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(Post-)Colonialism and the Botanical Gardens at Potsdam

Understanding botanical gardens as colonial sites seems particularly difficult: their plant inhabitants present themselves as too innocent, too splendid and too lively to be associated with colonial violence, white appropriation and hegemonic systems of knowledge production. To imagine which countries the plants come from and at what time they came to Europe fundamentally changes the perspective of visitors to these institutions. To begin to trace the hidden colonial layers, we met the curator of the Potsdam botanical garden, Dr. Michael Burkart. He provided us with insights into his still unwritten work about the plants’ colonial histories. This text takes this conversation as a starting point and then asks questions about the origins, movements and possible return of the plants. We want to use the current debate on the restitution of African cultural artifacts as an opportunity to raise questions about the colonial heritage of botanical gardens as well.

The development of the garden

Although the Potsdam Botanical Garden, as a university institution, looks back on a short history, its geographical location in the Park of the Sanssouci Palace means that it is interwoven with Park’s colonial history. The Botanical Garden was created in the 1950s as part of the Potsdam College of Education during the German Democratic Republic. Its stock, which today comprises 10,000 species, originates from the gardening stock of the palace park from the 18th and 19th centuries. After 1950, these plants were supplemented by samples taken from the colonial collections of other German botanical gardens. The informal exchange of seeds and cuttings among the botanical institutions in Germany is still common practice today. The bromeliads, epiphytes, orchids, cacti, and the food crops, coffee, cassava and yams, which today make up the main part of the plants, come from tropical countries of the global South. The founding of the garden in the GDR opened a new chapter in botanical migration: not only were many plants from the Potsdam collection transported to Moscow, but in return, plants from Soviet partner countries such as Cuba also migrated to Brandenburg. There is no archive that provides information about the provenances of these plants. A garden database has only existed for about 20 years – the database is silent about the time before that.

Several projects in the field of provenance research currently investigate, through genetic studies, from which collection stocks individual plants originate. Often, when the plants were first classified, only one specimen was kept in the herbaria – the collections of preserved plants – and registered under the designation “only known from the type”. Genetic provenance research aims to show whether the plants that are, for example, in Potsdam’s collection are descendants of the first generation of collected plants in order to provide information on the migration movements of the plant.

Colonial institutions

Botanical gardens can be understood as organic museums, whose exhibits, just as in ethnological museums, show rare, sometimes unique artefacts from other countries. The only difference is that in the case of the botanical gardens, they are marked as natural rather than cultural sites and for this reason, among others, they are often not understood as museum institutions and they don’t see themselves as such. Quite fundamentally, botanical gardens are the institutional heirs of scientific disciplines of biology and botany, which were created at the time of colonisation. Discovery, classification and transplantation can be understood as instruments of colonisation processes. Not only do botanical gardens in Europe and North America house thousands of species from the former colonies, but conversely, “improved versions” of plants created through experiments in botanical gardens migrated back to the colonies, often forming the beginning of plantation management. While the global spread of the plantation system led to the extinction of the majority of indigenous plants, the secured remainder of this wealth of botanical species migrated to research institutions in Europe. Today, the plants are still regarded as the “rich treasure” of this colonial yield.

Decolonization of botanical gardens

As media and cultural studies scholars, we ask ourselves to what extent the colonial reappraisal of the botanical garden is adequately implemented with measures such as genetic research and restitution. If “colonial” is understood to mean not only the historical epoch of German colonial history in Africa, China and the Pacific from around 1880 to 1919, but also a colonial mindset of aesthetics, architecture and scientific methods, it becomes clear that a critique of the coloniality of these issues has yet to be developed. The word “colonial” is derived from the Latin “colere” for “to cultivate land” and thus already linguistically refers to the idea that areas and people who supposedly do not have any history and culture must be civilized and cultivated.

The botanical gardens in European metropolises, which were built with the intent to exhibit the biological riches of the whole world, manifest that scientific sites are an expression of this colonial mindset. The architecture of the Berlin botanical gardens, for example, with its continental division, in which visitors can move from South America to Africa in two steps, corresponds to an imperial system of bringing the distant world into the metropolises and representing it there through botanical imports. Especially after the “loss” of the colonies through the Treaty of Versailles, the botanical gardens in Germany can be understood as an expression of an imperial gesture of appropriation. The fact that colonial history continues to be expressed on an imaginative level is also manifested architecturally in the glass greenhouses, whose predecessors are the buildings of the World Expositions.

The current debates about cultural artefacts show that restitution is an ethical act of establishing new cultural relations. To this end, it is relevant that scientific institutions critically engage with the meanings of the “colonial” in their work and that they create new collections and exhibition policies – the botanical garden in Potsdam has only just started to consider these aspects. After our conversation with Michael Burkart we have more questions than answers: How can the colonial histories of plants and botanical scientific institutions be shown to the public? How do we deal with the gaps in the botanical archives? If post/colonial research calls for other stories, stories of resistance, what might these look like for the plants and their migratory movements?

The stories of the plants and how they are told

The origins, journey or sometimes even the rarity value of individual plants is not always documented, or  documentation is not publicly accessible. Only institutional connections allow one to obtain some information. There are no official records, no evidence of events that could tell us how these large collections of non-endemic (i.e. non-native) plants came to Germany. Informal networks between the botanical gardens and the people responsible for them, and in turn their links to the universities, form the basis for the knowledge needed to reconstruct these stories. In other words, how and whether these stories, which stand for many other stories, are told to us, is closely linked to the willingness of individuals to tell them. But the plants themselves also speak of their origins. Tropical plants cultivated here often bloom in the European winter, thus providing a material reference to their embedding in another ecosystem, where their blooming is linked to sunlight and the appearance of insects or birds in the summer. In fact, the flowering of plants often speaks a clearer language about their origin than any directory.

