Rethinking botanical gardens and their colonial legacy

This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
Rethinking botanical gardens and their colonial legacy
Lysiphyllum cunninghamii

As a new student, I was told the botanical garden in Leuven has a tropical section that lets you escape the cold by virtually travelling to warmer places. It was a cold November day, so I decided to try the supposedly calming effects of this seemingly wholesome world of plants. After stepping into the glass building, I could not avoid noticing the rather interesting words such as “Lysiphyllum cunninghamii” on the name plaques next to the plants.

Cunningham is a popular English last name and it sounded suspicious as the name for a tropical tree. I did some research and discovered that most plants were given scientific names during imperialist times. Colonisers, Missionaries, and “plant hunters” would collect plants in colonised places and sell their findings to Western botanical gardens where they were showcased as national treasures.

I dug deeper into the kingdom plantae and learned that plants were given names by the people who ‘discovered’ them. For instance, “Eucalyptus Bosistoana” was titled after Joseph Bosisto who acquired those plants in Australia in the 18th century. Carolus Linnaeus created a system to classify plants in a binomial way consisting of two Latin or Greek words. For example, the name “Canarium Schweinfurthii” consists of two Latin- based words. The tree has its origins in the Kikwit and Bas- Congo region where the latex extracted from the bark is used for different healing purposes.

Before the Linnaean system was introduced, botanists would call the plants by their indigenous names which were often linked to their medicinal or cultural meaning.

In the late 18th century Linnaeus decided to categorise them in a more ‘logical way’, changing the way focusing on the European collectors. So, ‘logically’ the tree used as a medicine for Malaria was now given the gripping name “Cinchona” after the wife of the Fourth Count of Chinchón.

The Incan, Quechuan term for the same tree “Quinquina” or “Yaracucchu Carachucchu” which included the purpose and application of the tree (“yara” meaning tree, “cara” signifying bark, and “chucchu” meaning the shiver caused by fever) was discarded.

It was the same Linneaus who created a system of classification which set the foundations of scientific racism by dividing humanity into varieties based on physical characteristics such as skin colour, clothing, and form of governing. Africans were ranked the lowest which was later used as one justification for slavery and mass- murder.

One could argue that a garden is the one place to avoid politics and avoid reacting to political movements to maintain the calmness and beauty nature offers. However, not reacting is also a deeply political statement. It implicitly says: I like how things are and I want to keep them this way.

Botanical gardens, just as every other public institution, must acknowledge their colonial history. By changing the names back to their indigenous meaning, or by finding a system of co-existence of both names, we appreciate the impact of indigenous communities and their understanding of flora and fauna and make those communities part of the scientific and societal arena.

Botanical gardens must change their way of educating visitors by informing them about the legacy of colonialism in this place. People should be introduced to the political elements of botanical gardens and learn to look at plants from a more critical perspective.

To kick off a discussion botanical gardens must be transparent about where the names come from, how the plants were captured and how they are used in their original habitat. A transparent display of the origin, connected to information about the purpose and significance of a plant will change the visitors experience from a nice day out into a profound, holistic experience.


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