(Post-)Colonialism and the botanical garden in Potsdam (Part 2)

This is a guest contribution by Noam Gramlich und Lydia Kray.

In this text for our series on Potsdam’s botanical garden and its colonial entanglements (first part here), we deal with two issues: the colonial role of European scientists in practices of naming and the restitution of botanical specimen.

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 coat of arms of the Republic of Namibia and the logo of the Kunene regional council

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 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 Weltwischia in the botanical garden in Potsdam (Photo: Naomie Gramlich & Lydia Kay)

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.[1] 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.

Botanical Gardens and biodiversity (Source: BGCI U.S.)

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.[2] 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.

Credits // Text: Noam Gramlich und Lydia Kray


[1] Tanzania was part of the German colony “German East-Africa) from 1885 until 1918, which also included the territories of today’s Burundi and Rwanda.

[2] Tanzania waived reparation payment from the German government.

1 thought on “(Post-)Colonialism and the botanical garden in Potsdam (Part 2)”

  1. Pingback: Elementor #1358 - Postcolonial Potsdam

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