“Certain gardens are described as retreats when really they are attacks.”1 

In her short story Kew Gardens (1921), Virginia Woolf describes precious moments  where humans and other living species intermingle in the poetic atmosphere of a walk around  the glasshouses.2 Botanic gardens are usually seen as enjoyable sites of pleasure and wander,  “beautiful green enclaves planted with rare trees and flowers”.3 

Built as a royal estate in 1299 on the model of universities medical schools, the Botanic  Gardens of Kew in London opened to the public in 1841 to educate visitors about the flora  of the Empire. Today, Kew is inscribed onto the UNESCO World Heritage List and at the  forefront of endangered species protection. It is the world’s largest collection of plants with 8.5  million specimens in the Herbarium and 175,000 drawings and prints in the Library.  

Most British plants were introduced in the 18th century through botany: the  scientific study of the physiology, structure, genetics, ecology, distribution, classification, and  economic value of plants. Economic botany was key to the colonial expansion of Britain. When  Victoria accessed the throne in 1837, the Empire possessed eight botanic gardens. At her death  in 1901, there were more than a hundred, half of them in India and Australia, coordinated by  Kew.4 The Royal Botanic Gardens was responsible for implementing profitable plants-based  industries in the colonies through collection, research, publication, information, and training  programs for botanists. 

In June 2020, Richard Deverell, director of Kew, acknowledged the colonial heritage of  the Gardens: “We were beacons of discovery and science; but also beacons of privilege and  exploitation.”5 However, Kew’s recently published Manifesto for Change refers to this legacy  only once.6 Additionally, there are still no mentions in the collection’s display on how plants  were used as tools for centuries of destruction and exploitation of natural resources.  

As evidenced as early as 1913, when two suffragettes set fire to Kew’s Tea Pavilion,  gardening is political. For Ros Gray and Shela Sheikh, the garden is a site of exclusion and labour, as much as leisure and enjoyment, “through which to trace and question exclusions  along the lines of race, class, gender, sexuality and disability, as well as to reconsider  environmental justice, which itself cannot be seen in isolation from social justice, migrant  justice, and labour rights.”7 The legacy of the Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew is embedded with  the colonial context of its making. Following the route of plant migration from British colonies  to Kew Gardens, this essay investigates the relations between practices of extractivism, the act  of removing botanical resources from the ground to insert them in the trade circuit, displacement, and care in the garden space.  

From the 18th century, Kew Botanic Gardens had served as a depot for the exchange of  plants that were extracted from the colonies.8 According to Zaheer Baber, “botanic gardens  constituted one of the key sites – physical, intellectual, social, and cultural – in which colonial  power was literally rooted”, a nod for the numerous transfers of nonhuman species. Nature was  seen as malleable, an object to be mastered, instrumentalized and profited from. Therefore,  plants were massively uprooted from their original environment to support the power dynamics of the Empire. The colonial plantation system intensified “the regimentation of normative racial and gender codes and suppressed interspecies co-becomings and natural cultural mutualities”.9 Kew Gardens became the index of Britain’s supremacy, “the empire in green” according to Dirk Wieman.10 

The history of Kew Botanic Gardens is one of violence, pillage, and theft, framed by a  utilitarian approach to nature. Melanie Boehi describes botanic gardens as “sites where plants  were collected, studied, and disseminated for economic use and where knowledge and affection  were produced to legitimize colonial distribution of power”.11 Botanists brought back dried or  living specimens from exploratory voyages and sent them to other colonies where they would acquire economic value, such as tea from Jamaica to India, or rubber from Assam to West  Africa.12 Consequently, this “green imperialism”13 led to the imposition of monoculture and the destruction of local ecosystems.14 Landscapes were changed and converted into usable products  in the name of commerce and science. 