The Welwitschia, which can be found in Potsdam and many other botanical gardens in Germany and which occurs naturally only in the Namib Desert in Namibia and Angola, is in many ways a fascinating example of the (colonial) stories that can be told by, about and with plants. It is so regionally specific that it is depicted both on the coat of arms of Namibia and the Kunene region, and other regional emblems.

The coat of arms of Namibia and the Kunene region

The Welwitschia is a desert plant with only two long leaves, which die off and branch out steadily at the end, and deep taproots. It is known under different names in Angola and Namibia (n’tumbo, ǃkharos, khurub nyanka or onyanga). It can live up to 2000 years. It is biologically named after Friedrich Welwitsch, who found the plant in Angola in 1859 and sent it to Kew Gardens in England for classification. Welwitsch himself proposed to name the plant Tumboa for classification purposes, after its native name n’tumbo. However, Joseph Dalton Hooker, director of the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew – still one of the most biodiverse gardens in the world – who described and classified the plant, decided against this and named it after Welwitsch. In the first European description (1863) of the plant, Hooker commented on the plant’s unusual appearance for European botanists: “It is out of the question the most wonderful plant ever brought to this country, and one of the ugliest”. To this day the plant is described on information boards in many botanical gardens in Germany as the “ugliest” or “strangest” plant in the world. Sometimes it is even called “monstrous”. This exhibition practice, which links the Welwitschia at the same time with fascination, disgust, exoticism and objectification, is a telling example of colonial perspectives that are perpetuated in the present. The stories told in this way about the plants in botanical gardens are alien to the plants themselves – they often reflect the mechanisms of other colonial histories in which uprooting and renaming play just as much a role as objectification and adaptation.

The Welwitschia of the Potsdam Botanical Garden

Biodiversity, restitution and development aid: the botanical garden in Zanzibar

The ongoing relevance of colonial entanglements revealed itself in our conversation with the curator of the Potsdam botanical garden, Michael Burkart, when he addressed a cooperation with the botanical garden in Zanzibar. As early as 1870, a British botanist created a garden in the capital of the Tanzanian island Unguja. At the time, this territory formed part of the Germany colony ‘Deutsch-Ostafrika’, which from 1885 to 1918 encompassed Burundi, Rwanda and much of what is now Tanzania. Today, it exists as an urban green space, but not as an institution of education and research. In the course of Zanzibar’s climate partnership with Potsdam, which started two years ago (in 2018), the restoration of the botanical garden is currently being financed by the German Ministry for Development Aid. In this project, the botanist John Otieno Ndege wants to develop the Zanzibar botanical garden for local conditions. For this purpose, Burkart tells us, Ndege collects the seeds and offshoots of extremely rare species in the remaining forests of the East African coastal areas, where only 5 percent of the native forests still grows.

One of the central tasks of botanical gardens is the protection of local plants and the preservation of biodiversity. If plants become extinct as a result of agribusiness and climate change, the gardens house and multiply “plant reserves” for their resettlement. From the perspective of botanists such as Ndege and Burkart, it is essential to establish functioning botanical institutions, especially in countries of the global South. The functioning of the institutions is characterised not only by the area and plants, but also by offering a public programme for visitors. There are distinguished institutions in Viña del Mar or Santiago de Chile, but the world map of botanical gardens shows that 3/4 of the institutions are in the USA and Europe and not where the tropical plants live and come from. The establishment of new botanical gardens in the global South gives rise to the question whether offshoots and seeds of plants that migrated in the colonial context should be returned.

When asked what the restitution debate means for the botanical gardens, Burkart answers: “Yes, the plants should be returned immediately! With a huge public hoo-ha. We should say: Look what we have done! Now we are giving back to the people their extinct plants: bromeliads, once collected in Brazil, on the Mata Atlântica, one of the most biodiverse regions of the world with the greatest destruction. 5-10 percent of it are still left, and that through colonial efforts such as cocoa and sugar cane plantations for over 100 years. […] The only thing left is a single clone, which has spread through 5 or 50 botanical gardens in Europe and North America”.

Colonial processes, such as thinking about the relationship between monoculture and botany, are complex. What this can mean for current decolonial action is not very clear: if plants can in principle be reproduced by seeds and cuttings, the “originals” and their direct descendants are located in European gardens and maintain neo-colonial power differences, e.g. in the form of passing on knowledge about plants. The Zanzibar botanical garden, as a project financed by development aid funds and not by reparation payments, is indifferent to the moral and legal recognition of colonial tyranny – and yet it is an important project. (Tanzania has waived reparations payment from the German government.) The post/colonial heritage is a complicated one: as the sociologist Stuart Hall writes, European colonisation, which encompassed 80 per cent of the globe, led to a fundamental change in the world, as a result of which there can be no isolated and self-sufficient alternative to global modernity and its institutions. In its function as an educational institution – this is important to the curator in Zanzibar – the botanical garden is intended to educate Tanzanians about locally growing plants. For example, a tasty juice can be extracted from the Bungo plant. Ndege says: “The locals often don’t know the local edible plants and spend a lot of money on markets for imported fruit and vegetables. I want them to eat and appreciate what grows around them.” Against this background, the garden in Zanzibar, in its way adapted to local needs, appears not only as a place of protection for native plants, but also as a possibility of independence from western markets.

This essay has previously been published on