Help! My garden is not 'woke' enough

'Gardening colonialism' is now a thing, and it's exhausting

GD3HE7 Hever Castle,Kent, England, UK (Tomas Burian / Alamy Stock Photo) *** Local Caption ***  ut25ma-top10castles-hever.jpg

To my horror, I found out recently that during my childhood in the British countryside many decades ago, I was deeply affected by something with "colonial roots". Worse still, I have been unwittingly responsible for the further promotion of the heritage that such roots signify, right here in Abu Dhabi. Or so some of the latest claims about the overlooked aspects of British colonial heritage would have me believe.

I had thought that my parents, one of whom was an author of numerous gardening books and the other a teacher of biology, had emerged from backgrounds that were relatively disengaged from the British imperial experience. My paternal grandfather and great-grandfather were accountants, not colonial servants of empire.

Now, though, I have discovered that, according to a report in the Daily Telegraph, "acts of colonialism still affect who owns a garden today and who doesn't".

My parents bought an overgrown abandoned field in the 1930s, built a house and planted a garden. I don't see how colonialism is involved in that.

The report suggests that the delightful and much-loved wisteria plant that grew over our house, with its gorgeous purple flowers, was "potentially problematic" because the species had first been brought from India to Britain in 1812 by a tea inspector working for the East India Company. It had, therefore, "colonial roots".

This remarkable statement appears in a brochure prepared for Transport for London (TfL) to guide visitors through the green spaces in the Brixton area of South London. The text states, in part: "Many of London's plants were imported as seeds by naturalists who were engaged in colonial activity of all kinds, from plantation and slave-ownership to East India Company business."

So, to be able to properly understand the beauty of a wisteria, should I have been taught as a child about its link to "colonialism"?

The same should also have applied, I assume, to the rhododendrons and camellias that grew in our garden in Sussex in abundance. Should they not have been planted in an English garden? Should I consider that the plants my parents brought back many years later to our Jersey garden from South Africa were evidence of latter-day colonial plunder?

ST AUSTELL, ENGLAND - MARCH 08: A visitor takes photographs of a rhododendron in bloom at Heligan Gardens on March 08, 2021 in St Austell, England.  The Lost Gardens of Heligan are currently open three days a week to local pass holders and will be opening fully to the public on Monday, March 29.  (Photo by Hugh Hastings/Getty Images)

I was clearly deeply affected by this gardening colonialism. For, decades later, I have planted bougainvillea bushes in my garden in Abu Dhabi. These also have "colonial roots", being native to South America and perhaps first arriving in the Emirates when the country was politically linked to Britain. The cactus on my desk is from the Americas, while my banana plants originate from East Asia.

I was delighted to see in the newspaper report about the TfL pamphlet a comment from Dr Zareer Masani, a historian of Britain's colonial past. "The fact that the current craze to blame colonialism or slavery for almost everything has now reached our plants is a measure of how absurd things have become," he was quoted as saying. I wholeheartedly agree.

There's an enormous amount of ignorance about how, why and when plants and, for that matter, animals, came to travel the world from their countries of origin. Yet, plenty of information is available for those who bother to look for it. Some plants travelled because of their beauty, such as the wisteria or bougainvillea. Others travelled because they were a source of food, such as the bananas in my garden. Some travelled across the oceans without needing human intervention, the coconut palm being the best-known example.

Their travels, moreover, often commenced before the emergence of European colonialism, which the "woke warriors" of today seem to view as the source of unmitigated evil and nothing else. Citrus fruits reached Europe in the Middle Ages from South and South-East Asia, but are now believed to have originated much earlier on the islands of Australia and New Guinea. They probably reached here long before the first European colonial explorers entered the Indian Ocean.

The use of coffee beans originated in Ethiopia, but spread throughout the Arab world within a few centuries. The Muslim doctor and philosopher Ibn Sina, known by the name of Avicenna in the West, is said to have given it to his patients as early as 1,000 AD, long before the Dutch took it eastwards to Japan and the Portuguese westwards to Brazil.

There is a problem with blaming colonialism for any number of issues, including the roots of plants. And that, the desire to judge the past by the often-contested principles or morals of today, frequently leads to results based on unsatisfactory and incomplete historical knowledge. To put it more bluntly, there is an awful lot of ignorance being displayed for the sake of being woke.

As Dr Masani commented, in his British context, on the issues of the colonial roots of plants: "The obsession with this kind of political correctness has travelled from our statues and road names to the very food we eat, the clothes we wear, the language we use and now the flowers we enjoy."

Here in the Emirates, I am pleased to say, this type of thinking is rarely found. I shall continue, therefore, to plant my bougainvillea, citrus and mangoes (another fruit with a foreign origin), regardless of any colonial roots. I wish, though, that the glorious wisteria of my childhood was a plant better suited to the UAE’s climate.

Published: November 4th 2021, 7:00 AM
Peter Hellyer

Peter Hellyer

Peter Hellyer is a UAE cultural historian and columnist for The National