabled the growth of plantations of medicinal plants like the cinchona (the tree from whose bark quinine was extracted), enabling life in new territories to be that little bit more comfortable for colonisers. And then there was also the wholescale and forced shift in populations; slavery of course, but later indentured labour too.
For hundreds of years, rich countries in the north exploited natural resources and human knowledge in the global south, with colonial botanists undertaking expeditions in the name of science which were ultimately commissions to find economically profitable plants. The appropriation of plants as well as the knowledge of their medicinal properties for mass manufacture, stripped the territories and people of knowledge, rendering them impoverished consumers of finished products made ‘back home’ in the mills of Manchester or the factories of Birmingham. There’s a reason that the many globally recognised brands which have British origins have the widespread reach that they do.
A Rose seems quintessentially English. Yet in the waxy silk of its petals lies a clue to its Central Asian origins. The Silk Road was named for the East to West pre-modern trade plied by merchants who harnessed the sturdy Bactrian Camel to carry valuable commodities like gems, rare woods, silk, spices and other riches including knowledge, mathematics, language and astronomy.
In this image, we see Ants making their own epic journey across the vastness of the golden desert of the petals.
Agapanthus and Bugloss
Glaucous, impudent, expectant Agapanthus; Lily of the Nile. Though neither a Lily or Nilotic but Southern African, the Agapanthus’s lazy blue haze of globular blooms is foretold by the soaring dome of a summer sky. And before it, Viper’s Bugloss.
Mainland Asia’s meadows marched into Europe long before the Mongol and Ottoman armies ever did, and like them it brought new things, in this case an alkaloid used to treat snake bites.
Now past their prime the hairy grey seed heads of Nigella, Love-in-a-Mist, are pregnant with misty meadow blue futures. Its seeds are used in Indian cooking to impart a flavour part way between nutmeg and onion, and in Ayurvedic medicine were used to treat chest complaints.
To this day, from across the world, packets of seeds, plant cuttings, and dried flowers and seed heads still flow into the seedbank at Kew and other collections in the developed world.
So, why does this matter?
Gardens display rare, and sometimes unique artefacts from other countries just as museums do. But unlike museums, we think of gardens as ‘natural’ rather than cultural sites, and in so doing we strip them of the associations they truly hold, denying the stories which underpin why they are the way they are. Plants present themselves as too innocent to be associated with colonial violence, appropriation and the hegemony of cultural knowledge.
These traces of colonial exploitation are not exclusive to botany – they arise everywhere, from the socio-economic inequalities in marginalised communities to the diamonds in wedding rings.
Yet, by imagining which countries these treasures come from, how and why, and at what time they came to Europe, fundamentally changes our perspective.
In that sense, our gardens are organic museums whether we choose to see them as that or not.
History cannot be changed, that much is true. We cannot undo what happened in the past, but we can restore plant species for example in those parts of the world where their absence and replacement with cash crops is impoverishing the environment. Instead we have cut our overseas aid budgets and propose to dump Elephants from redundant wildlife parks into those countries.
It would seem that what we want is all that we se as mattering. Yet we speak of collaboration and demand humbleness of others. The contradiction should be obvious.
By undertaking a more rounded approach to understanding the past we can begin to understand the power dynamics of the present and pave a path to a better future. Just do it.