It’s the twenty-second day of the second month of 2022, and spring has officially sprung in Britain.
How can we be sure? Because, each year, keen eyes keep watch for the first magnolia flowers at the six Great Gardens of Cornwall. Spring is declared when each of the ‘champion’ magnolia trees – some over 100ft high – reaches 50 blooms.
And yet the ancestral roots of the star of this seemingly quintessentially British springtime scene – the magnolia tree – lie thousands of miles away in Asia.
“Almost all British garden plants are, in fact, exotic,” explains Alasdair Moore, Head of Gardens and Estate at The Lost Gardens of Heligan, puncturing the myth of the purely British idyll. “I remember years ago I was in South Africa, talking about British flora, and the then professor of botany at Cape Town University said; ‘You don’t have British flora, you’ve got a bunch of weeds!’” he laughs. “It’s a little unfair, but compared to the diversity of plant species in other regions of the world, most of the garden plants we think of as ‘British’ are anything but.”
“Most of the garden plants we think of as ‘British’ are anything but.”
The traditional English cottage garden, with its tumbling beds and climbing walls of roses, honeysuckle, hydrangeas, tulips and wisteria, is, in truth, a diaspora of plant life; a diverse horticultural tapestry embroidered with species from across the globe. So many of the treasured emblems of our countryside endured long and treacherous journeys to reach our shores; their origins erased, indigenous names and knowledge lost. Even that most symbolically English of flowers, the garden rose, didn’t originate here, with medieval gardens planted with specimens that Moore says were probably “brought back from the crusades.”
But it was the infamous plant hunters of Victorian England – and the botanical plunder they plucked from far-off soil and brought home to Britain – who transformed our gardens forever and extended their roots beyond recognition.
Darting from continent to continent in search of new species and fraught with peril (picture a heady cocktail of disease, shipwreck, tropical storms and local rebellions), the voyages of the Victorian plant hunters read like the script for a spoof adventure film. George Forrest, one of the first plant hunters to search the botanically rich interior of China in the name of science, spent months in the wilderness, navigating sheer cliffs and deep gorges – eventually dying of a heart attack outside the town of Tengyueh. Frank Kingdon-Ward, who travelled throughout India, China and the Assam Himalayas on the hunt for botanical bounty, avoided starvation when lost in the jungle by sucking the nectar from flowers. Meanwhile, on a lily-collecting expedition in Southern China, Ernest Henry Wilson’s sedan chair was caught in a landslide, leaving him with what he forever-more referred to as his ‘lily limp’.
On a lily-collecting expedition in Southern China, Ernest Henry Wilson’s sedan chair was caught in a landslide, leaving him with what he forever-more referred to as his ‘lily limp’.
Host to an exuberant riot of tropical flora, The Lost Gardens of Heligan showcases species brought back from across the world by plant hunters to take root in Cornwall. Over 70 veteran camellias and 350 ancient rhododendrons feature in the collection, many raised from seed gathered by the plant collector Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker.
“At the beginning of the 19th Century, camellias from China were hot property,” says Moore. “One of the most important early plants we have at Heligan is the Camellia Alba Plena, which was brought over from China in 1792 on an East Indiaman merchant ship most likely packed with tea. Of course, tea is just the leaves of a different species of Camellia, called Camellia Sinensis. So, it’s interesting, because when we think of economic botany, we often think of it as being specifically about things like tea and spices and timber, but ornamental plants for the garden were big money-spinners, too.”
Fast forward to the mid 19th Century, and Joseph Hooker’s expedition to Sikkim, India and Nepal signalled the start of a massive rhododendron craze, Moore explains, resulting in the dramatic clouds of colour that explode across the lawns at Heligan to this day.
The passion for exotic ornamental plants spread beyond the borders of the formal garden; homeowners used them to evidence their social status and exquisite taste. In Potted History, Catherine Horwood describes how, by the 1850s, “British homes were in the grip of a horticultural hysteria. Whether it was orchid fever, camellia crazes or fuchsia fantasies, middle-class families now were seized by a green-fingered fervour in their attempts to out-plant their next-door neighbour.”
But is it possible to separate the beautiful spoils of the plant hunters from a colonialist worldview with troubling connotations and ugly consequences?
Is it possible to separate the beautiful spoils of the plant hunters from a colonialist worldview with troubling connotations and ugly consequences?
