Isabel Hardman

In defence of Kew Gardens’ ‘woke’ signs

In defence of Kew Gardens' 'woke' signs
(Getty images)
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Forget statues: the latest victims of the colonialism culture war are racist plants. Ah yes, those menacing snowdrops with their overly white petals and dangerous daffodils. As Mr Steerpike reports, Kew Gardens has entered the fray with a promise to 'decolonise' its collections. Presumably the next step is for its sister site in Sussex to be renamed Wokehurst Place.

The Royal Botanic Gardens' director Richard Deverell has said that 'We’re looking at our collections and how we bring new narratives'; while his organisation's recently-published 'manifesto for change' promises that by 2030, 'we will move quickly to 'de-colonise' our collections, re-examining them to acknowledge and address any exploitative or racist legacies, and develop new narratives around them'.

That word 'de-colonise' is the magic password into the culture war. Instead of this being merely about Kew updating its already extensive signage throughout what functions, in part, as a museum of plants, this has been picked up by some as a new front in the war, as though gardeners are already digging up banana plants, chucking the sugar cane into the Thames, and burning cotton flowers.

But why shouldn't Kew add some further context to some of the plants in its collections? How they got to Kew, or indeed how many of them became so important that they changed the course of history is fascinating, often bloody and, at times, disturbing.

Already key plants such as Vanilla planifolia and Catharanthus roseus have signs next to them in the Palm House explaining what they are used for. The botanical name of the first means you don't have to spend that long wondering what it is used for, but you may be less aware that Vanilla was 'discovered' by Westerners when explorer Hernán Cortés arrived in the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán in 1519. 

What happened between Cortés and Aztec leader Montezuma is worth relating in some detail, not least because when Montezuma heard of the conquistadors, he believed that his god had returned to earth. Instead of being a sign of the end of a cycle of history in keeping with Aztec beliefs, Cortés and his men destroyed the city and captured the empire for the Spanish. They brought back with them the vanilla pod, which was then cultivated across the world for its mysterious flavour. 

Why wouldn't you want to know about the origins of the flavour of your ice cream, or of the plant scrambling up a pillar in a glasshouse in South West London? The only answer to that question is that you are incurious to the point of being dull, or that you'd rather not understand the history of the world because it doesn't involve beaming people sharing the plants they've come to rely on for food with equally friendly visitors, and instead has a lot more blood. 

The Rosy periwinkle, incidentally, produces two powerful compounds, vincristine and vinblastine, which are used to treat lymphoma and leukaemia. Kew has already assumed that you'd want to know about the power of this sweet-looking plant, hence the sign that's already up. What's wrong with a bit more detail on a few other plants?

Beyond the individual plants that have had a huge impact on the course of history, plant hunting more generally has not been without its problems, to put it mildly. Some of the most famous quests to find the strange and wonderful plants of distant lands were necessarily intertwined with imperialism. It's a fact. It's something that's worth knowing so we can better understand how we got to where we are today.

Now, if the Royal Botanic Gardens were indeed planning to chuck its rhododendrons out because of their 'problematic' history, that would be absurd (though as it happens, it would be great if Rhododendron ponticum, a highly invasive plant that is devastating wild and ancient woodlands all over Britain, did fall). No plants need be harmed in the writing of this history. But this really is a very simple piece of work that already fits in with Kew's educational mission. It's just a shame that something as simple as a handful of extra signs is now a trigger for the same reaction as the considerably more fraught and complicated issue of statues and vandalism.