Critical Plant Studies and Phytogenesis

Purple Aquilegia Anthotype: Painswick Rococo Garden, Gloucestershire, by Nettie Edwards

As I discussed in the first post in this series, I recently discovered a talk hosted by Giovanni Aloi from a series Botanical Speculations that has been going on for some time.  He mentioned that there was an upcoming online symposium, Phytogenesis II, sponsored by Plymouth University in England.  As its title implies, it is the successor to a similar event held last year.  I had attended some of the sessions at the time, but found myself overwhelmed with the stream of metaphors used to describe human relationships with plants, and the emphasis on the stranger attributes of plants.  It seemed to me that people interested in critical plant studies and looking at the cultural implications of plants, gravitate toward species that tend to have seemingly unplantlike characteristics, such as Rafflesia that lacks chlorophyll and is therefore parasitical, carnivorous like the Venus fly trap (Dionaea muscipula),  or extra-large like the corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum), which has the added “lure” of smelling like rotting flesh.  Orchids also get a lot of attention because their sexual structures can mimic everything from monkey’s faces to animal genitals.  With hundreds of thousands of flowering plants to choose from, not to mention cryptogams, it seems narrow to focus on the bizarre and presents a skewed view of what the plant world is about. 

That being said, I decided to attend Phytogenesis II when I saw that the word “herbarium” was in the title of the first session:  “The Herbarium: Coloniality, Indigenous Knowledge and the Eucalyptus: Challenges for Critical Plant Studies.”  The first speaker was Prudence Gibson of the School of Art and Design at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.  She has received a grant for her project: “Exploring the Cultural Value of Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden Herbarium Collection Using an Environmental Aesthetic.”  Gibson plans to collaborate with artists and writers along with the herbarium’s botanists in examining the collection in new ways.  She explained one important aspect of her work:  to focus attention on the plant names inscribed on specimen labels.  As with so many collections formed by colonizers, the labels usually do not include the names of the indigenous collectors who so often found the plants, nor the names they used for the species.  Usually just scientific names are recorded and at times the English common names of the colonizers. 

Gibson is arguing for “tri-naming,” as the herbarium standard.  This is hardly a unique situation; herbarium curators around the world are grappling with this issue, and it will require a great deal of work to address.  However, one benefit will be to draw new communities to herbaria, those with indigenous knowledge who can enrich specimen information and also learn more about the plants with which they have many deep connections.  One example of the kinds of links Gibson hopes to forge was described by her colleague Fabri Blacklock, a textile artist and associate professor at UNSW.  She works with natural dyes, including those derived from native eucalyptus species.  She discussed her projects in creating fabric artworks with fellow indigenous artists while also learning about the long history of eucalyptus use in Australia, a history that had been masked until recently. 

The next several Phytogenesis II presentations dealt with photography, such as William Arnold’s work collecting “wild” apple varieties in Britain from trees that seemingly have sprung up from seeds strewn here and there, definitely never part of an orchard.  This is a nice example of looking more closely at parts of the plant world that are overlooked, yet have interesting connections to everything from plant genetics to Johnny Appleseed.  The photographer Nettie Edwards discussed her long-term project on the anthotype, a photographic process using plant pigments to make light-sensitive prints.  It was developed in the 19th century when so many experiments were done employing light and chemicals in different ways to create images.  Mary Somerville originated the technique, but couldn’t get her work published, so John Herschel, the astronomer and photography pioneer, presented it to the Royal Society in her name, but the technique came to be more connected with him than Somerville. 

Edwards has experimented extensively with the process, using a variety of light-sensitive plant pigments and found that they create soft rather than crisp images.  Because natural pigments are used, it’s not surprising that they fade over time, ultimately disappearing.  That’s okay with Edwards.  She sees this slow disappearance as a metaphor for the disappearance of nature from our lives and of species from the biosphere.  Her work tells a story of the beauty of plants and of loss.  It was clear from her presentation that she had done a great deal of research on plant pigments, on how to prepare them for use in her photographic processes, and how best to use them to represent aspects of plant form.  I found this project particularly fascinating.  To me, it represented critical plant studies in a way that was both accessible and deeply meaningful. 

Edwards prepared me for Giovanni Aloi’s keynote at the end of the symposium.  I was ready for a deeper dive into the field of critical plant studies that had become less foreign to me, and definitely worth exploring.  There are so many people in literature, the arts, history, and philosophy engaged with plants it seems that those of us who are interested in the scientific side of plants should pay some attention to how others view these organisms that we find so fascinating.

One thought on “Critical Plant Studies and Phytogenesis

  1. Pingback: Cut Flowers and Botanical Speculations | Herbarium World

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