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Introduction to the (Un)Natural Archive

Sophie Dun­can

In herbaria around the world, there are mil­lions of plants pressed flat, mount­ed, dried, and stored for hun­dreds of years. Their labels tell a sto­ry that in many ways says as much about the humans who col­lect­ed them as the plants they describe. The nar­ra­tive that emerges from this nat­ur­al his­to­ry archive tells a sto­ry about the plant king­dom root­ed in racial­ized and gen­dered hier­ar­chies. Text­books, cur­ricu­lum, and the sci­en­tif­ic canon have absorbed this sto­ry, repeat­ing these tales until these hier­ar­chies are treat­ed as sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly true.

I am invest­ed in trou­bling these hier­ar­chies. They cre­ate a sci­ence that tells a lim­it­ed a sto­ry about how relat­ing hap­pens in the world. This sto­ry in turn deems these hier­ar­chies as nat­ur­al. Dis­rupt­ing this nar­ra­tive using the nat­ur­al his­to­ry archive can show how these vio­lent hier­ar­chies became “nat­ur­al” and reveal ways of relat­ing that dis­rupt this nar­ra­tive of nat­u­ral­ized pow­er relations.

As a plant sci­en­tist, I have stud­ied how phy­lo­ge­nies (the way organ­isms are relat­ed to each oth­er) and sci­en­tif­ic sys­tems of clas­si­fi­ca­tion are pow­er­ful forces that char­ac­ter­ize “relat­ed­ness” accord­ing to a spe­cif­ic set of prin­ci­ples. My expo­sure to his­to­ry, crit­i­cal the­o­ry, and social sci­ence has shown me how these ways of char­ac­ter­iz­ing and cat­e­go­riz­ing life­forms has con­tributed to how sys­tems of pow­er assign val­ue to racial­ized and gen­dered bod­ies. Although a rich body of work in the human­i­ties and social sci­ences address­es these lega­cies, sci­en­tists (for the most part) ignore these efforts.

The fol­low­ing images emerged as a part of my efforts to con­nect these his­to­ries of colo­nial vio­lence to the cur­rent tox­ic cul­tures that per­me­ate sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ties and the com­mu­ni­ties influ­enced by sci­ence. This project for me has been an entry point into a con­ver­sa­tion with sci­en­tists, artists, and his­to­ri­ans. How­ev­er, it is lim­it­ed in its scope and I want to name and acknowl­edge its lim­i­ta­tions so that my project does not con­tin­ue to erase the sto­ries absent from it. First and fore­most, I am a white plant sci­en­tist and this shapes the work I do and art I cre­ate. Addi­tion­al­ly, the image series and accom­pa­ny­ing essays do not pre­tend to be root­ed in crit­i­cal the­o­ry or analy­sis. Rather, they are my reflec­tions as a sci­en­tist, shaped by exten­sive read­ing, dia­logue, and the guid­ance of mentors.

I devel­oped these images as a way for sci­en­tists to see sci­ence dif­fer­ent­ly, by embed­ding the tra­di­tion­al, hagio­graph­ic, ahis­tor­i­cal, hero-dri­ven ver­sion of sci­ence his­to­ry in its con­text. I am say­ing all of this because I am aware of the lim­i­ta­tions with which I approach this project, do not claim exper­tise, and do not want to repro­duce the vio­lence I am try­ing to address. There are glar­ing absences in this work that I will name. This project began while work­ing in a nat­ur­al his­to­ry archive and con­duct­ing sci­en­tif­ic research, when I began to inter­ro­gate stan­dard nar­ra­tives of sci­ence and sci­en­tif­ic lan­guage. Hav­ing the sci­en­tif­ic canon and nat­ur­al his­to­ry archive as my start­ing place cen­ters white­ness and colo­nial pow­er. Although I high­light the prob­lems with lega­cy of the Lin­naean clas­si­fi­ca­tion sys­tem, I do not explic­it­ly dis­cuss spe­cif­ic Indige­nous clas­si­fi­ca­tion sys­tems and nomen­cla­ture (see Kim­mer­er, Geniusz). This does not mean to imply that they do not exist.

Through this project I speak to a small piece of a giant sto­ry, but I also real­ize that the absences in my work poten­tial­ly repro­duce ele­ments of the sys­tem I hope to change by cen­ter­ing the rela­tion­ships among white­ness, colo­nial pow­er, and sci­ence. There is sig­nif­i­cant work that has been done in reimag­in­ing futures for sci­ence pred­i­cat­ed on jus­tice and repa­ra­tions and doc­u­ment­ing this work in the past and there is so much more to do. These images are a tiny and incom­plete piece of this puzzle.

This sto­ry begins when I fell in love with plants and start­ed ask­ing ques­tions. As soon as I began encoun­ter­ing Latin names in sci­en­tif­ic texts I was sur­prised by the famil­iar­i­ty of the lan­guage. I want­ed to know why the name of what I knew as the Amer­i­can beech (Fagus gran­di­fo­lia) echoed the Eclogues of Vir­gil (fagus) and Idylls of The­ocri­tus (Φηγός)1. These ety­mo­log­i­cal roots reveal his­to­ry that links plants from all over the world back to the Gre­co-Roman world through these Latin names. I want­ed to fol­low these threads con­nect­ing lan­guage, places, and plants to under­stand why Fagus became part of the offi­cial name for a tree nei­ther Vir­gil (70-19 BCE) or The­ocri­tus (260 BCE) ever knew, oceans away.

I start­ed ask­ing ques­tions and found myself in the mid­dle of a web of clas­sics, botany, and his­to­ries of col­o­niza­tion that led to the cre­ation of the (Un)Natural Archive, a series of images moti­vat­ed by this quest. As some­one who worked in a “nat­ur­al” archive, an herbar­i­um where botanists store dried and pressed plants as a ref­er­ence library for plant iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, I want­ed to inter­ro­gate how this archive rein­forced a white-washed nat­ur­al his­to­ry, stripped of its con­text and stored for lat­er. I also want­ed to reimag­ine an archive that tells a true sto­ry and makes space to cen­ter the sto­ries at the mar­gins of this his­to­ry. This project does not attempt to decol­o­nize2 but rather draw atten­tion to how colo­nial­ism has shaped botany and oth­er sci­en­tif­ic prac­tices. My goal is to ques­tion the sci­en­tif­ic prac­tices that insid­i­ous­ly erase the his­to­ry of vio­lence asso­ci­at­ed with “sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­ery” and “enlight­en­ment explo­ration” and shed light on how con­tem­po­rary sci­ence per­pet­u­ates this his­tor­i­cal violence.

Overview of images

These images pave a path through his­to­ry to illu­mi­nate the inex­tri­ca­ble links between pow­er, his­to­ry, and sci­ence. Col­lage fea­tures promi­nent­ly in these images to high­light how dif­fer­ent lay­ers of his­to­ry, words, and lan­guages tell a nuanced and com­pli­cat­ed sto­ry of how plants touch our lives. I use cer­tain media and process­es, such as cut-outs and cyan­otypes, to acknowl­edge the work of women, such as Mary Delany and Anna Atkins, who made con­tri­bu­tions to sci­ence through these media. How­ev­er, I also want to reco­gize the com­plic­i­ty of many of these women, and in par­tic­u­lar white women, in sci­en­tif­ic impe­ri­al­ism. As a white, female sci­en­tist, I am aware of and always try­ing to find the bal­ance between hon­our­ing the over­looked and ignored con­tri­bu­tions of these women to sci­ence and also rec­og­niz­ing their com­plic­i­ty in colo­nial science.

Too often, women sci­en­tists, par­tic­u­lar­ly those who use visu­al art, receive the label of hob­by­ists, ama­teurs, or artists lack­ing sci­en­tif­ic rig­or. The cut-outs (paper recon­struc­tions of plants) hon­our the work of Mary Delany (1700-1788), who nev­er received the sci­en­tif­ic recog­ni­tion for her anatom­i­cal­ly accu­rate and high­ly detailed cut-outs of plants, which sci­en­tists reg­u­lar­ly used as ref­er­ences (see Laird et al., 2009). I also includ­ed cyan­otypes in my col­lages to echo the work of Anna Atkins (1799-1871), a botanist and the first female pho­tog­ra­ph­er who made pho­to­graph­ic prints of bio­log­i­cal spec­i­mens through cyan­otyp­ing, which uses the sun to cap­ture the shad­ows of objects.

Both cut-outs and cyan­otypes require some sort of empti­ness. While both cap­ture cer­tain fea­tures of plants, such as leaf shape, with per­fect accu­ra­cy, the process of mak­ing each image requires leav­ing some­thing out. By its very nature, cut-outs require the removal of paper sur­round­ing the desired object. While cyan­otypes rep­re­sent the shad­ow, they do not reflect the colour or details of the object cast­ing the shad­ow. This process of mak­ing images reflects how the mate­r­i­al archive of nat­ur­al his­to­ry often fea­tured in muse­ums, curios­i­ty cab­i­nets, and herbaria have gaps and emp­ty spaces in the sto­ries they tell, rein­forc­ing cer­tain nar­ra­tives about what is “true,” “nat­ur­al,” and “right” for both humans and nature.

I also con­struct­ed many of the images as rein­ter­pre­ta­tions of herbar­i­um spec­i­mens that cap­ture the plants’ social and polit­i­cal con­text. A tra­di­tion­al herbar­i­um spec­i­men con­sists of a plant, pressed flat and dried, mount­ed on white paper with a sci­en­tif­ic label in the low­er left cor­ner. This label con­tains the sci­en­tif­ic name of the plant, the col­lec­tor, and loca­tion of its col­lec­tion. The sci­en­tif­ic name of the plant con­sists of the genus and species. Next to the genus and species name is the “author” of the plant, the per­son first cred­it­ed with its “dis­cov­ery” and identification.

The prac­tice of col­lect­ing herbar­i­um spec­i­mens is based on a method estab­lished by Luca Ghi­ni (1490-1556), an Ital­ian botanist. Botanists typ­i­cal­ly col­lect plants for press­ing in news­pa­per due to the con­ve­nient size. These news­pa­pers cap­ture the his­tor­i­cal and social moment in which the botanist col­lect­ed the plant. How­ev­er, dur­ing mount­ing, none of this con­tex­tu­al infor­ma­tion makes its way onto the white page that con­tains the plant and its label. Like the cut-outs and cyan­otypes, a mount­ed herbar­i­um spec­i­men rep­re­sents con­text left behind. All of the news­pa­pers (and plants) fea­tured in this project come from either my own per­son­al plant col­lec­tions or the herbar­i­um where I con­duct­ed my research. In addi­tion, keys fea­ture promi­nent­ly in these images. These keys come from the cab­i­nets of this herbarium.

Final­ly, I hope that these images draw atten­tion to the mar­gins. Both lit­er­al and fig­u­ra­tive mar­gins fea­ture promi­nent­ly in this project. By draw­ing atten­tion to the mar­gins, I am ques­tion­ing what is cen­tered on the pages of nat­ur­al his­to­ry archives and why. Mar­gin­a­lia fre­quent­ly appears around herbar­i­um spec­i­mens, reflect­ing the thoughts of dif­fer­ent botanists about the spec­i­men at hand. Through these images, I have cre­at­ed my own anno­ta­tions and ques­tions about the plants I have col­lect­ed and constructed.

Image One—Introduction by way of a self-portrait

Image One—Introduction by way of a self-portrait

In a 2016 YouTube video and an accom­pa­ny­ing New York­er and New York Times arti­cle, renowned clas­si­cist Mary Beard illu­mi­nates the link between misog­y­ny in ancient Rome and the cyber-bul­ly­ing she faces as a female aca­d­e­m­ic in the 21st cen­tu­ry: “The gloomi­est way of describ­ing the ancient world is it is misog­y­ny from A to Z, really…we have nev­er escaped a cer­tain male cul­tur­al desire for women’s silence” (Women in the World). In a sim­i­lar vein, I hope to illu­mi­nate threads that con­nect the ancient with the mod­ern and shed light on how the knowl­edge we inher­it shapes the fields that we study and the ques­tions that we ask. The first image in the series is a self por­trait, to root my sci­ence, art, and writ­ing in my body and self. This self-por­trait is the first image in the series to ground this work in my iden­ti­ty and to be upfront about my uncon­scious biases.

In my own expe­ri­ence, becom­ing a female sci­en­tist has come with chal­lenges typ­i­cal of women in STEM (Sci­ence, Tech­nol­o­gy, Engi­neer­ing, and Math), and as Mary Beard’s state­ments indi­cate, of women in the world. In addi­tion to the indi­vid­ual sex­ist encoun­ters I reg­u­lar­ly expe­ri­ence, the insti­tu­tion­al­ized cul­ture of STEM makes me, like Mary Beard, ask what cul­tures of misog­y­ny con­tributed to the con­struc­tion of this present-day phe­nom­e­non. As a queer, female ecol­o­gist, I face addi­tion­al bar­ri­ers, which force me to ask why and how this came to be (see Beck­er). Despite the bar­ri­ers I have faced as a female sci­en­tist, I am a white, set­tler ecol­o­gist who has prof­it­ed from and is com­plic­it in a field of sci­ence that has its roots in colo­nial­ism and the Transat­lantic slave trade. Through the immac­u­late record left by nat­ur­al his­to­ri­ans, I can trace their steps backwards—from my expe­ri­ences today to the inva­sion of Amer­i­ca by col­o­niz­ers, and even fur­ther back to Pliny’s (23-79 AD) descrip­tions of impe­r­i­al gar­dens in Augus­tan Rome.

Image Con­struc­tion

This self-por­trait fea­tures shad­ows of my face and feet. While cyan­otypes cap­ture my pro­file, they do not cap­ture more spe­cif­ic details, so I added cutouts of key fea­tures to accu­rate­ly por­tray myself. Cyan­otyp­ing required me to be out­side. I chose to cre­ate a por­trait using cyan­otypes giv­en how much time I devote to being out­side as a botanist.

In the top-right quad­rant I have my hand above my head and am sniff­ing a cut-out cre­osote cyan­otype. The low­er-left quadrant’s por­trait is less evoca­tive of a human pro­file. I chose to include this print to rep­re­sent how the same thing can appear so dif­fer­ent­ly. As part of my project to reimag­ine the herbar­i­um spec­i­men and nat­ur­al his­to­ry, I want­ed to ground my rep­re­sen­ta­tion of self in this theme of recast­ing famil­iar themes and images in new lights.

In the low­er-right quad­rant I includ­ed my foot, as part of my body con­stant­ly con­nect­ing me to the ground. The print cap­tured the shad­ows of grass as well. So much of my work is con­nect­ed to land and the con­text for my rela­tion­ship to land as a set­tler ecologist.

Image Two: Enjoy your garden world

Image Two: Enjoy your gar­den world

In the Eclogues Vir­gil (70 BC- 19BC) uses the Fagus (beech tree) to evoke North­ern Italy and the stakes of land own­er­ship (Leigh). Dur­ing my own field­work, I have encoun­tered the genus Fagus oceans away from Virgil’s ter­rain. Virgil’s Fagus oper­ates as an indi­ca­tor of land own­er­ship and polit­i­cal strife in the Eclogues, and also evokes The­ocritean uses of the Greek ori­gins of Fagus, φηγος (Leigh). When Carl Lin­naeus con­sol­i­dat­ed the sys­tem of Euro­pean clas­si­fi­ca­tion, pro­duc­ing a Latin sys­tem of bino­mi­al nomen­cla­ture refer­ring to organ­isms by their genus and species’ name, Lin­naeus intro­duced Fagus into the per­ma­nent sci­en­tif­ic lex­i­con: “Latin as the uni­ver­sal lan­guage of botany in the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry, was capa­ble of assim­i­lat­ing names from many oth­er world lan­guages” (Laird and Weis­berg-Roberts). Lin­naeus’ stu­dent, Jakob Friedrich Ehrhart, authored Fagus gran­di­fo­lia Ehrh. (Amer­i­can Beech), which is native to the East­ern Unit­ed states. Author­ing plants occurs when a “new” species is “discovered”—the “dis­cov­er­er” gives the species a Latin, sci­en­tif­ic name and the “discoverer’s” ini­tials, in this case “Ehrh.,” appear as part of the plants’ sci­en­tif­ic name.