In their Botanical Mind podcast, academics Ros Gray and Shela Sheikh discuss how although botany might at first appear to be a passive, peaceful, or even benign activity, it was, in fact, integral to the expansion of the empire. With the exploratory voyages of European powers turning botanists into agents of empire, the act of planting became a “form of colonial violence”, with cultivation tainted by an imperialist impulse to conquer and control.
New specimens collected by plant hunters were brought back to botanical centres like Kew, renamed, hybridised, and transported to other parts of the world to be grown in the plantation system. But these monoculture plantations, grown with financial return in mind, altered and destroyed entire environments, landscapes – and human lives. “This movement and transfer of certain plants went hand in hand with the transportation of people,” notes Gray, referring to the slave trade and labour on which the plantations relied.
Growing up in England as the child of immigrant parents from Mauritius, author and organic food grower Claire Ratinon felt the repercussions of this imperial upheaval over a century later. “Home is a troubling concept for me,” she explains, “because it doesn’t exist in any one place. For so long, I did this uneasy dance between assimilation and trying to maintain a sense of my heritage, and it put me in so many mentally and emotionally precarious positions.”
Like many diasporic people of colour (research shows that Black people in England are almost four times less likely than white people to have access to green space at home), Ratinon felt cut off from the natural world – an outsider to its joys. “I didn’t grow up with that sense of connection to the earth,” she says. And though they might be full of exotic flora, England’s ‘Great Gardens’ felt alien. “The idea that there were these grand gardens with these ostentatious displays of wealth, power and privilege felt like it had nothing to do with me – that it wasn’t my history, that I didn’t belong there.”
Then, one morning in New York – where she was working as a documentary filmmaker, Ratinon stumbled across an unlikely rooftop farm. “Growing food had been this obscure process that I’d never really engaged in, and suddenly it was like, ‘Wow! It’s truly one of the most powerful things we can do!’ It was such a wild and intense revelation.”
After two seasons volunteering at the farm, Claire returned to London, determined to make growing food a central part of her life. A successful first book, How to Grow your Dinner Without Leaving the House, followed, covering all the essentials of growing a range of edible plants in pots for space-poor gardeners.
“When I came to food growing, I was searching for something,” says Claire. “I was doing meditation and yoga and leaning into a Buddhist practice in the hope of knitting myself together, but I found a sense of meaning and purpose in growing that I hadn’t found anywhere else.”
This journey forms the basis of her second book, Unearthed: On Race and Roots, and How the Soil Taught Me I Belong, released this June.
“Unearthed is the story of how I found my way to food growing and how that practice revealed itself to be deeply connecting and profound – allowing me to weave together a sense of belonging and build a relationship with the land of my birth,” Ratinon explains.
“The idea that there were these grand gardens with these ostentatious displays of wealth, power and privilege felt like it had nothing to do with me – that it wasn’t my history, that I didn’t belong there.”
Now happily ensconced in the East Sussex countryside with a whippet puppy called Marlow and a thriving veggie patch to sustain her (plus four chickens: Grace Jones, Mimi, Alan Partridge and Ti coule), reconnecting with the soil allowed Ratinon to unravel her beliefs about identity. “I realised that food is foundational in the understanding of where we come from and our heritage and ancestry,” she says. “Food is how you share and convey love, how you commiserate and celebrate; it’s everything. And by growing food and coming back to the earth, I’ve knitted together my ancestry and connection with nature. I’m taking my place in a long lineage of people who have tended the earth – I now understand it as my birth right.”
Ratinon wrote the book in large part for her beloved parents. “I’m growing into English soil with my family in my heart,” she says. “Unearthed is about revealing erased histories; trying to do this reparative, healing work with my parents – but also reaching beyond them.”
She also strengthens her connection to her homeland by cultivating the plants of Mauritius in her East Sussex plot. Although, some had already snuck in without her realising. “The book talks about the fact that there’s a hibiscus growing in my garden, and I had no idea that you could grow hibiscus in this climate – I’d only ever seen them growing in Mauritius. But it blooms here in Sussex with these beautiful pale pink and blood-red flowers. It didn’t originate from this land, and yet it thrives here, and I think that’s a really powerful image.”
The Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 empowered a group of growers and gardeners – Ratinon included – to speak up about the lack of diversity in horticulture and sparked a long-overdue wave of action from cultural institutions. The Royal Horticultural Society appointed a Diversity & Inclusion Manager to conduct a full review. Kew Gardens published a Manifesto for Change, including plans to ‘decolonise’ its collections and expand its reach to disadvantaged communities. Elsewhere, the National Trust released a report on the connections between colonialism and properties in its care.
The @decolonisethegarden account and #decolonisethegarden hashtag also grew out of this awakening, prompting gardeners to interrogate their biases and be alert to how language, narratives and visual messaging can perpetuate supremacy and feed racism. “Too often plants, gardens and gardening are viewed through a colonial, Eurocentric lens without any awareness of the appropriation and erasure that takes place,” Sui Searle the founder of @decolonisethegarden explained in a panel discussion on the subject last year.
Ratinon agrees. “Language is powerful and also really nimble,” she says. “For example, if we consistently absorb the idea that the ‘non-native’ plant is invasive, that it’s an unwelcome threat, then it’s a short jump for that to move to other species, including humans.”
“If we consistently absorb the idea that the ‘non-native’ plant is invasive, that it’s an unwelcome threat, then it’s a short jump for that to move to other species, including humans.”
Ratinon admits it can feel hard to apply these somewhat academic ideas to everyday life in the garden, but there are ways of making it make sense. “Even if it doesn’t change how you physically garden, it can change the attitude that you bring to the garden, and make you curious about the history surrounding it,” she continues. “When it comes to the everyday gardener, I think it’s about caring enough to know – caring enough to find out.”
Moore feels the same. “Gardens are so often not about plants and all about people. By acknowledging the past, you’re not throwing judgement on the present. I think it’s vitally important we understand the political and social processes by which our plants came to this country.”
For Ratinon, the garden can be a prism for considering broader societal issues: “It can be the precipitator of a paradigm shift where you understand that we don’t have to participate in believing that that dominant narrative is the only one. I think the power of urging people to delve into these difficult subjects is the possibility it has for bringing about change in other spaces as well.”
With biodiversity loss and climate change threatening the future of our green spaces, bringing fresh perspectives to botany is essential. “Interestingly, the genetic base of plants that were collected in the wild and grown from seed in the 1800s may well be a very important resource in years to come,” says Moore. “It could be perceived as ex-situ conservation – reintroducing plants that may have been lost from their natural habitat by using this dispersed genetic pool. In Tresco Abbey Garden on the Isles of Scilly – my favourite garden in the world, where I worked for many years, there was a plant called Erica Verticillata, which became extinct in the western cape of South Africa. And at the time, there were only two plants left on the planet – one in a botanic garden in Switzerland and one in Tresco Abbey Garden. And just having those tiny little residual pools helped keep the species going.”
Over in London, while Kew may no longer be the centre of a botanical empire, it is part of a global effort to record and protect the plant species on which life on earth depends. Its Millennium Seed Bank preserves the seeds of as many plants as possible as insurance against future losses of genetic diversity.
Concerns about ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ plants and ideas of ‘invasiveness’ may be irrelevant for the gardens of the future, too. “The spectre of pests and diseases adds real urgency to the debate about how we treat non-native plants,” writes horticultural features editor Gareth Edwards. “Promoting diversity is the only answer. […] Botanical incomers enrich the fabric of our nations, and their roles will become ever more valuable in a future dominated by changing climates and shifting pathogens.”
“Promoting diversity is the only answer. Botanical incomers enrich the fabric of our nations, and their roles will become ever more valuable in a future dominated by changing climates and shifting pathogens.”
Ultimately, it’s these ‘botanical incomers’ and the human tales and culture they carry that keeps Ratinon coming back to the soil. “Gardening is so much more than just an aesthetic practice and benign set of cells and photosynthesis: it’s about history, roots, stories, and lives lived. We can convey so much vibrancy in the plants that we grow and the gardens that we choose to cultivate.
“If colonialism populated our gardens with plants from all over the world and dictated how our gardens looked and grew, what norms could we question and possibly abandon in the name of change for the gardens of tomorrow?” she concludes.
We can’t wait to find out.
magnolia campbellii ©Heligan Gardens
Summer in the Flower Garden ©Heligan Gardens
Heligan Rhodos © Toby Strong
Jungle Pond, Heligan © Andy Wilson
Claire Ratinon © Christian Cassiel
First Camelia Blooms ©Heligan Gardens
September at Heligan ©Heligan Gardens
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