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The botanic spectacle and botanical speculation in and across imperial gardens

Authors: Lauren Pearson*, University of California - Berkeley
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology, Economic Geography, Political Geography
Keywords: botanical gardens, spectacle, speculation
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Imperial botanical gardens were sites of spectacle. Garden plots and glass greenhouses often originated in World Fair exhibition halls and garden directors were adept at showcasing “exotic” specimens cultivated and collected on behalf of empire. Imperial gardens promoted their “usefulness” through museums of economic botany and herbariums, especially when they opened their grounds to the public inviting them into a world of spectacular botany. However, imperial botanical gardens were also deeply entrenched in economic speculation. Gardeners experimented with specimens from across the world to try to perfect spices, medicinal plants or cash crops for further cultivation across plantation sites in locales far from their native soil. This paper will draw out the connections between the botanic spectacular and botanical speculation, examining how the spectacular laid the groundwork for the cultivation of speculative crops, and will ask how this phenomena propelled new geographies of speculation across the British Empire, the result of which was the establishment of an integrated geography of botanical trade and economy through a new botanical garden station network. This global network, the “Calcutta-Mauritius-Cape-St.Helena-Kew-St.Vincent” chain of state-run botanical gardens, linked gardens across the northern and southern hemispheres, the tropics and temperate regions, Indian and Atlantic Oceans securing botanical specimens and their economic value as they journeyed across oceanic routes. This paper will explore how the “Calcutta- Mauritius-Cape-St.Helena-Kew-St.Vincent” network was a means of imperial control, securing the speculative value embedded in plants, for planters, and within plantations, and how the spectacle worked hand in hand with this geography.

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