The colonial legacy of the botanic garden is underpinned by its architecture and design.  Kew Gardens glasshouses showcase a collection of plants in “grand imperialist plant pots” displaying the economic ambition and ecological conquests of the British Empire.15 Indeed, the  plants are arranged according to western scientific principles. Cynthia Soto Botanico points to  the attempts of botanic gardens to categorise “tropical” plants in glass cages (Fig.1). The  vegetation seems trapped behind the windows of the Zurich University Botanic Garden. The  low-angle viewpoint, the packed composition of the photograph, and the imbrication of  numerous specimens give a feeling of suffocation. 

Botany was based on taxonomy and the construction of hierarchical categories of dualistic difference. Developed by Carl Linnaeus in Species Plantarium (1753), the elaboration  of a “universal” linguistic grid was an “attempt to impose some order on the morphological  chaos created by the availability of new plants”.16 The botanist renamed more than 12 000  species in Latin, with “doubtful, ambiguous, confusing, and naked names”17 that erased the  world in which the plants existed.18 Londa Schiebinger describes Linnaeus as “a lawgiver,  bringing order to the botanical commonwealth threatened by the “invasion” of “vast hordes” of  foreign plants and their “barbarous” names.” Indeed, the names were agreed on convention with  no allusion to the indigenous designation of the plant. As a result, the politics of naming thus promoted European colonization, silencing histories of colonial occupation, numerous plants expertise and gardening practices.19 Eventually, taxonomy led to the development of scientific  racism by the imposition of sexual and racial categories to all living species.  

The Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew became the index of Britain’s Empire, and its  collection of specimens an archive of colonialism. The botanical commodification of nature generated massive environmental degradation and the extinction of multiple species. According to food grower Claire Ratinon, “the way in which plants were “discovered”, collected,  transported, commodified and weaponised was all part of the colonial project and their legacies  are growing in our gardens to this day.”20 Botany was a colonial mode of dispossession that  continues to structure the human-nature relations.  

Decades of colonial extractivism led to massive species extinction contributing to  climate change, which is expected to become one of the main causes of migration. Ecological rapid transformations reinforce social and political inequalities and impoverishment. Jean  Fischer notices the similarities between the colonial routes along which plants were displaced and contemporary immigration patterns: “(…) like people immigration, seeds immigration  problematizes the means by which national identity and belonging is defined, blurring our  concept of what does or does not represent an authentic national flora”.21 The displacement of  plants from colonies to botanic gardens is a powerful framework that reflects on the  garden as a site of exclusion where it is urgent to challenge the concepts of hospitality and  hostility. 

A garden is etymologically defined as an enclosed land: hortus gardinus, or plants  surrounded by a fence. The fence, the wall, or the pot, draw a line to state which plants belong  and what is worth planting or not. Through the Fields and into the Wood by Maria Theresa Alves (Fig.2) epitomises the exclusive aesthetic of the garden. The gate-sized sculpture made  of iron and suspended to the ceiling by metal chains depicts some European flora trapped in  barbed wire. Instead of conveying a sensation of pleasure and wander, the motifs are involved  in the brutality of this representation of a garden as a fence. Indeed, the artist uses the  intersection between botany and ideology as a potent space fraught with metaphors of migration and invasion.22 Undoubtedly, the garden is a space to question ownership and access. 

Figure 2: Maria Theresa Alves, Through the Fields and into the Woods, 2007, Iron, metal chains, 225 x 70 cm

In the UK, 3.3 million households don’t have access to an outdoor space. Black,  Asian, and minority ethnic communities are 60% less likely to have access to green space.23 Indeed, “today access to wild and green spaces is heavily racialised” argue Ros Gray and Shela  Sheikh.24 As coined by the Black Outside Movement in an open letter to Kew in November  2020, “gardening is not apolitical”.25  The collective led by Carole Wright called for more  inclusivity by “reviewing and re-examining the language used throughout the institutions to  acknowledge the colonial legacies embedded with gardens”. Black Outside is part of a larger decolonial movement fighting against environmental racism. The Wretched of the Earth collective encourages people to think critically about class and capitalism in environmental justice, arguing that “the climate movement will be decolonial or will be nothing”.26 The group was  named in tribute to Frantz Fanon “Damnés”- those who are excluded from the surface of the  earth and fall below ground.  

