Cultural botany:Building Bridges

Dawn Sanders
Chelsea Physic Garden

Home | Contents | Abstract | The Garden of Appearances | A Garden of Mirrors | The Woven Garden | References


The presentation will outline the value of the cultural botany project to both the Moroccan community in London and the botanic garden community in stressing the current polemic of gardens speaking as much of capitol and control as of plants and nature (Hestor and Fancis 93) and characterising the ideas and values of our time (sic). This will lead to a final discursive comment re the cultural botany project as: Re evaluating interpretation in the botanic garden: a question of authorship.


The Garden of Appearances

"In the garden enclosed by a brick wall, there is a sealed up fountain. From a point (X) nearby, a stone is thrown to point Z, describing the arc XYZ. Louise says: 'It is the stone which is moving'. On another occasion her daughter Mary Louise says 'No, it is the garden which moves' ." 1

As you walk through the door of no. 66, Royal Hospital Road, London, into the side entrance of The Chelsea Physic Garden, you can head towards the statue of Sir Hans Sloane, on the way you can choose to go left to The Garden of World Medicine or right across the lawn to the Historical Walk. These two sites could be seen as emblems for the dialectic of race, gender and class, implicit in the historical roots of this particular botanical garden. How do we as interpreters and educators, reconcile these roots with projects constructed to offer local communities access and involvement?

We can speak of the lessons to be learnt from Joseph Bank's misinterpretation of Aboriginal peoples' knowledge of the ecological role of fire, in Australian plant communities. We can invite local communities to use the plant collections to reconnect with past rural lives, to use plants as catalysts for reminiscence. We can re evaluate the styles of language we speak in the garden. As interpreters and educators I feel we should be acknowledging local communities, acknowledging diverse systems of botanical knowledge. Acknowledging that, as Simmons states in Cultural Ecology:

' the human use of nature is inextricably bound up with the human use of humans'. 2

Different disciplines have their own language and we have to be aware that as Simmons suggests:

'these tongues may be mutually unintelligible'. 3

Botanic gardens, by nature of their complex relationships with science, social history, horticulture and aesthetics can act as a meeting place for cross-disciplinary discourse and action. In his book The cultivated wilderness or what is landscape? Paul Shepard states that

'today's children are growing up into a completely mapped world'. 4


A Garden of Mirrors

In his text 'Mirrors of infinity-The French Formal Garden and 17th Century Metaphysics' Allen Weiss makes the comment that:
'The garden is often considered to be a microcosm, a symbol of the world'. 5

Botanic gardens can be considered to be mirrors reflecting dominant attitudes to nature, collecting, conservation, culture, social class and knowledge systems. They can operate as curiosity cabinets presenting a tableau of collecting over a period of time, as an intricately laid table would be prepared for a grand feast, hierarchically ordered against a uniform backdrop. Or they can be presented to us as a series of woven tales each focussing on a different part of ecological history; some with greater emphasis on plant ecology, others on human-plant interaction, but all seeking to acknowledge not just the diversity of plant life, but the diversity of human cultures and the knowledge contained within that discourse.

In creating a garden of mirrors rather than a garden of appearances, we will reflect the eclectic possibilities available to us as communicators and facilitators within and beyond the garden walls. We will present a range of stories and build bridges not close doors.

The Woven Garden

At The Chelsea Physic Garden we have a cross disciplinary approach to interpreting the collection, through the visual and performing arts and the linking of horticulture and ecology with history and contemporary cultural studies. With trails like: 'Rare plants, endangered peoples and lost knowledge' we are presenting many historical and social stories interwoven by groups of plants and habitats. In the Moroccan women's project, a partnership is being built across different communities, using the site for reclaiming lost voices and forgotten knowledge.

