Ethnobotanical gardens - Alterities


The garden of alterities

Plants and their names tell us a lot about how human collectives perceive themselves, outsiders and the outside world. We discover this through a game of red herrings or riddles about their origins: Norman apples originated in Central Asia; the Espelette pepper was brought over to Europe from America; what is the significance of the milk thistle in the Christian religion?; and how did the lily replace the iris as the symbol of France?

Why is that? Because, like us, plants are great travellers and they evoke imaginary horizons: we think they are from here, but they actually come from somewhere else; we give them an exotic name, when they are actually quite familiar to us. It is this back and forth between the real origin of plants and the origin that human collectives have attributed to them that constitutes the subject of the Garden of Alterities.

The Garden of Alterities is funded by the City of Paris’ Emergence(s) project, EXORIGINS, and the Paris Natural History Museum.

Yucca and Aspidistra, the stars of parisian balconies

These low-maintenance plants have become a permanent fixture in entrance halls, waiting rooms, among the working classes and building caretakers! The aspidistra ("mother-in-law's tongue") is of Asian origin and was introduced into Europe in the 19th century. Its ability to thrive in the shade makes it ideal for growing in pots and for interior decoration. Yuccas, native to the arid regions of the southern United States and Mexico, were brought to Europe as early as the 16th century, and then grown in European botanical gardens, notably that of the French National Museum of Natural History. From the 19th century onwards, they became the plant of choice for public gardens, and later became popular in private homes.

France’s emblematic plants

The use of plants in national iconography serves to create a link between the diverse historical heritages of which it is the bearer. It can mark a break, as with the use of country flowers on the tricolour, or weave continuity, as is the case with the semantic shift between the iris and the lily as the flower of royalty.

The cornflower, daisy, poppy, iris, lily and others, the symbolic history of France can be read in a bouquet of plants whose colours and shapes evoke a certain French style.

Plants from here or elsewhere

People tend to distinguish between plants that they consider to be from where they are and those that are from somewhere else. For most of the world's people, however, it is not just a matter of native versus exotic plants. Some plants may have a taste of home, despite being from somewhere else, and vice versa. Considering a plant to be "from here" or "from somewhere else" does not so much correspond to its origin as to the way we feel attached to it. Where people put their plants says a lot about their tastes, the way they appreciate their forms and their techniques for growing them. These designations of origin are not only based on geographical laws, but also on their position in the world, according to cultural preferences in terms of flavours and scents.

Edible plants... Where can they be found and who eats them?

Cooking is a set of representations and beliefs shared by a group; there are rules (gathering, preparation) and classifications: many plants are edible, but are not considered as such by every society in the world. For example, Galician cabbage (or collard greens) is a species that is used for animal fodder in France, but is eaten in soup in Portugal. In the same way, people of Chinese origin eat certain plants (nettles, dandelions, etc.) that a large part of the French population tend to consider as "weeds". Other plants are consumed differently, according to the culinary traditions of each country: some cook the leaves, others the tubers, roots or even the flowers.

Wild flowers in France's tricolor

The cornflower, mayweed and poppy are known as "messicolous" plants, since they grow among crops without having been sown there. As the first flowers to reappear on land torn up by the violent fighting of the First World War, they are considered – due to their colours – as the floral emblem of the French flag. Currently, the use of pesticides, changes in the way the soil is cultivated, the sorting of seeds and the consolidation of plots of land have led to the depletion and even disappearance of messicolous species in some areas. Faced with this situation, local and national initiatives have been launched to conserve and rehabilitate these plant populations, with a view to preserving the floristic diversity and ecological benefits they pursue.

Plants and religion

Some plants are considered to be sacred and their use is prohibited or regulated, others serve to decorate sacred objects. The values of all religions can be found in a bouquet of flowers or plants, or a cluster of trees. Some trees evoke the Garden of Eden, the time of prophets and gods, others refer to evil forces or genies. Judaism gives special importance to the citron, with Christianity preferring the Madonna lily and Islam the henna tree, while Hinduism focuses on the Indian carnation and Buddhism on the lotus. The box tree, olive tree and basil have earned respect from all the religions that have crossed their path. Each plant is chosen for a particular reason: the shape of its fruit or flowers, the colour or smell of its inflorescences, the arrangement of its branches etc.

An introduction to plants and biological invasions

Since time immemorial, human communities have brought various plant species with them, whose exotic origins have sometimes been forgotten. French cities have even been named after them: Bormes-les-Mimosas, Les Lilas... Among the plants that have been introduced, some are only grown in gardens or manage to grow by themselves on the edge of a garden, while others have been able to establish themselves in new natural environments. Some of those that lack predators and competition become invasive and when, like the mimosa pudica, they become so overgrown that they cause serious damage to native species and/or environments, they are known as "invasive plants" or "invasive alien species". About one in 1,000 introduced species becomes invasive.

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