An Opportunity for Growth: Botanic Gardens, Native Plants, and TEK

Evelyn Hall, Marley Fishburn, Laila Kennedy, Isabel Hawkes

Park Signage (Kennedy 2022)

Williamsburg Botanical Garden

We visited Freedom Park’s botanical garden this past Spring. While it was a wonderful experience with the flora and fauna that the end of winter brings, we had another purpose for our visit. This walk in the park was a voyage of observation- one meant to connect our background knowledge from this semester’s course into a local establishment that is frequented by many people every year. Our discoveries include, but are not limited to the following. Freedom park has been around since the 1650s and has a very rich history, unfortunately, there is a large gap in the park’s historical database, the original native inhabitants of the land are scarcely mentioned. We went into the visitors center and scoured the signs and information for a tidbit of information and recovered only the sentence, “Native Americans were drawn to the Colby Swamp environs by springs and food sources, both plant and animal, that this rich environment provided.”

This begs the question, if people knew more about the cultural implications and the beneficial uses of these native plants, would they be more inclined to protect them?

This casual mention is obviously seriously lacking in detail and factual evidence. However, the main focus of our visit was on the botanical garden located within the park. After a bit of research on native plants and the history of botanical gardens, we were pleased to be able to find an entire section of the park dedicated to specifically native plants, and we were able to find certain plant species and make a connection to the ways that indigenous people historically used them. However, this connection was made solely through our own background knowledge, as there was no information provided from the park. This begs the question, if people knew more about the cultural implications and the beneficial uses of these native plants, would they be more inclined to protect them? By sharing indigenous knowledge and traditional practices, the conservation movement becomes more relevant and there would be even more reason to fight for a cleaner future. 

A Background on the Botanical Garden 

Botanical gardens are distinguished from other gardens because of their purpose as gardens where plants are grown for public display and scientific research purposes. The first recorded botanical garden was at the University of Pisa in 1544. Previous to the first botanical garden most gardens were privately owned and were symbols of prestige and exclusivity. Botanical gardens, on the other hand, were meant to educate the public. The U.S. Botanic Gardens on the grounds of the Capitol was the first botanical garden established in the United States in 1820. Today the U.S. Botanic Garden educates more than a million visitors per year. Nationwide there are over 500 botanical gardens, some run by states and others by non-profit organizations. Botanical gardens present a significant opportunity to educate a wide public about traditional ecological knowledge pertaining to plants.

Detail of plants growing on the roof of the Pollinator Palace (Hall 2022)

The Native Plant Movement

In 2012 the United Nations codified the importance of native environments in the resolution “Child’s Right to Connect with Nature and to a Healthy Environment.” This resolution established the right of children to have access to well-preserved natural environments. It was decided that indigenous environments complete with native plants and animals were essential to the fulfillment of this resolution. This represented the international codification of the native plant movement that built momentum in the 1990s. Many American states such as New Jersey, Ohio, and Virginia followed with their own native plant legislation and planting projects. This was soon dubbed the “native plant movement” and is widely recognized as a response to increased environmental degradation. Biologists such as Doug Tallamy, an entomology professor at the University of Delaware, connected an increase in native plants to increased biodiversity and biological efficiency. The native plant movement really took root in the gardens of individual homeowners. However, the lessons of the native plant movement are applicable to botanical gardens and public land management alike. 

Integration of Indigenous Conservation

Many ethnobotanists and indigenous scholars have drawn attention to the role and function of botanical gardens throughout history, advocating for a decolonization of our understanding and relationship with plant life. Early botanical gardens were established at European universities to study medicinal plants and botany in a colonial context, transferring traditional indigenous knowledge of useful plants into Western scientific standards. With the increasing loss of biodiversity and the emerging threat of climate change, the function of botanical gardens has evolved alongside the environmental movement, including conservation, research, education, and ecotourism. Many European botanical gardens, notably the Potsdam Botanical Garden in Germany, have begun to question the colonial origins of botanical gardens, particularly the role of gardens in Western genetic research and the co-opting of former colonies’ native plants. 

