Publication Date

September 20, 2022

Perspectives Section



Cultural, Environmental

Located in northwest Washington, DC, the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection has many branches. History buffs will recall the 1944 Dumbarton Oaks Conversations that prepared the ground for the United Nations; scholars know it as a Harvard University research institute; tourists visit the museum’s Byzantine and pre-Columbian collections; horticultural enthusiasts focus on the 16-acre garden. Indeed, as Dumbarton Oaks is a historic garden, we who work here are frequently reminded of the rich cultural and historical significance of plants. So, alongside landscape design and garden history, which have long been notable areas of our research, the past few years have added a new focus to our work: the plant humanities.

A colored sketch of a tomato plant on linen paper. The text reads: “LICOPERSICON GALENI POMME D’AMOUR. Le suc de la plante est bon por les inflamations des yeux pour aretter les fluxion et pour rejoudre pour apaiser les douleurs.” (Licopersicon galeni, Apple of Love. The sap of the plant is good for eye inflammation, stopping swelling, and alleviating illness.)

When found outside of their native environments, plants like the tomato suggest longer histories of colonial entanglements. [Botanical manuscript of 450 watercolors of flowers and plants], ca. 1740. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, DC.

Plants are to be found in all corners of Dumbarton Oaks, not just in the gardens: they are in our collection of rare herbals (early modern books on plants), as well as in our Maya pendants from the late classical period that feature the maize god with his signature cob-like hair, Renaissance tapestries depicting the goddess of flowers Flora, and images from excavations in the western Galilee that document sugar production in the Byzantine Empire. Through our new attunement to plants across our living and special collections, we began to see firsthand what historians and anthropologists of science, food, and medicine have long argued: that plants offer an extraordinary lens through which to teach critical subjects, including the histories of imperialism, commodities, and migration, and environmental humanities, as well as the present climate crisis.

The plant humanities, the term we have adopted for this endeavor, may be new, but the idea behind it is not. Scholars past and present have long recognized the need for interdisciplinary study of the environment and the living beings that inhabit and shape it, and the burgeoning fields of critical and cultural plant studies heeded that call. What we emphasize in our project is the fundamental paradox of plants: they are quite literally rooted to the spot but have immense mobility. Their travels have in turn triggered vast voluntary and involuntary migrations of people. The Columbian Exchange transferred crops from the Americas to Europe, and more recent scholarship has shown how the botanical legacy of Africa shaped the foodways and economy of the United States. When combined with biology and environmental science, this humanistic approach to plants reveals the processes that helped shape our current cultural, economic, and environmental climate.

Amitav Ghosh writes in The Nutmeg’s Curse that “taking a nutmeg out of its fruit is like unearthing a tiny planet.” There are so many tiny planets to unearth in the vast variety of plants across the globe, and so the plant humanities offer almost limitless possibilities for exploration. At Dumbarton Oaks, we wanted to help students and scholars incorporate the humanistic study of plants into their own work. We wanted to make sure students—especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, which emerged during the first few years of our project—had access to a variety of primary sources related to plants and their influence on human societies, as well as the support to know how to approach them. To this end, we created a digital humanities platform developed with JSTOR Labs and funded by the Mellon Foundation: the Plant Humanities Lab. The lab narrates the cultural histories of plants and offers scaffolded opportunities for integrating plant-focused primary sources in university and high school classrooms.

Plants offer an extraordinary lens through which to teach critical subjects.

We started building our lab by searching for unusual plants that would pique student curiosity. There was the dragon tree that purportedly grew out of the blood of the dragon killed by Hercules, or the elusive North American “tree of life” that cured scurvy. But after speaking with participants in our virtual faculty residency, we realized that teachers are instead looking to bring everyday plants familiar to the students into their classrooms as a pathway to large and complex topics, including colonialism, bioprospecting, and the Columbian Exchange. Take cacao: around the world, many of us today can step into our local supermarket or pharmacy and pick up a packet of processed chocolate. But the ubiquity of cacao tells a larger story. As one of our fellows, Rebecca Friedel, showed by bringing together ethnobotanical evidence and early depictions of cacao from a Mexica herbal known as the Badianus manuscript, cacao went global when Europeans drew on the knowledge of Indigenous communities required to cultivate the plant. Through the long history of cacao, students thus come to understand how networks of knowledge between European imperialists and Indigenous peoples were forged, and how these networks shaped the daily rituals, tastes, and consumption patterns of far-flung communities around the globe.