Through these rela­tion­ships, the plant name that Vir­gil so heav­i­ly imbued with mean­ing comes in direct con­tact with a plant that Vir­gil nev­er saw. Sim­i­lar to the strife asso­ci­at­ed with the con­tes­ta­tion over land in Italy that Vir­gil described, in an Amer­i­can con­text the beech is also a sym­bol of con­flict over land own­er­ship (Go Botany). Daniel Boone, a pio­neer on behalf of Man­i­fest Des­tiny, marked his west­ward jour­ney on beech trees (Go Botany). Giv­en Boone’s active par­tic­i­pa­tion in land appro­pri­a­tion from and geno­cide of Indige­nous peo­ple, his sym­bol­ic etch­ings on beech trees bring Virgil’s inter­ro­ga­tion of empire and land own­er­ship into an Amer­i­can con­text via the word Fagus. How­ev­er, the appli­ca­tion of the Latin word Fagus to all beech trees, includ­ing the Amer­i­can beech (Fagus gran­di­fo­lia), eras­es, appro­pri­ates, and assim­i­lates Indige­nous botan­i­cal names and knowl­edge by estab­lish­ing the uni­ver­sal “sci­en­tif­ic” lex­i­con as Latin and cred­it­ing Ehrhart as the author.

This era­sure cre­at­ed by the cel­e­brat­ed Lin­naean sys­tem raise ques­tions regard­ing whose voic­es this sys­tem rep­re­sents and why these voic­es are heard while oth­ers are silenced.3 Explo­ration, the exploita­tion of peo­ple and nat­ur­al resources, impe­r­i­al expan­sion, and prof­it togeth­er form the under­pin­nings of the sys­tem of bino­mi­al nomen­cla­ture. The employ­ment of botanists and doc­tors with an eye for herbal med­i­cine by “explo­ration expe­di­tions” often for slave-trad­ing com­pa­nies, such as the Dutch West India Com­pa­ny and the British East India Com­pa­ny, made it pos­si­ble for botanists to col­lect plants to take back and use for impe­r­i­al eco­nom­ic enrich­ment.4

The fact that “few in the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry ago­nized over who owns nature,” meant that in con­struct­ing his nam­ing sys­tem, Lin­naeus did not take into account the long­stand­ing prac­tice of appro­pri­a­tion embed­ded in his sys­tem of clas­si­fi­ca­tion (Schiebinger 17). The estab­lish­ment of own­er­ship over plants by nam­ing them led to the appro­pri­a­tion of prof­its asso­ci­at­ed with those plants claimed by Euro­pean explor­ers and set­tlers. For exam­ple, “The genet­ic resources pos­sessed by peo­ples and nations in the tropics…were not pro­tect­ed by inter­na­tion­al agree­ments until 1992” (Schiebinger 16). While many books have been writ­ten on the top­ic of colo­nial botany, my goal is not to rehash these argu­ments but rather to explain them in order to sit­u­ate the images I have con­struct­ed his­tor­i­cal­ly and ques­tion the ways of relat­ing sanc­tioned by the nat­ur­al his­to­ry archive.

Image Con­struc­tion

The paint­ed bot­tom-cen­ter image of this illu­mi­na­tion is the Fagus gran­di­fo­lia Ehrh., the Amer­i­can beech. The white spaces with­in the out­line of the leaves rep­re­sent the emp­ty spaces in the archive that the Lin­naean sys­tem excludes. The illu­mi­na­tions around the edges address these issues; below the Fagus paint­ing are the open­ing lines from Vergil’s Eclogues to evoke the Eclogues and the rela­tion­ship between peo­ple, pow­er, and land that Vir­gil address­es with his use of Fagus.

The mid­dle cyan­otype and top paint­ing are of Mede­o­la vir­gini­ana L. (indi­an cucum­ber root).5 The cyan­otype of Mede­o­la vir­gini­ana con­tains my hand and slides of Medieval and Renais­sance imagery. The pres­ence of my hand acts as a reminder that despite the cen­tral­i­ty of the plants in this illu­mi­na­tion, the iden­ti­ty of the col­lec­tor and the plants’ con­text have equal impor­tance. Mov­ing out from the cen­tre, the mag­a­zine snip­pets are posi­tioned to con­trast arti­cles about the joys of urban gar­den­ing with infor­ma­tion about hous­ing seg­re­ga­tion and redlin­ing. The illu­mi­na­tions around the edges intro­duce some of my guid­ing themes:

Where this jour­ney begins: I love plants, I love seeds, I love Latin, I need context…Why is Latin used to for­mal­ize plant names what does that say about pow­er (and empire)? When I Google ‘father of botany’ it is rec­og­nized as an offi­cial term with many men (like Theophras­tus and Lin­naeus), but when I Google “moth­er of botany” I get no one. Plants live all over the world. Why do a few men from Europe get the pater­ni­ty rights to Earth’s flo­ra? Fagus gran­di­fo­lia car­ries through its genus ties to the Fagus of Virgil’s Eclogues and the The­ocritean φηγούς (Image Two: Enjoy your gar­den world).

While sub­se­quent images address either explic­it­ly clas­si­cal or mod­ern motifs, this image seeks to dis­play the con­nec­tion between plants and their names over time.

Image Three: A Field Guide to Roman Imperialism in Three Plants

Image Three: A Field Guide to Roman Impe­ri­al­ism in Three Plants

I have recon­struct­ed a gar­den image from the Vil­la of Livia—a first cen­tu­ry BCE dwelling north of Rome that belonged to the wife of the Roman Emper­or Augustus—to rep­re­sent how Roman cul­ture relied on for­eign plants intro­duced through con­quest and trade routes cre­at­ed by impe­r­i­al expan­sion. Sources, such as Pliny the Elder, Api­cius, or Diocletian’s Edict on Max­i­mum Prices, as well as archae­o­log­i­cal and archaeob­otan­i­cal evi­dence pro­vide insight into many plants that had a pro­found influ­ence on the Roman econ­o­my, diet, and land­scape. To con­struct my re-rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the Vil­la of Livia, I chose to focus on three plants: cin­na­mon, black pep­per, and the bal­sam tree. Each of these plants pro­vides a win­dow into how Romans inter­act­ed with non-Romans through plant exchange, set­ting the foun­da­tion for the xeno­pho­bia, lan­guage, and gen­der­ing applied to plants in mod­ern ecol­o­gy. Sim­i­lar to how Mary Beard traces the roots of misog­y­ny in her work as a clas­si­cist back to the ancient world, I am trac­ing the roots of colo­nial botany to the ancient Gre­co-Roman world.

There is no coin­ci­dence that Latin is the offi­cial sci­en­tif­ic lan­guage and the Roman Empire prac­ticed impe­r­i­al botany. Romans dis­played their wealth in their gar­dens: “part of the gov­ern­ing class’s income could be used for embell­ish­ing cities, tem­ples, and great hous­es with gardens…cultural traf­fic between the Clas­si­cal Greek world and the Mid­dle East brought the idea of the gar­den to Europe” (Ver­cel­loni, Ver­cel­loni, and Gal­lo 14). The his­to­ry of the gar­den as a for­eign con­cept nat­u­ral­ized in Roman soci­ety mir­rors the tra­jec­to­ry of many of the plants grown in these gar­dens. The rela­tion­ship between Alexan­dria and Greece, and their ulti­mate con­quest by the Roman empire, reflects the role of con­quest in trans­fer­ring knowl­edge about the nat­ur­al world: “It was prob­a­bly Alexan­dri­an cul­ture that brought the ancient idea of Egypt­ian and East­ern gar­dens to Greece, whence it spread to Rome and the rest of Europe” (Ver­cel­loni, Ver­cel­loni, and Gal­lo 15).