Beginning in the 1960s, local botanical gardens have begun to place emphasis on the indigenous plant species found within the region. Ecological conservation cannot exist in a monolith, though. The movement to decolonize botanical gardens must re-incorporate indigenous voices into the narratives of the land, particularly with regard to the traditional ecological knowledge many of these gardens were founded on. Indigenous knowledge is notably present in the Williamsburg Botanical Garden, providing collaborative community gardening areas for local residents to join in the cultivation and maintenance of the land. Most important is the inclusion of indigenous plant usages on signposts and QR codes surrounding the native plants. Visitors who take a special interest have access to a collection which acknowledges the plant usage of the occupying Algonquin peoples. The tribes who maintained and used the native plants in the Williamsburg Botanical Garden are, at least in part, present in the overall narrative of the land. While the historical usage and presence of the Algonquin peoples is present in the park’s resource, the park’s narrative relies heavily on the vanishing indigenous trope, portraying indigenous plant usage as a relic of the past and not a thriving contemporary movement.

Advocates for decolonizing plant life, notably author Benjamin Voigt, argue that true decolonization will also involve social justice for plant species, believing that social justice is fundamentally linked to ecological conservation and a familiarity with native lands. Voigt and indigenous scholar Phoebe Farris both argue that familiarity with plant life not only for environmental justice and decolonization but for spiritual health, highlighting the colonial separation between human life and the land they occupy. The Williamsburg Botanical Garden, with its labeled plant names and accessible information on native plants, is a great step in this direction for our community.

The Williamsburg Botanical Garden, with its labeled plant names and accessible information on native plants, is a great step in this direction for our community.

Moving Forward

We began this research journey with our visit to the Williamsburg Botanical Garden: a small, but powerful park that educates and rejuvenates patrons with its plant diversity and lush scenery. We thought to ourselves, “how does this garden pay homage to the Indigenous People who historically used native plants?”, and “how does this garden advocate for the sustainability of native plants?”. These questions led us to an exploration of the Native Plant Movement and implementations of Indigenous voices and perspectives in conservation of plants and biodiversity as a whole. We sought to identify ways to ensure the sustainability of native plants in light of settler colonialism and environmental effects of the anthropocene. This led to an exploration of how parks like the Williamsburg Botanical Garden can serve as a place of action. 

A common obstacle we ran into while researching this topic was a lack of Indigenous voices in the scholarship of this topic. We found plenty of articles from non-Indigenous voices that incorporated perspectives and data collected from Indigenous Peoples, but we were unable to find many examples where Indigenous voices authored these studies. From our recent experience, we know how important it is to amplify and engage Indigenous voices and perspectives. Through discussions of the power and history of Traditional Ecological Knowledge, we know how interconnected Indigenous communities can be with their environments. Traditional Ecological Knowledge can help drive sustainability efforts when Indigenous perspectives are incorporated and commemorated in decisions regarding the sustainability of native plants. 

Traditional Ecological Knowledge can help drive sustainability efforts when Indigenous perspectives are incorporated and commemorated in decisions regarding the sustainability of native plants.

Robin Wall Kimmerer so eloquently reminds us that “to be heard, you must speak the language of the one you want to listen,” (158). In the context of Braiding Sweetgrass and the acceptance and celebration of Indigenous Research Paradigms, Kimmerer’s words ring with a sad truth. Often, Indigenous scholars must abide by western research paradigms for their Indigenous Knowledge to be seen as valuable through the lens of western academia. Through our research, and throughout this course, we found that the amplification of Indigenous voices is a step in the direction towards decolonization. In the scope of native plant conservation, the inclusion and amplification of Indigenous voices in spaces like the Williamsburg Botanical Garden has the potential to lead to more effective outcomes, initiate and strengthen meaningful connections, and help cultivate a brighter and more equitable future for everyone.

Detail of Leaves at the park (Kennedy 2022)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: