Aarhus Universitets segl

Plant Memories, Botanical Colonialism and "growing" Danishness: the hidden history of Danish houseplants from Southern Africa

Projekter: ProjektForskning

Se relationer på Aarhus Universitet


Many species of quintessentially Danish houseplants originate from the Cape, South Africa. Botanists and plant hunters collected plants in the colonies and brought them to Europe on Dutch trading vessels. The plants were studied, classified, kept and cared for by scientists and gardeners in the emerging botanical gardens and sold to wealthy private collectors, where they were put on display to tell stories about wealth, colonial power, international connections within trade and science and a fond curiosity for the exotic and the strange. Gradually these plants travelled on from the orangeries of the nobility to the windowsills of the bourgeoisie. In the last half of the 19th Century the temperate house at greater nurseries, and manor houses was referred to as “Det Kapske Hus”, The Cape House. Up until the widespread introduction of double-glazing and insulation, the drafty micro-climate of Danish homes closely recapitulated the external climate of the Cape. Post-OPEC, insulation and central heating have led to the introduction of more tropical species of houseplants, so that the Cape species now form part of a nostalgic repertoire of Danishness, associated with Christmas blooming and “the way things used to be”.

Situated at the confluence between Natural and Cultural Heritage Studies, this project examines histories of entanglement between Denmark and the Cape, South Africa, via the transportation, trade and nurturing of Cape houseplants. Perceived as quintessentially Danish, and harking to a pre-OPEC era, Danish/ Cape houseplants open questions of nationalism, nostalgia, conviviality and coloniality at the heart of Danish hygge. Placed on widow-sills, tended by (especially) women, they become part of a gendered domestic sphere and a central element in the performativity of home and hearth. Blossoming at Christmas, they speak of the inversion of seasons and the melancholy fate of the migrant. Rewarding human care with flourishing, they speak of intimate co-species relationships. With historical, archival, ethnographic, and art historical elements, this interdisciplinary project aims to surface the story of Danish/ Cape houseplants as an Anthropocene story.

Framed as a transnational, transdisciplinary project, it involves researchers in three national locations, Denmark, South Africa and the Netherlands, working across a range of disciplines and fields: heritage studies, art history, botany, ecology, environmental anthropology, oral history and archaeology. Different aspects of the project will comb the archives in Denmark, South Africa and the Netherlands to reconstruct the historical trade in Cape plants; collect oral histories relating to plants in the home; work from Danish still-life and floral painting traditions; work ethnographically in Denmark and the Cape; and conduct an Anthropocene audit of the contemporary fate of the wild progenitors of Danish houseplants in the Cape.

Conceptually, we are excited by three sets of ideas. The first is to think about the windowsill as a particular kind of domestic space, on the threshold between the private sphere of the home and the public space of the street, with its own performativity, microclimate and aesthetics. The second is to think about inter-species relationships in the affective and nurturing bonds between people and plants. The third is to think about what it means to take a plant-centered perspective on social and political history, and to re-examine such familiar themes as national identity, coloniality, and gender roles from the perspective of the (pl)Anthropocene.
Kort titelThe Danish/ Southern African Plant Project
Effektiv start/slut dato01/10/202031/12/2023

ID: 201379711