This rela­tion­ship between war and plants man­i­fests in a mul­ti­tude of ways: through trade net­works estab­lished via con­quest, the search for plants with eco­nom­ic val­ue, and the inte­gra­tion of spices as a reg­u­lar part of the Roman diet. Simul­ta­ne­ous to the “dis­cov­ery” and dis­tri­b­u­tion of exot­ic spices that accom­pa­nied impe­r­i­al expan­sion and trade, the Roman Empire enslaved non-Romans peo­ple.6 The com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion and objec­ti­fi­ca­tion of peo­ple from out­side the empire accom­pa­nied the intro­duc­tion of non-native plants and spices. Trade net­works both out­side of and with­in the empire ensured that for­eign spices could be shared in com­mon among all Romans dis­persed across the empire. Their view of these plants as exot­ic fur­ther cement­ed the dis­tinc­tion they had con­struct­ed between them­selves and non-Romans: “Ideas about exot­ic trade goods and their rit­u­al use did not trav­el intact as far as the goods them­selves did. This fall-off in idea exchange explains how Mediter­ranean trade rela­tions beyond the Roman…contributed to the Roman/Mediterranean center’s asso­ci­a­tion of those spices and places with mag­ic” (Pol­lard 1). The “mag­ic” asso­ci­at­ed with unknown cul­tures is evoca­tive of con­tem­po­rary exo­ti­fi­ca­tion and ways of cross-cul­tur­al inter­ac­tion pred­i­cat­ed on consumption.

This char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of Roman encoun­ters with “the oth­er” through plants is not to say that Romans nev­er inter­act­ed with or respect­ed non-Romans, but rather is to empha­size the roles that plants and empire played in medi­at­ing Roman iden­ti­ty. The incor­po­ra­tion of spices from non-Roman places into the Roman diet allowed Romans to enjoy for­eign plant prod­ucts with­out inter­ro­gat­ing “Roman­ness” in the con­text of empire.

These dif­fer­ing atti­tudes towards plants and peo­ple reflect the Roman desire to reap the rewards of con­quest with­out address­ing the human cost. Although the “mag­ic” con­no­ta­tion might seem pos­i­tive, it fur­ther dis­as­so­ci­ates Romans from the sources of these mys­ti­cal spices and through exo­ti­fi­ca­tion allows them to main­tain a uni­formed and neb­u­lous image of the places and peo­ple pro­vid­ing the plants. Gar­den­ing non-native plants allowed Romans to incor­po­rate the fruits of oth­er cul­tures into Roman cul­ture with­out inter­act­ing with peo­ple from oth­er cul­tures, echo­ing mod­ern-day false promis­es of mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism. Roman gar­dens filled with non-native plants reflect the cul­tur­al exchange facil­i­tat­ed by impe­r­i­al expan­sion. The pres­ence of non-native plants pro­vides insight into the exchange that occurred at the fron­tiers through con­quest and at the ports through trade.

Image Con­struc­tion

I used col­lage as a way to recon­struct a Roman gar­den fres­co so that I could reflect the dif­fer­ent lay­ers of cul­tur­al and geo­graph­i­cal iden­ti­ty con­nect­ed to the plants and land­scape rep­re­sent­ed. To build the tree at the cen­tre of the image I cre­at­ed sev­er­al cutouts based on the shape of my three focal plants. I cut these shapes from maps reflect­ing the ori­gin of each plant and pri­ma­ry and sec­ondary sources dis­cussing these plants in their native con­texts. I con­struct­ed the back­ground behind the tree using Roman images of plants, from the Vil­la of Livia and House of the Wed­ding of Alexan­der (a Pom­pei­ian arche­o­log­i­cal site with sig­nif­i­cant botan­i­cal fres­coes) and maps of the Roman Empire to reflect the Roman back­drop for these plants once they entered the empire.

Through col­lage, I decid­ed to recon­struct an image from the Vil­la of Livia because of Livia’s ties to Augus­tus, the first Roman Emper­or, and the pres­ence of non-native plants doc­u­ment­ed in Roman gar­dens and gar­den paint­ing. The vol­canic erup­tion at Pom­peii left spec­tac­u­lar preser­va­tions of gar­den paint­ings, includ­ing fres­coes at the House of the Wed­ding of Alexan­der and archaeob­otan­i­cal evi­dence pro­vid­ing insight into the flo­ral com­po­si­tion of Roman gar­dens and botan­i­cal art (Cia­r­al­lo). Delv­ing into the flo­ra of Roman impe­r­i­al gar­dens pro­vides insight into how con­quest and explo­ration shaped the phys­i­cal land­scape of pub­lic spaces: “The vil­la gar­dens at Pom­peii demon­strate that the Romans were will­ing and able to grow non­indige­nous plants on Roman soil, and the city gar­dens show that con­querors often built gar­dens to cel­e­brate their con­quests” (Pol­lard, “Pliny’s Nat­ur­al His­to­ry” 321). Although pep­per, bal­sam, and cin­na­mon were not nec­es­sar­i­ly doc­u­ment­ed in the gar­den at the Vil­la of Livia, my intent is to link “for­eign” plants (what plants biol­o­gists today would call “non-native”) used reg­u­lar­ly in Roman gar­den culture.


The Bal­sam tree, sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly known as Com­mipho­ra gilead­en­sis or Com­mipho­ra opobal­sa­mum, exclu­sive­ly came from Judea. In the late 60’s CE, Titus Flav­ius Ves­pasian con­quered Judea and upon his return com­menced cel­e­bra­tions and con­struc­tions to com­mem­o­rate his vic­to­ry. Pliny the Elder’s descrip­tion of the Bal­sam tree pro­vides insight into how Romans viewed the Bal­sam tree after the con­quest of Judea: “Pliny states, ‘this tree [the bal­sam, from Judea] now is a sub­ject [of Rome] and offers trib­ute with its own race [mean­ing the recent­ly con­quered Jews]’” (Pol­lard, “Pliny’s Nat­ur­al His­to­ry” 327). Ves­pasian built the Tem­plum Pacis and out­fit­ted it with gar­dens and built the Hor­rea Piper­ataria, a spice mar­ket to medi­ate Roman recep­tion of for­eign goods:

The gar­dens in the Tem­plum Pacis would not have been large enough to sup­ply the spice mar­ket next door; how­ev­er, they would have pro­vid­ed a sym­bol­ic reli­gious frame­work for Romans to make sense of their reliance on these lux­u­ry items from India—a frame­work that pre­served their own sense of world dom­i­nance. Gar­dens would show that these rar­i­ties could be grown Roman soil and that it was Fla­vian-deliv­ered peace that made the impor­ta­tion of these goods pos­si­ble. (Pol­lard 335-336)

Import­ed plants cre­at­ed a prob­lem for the Roman’s belief in a supreme Roman iden­ti­ty: Romans were seek­ing a dis­tinct­ly non-Roman object to secure their eco­nom­ic, aes­thet­ic, and culi­nary happiness.

The Romans described import­ed plants from con­quered ter­ri­to­ries with sub­mis­sive and pejo­ra­tive terms. Totelin exam­ines how Pliny’s descrip­tion of the parade of the Bal­sam Tree for the tri­umph over the Jews uses lan­guage applied to slaves to describe the plant, par­tic­u­lar­ly since it is an incred­i­bly valu­able crop: “But parad­ing the tree was above all an affir­ma­tion of pow­er. The lan­guage of [Pliny’s] pas­sage is polit­i­cal: ‘the bal­sam tree is a slave (seruit), con­duct­ed in tri­umph (in tri­umpho dux­imus), pay­ing a trib­ute to Rome (trib­u­ta pen­dit); it belongs to the race of the Judeans (sua gente)” (Totelin 123). Both Pol­lard and Totelin high­light the con­nec­tion between the dis­play of con­quest and pow­er demon­strat­ed through the dis­play and use of plants. The Bal­sam tree in par­tic­u­lar pro­vides insight into how plants fit into the dis­course of sub­mis­sion cre­at­ed by conquest.

Spice Trade: Pep­per and Cinnamon

While non-native plants, such as the Bal­sam tree, became inte­grat­ed into the empire direct­ly through con­quest, impe­r­i­al expan­sion also increased the geo­graph­i­cal range of con­tact Romans had with oth­er cul­tures even if those places nev­er were direct­ly under Roman con­trol. The Romans went to great lengths to obtain valu­able and sought after spices: “Cin­na­mon was extreme­ly expen­sive and was bought up by the per­fume indus­try and favored in wine and in some sweet and savory dishes….and Nero sup­pos­ed­ly burned a year’s sup­ply of cin­na­mon and cas­sia at this wife’s funer­al rite” (Czarra). Nero used cin­na­mon to reflect his immense pow­er. By burn­ing mass quan­ti­ties of it, Nero demon­strat­ed that he had the eco­nom­ic and impe­r­i­al resources to obtain valu­able spices and then use them in greater quan­ti­ties than any oth­er Roman. Cin­na­mon had oth­er con­nec­tions to the Impe­r­i­al throne as well due to its eco­nom­ic sig­nif­i­cance. Dio­clet­ian includ­ed both pep­per and cin­na­mon in his Edict on Max­i­mum Prices (“Cin­na­mon”).

