Connectivity of green and blue infrastructures: living veins for biodiverse and healthy cities

Diversity of our roots

The new Exorigins project brings a complementary perspective to urban biodiversity studies.

On Thursday 28 March I attended the opening workshop of the Exorigins project, https://exorigins.hypotheses.org, at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. The project, which brings together anthropologists studying plants and their relations to people across the globe, will trace the biocultural diversity in Parisian gardens. The project brings together the National Museum of Natural History, the Institute of the Arab World, the Museum of Art and History of Judaism, and the recently reopened Museum of the History of Immigration, along with the gardens of each institution. How do the people of Paris establish diversity in their gardens? I was intrigued by how this project could add to our understanding of how nature circulates in cities, since the different species that people move with them, and the garden aesthetics that they reproduce, will affect how wild and domestic animals and plants and other species, can find their place in the urban landscape.

The project was introduced by Emilie Stoll and Arnaud Dubois. The participating anthropologists gave brief overviews of their work with plants and people around the world.

Romain Simenel discussed the small Moroccan village of Tayart, which specializes in producing etrog, exported around the world for the Jewish holiday Succot. Some etrog forms are preferred for this ceremonial use, while other shapes are used in Moroccan cuisine.

Cannelle Labuthie introduced the Jaffa orange as a symbolic tree, with its practices of production, and colour symbolism, in Palestine. The orange arrived in the area from Asia during the Crusades.

Denis Vidal discussed the meanings of the colour orange in India, and the orange plants that do this symbolic work. The marigold, in particular, was introduced to India by the Portuguese, who also brought it to the Americas, where it has been adopted in Mexico for the Day of the Dead celebrations.

Claire Médard talked about her research on “greens” in Kenya, and how a concept of “African indigenous leafy vegetables” has been developed to favour the patrimonialization of both commercialized and gathered greens in Kenyan cuisine.

Alvaro Luna considered the use of European mint as indicating foreignness (or xenophobia) when planted by Algerian immigrants in France. He also considered the different private garden aesthetics of immigrants vs. established residents.

Irène Dos Santos told us about her research on the cultivation of “choux galicien,” a Portuguese variety of cabbage, cultivated both by Portuguese immigrants in France, and by French colonists in Africa.

Eugenie Denarnaud explained how the “pirate gardens” in abandoned lots in Tanger, Morocco, are spaces where rural ethnobotanical practices fit into the city.

Finally, Liliana Motta presented, and showed us, the “Garden of Alterities”, a small garden space in the Jardin des Plantes, that will be developed over the course of the research project as a complement to the anthropological research (https://exorigins.hypotheses.org/le-jardin-des-alterites)

To begin with (see photos), they had decided to plant Yucca filamentosa and other Yucca spp., and Aspisdistria spp. and varieties. They chose these because they are global species, first imported 100-200 years ago, that have become very popular as balcony and hall plants in Parisian apartment buildings—“the typical concierge plants”. These are the kinds of plants you see in pots and don’t even look at. It is a little odd to see them laid out formally in the Jardin des Plantes.

Yet Aspisdistria spp. are particularly strange plants. Originally from eastern Asia (Vietnam and Japan), these plants are very resistant to low light and poor air quality, and so flourished in Victorian cities and houses. The strange thing is that their flowers are underground. How are they pollinated? Some proposals include slugs and flies. Gardeners and concierges rarely concern themselves with reproducing Aspisdistria plants, and simply buy them from nurseries. Yucca spp., originally from central America, were confused by Linneaus with the yuca, also known as cassava or manioc. Cassava/manioc is another plant from South America that spread to Africa and is widely used as a staple food. The yucca spp., while they may be edible, are mainly used as ornamental plants. They are pollinated by their mutualistic partner the yucca moth, which of course doesn’t live in Paris. Hopefully the project will report on how these two mundane cosmopolitan plants have been reproduced by humans over time, in the absence of their natural pollinators.

I like this project because it reminds us that cities are sites where plants (and other species) accompany humans. It is not only the case that humans and other species are in competition for space and thoroughfares: we also make homes and meanings together.

Further reading:
https://herbaria.plants.ox.ac.uk/bol/plants400/Profiles/AB/Aspidistra
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yucca

--Meredith Root-Bernstein, 29 March 2019