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Hollyhock illustrates colonization of nonnatives

“One day I was walking through the glasshouse area of Kew Gardens when I came upon the most beautiful hollyhock I had ever seen ... but when I looked at the label on which its identification was written, my whole being was sent a-whir. It was not a hollyhock at all, but Gossypium, and its common name is cotton.” — Jamaica Kincaid, “My Garden [Book], 1999

In Part II of “My Garden [Book],” Jamaica Kincaid wrote about the colonization of her homeland, the West Indian island of Antigua, by the British Empire, which officially ruled from 1667 to 1981. Of all the Caribbean islands, Antigua had the only accessible harbor, so shiploads of enslaved Africans were unloaded onto the docks to work in the fields of large plantations.

However, the most profitable commercial crop that was grown in the British West Indies was not cotton but sugarcane. Although the slaves in Antigua were emancipated by the British in 1834, freed slaves continued to provide cheap labor on sugar plantations well into the 20th century.

Kincaid’s field labor came about when her mother ordered her to help harvest a friend’s cotton during summer breaks. She wrote, “I remember my hands aching, particularly in the area at the base of my thumbs, as I tried to separate dried pod from cotton, and then the almost certainly white cotton from the certainly black seed.”

Many years later, when Kincaid visited Kew Gardens in London, she saw a cotton plant in bloom for the first time. The flowers of Gossypium are, indeed, similar to garden hollyhocks because they are both members of the mallow, or Malvaceae, family. Creamy white cotton flowers bloom and self-pollinate in just 24 hours and then turn pink to purple before they wither away and the cotton boll develops.

Even though Kincaid wrote that she hated picking cotton and “this period of my young life,” she counts the hollyhock among her favorite flowers.

“Perhaps the fact that the hollyhock looks like cotton when it is in flower is an explanation,” Kincaid wrote of her preference for them. “On the other hand, the hollyhock could have been my least favorite perennial for the very same reason. I wait for the unknown expanse called time to let me know.”

I should note that garden hollyhocks, or Alcea rosea, are actually short-lived perennials or biennials. Native to Asia, they grow a root system and a rosette of leaves during the first year and set flowers and seed the following summer and fall. If growing conditions are right, hollyhocks are prolific self-seeders, which is why Alcea rosea is listed in the Invasive Plant Atlas of the United States.

I wonder if Kincaid would be as enthusiastic about hollyhocks if she knew they are famous for colonizing gardens like the British colonized Antigua.

Kincaid, who has written on the theme of anti-colonialism in her other works of fiction and nonfiction, admitted in “My Garden [Book]” that she doesn’t know the names of the plants indigenous to Antigua. A botanical garden near her home was filled with plants from different parts of the then British Empire, but of Antiguan native plants, there were none.

“This ignorance of the botany of the place I am from (and am of) really only reflects the fact that when I lived there, I was of the conquered class and living in a conquered place,” Kincaid wrote. “The botanical garden reinforced for me how powerful were the people who had conquered me; they could bring to me the botany of the world they owned.”

In fact, botanical gardens like Kew Gardens in London where Kincaid saw her first cotton flower have been criticized for their role in Western colonization and imperialism. Kew Gardens is a collection of several thousand living plant species and more than 8 million preserved species of plants and fungi, many obtained under colonial and exploitative conditions in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and other parts of the world.

Kew Gardens director Richard Deverell told The Guardian in 2021, “Much of Kew’s work in the 19th century focused on the movement of valuable plants around the British Empire for agriculture and trade, which of course means that some key figures in our past and items still in our collections are linked to colonialism.”

Last year, Kew Gardens published a 10-year manifesto in which Deverell and the board of directors outlined plans to “decolonize” the gardens by adding information about the plants that reflect their association with slavery and colonialism. Deverell said, “There is no acceptable neutral position on this subject; to stay silent is to be complicit. Each of us needs to step up to tackle injustices in our society and our organizations.”

But the relationship between the colonizers and the colonized is a complicated one, as Kincaid pointed out. She recalled that if any of her Antiguan neighbors had enough money, they would show off their relative prosperity by planting gardens filled with nonnative plants preferred by the British colonists: bougainvillea, plumbago, croton, hibiscus, bird of paradise and mango.

“There was naturally an attempt among certain [Antiguans] to imitate their rulers in this particular way, arranging a landscape, and they did this without question; they can’t be faulted for not asking what it was they were doing; this is the way these things work,” Kincaid said.

Kincaid immigrated to the United States when she was 16 to work as a nanny for a wealthy Manhattan family, and she did not return to Antigua for many years. When she began publishing her writing in the early 1970s, she changed her birth name, Elaine Potter Richardson, to Jamaica Kincaid so she could remain anonymous to her estranged family.

For many years, Kincaid has lived and gardened in Vermont, where it must be said that she fills her garden with plants that have originated from all over the world. In “My Garden [Book],” she recounted her experiences in China while on a seed-hunting expedition, and in 2005 she published her seed-collecting experiences in Nepal in “Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalayas.”

In that book, she wrote, “Vermont, all by itself should be Eden and garden-worthy enough. But apparently, I do not find it so. I seem to believe that I will find my idyll more of a true ideal only if I can populate it with plants from another side of the world.”

As Kincaid, herself, said, “This is the way things work.”

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. See literarygardener.com or email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com.