During a visit to the National Botanical Garden in Cape Town, Uriel Orlow noticed that all the plants were labelled in English and Latin, even though there are eleven official languages in the country. The episode sparked a reflection and long-term project that sees plants as actors, agents and witnesses in history and politics. Plants have been often thought of as a backdrop, even though they are inextricably entangled with the human experience.
Becontree’s Botanical Maps started as a reflection on the relationship between social diversity and biodiversity, thinking of Becontree Estate being as culturally diverse as its botanical spectrum. Growing spaces have been central to the history of the area. Before Becontree was developed in the 1920s and 30s, most of the land was the market gardens of Dagenham Village. Between parks — which made up 10% of the estate and hundreds of smaller ‘amenity greens’ situated on street corners, you were never more than a short walk from a green space. Public spaces where the flora’s presence is tangible have been at the heart of Orlow’s research. The practical process involved a three-month-long survey with Denis Vickers, an ecologist consultant with extensive knowledge in botany who lives on the Estate. After a long editorial process, a 200-page report was distilled into three accessible maps telling stories of connections and migrations, the fascinating world of healing plants and the cultural significance of wildlife.
Orlow defined the making of the maps as a collaborative experience with graphic design studio In The Shade of a Tree. In particular, the layout of ‘Becontree’s Global Garden’ which features the world split into two globes, was heavily influenced by the research into old maps, giving us a glimpse of the evolution of cartography. Whereas the design ‘Becontree’s Plant Powers’ finds its inspiration in graphic representations of acupuncture to find ways to chart plants onto the human body. In fact, many plants growing wild or being cultivated on Becontree Estate are edible, some are said to treat ulcers, aid sleep or could easily form part of your skincare routine.
‘We are living in the middle of a medicine cabinet’
Each map is a cartographic mine of botanical discoveries. You might be surprised to find out that some plants found on Becontree Estate have been in Britain since the end of the last ice age, around 11,000 years ago, and wild daisies were used to heal wounds. Becontree’s plants tell us stories about traditional use: from mattress stuffing and musical instruments to baskets and dyes. Some plants symbolise fidelity or are associated with death, while others protect their neighbours from insects or provide shelter for animals. Looking closely, we can discover many forgotten narratives about human-plant entanglements and collaborations.