In addi­tion to non-native plants in Roman gar­dens, Roman cook­ing relied on the trade net­works cre­at­ed by the Empire: “90 per­cent of the five hun­dred recipes in [Api­cius’ cook] book called for cost­ly import­ed spices, espe­cial­ly black pep­per” (Czarra). Pep­per, described as the “most wide­ly used spice in the Roman world,” came from the Mal­abar Coast of India (Czarra). While two vari­eties of pep­per cir­cu­lat­ed in the clas­si­cal world, sev­er­al vari­eties of cin­na­mon came from mul­ti­ple places, includ­ing India, Chi­na, Sri Lan­ka, Ara­bia, Ethiopia (“Cin­na­mon”).

Arche­o­log­i­cal dis­cov­ery has doc­u­ment­ed an exten­sive record of pep­per at Berenike, an impor­tant arche­o­log­i­cal site in Egypt and “one of many hubs in the exten­sive Old World eco­nom­ic network…that con­cate­nat­ed east and west” (Side­both­am 1). As both lux­u­ry prod­ucts and plants, pep­per and cin­na­mon trav­eled through­out the Roman Empire leav­ing phys­i­cal and cul­tur­al traces from their places of ori­gin in their wake.

My goal for this image is for the view­er to see the com­plex­i­ty of the Roman rela­tion­ship with plants and plant prod­ucts and to draw ties to the rela­tion­ships between botany and impe­ri­al­ism that still exist today. The fact that today these plants have sci­en­tif­ic names in Latin reflect the last­ing impact that the Roman Empire has had on how plants and plant prod­ucts are per­ceived by the world. Although black pep­per (Piper Nigrum), cin­na­mon (Cin­namo­mum), and the Bal­sam tree, (Com­mipho­ra gilead­en­sis), did not come from with­in the Roman empire, their con­tact with the empire and descrip­tions by Pliny have pre­served their names and sto­ries in Latin and through a Roman lens. Rather than using their Indige­nous names, sci­ence uses their Roman names. Although Latin sci­en­tif­ic names often incor­po­rate parts of plants’ Indige­nous names, the incor­po­ra­tion of these names into “sci­ence” requires them to be Latinized. I hope to use this image to ques­tion why that has hap­pened, and in do so link clas­si­cal nat­ur­al sci­ences from the Roman world to the devel­op­ment of botany in Europe and mod­ern botany and ecology.

Illuminated Newspapers and Gardening Magazines

The idea to illu­mi­nate news­pa­pers (and the news­pa­pers used in the con­struc­tion of these images) came direct­ly from the herbar­i­um. News­pa­pers are the per­fect size for col­lect­ing plants, so in addi­tion to pro­vid­ing an archive of plant mate­r­i­al, herbaria often con­tain an archive of news­pa­pers reflect­ing the polit­i­cal, social, and cul­tur­al con­text of the plant col­lec­tor at the time of col­lec­tion. My goal in illu­mi­nat­ing news­pa­pers was to con­nect the plants direct­ly to their con­text. In illu­mi­nat­ing these news­pa­pers, I pro­vide space for myself, like the scribes in scrip­to­ria, to make provoca­tive com­ments in the true spir­it of mar­gin­a­lia, allow­ing me to par­tic­i­pate in a long tra­di­tion of illus­tra­tors attract­ed to the flo­ral aes­thet­ic with some com­ments on the con­tent of the page. The con­tent of the arti­cles often deal with the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of colo­nial­ism, includ­ing oppres­sion based on race, gen­der, and nationality.

For exam­ple, many plants deemed native and inva­sive are giv­en these des­ig­na­tions in Amer­i­ca based on their exis­tence in Amer­i­ca before and after 1492. Not only does the lan­guage of inva­sion cen­tre West­ern explor­ers, but the lan­guage “inva­sive,” “intro­duced,” “non- native,” “exot­ic,” and “alien” are also com­mon tropes expressed in anti-immi­grant, xeno­pho­bic sen­ti­ments. Bring­ing plants into dia­logue with con­tem­po­rary issues and the com­mon his­to­ry that they both share can hope­ful­ly pave the way from an ahis­tor­i­cal approach to study­ing plants to a more nuanced and con­text-dri­ven under­stand­ing of the rela­tion­ship between plants, peo­ple, and knowl­edge production.

This series of images also address­es the rela­tion­ship between the sys­tem of bino­mi­al nomen­cla­ture, race, and gen­der. The Lin­naean clas­si­fi­ca­tions sys­tem helped cre­ate a foun­da­tion for sci­en­tif­ic racism and mod­ern eugen­ics, impli­cat­ing plants “authored” by him in this his­to­ry (see Gar­rod). This fact pro­vides con­text for the mean­ing car­ried by the author ini­tial, “L.,” fol­low­ing plant names authored by him.

Lin­naeus’ clas­si­fi­ca­tion sys­tem was con­sid­ered rev­o­lu­tion­ary because he clas­si­fied plants based on their repro­duc­tive sys­tems. How­ev­er, in pur­su­ing this end, he per­pet­u­at­ed a long­stand­ing prac­tice of ascrib­ing human gen­der and sex to plants and embed­ded this prac­tice with­in his clas­si­fi­ca­tion sys­tem, such that sci­ence for­mal­ly rec­og­nizes plants as male and female. Not only does Lin­naeus sys­tem ren­der con­tem­po­rary botan­i­cal lan­guage com­plic­it in rein­forc­ing the gen­der bina­ry, but it also con­flates plant and human repro­duc­tion. I also want to acknowl­edge that many schol­ars have done queer read­ings of the Lin­naean sex­u­al sys­tem though I do not address that body of schol­ar­ship here.

Due to Vic­to­ri­an sex­u­al taboos, this sys­tem of clas­si­fi­ca­tion fur­ther inhib­it­ed female botanists from par­tic­i­pat­ing in the field:

Vic­to­ri­an women botanists were still affect­ed by the fall­out from Linnaeus’s cre­ation of a bino­mi­al clas­si­fi­ca­tion sys­tem for plants in his Species Plan­tarum of 1753. This rev­o­lu­tion­ized botany, yet it had turned the sin­gu­lar bar­ri­er of Latin lan­guage into a dou­ble one for female stu­dents; not only the dif­fi­cul­ty of access to a clas­si­cal edu­ca­tion, but also a prob­lem of sex­u­al deco­rum. For Linnaeus’s sys­tem was based on the claim (orig­i­nal­ly made in his Prae­lu­dia Spon­salio­rum Plan­tarum in 1729) that the repro­duc­tive parts of plants par­al­leled the sex organs of ani­mals. Botany became ‘the most explic­it dis­course, in the pub­lic domain, on sex­u­al­i­ty dur­ing the mid-eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry.’ (Jack­son-Houl­ston 85)

In addi­tion, many women who prac­ticed botany were con­sid­ered “ama­teurs,” while men who had oth­er pro­fes­sions but prac­ticed botany (such as Lin­naeus, a pas­tor and doc­tor) are still cel­e­brat­ed as fathers of botany.7

In part, my goal in illus­trat­ing my work as a sci­en­tist is to hon­our and rec­og­nize the many female sci­en­tists who dis­sect­ed, col­lect­ed, and depict­ed plants but were (and still are) con­sid­ered ama­teurs. Along­side the botan­i­cal sex­ism expe­ri­enced by Euro­pean women, male “explor­ers” such as the cel­e­brat­ed Joseph Banks (1743-1820), a direc­tor of Kew Roy­al Botan­ic Gar­dens who par­tic­i­pat­ed in Cap­tain Cook’s expe­di­tion to Tahi­ti, exo­ti­fied Tahit­ian women and appro­pri­at­ed their med­i­c­i­nal­ly and cul­tur­al­ly sig­nif­i­cant plants to bring back for the prof­it of Britain’s grow­ing empire (Fara).