When we bring these everyday plants with long histories into the classroom, we see robust student engagement. As a captivating digital tool, the lab allows students to dive into primary sources and plant-related topics through the use of linked open data, leading them to develop their own research questions. A student who is interested in black-eyed peas and their relationship to cuisine in the American South might find themselves learning about aquaculture, Pliny the Elder, the transatlantic slave trade, and colonization in Brazil, all without leaving a single page on the lab site. Rather than view this sort of student curiosity as tangential to our project, we aim to encourage and embolden it. We also aim when possible to embed full-text primary source material from directly in our narratives so that once students have viewed the relevant page, they are able to continue reading and exploring.

But more than just telling students stories with plants, we want to empower them to create their own. Many of our earliest narratives were created by undergraduate interns and graduate fellows at Dumbarton Oaks. Through their work, we saw firsthand how, when equipped with basic digital humanities tools, students start asking different questions: What is the plant’s provenance? How did it travel to different places? How do its biochemical qualities shape its relationship to human societies? Students then worked in teams to develop an engaging and rigorous narrative for the lab and to communicate the fruits of their research to a broad audience. A group of students in our summer program working on the history of cassava wondered how a poisonous plant from Central America became a food staple in Africa. Using archaeological evidence alongside textual sources like herbals, students traced the plant’s origins, demonstrated the elaborate processing developed by Indigenous communities in the Americas to purge it from naturally occurring forms of cyanide, followed its travels to Africa and the culinary innovations that sprang there, and tracked how these successfully proliferated back across the Atlantic. Drawing on their new mapping skills, students distilled this complex history into a series of visually appealing maps demonstrating how this processing knowledge spread from Mesoamerica and South America to Africa and elsewhere in the Americas, where further innovations in cassava processing occurred. In other words, the maps highlighted the spread of Indigenous knowledge, as well as the ways colonial powers drew on and appropriated this knowledge in order to feed their burgeoning empires.

A student interested in black-eyed peas might learn about aquaculture, Pliny the Elder, the transatlantic slave trade, and colonization in Brazil.

Seeing how the use of digital humanities tools enriched our interns’ and fellows’ understanding of plants, we now aim to equip more students in a variety of institutions with these skills. In addition to our annual summer school, which brings together undergraduate and graduate researchers from around the world to train in and then contribute content for the lab, our postdoctoral fellows have given numerous guest lectures and demonstrations to help professors incorporate lab narratives as class assignments. We are developing videos teaching students how to use the open-source tool that underpins the visual essays. Finally, we are planning a plant humanities reader for college students that will come out of our 2022 conference, in order to make sure interested students have access to these concepts.

Our work with the Plant Humanities Lab is by no means finished—like a digital garden, we hope that the platform will grow and evolve. We are inspired not only by the work of our students and fellows but by developments around the world, such as a recent scoping project in plant humanities by Royal Holloway, University of London, and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, a literary and cultural plant studies network at the University of Arizona, and a recent conference at Ashoka University’s Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability to map out an archive of Indian plant humanities. And we hope that students will take the digital tools they learned through this project and apply them throughout their careers. Like biodiversity hot spots, we anticipate that plant humanities hot spots will spring up around the world, not only in important biocultural collections, gardens, and research centers but also in perhaps more unexpected places. When we equip students with the tools to approach the plant humanities, they will be able to use their research to help construct a deeper engagement with beings that are so distinct from us yet so necessary to our lives and livelihoods, wherever their studies take them.

Yota Batsaki is the executive director of Dumbarton Oaks and principal investigator of the Plant Humanities Initiative. Julia Fine is a PhD student at Stanford University and a former Plant Humanities Postgraduate Fellow at Dumbarton Oaks; she tweets @juliafine19.

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