If we are to truly leave the notion that:

'Renaissance botanical gardens were driven by the imperial desire to reconstitute the whole world in a walled enclosure' 6

as described by Simon Schama in Landscape and Memory; then we need to reflect upon on our relationships with our local communities as well as our global connections. To acknowledge the different contributions that communities can make to the story of plants; both in memory and the everyday. If the botanic garden as an institution is to have real meaning for a broad audience then it needs to be much more than a lost ark, it needs to reconcile the historical with the contemporary, nature with culture, pastoral with wilderness; but most of all, as interpreters and educators we need to acknowledge as John Beardsley writes in his essay Earthworks the landscape after modernism:

' The power of landscape to shape our cultural values and to address both our problems and our possibilities.' 8

In both reflecting upon our problems and creating possibilities we can help build a place in the garden for diverse communities to speak from:

'Putting together, inch by inch the starry worlds. From all the lost collections' 9

as Adrienne Rich writes in her poem 'For memory'. A garden that celebrates communities making new maps and marks upon the landscape of ordered plant collections.

Over the twentieth century there have been many migrations of peoples and cultures, across the world . The Cultural Botany Project at Chelsea Physic Garden seeks to document the plant based knowledge of this Diaspora, through the use of the botanic garden as a catalyst for discussion groups, to rebuild lost knowledge and strengthen bonds between generations. The use of discussion acknowledges the important role of the spoken word as a powerful medium for the transfer of knowledge and values in this post literate age.

The first part of this project has been designed as a partnership between The Al-Hasaniya Moroccan Womens' Centre, London W10, The Chelsea Physic Garden and Rosy Collar a social anthropology research student from The East London University. Using working discussion groups both at the garden and in the Al-Hasaniya Centre we will create a living data bank of plants indigenous to Morocco and their usage in both domestic, culinary and medicinal ( human and livestock) uses. Planting a garden area accessible to the community will be accompanied by written information in Arabic and English about the plants and the knowledge gathered about the uses. A cdRom will also be produced with the Moroccan womens' group and will be freely shared with relevant sites in Morocco. The women at Al Hasaniya in association with their community workers: Karima Koia and Cherifa Atoussi have authorship on all the information gathered and how it is presented, if indeed it is, publicly.

The aim of this project is to provide a broader definition of the science of botany from use to involvement, and in the process develop public knowledge of the science of plants in the context of people's lives; providing a personal connection to understanding the term 'biodiversity ' and a cross-cultural definition of scientific method, for example, in classification. We envisage this archive expanding into a cultural botany database authored by many cultural groups living and working in Britain.

Many gardens are now working closely with local communities for example Limbe with the Wotanga project, The New York Botanical Garden with the global diplomats gardening scheme, Canberra with their Aboriginal trails. Perhaps with time these partnerships will be the new journeys that plant collectors make from botanic gardens, travelling across the seas of their local neighbourhood. Valuing the seeds of botanical knowledge gathered. As this process is encouraged, maybe we will have, as William Chambers once said,

'gardeners who are not only botanists but also painters and philosophers'. 10



  1. 1. Anderson,L. (1992). Stories from the nerve bible 1972-1992: a retrospective. Harper Perennial,New York,U.S.A.
  2. Simmons,I.G. (1997). Humanity and Environment-A Cultural Ecology. Addison-Wesley,Longman,Essex,England.
  3. Simmons,I.G. (1997). Humanity and Environment-A Cultural Ecology. Addison-Wesley,Longman,Essex,England.
  4. Shepherd,P. (1997). The cultivated wilderness or what is landscape? MIT Press,U.S.A.
  5. Weiss,A.(1995). Mirrors of infinity-The French formal garden and 17th century metaphysics.Princeton Architectural Press,U.S.A.
  6. Schama,S. (1995).Landscape and memory.Fontana Press,London,Great Britain.
  7. Beardsley,J.(1994). Earthworks the landscape after modernism. In Denatured visions landscape and culture in the 20th century. The Museum of Modern Art,New York,U.S.A.
  8. Rich, A. (1993). A wild patience has taken me this far. W.W. Norton, New York, U.S.A.
  9. Chambers,W. cited in : Weiss,A.(1995). Mirrors of infinity-The French formal garden and 17th century metaphysics.Princeton Architectural Press,U.S.A.


Copyright 1999 NBI