I used col­lage cut-outs and cyan­otype to hon­our two women botanists who used those meth­ods, Mary Delany (1700-1788) and Anna Atkins (1799-1871). Mrs. Delany in par­tic­u­lar did not ever get the recog­ni­tion she deserved: “where­as the nat­ur­al his­to­ri­ans and botan­i­cal artist whom Mrs Delany knew and beside whom she worked…are seen as hav­ing played an inte­gral role in the advance­ment of Lin­naean botany, Mrs. Delany’s gen­der and ama­teur sta­tus have large­ly pre­vent­ed her work from being con­sid­ered along­side theirs” (Laird and Weis­berg- Roberts). In draw­ing atten­tion to Mrs. Delany, I hope to high­light gaps in the stan­dard botan­i­cal narrative.

The cut-outs and cyan­otypes draw atten­tion to the gen­der­ing of plants. Some of the cyan­otypes con­tain flo­ral lacy under­wear and sug­ges­tive apples to ask why flow­ers and fruits are asso­ci­at­ed with the fem­i­nine. In addi­tion, through these images I hope to ask why, in light of cul­tur­al asso­ci­a­tions between plants and gen­der, sci­en­tists must ascribe gen­der and sex to plants and rein­force vio­lent gen­der and sex bina­ries. The keys in the images are from the herbar­i­um where I con­duct­ed my research and raise the ques­tion of who, his­tor­i­cal­ly and present­ly, has access to nat­ur­al his­to­ry and whose his­to­ry do those keys unlock. In addi­tion, all of the mag­a­zine images come from var­i­ous seed cat­a­logues, Flower and Gar­den, The Amer­i­can Gar­den­er, Nation­al Geo­graph­ic from the 1970s, 1990s, and from the past ten years.8

Image One—Common Culture Problems

Image One—Common Cul­ture Problems

This illu­mi­nat­ed cyan­otype of Berberis vula­gris L. (com­mon bar­ber­ry) intro­duces the lan­guage of inva­sion and the gen­der­ing of plants. In the top and left mar­gins, I includ­ed mar­gin­a­lia prob­ing these themes.9 The oth­er illu­mi­na­tion in the low­er-right cor­ner con­tains Mede­o­la vir­gini­ana L. (indi­an cucum­ber root). While the intro­duced species is cen­tered in this piece, the native plant exists in the mar­gins. The co-exis­tence of these two plants on the same pages calls into ques­tion how we frame the dia­logue around native and inva­sive species.10 In addi­tion, I have com­bined the issues of gen­der­ing plants and the lan­guage of inva­sion on the same page to high­light how the gen­dered lan­guage used to describe cer­tain plants per­pet­u­ates stereo­types, xeno­pho­bia, and racism. The exo­ti­fi­ca­tion of trop­i­cal plants and Indige­nous women from trop­i­cal regions can­not be sep­a­rat­ed from one anoth­er giv­en the his­to­ry of col­lec­tors tak­ing advan­tage of these women’s bod­ies and their knowl­edge.11

Image Two—Objectivity is a false god

Image Two—Objectivity is a false god

This illu­mi­nat­ed cut-out fea­tures Epi­pactis helle­borine (L.) Crantz, a non-native orchid named for its sim­i­lar­i­ty to the Euro­pean helle­bore. I col­lect­ed this plant in Stock­bridge, Mass­a­chu­setts and then used its shape to con­struct three cut-outs. One of them is sol­id green to rep­re­sent the plant with­out its con­text. I con­struct­ed the far-left orchid cut-out from a Medieval tapes­try post­card to evoke the Euro­pean his­to­ry of the helle­bore appear­ing in the Bel­luno Herbal, the rela­tion­ship between medieval illu­mi­na­tions and the devel­op­ment of Euro­pean botany, and the clas­si­cal con­nec­tions of the Gre­co-Roman world to impe­r­i­al aspects of con­tem­po­rary botany.12 I used news­pa­pers left over from col­lect­ing plants to con­struct the cen­tre orchid. I high­light­ed the quote “Objec­tiv­i­ty is a false god” to probe meth­ods of sci­ence that claim to be free from implic­it bias, are ahis­tor­i­cal, or do not appre­ci­ate how iden­ti­ty shapes a scientist’s exper­i­ments. For the back­ground, I select­ed a school news­pa­per arti­cle that was used for col­lect­ing and fea­tures top­ics of race and gen­der sig­nif­i­cant to cam­pus and world affairs. I illu­mi­nat­ed the mar­gins with keys and leaves.

Image Three—Rediscovering New York

Image Three—Rediscovering New York

This illu­mi­na­tion ques­tions nar­ra­tives of dis­cov­ery, par­tic­u­lar­ly as they per­tain to set­tler colo­nial­ism in Amer­i­ca. Often the words “emp­ty,” “pris­tine,” and “untouched” describe parks and forests that were once people’s homes. The foun­da­tion for this piece was a recent Nation­al Geo­graph­ic arti­cle that describes New York pri­or to Euro­pean col­o­niza­tion. While the arti­cle makes a slight men­tion of the peo­ple who lived in the land where New York now sits when Hen­ry Hud­son arrived in 1609, the arti­cle per­pe­trates the glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of the male explor­er while gloss­ing over the atroc­i­ties that result­ed from Hudson’s arrival. I moved the mar­gin­a­lia away from the edges of the page to cen­tre the era­sure of dis­place­ment and geno­cide in nar­ra­tives of dis­cov­ery.13

Image Four—Deadly Play

Image Four—Deadly Play

This illu­mi­na­tion con­tin­ues on the themes intro­duced in Redis­cov­er­ing New York (the pre­vi­ous image). The plants fea­tured in this include Hamamelis vir­gini­ana L. (witch hazel), Carex pen­syl­van­i­ca Lam. (Penn­syl­va­nia sedge), Ostraya vir­gini­ana (hop-horn­beam), Fagus gran­di­fo­lia Ehrh. (Amer­i­can beech), Pinus strobus L. (white pine), and two non-native plants: actini­dia arguta (Sieb. & Zucc.) Planch. ex Miq. (tar­avine), and Lonicera mor­rowi Gray (Morrow’s hon­ey­suck­le). The images from nature and gar­den­ing mag­a­zines con­trast with rhetoric about gar­den fes­tiv­i­ties with the human toll inflict­ed by set­tler colonialism.

Image Five—Beauty Secrets from the Garden

Image Five—Beauty Secrets from the Garden

This illu­mi­na­tion fea­tures the sex­u­al­ized lan­guage used to dis­cuss plant repro­duc­tion, the exo­ti­fi­ca­tion of inva­sive plant names, and the pri­ma­cy that sci­ence places on native plants but not Indige­nous peo­ple. The cyan­otypes fea­ture vagi­nal sym­bols made from apples, the lacy-look­ing Ath­ery­i­um angus­tum (north­ern lady fern), lace flo­ral under­wear, non- native Berberis vul­garis (com­mon bar­ber­ry), and herbar­i­um keys. The con­flu­ence of these images high­lights how objec­ti­fy­ing and eroti­ciz­ing plants trans­lates into the objec­ti­fi­ca­tion of women and how objec­ti­fi­ca­tion, eroti­ciza­tion, and exo­ti­fi­ca­tion are inex­tri­ca­bly linked with mod­ern botany and ecol­o­gy. The sur­round­ing arti­cles con­tain sex­u­al­ly charged botan­i­cal cap­tions that include: “Boda­cious bras­si­cas,” “The irre­sistible Epimedi­um: Exquis­ite flow­ers, del­i­cate foliage, and easy dis­po­si­tions make them peren­ni­als to pant for,” “Eco­log­i­cal­ly desir­able,” and “What I learned of the pros­ti­tute orchid forced me to revise my esti­ma­tion of what a clever plant is capa­ble of doing to a cred­u­lous ani­mal.” This image also high­lights how the Lin­naean sex­u­al sys­tem rein­forces sex and gen­der bina­ries based on the asso­ci­a­tions between plants and sex­u­al­ized lan­guage in for­mal botan­i­cal sci­ence and cul­tur­al descrip­tions of plants. In addi­tion to the sex­u­al­ly charged cap­tions, the image con­tains many names and descrip­tions of seed vari­eties that are offen­sive and/or essen­tial­ize the cul­tures and peo­ple from whom the seeds orig­i­nat­ed, such as “tur­ban” squash, a “Bali” seed vari­ety described as a “new ori­en­tal favorite here,” and a seed vari­ety called “Dix­ie Queen.”