Black Outside and The Wretched of the Earth promote another vision of nature where  non-human species are rebellious and confront the politics of garden enclosure. In The  Rebellion of the Roots (England) (Fig.3), Daniela Ortiz depicts a furious uprising of the plants  which had been extracted from their original lands by colonial forces. The artist imagines that  the tears of a rubber tree used to produce car wheels will lead to the killing of the British  monarch after a car crash at London Queen’s Gate. Daniela Ortiz returns agency to the  plants and reverses their exoticized representation as gentle and soft. According to Bruno Latour, “far from trying to “reconcile” or “combine” nature and society, the task, the crucial  political task, is, on the contrary, to distribute agency as far and in as differentiated a way as  possible.”27 The walls of the gardens need to be replaced with “radical hospitality”.28 How  might gardens become hospitable for the human and non-human descendants of victims of  colonial exploitation?

Figure 3: Daniela Ortiz, The Rebellion of the Roots (England), 2021, Series of 9 acrylics on wood, 20 × 30 cm Gallery Laveronica Arte Contemporanea

Radical gardening practices reshape relations among humans, plants, and places.  Natasha Myers believes in the ability of botanic gardens to become “agents for changes”29, spaces for ecological and social caring with “counter practices, techniques, and epistemic shifts  [creating] fissures in even the most hegemonic formations.”30 Undoubtedly, the space of the  garden enclosure is a ground on which to subvert and redefine the relations between plants and architects, artists and labourers.  

Giving plants back their original names is a first step towards the confrontation of  colonial narratives. Indeed, names convey a sense of belonging, familiarity, and responsibility:  “being able to name plants brings them to life”.31 A series of paintings by Maria Theresa Alves  addresses the issue of the names that were given to plants by botanists (Fig.4). This is not an  Apricot renames sixteen different fruits that the artist encountered on a market in Manaus,  Brazil, with their Indigenous appellation. Renaming redistributes knowledge. It is certainly a  form of reparative justice to human and non-human victims of colonial exploitation.

Figure 4: Maria Theresa Alves, This is not an Apricot, 2009, Series of 16 watercolour paintings on paper

Collaborative place-based gardening practices are another way to address botanic  collections that continue to be offensive to descendants of victims of colonial exploitation. Donna Haraway defines nature as a “topos”, a place for consideration of common themes. We must find another relationship to nature besides reification, appropriation, or nostalgia. 

Nature is not a place to go, a treasure to fence in, an essence to be saved, but a commonplace  where all the species are participants.32 Collaborative place-based practices encourage the local  and the experimental. In Malay Mawar, Shooshie Sulaiman explores the potentialities of co-production with plants (Fig.5). During her residency at Kadist in Paris, the artist experimented  with the creation of a new species of a rose by grafting a cutting from a farm with another taken  from the roses that used to bloom at her mother’s grave in Malaysia. The garden she created  became a space for exchange and cross-fertilization. By connecting geopolitical issues with  broader ecological concerns, her practice blurs national borders and reveals neglected botanical  histories entangled with human and non-human species co-dependencies.  

Figure 5: Shooshie Sulaiman, Malay Mawar, 2016, Installation shot, Kadist Art Foundation

The garden is a stage where human and non-human species intermingle and perform a  network of relationships. The Royal Botanic Gardens is a vanguard for plant’s protection  through a repository of endangered species. Kew is reinventing itself as a key actor in developing clean air, food, and medicine with plants but the Gardens’ lack of inclusivity needs  to be challenged through alternative botanical practices. Gardens might transform into stages  where radical stories are performed interrupting the epistemic violence of colonial histories and  putting forth alternative collaborative arguments.33 Kew Gardens lists “invasive alien species”  as a threat to the collections. The weed’s name has no botanical significance. It simply designates a plant growing aggressively or invasively outside of its native habitat. Could weeds be the new botany?