Plants Aren’t Neutral

An online exhibit hosted by the New York Botanical Garden decodes plants’ relationships to Black people.

By Zach Mortice 

An illustration of Edmond Albius, by Antoine Roussin, 1863. Image courtesy of Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.

Of the five plants featured in the New York Botanical Garden’s online exhibition Black Botany: The Nature of Black Experience, some are cash crops typically associated with Black people and slavery, such as cotton and rice. Others highlight relationships that are less well-known. “We wanted to look at how Black culture is always simmered down to low and middlebrow culture, as opposed to scientific or higher-brow knowledge,” says Nuala Caomhánach, a former Mellon Fellow at the New York Botanical Garden and a current doctoral student in the history of science, who curated the show with Rashad Bell, a collection maintenance associate at the garden. Each plant shines a light on the intentional omission of comprehensive Black knowledge of botany and nature, as well as how Black people were often connected to these plants in the popular imagination by slavery.

Very simply, “plants aren’t neutral,” Bell says.

The exhibition highlights the Black experience and knowledge of plants in an effort to counter the whitewashing of history. The curators acknowledge that natural history collections in the West are often the result of the same colonial, exploitative forces that created the slave trade as well as Black people’s specific relationships with the crops featured in the exhibition. These include cotton and rice, as well as the vanilla orchid (the seedpods of which are used for vanilla flavoring) and peanuts. It’s a powerfully succinct show, comprising just five plants—rice, cotton, the vanilla plant, the peacock flower, and the peanut. Each is given short expository text that focuses on its relationship to significant figures or aspects of the Black experience, paired with a handful of images. The exhibition was first mounted in February of 2020, but with the onset of the pandemic, it was put online and featured for Black History Month this year.

A Vanilla planifolia specimen. Image courtesy New York Botanical Garden.

The plants are represented by sumptuous 18th- and 19th-century hand-drawn illustrations, photos of dried herbarium samples, as well as drawings and photos of Black people who pioneered and advanced the cultivation and use of this flora. Tensions arise from the use of traditional botanical illustrations drawn from the botanical garden’s collection held at the Mertz Library. Rather than depictions of how these plants exist in their native context, as they might have been experienced by Black people who developed this knowledge, they’re presented with a detached, scientific curiosity, focused on morphology and mechanical function; seed separated from stem separated from flower.

The most telling divisions between the five plants are whether their cultivation and use was developed through individual or communal knowledge. In the 18th century, tropical plantation owners were confronted with a problem: Demand for vanilla was astronomical, but no one knew how to propagate the orchids that grew the seedpods harvested for their flavor until a 12-year-old enslaved boy named Edmond on the French colonial island of Reunion near Madagascar devised a method of hand pollination in 1841. And from this, the vanilla industry was born. Freed by his owner Ferréol Bellier-Beaumont in 1848, Edmond was given the last name Albius. The world only knows of Albius today because Bellier-Beaumont wrote letters on his behalf to the local colonial governor, asking for a stipend for Albius earned many times over in the profits of plantation owners (denied), asking that he be released from jail after a spate of financial difficulties (granted), and arguing Albius’s case when a white botanist began making the rounds to tell people he, in fact, invented the method of vanilla propagation.

Though Albius’s story is singular, most of the plants featured in Black Botany are best known through communal knowledge, either because of a lack of documentation, often stemming from assumptions about Black ignorance, or because they were used for clandestine purposes and knowledge was conveyed orally. That’s the case for the peacock flower (Caesalpinia pulcherrima), a tropical flower native to the Americas, aptly named for its long, flowing red stamen and fluorescent yellow, orange, and red colors.

An illustration of the peacock flower by Benjamin Maund. Image courtesy of The Botanist: Containing Accurately Coloured Figures of Tender and Hardy Ornamental Plants, London, R. Groombridge, 1840.

Through the work of the Stanford historian Londa Schiebinger, Caomhánach learned that enslaved Black women used this plant to induce abortions by drinking tea made from its seeds, leaves, and flowers. Caomhánach says that her research demonstrated how the peacock flower was one of a very few ways that enslaved Black women could resist the consequences of sexual violence and the perpetuation of the slave economy by controlling their fertility.

The exhibition essay notes that archival documentation of how enslaved women used the peacock flower came from Maria Sibylla Merian, a 17th-century botanist, artist, naturalist, and entomologist, who wrote in her book (quoted in the exhibition) Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium: “The Indians, who are not treated well by their Dutch masters, use the seeds to abort their children so that they will not become slaves like themselves. The Black slaves from Guinea and Angola have demanded to be well treated, threatening to refuse to have children.”

For Caomhánach, this story’s familiar struggle over body autonomy made it the “riskiest plant to choose but probably one of the more important ones,” she says. “When we think about the lack of information about Black women in the archives, the biases, whether they’re racialized or they’re sexualized, it was a story that was so contemporary as to what’s going on today.” There is, of course, “the sheer violence of what women had to and continue to go through today. There’s not a lot of records of it. So it’s really easy to dismiss or whitewash these stories.”

Black Botany is a provocation in a conservative field that’s in the early stages of reckoning with legacies of colonial exploitation and prejudice. “You see the peacock flower, which is gorgeous,” Bell says. “Then you get hit in the face with this story of body rights.” If the botanical garden visitor wants to see beautiful plants, there’s ample material and room for that. But there’s room for more, too, and Black Botany is a concise lesson that fulfilling the scientific mandate of deepening knowledge of the natural world never really happens in a vacuum free from history and culture.

2 thoughts on “Plants Aren’t Neutral”

  1. Christ is there no end to making everything about racism. Whatever integrity you had, is fine

  2. It is good to know that I can still learn new things, 50 years after high school! Thank you!

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