Image Six—February 6th, 1969

Image Six—February 6th, 1969

The final pan­el of three illu­mi­na­tions is rel­a­tive­ly emp­ty com­pared to the oth­er illu­mi­na­tions. These illu­mi­na­tions attempt to de-cen­tre the plant by mov­ing them to the mar­gins. The far-right pan­el in the above three images most resem­bles an herbar­i­um spec­i­men, with the mid­dle and far-left pan­els ful­ly decen­ter­ing the plant while cen­ter­ing its con­text. I mount­ed all three illu­mi­na­tions on a news­pa­per from Feb­ru­ary 6th, 1969, found amongst dried plants in the herbar­i­um where I con­duct­ed research dur­ing the sum­mer of 2015. This news­pa­per con­tained arti­cles that res­onat­ed with more con­tem­po­rary plant-col­lect­ing news­pa­pers form the past 20 years. In par­tic­u­lar, the arti­cles in the 1969 speak to arti­cles fea­tured in past illu­mi­na­tions in this series, espe­cial­ly “Objec­tiv­i­ty is a false god.”

The first pan­el in this series of three images fea­tures Ath­ery­i­um angus­tum (north­ern lady fern) in the cen­tre and main­tains the stan­dard cen­tral­i­ty of plants. The mid­dle pan­els con­tain arti­cles high­light­ing the threat to lib­er­al­ism and uni­ver­si­ties that white lib­er­als per­ceive from Black activism. I super­im­posed seed vari­eties from Park­er Seeds (1997) and Bak­er Heir­loom Seeds (2014) that have racial­ly charged names. While one seed vari­ety is called “Black and White Min­strels,”14 anoth­er is “Black Beau­ty: The black­est flow­ers you’ve ever seen.” The far-left pan­el in the series cen­tres con­text, fea­tur­ing arti­cles about Brown University’s rela­tion­ship to the slave trade (the uni­ver­si­ty where I attend­ed and con­duct­ed this research), inclu­siv­i­ty in STEM, and an art exhib­it using col­lage to ampli­fy mar­gin­al­ized voic­es with plants moved entire­ly to the margins.


Words such as “diver­si­ty,” “cul­ture,” “exot­ic,” and “native” appear fre­quent­ly in gar­den­ing mag­a­zines and sci­en­tif­ic lit­er­a­ture. The devel­op­ment of nat­ur­al his­to­ry and botany in the con­text of empire meant that these words were stripped of their human con­text. By trac­ing Latin from ancient Rome to the cur­rent sci­en­tif­ic lex­i­con via medieval man­u­scripts, I am inter­ro­gat­ing the mythol­o­gy of the “fathers of botany” to recre­ate and reimag­ine ways of relat­ing that the cur­rent nat­ur­al archive masks. How and why we orga­nize plants accord­ing to the Lin­naean sys­tem has con­se­quences for how con­tem­po­rary sci­en­tif­ic prac­tices and com­mu­ni­ties rein­force cer­tain ways of relat­ing as the right ways of relat­ing. These illu­mi­na­tions reimag­ine the nat­ur­al his­to­ry archive to tell the sto­ry of how these state-sanc­tioned ways of relat­ing became inte­grat­ed into the sci­en­tif­ic canon and how recon­tex­tu­al­iz­ing this archive can con­tribute to reimag­in­ing futures for sci­ence that dis­rupt rather than rein­force set­tler-colo­nial notions of relating.

Works Cited

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Gar­rod, Joel Z. “A brave old world: an analy­sis of sci­en­tif­ic racism and BiDil.” McGill jour­nal of med­i­cine : MJM : an inter­na­tion­al forum for the advance­ment of med­ical sci­ences by stu­dents vol. 9,1 (2006): 54-60.

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Gold­berg, Susan. “For decades, our cov­er­age was racist. To rise above our past, we must acknowl­edge it.” Nation­al Geo­graph­ic. 2018.

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Leigh, Matthew. “What is the set­ting of the Eclogues?” Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty. Handout.

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Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. “Decol­o­niza­tion is not a metaphor.” Decol­o­niza­tion: Indi­gene­ity, Edu­ca­tion & Soci­ety vol. 1 no. 1, 2012.

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  1. Despite the shared sound and estab­lished ety­mo­log­i­cal link between these Greek and Latin words, clas­si­cists have long debat­ed whether Vir­gil intend­ed to echo The­ocri­tus’ use of Φηγός to mean oak as the Greek implies or to sig­ni­fy a beech tree, which is what the word would have meant in Virgil’s time (see Lip­ka 2002; Jones 2011). Regard­less of this lack of con­sen­sus, today beech trees bear the name Fagus, which, through the lin­guis­tic deriva­tion and Virgil’s nod to The­ocri­tus, echoes the Greek Φηγός.
  2. Decol­o­niza­tion brings about the repa­tri­a­tion of Indige­nous land and life; it is not a metaphor for oth­er things we want to do to improve our soci­eties and schools” (Tuck and Yang 1).
  3. A rich diver­si­ty of tra­di­tion­al names was fun­neled in this peri­od through the intel­lec­tu­al straits of Lin­naean nomen­cla­ture to repro­duce stan­dard­ized nam­ing. Botan­i­cal Latin was made and remade in the 18th cen­tu­ry to suit nat­u­ral­ists’ pur­pos­es. If Latin, the lan­guage of Euro­pean learn­ing, was to become the stan­dard lan­guage of botan­i­cal sci­ence, it might have incor­po­rat­ed cus­tom­ary names from oth­er cul­tures as plants from those cul­tures entered Europe. It might also have pre­served a sense of bio­geog­ra­phy of plants by mak­ing plants with their places of ori­gin. But plants more often were named for Euro­pean botanists and their patrons. Nam­ing prac­tices cel­e­brat­ed a par­tic­u­lar brand of historiography—namely, a his­to­ry cel­e­brat­ing the deeds of great Euro­pean men. It is remark­able that Lin­naeus’ sys­tem itself retold— to the exclu­sion of oth­er histories—the sto­ry of elite Euro­pean botany” (Schiebinger 20).
  4. In addi­tion to an intrin­sic inter­est in plants, eco­nom­ic fac­tors moti­vat­ed Lin­naeus: “Now cel­e­brat­ed as the “father of mod­ern tax­on­o­my,” the Swedish schol­ar often saw his tax­o­nom­ic inno­va­tions as sec­ondary to his many eco­nom­ic schemes. The emi­nent botanist William Stearn has point­ed out that Lin­naeus’ bino­mi­al sys­tem of nomen­cla­ture first devel­oped as a kind of short­hand to aid sev­er­al of his eco­nom­ic botan­i­cal projects, most imme­di­ate­ly for cat­a­logu­ing Swedish fod­ders in order to enhance ani­mal hus­bandry” (Schiebinger 6-7).
  5. From Greek Μηδεια (Medeia), pos­si­bly derived from µηδοµαι (medo­mai) ‘to think, to plan. In Greek mythol­o­gy Medea was a sor­cer­ess from Colchis (mod­ern Geor­gia) who helped Jason gain the Gold­en Fleece. They were mar­ried, but even­tu­al­ly Jason left her for anoth­er woman. For revenge Medea slew Jason’s new lover and also had her own chil­dren by Jason killed” (Camp­bell). In addi­tion, the com­mon name “indi­an cucum­ber root” is an exam­ple of the racist nomen­cla­ture embed­ded in botan­i­cal dis­course.
  6. This not only applies to Rome and the Mediter­ranean, but also Provin­cial parts of the empire: “The most strik­ing obser­va­tion is their [exot­ic plants] con­spic­u­ous absence out­side the Roman fron­tiers, which high­lights the promi­nent role that the Roman Empire played in their dis­sem­i­na­tion. Inter­est­ing­ly, a promi­nent mil­i­tary asso­ci­a­tion is appar­ent for most taxa fea­tur­ing in Roman archaeob­otan­i­cal con­texts, mak­ing a strong case for a con­nec­tion between the move­ment of the army and the dis­sem­i­na­tion, at least ini­tial­ly, of import­ed plants in north­west­ern Europe” (Livar­da 156).
  7. Indeed, it was pre­cise­ly because of atti­tudes like these that botany rapid­ly suc­cumbed to the process of reclas­si­fi­ca­tion and dis­missal by what Joan­na Russ calls “the dou­ble stan­dard of con­tent” and “false cat­e­go­riz­ing.” If women could do botany, then it wasn’t a sci­ence, and peo­ple who did it weren’t men. (The same was true of flower paint­ing.) In 1828 John Lind­ley regret­ted the under­valu­ing of botany as “an amuse­ment for ladies rather than an occu­pa­tion for the seri­ous thoughts of man”… John Lind­ley, a prime play­er in the rel­e­ga­tion of women botanist to the sta­tus of ama­teurs, had his own books illus­trat­ed part­ly by his daugh­ters.” (Jack­son-Houl­ston 88) [Unclear what is a quo­ta­tion here since the foot­note does not begin with a quo­ta­tion mark (but is it all quotation?)—please fix and use MLA in-text cita­tion.]
  8. A con­densed ver­sion of this sec­tion, includ­ing one of the images, orig­i­nal­ly appeared on the Free Rad­i­cals blog (Dun­can)
  9. Native, inva­sive, exot­ic, intro­duced, non-native—do these labels refer to plants or peo­ple? Who gets to decide? Why are plants labeled as male or female? Just because flow­ers look vagi­nal and pollen tubes are phal­lic doesn’t mean that seeds are ovaries and plants have gen­ders. Male and female are fraught cat­e­gories for plants and peo­ple” (Image One).
  10. Species are deemed “intro­duced” if they arrived in North Amer­i­ca after 1492: “As usu­al, the nativist dream of erad­i­cat­ing the inter­lop­er is inter­twined with a fan­ta­sy of restor­ing the land­scape to its ‘orig­i­nal’ con­di­tion” (Cock­burn). In addi­tion, the lan­guage of inva­sion is racial­ly cod­ed, refer­ring to “ori­en­tal exotics” and descrip­tions of plants as hav­ing agency and being inten­tion­al­ly aggres­sive and destruc­tive, tak­ing resources away from native plants. These tropes echo anti-immi­grant sen­ti­ment in the Unit­ed States. While on a gar­den tour at a place that prides itself in plant­i­ng exclu­sive­ly native plants, I heard the tour guide describe Ori­en­tal bit­ter­sweet (Celas­trus orbic­u­la­tus) as a “thug plant.”
  11. In addi­tion to intro­duc­ing sex­u­al­ly trans­mit­ted dis­eases, Euro­pean explor­ers had sex­u­al encoun­ters with indige­nous women. For exam­ple, “The female dancers found it advan­ta­geous to keep their eccen­tric vis­i­tors [Joseph Banks and Cap­tain Cook] happy…His [Banks’] spe­cial flame was Oth­eothea, the per­son­al atten­dant of a high rank­ing woman, Purea- or Queen Oberea as she was mis­tak­en­ly called by the Euro­peans, who mis­heard her name and ele­vat­ed her rank because they were insen­si­tive to fine social dis­tinc­tions between peo­ple they lumped togeth­er as an infe­ri­or race. Dur­ing the Dolphin’s vis­it Purea had tak­en over Wal­lis’ social agen­da. She dis­tract­ed him from per­pe­trat­ing fur­ther car­nage amongst islanders by enter­tain­ing, mas­sag­ing, and feed­ing him” (Fara 6-7).
  12. Medieval illus­tra­tions depict flo­ra and fau­na with their utmost detail and these illus­tra­tions ulti­mate­ly led to the devel­op­ment of mod­ern biol­o­gy (see Hutchin­son, Gath­er­cole, Fish­er). For exam­ple, an illu­mi­nat­ed Book of Hours, a col­lec­tion of reli­gious ser­vices, con­tains detailed paint­ings of insects in the mar­gins that reveal inti­mate knowl­edge of nature by the artists. While the mar­gins of a reli­gious book might not seem like the most intu­itive place to begin an explo­ration of insect and avian anatom­i­cal fea­tures, these mar­gins became a place for biol­o­gy to begin. These mar­gin­al images com­mand­ed the atten­tion and imag­i­na­tion of their view­ers prompt­ing them to explore, doc­u­ment, and study the nat­ur­al world. In addi­tion to illus­trat­ing plants in herbals, which were bound books often doc­u­ment­ing the med­i­c­i­nal uses of plants, man­u­script illus­tra­tors illu­mi­nat­ed reli­gious texts with plants around the edges of man­u­scripts as dec­o­ra­tive and often mean­ing­ful sym­bols. This tra­di­tion of mar­gin­al botan­i­cal illus­tra­tion appeared in both med­i­c­i­nal man­u­scripts and prayer books; regard­less of the con­tent of the text, plants appeared on the page: “The mar­gin­al dec­o­ra­tion on the French medieval man­u­scripts often com­plet­ed the por­tray­al of Nature in the minia­tures them­selves. Along the mar­gins we dis­cov­er a wealth of leaves, in par­tic­u­lar ivy, oak, and acan­thus foliage…During the Romanesque peri­od, the minia­tur­ists made use of rudi­men­ta­ry plant forms”(Gathercole page num­ber). For exam­ple, the grape vine rep­re­sent­ed com­mu­nion and Christ’s blood, while ivy was asso­ci­at­ed with Bac­chus, and asters with Athena, Artemis, and lat­er, Mary: “some plant sym­bol­ism derived from bib­li­cal sources, but a great deal more was inher­it­ed from the clas­si­cal world, both in the form of pagan leg­end (vine and ivy were both sacred to Bac­chus) and from the works of the found­ing fathers of Euro­pean botany, Theophras­tus (372-257 BC), Dioscorides (c. AD 40-90), and the elder Pliny (AD 23-79), whose writ­ings remained a source of ref­er­ence for many cen­turies” (Fish­er 6). The cul­tur­al sig­nif­i­cance of these plants and their fre­quent appear­ances in the mar­gins of man­u­scripts car­ried the sym­bols of clas­sics into the foun­da­tion of botany. Illus­tra­tors began depict­ing plants with more anatom­i­cal accu­ra­cy due to shift­ing artis­tic styles: “the new impe­tus towards real­ism in four­teenth-cen­tu­ry Italy inspired the illus­tra­tors of herbals. This move­ment start­ed in the med­ical schools of Saleron and owed much to Ara­bic influ­ence” (Fish­er 7). Cir­ca Instans, a 12th-cen­tu­ry Latin med­i­c­i­nal text, rep­re­sents an impor­tant devi­a­tion from past prac­tices, which involved sole­ly rely­ing on clas­si­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tions of plants (Fish­er 7). The Bel­luno Herbal con­tains the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a helle­bore root in a fash­ion evoca­tive of the herbar­i­um spec­i­men (Fish­er 10-11). Along­side these illus­tra­tions, war and explo­ration con­tributed to the devel­op­ing sig­nif­i­cance of gar­dens in the medieval world: “Dur­ing the twelfth cen­tu­ry, gar­dens in gen­er­al assumed an increase in impor­tance in the West­ern World, since the cru­saders came to admire the splen­dor of East­ern grounds adorned with flow­ers and would describe them on their return home”(Gathercole page num­ber). This prac­tice, sim­i­lar to the rela­tion­ship between con­quest and gar­den cul­ti­va­tion in the Roman and Greek worlds, was the pre­cur­sor to the age of explo­ration, in which botany and empire build­ing were inex­tri­ca­bly linked.
  13. The mar­gin­a­lia reads: “Was it a ‘vir­gin land­scape,’ ‘land of oppor­tu­ni­ty,’ ‘nat­ur­al won­der,’ ‘wilder­ness’? Was it ‘wild,’ ‘emp­ty,’ ‘pris­tine,’ ‘untouched’?” Although these images were pro­duced dur­ing 2015 and 2016, it is time­ly and rel­e­vant to note that Nation­al Geo­graph­ic recent­ly pub­lished an issue explor­ing their his­to­ry of racist cov­er­age (Gold­berg).
  14. The Amer­i­can min­strel tra­di­tion includ­ed offen­sive black­face per­for­mances and empha­sized racial stereo­types thus, refer­ring to Black min­strels in a seed-vari­ety name is explic­it­ly racist.