Guest post: “Saxony’s Arboreal Curiosities, or: How to Root (Hi)Stories” by Solvejg Nitzke

Trees are trending, in novels, nature writing, and politics. Take, for example, “The Overstory” by Richard Powers, “Two Trees Make a Forest” by Jessica E. Lee, and here in Germany the protests to protect the Hambacher Forst from open pit coal mining. Of course, trees have been objects of historical research for a while, especially at the intersection of colonial history and the history of botany. When I came across memorialised trees in the source genre of the European festschrift, they were of two kinds. Either trees on a plantation, counted objects, to be reproduced as commodities for global commerce. Or the representative of a tree species in a botanical garden, biographically intertwined with the botanist who grew it for his research. Over time, a specific tree then might become a colonial monument – but one that is alive, and able to exert agency over decades, perhaps even centuries. In the following guest post, part of the translation drive #dehypo8 on the platform de.hypotheses, Solvejg Nitzke presents a case study of localised memorialisation around two trees in Dresden. In light of the current and urgent discussion of colonial monuments, how could we apply her findings to trees in botanical gardens and their hothouses? (eha)

Between 1883 and 1899, the German family magazine Die Gartenlaube published a series of tree portraits. These portraits appeared in loose order and combined – in a reflection of the magazine’s general approach – information and entertainment, while adding a good portion of homeliness. “Germany’s curious trees” (Deutschlands merkwürdige Bäume) presented thirty noteworthy trees in and around the (then) German states. Four of them were to be found in Saxony and one, who would have guessed, in Dresden. Of course, such “arboreal curiosities” are not unique to the state of Saxony. But these trees show how narratives which focus on trees can help locate societal and natural belonging. This is particularly true for the trees which are located in what is now the city of Dresden – the lime tree of Kaditz (Kaditzer Linde) and the English Oak known as the “Splittereiche” (splintered oak) in Dresden’s Großer Garten.

Wikidata-Query: Orte der Gartenlaube-Artikel in der Serie „Deutschlands merkwürdige Bäume“, (Christian Erlinger).

These “curious” trees are more or less evenly distributed across Germany – somewhat less so in Southern Germany, which is usually known as a stronghold of the Gartenlaube’s patriotic imaginations, but that doesn’t need to concern us.1 A loose series such as this one was not an unusual feature in the magazine, which was founded in 1853 and was first published in Leipzig by Ernst Keil. The potpourri of topics written for the family circle and often published in serial form not only account for the magazine’s success, they have also shaped the image of a somehow village-like community of German speaking readers – and continue to do so, perhaps now more than ever.2 These “curious” trees, which are described as “noteworthy” as well as “strange” play an important role in this, extending well beyond the magazine’s place of publication. The articles on “Germany’s curious trees” lend themselves particularly well to exploring the question how natural conditions are realized in a publishing project such as this one, as well as in the narration of and with natural beings. This is precisely what the field of Literary and Cultural Plant Studies is about, a field of research which pays special attention to our fellow green creatures. Researchers in Literary and Cultural Plant Studies do not view plants as merely decorative or useful, they bring their particular capabilities to the fore. In so doing, they investigate which role plants can play in shaping what we call “our” culture.3

At first glance, the trees portrayed in Die Gartenlaube seem inconspicuous in this regard. The short articles which portray the special trees are reminiscent of postcards or vignettes. It would lead too far to assume that they constituted an early example of ecologically conscious thinking in the sense of today’s political ecology. And yet, these image-texts find themselves in a web which not only connects them to other texts and narratives. It also thrives on the fact that its object, the tree, is (still) alive.

Germany’s curious trees: Die Kaditzer Linde, in: Die Gartenlaube (1890).
Germany’s curious trees: Die Kaditzer Linde, in: Die Gartenlaube (1890).

The Kaditz lime tree4 stands, as befits a „thousand-year-old” lime tree, next to a church in the village centre. It is of little consequence whether this large-leaved lime (Tilia platyphyollos) really is a thousand years old or whether its real age is rather somewhere between seven and nine hundred years: When Die Gartenlaube published its vignette on the tree in 1980, the tree was both “thousand-year-old” and “widely famous”:

“The amazing coloss of a tree measures 11 Meters in girth, the inside of the trunk is completely hollow and for this reason has long needed support. On one side, the bark has broken off; its supporting stake had become rotten, the bark could no longer support the strong branch and broke off along with it. What is particularly curious is that the bark has formed anew on the inside.”

This tree, it quickly become clear, was not only noteworthy for its size and its (assumed) age. It also showed a remarkable resilience. Various fires and injuries typical for trees, such as a branch breaking under its own weight, have severely damaged the “tree monument”. And yet, it is still alive and continues to green. The fact that these features contribute to its “particularly curious” and “amazing” nature reinforce an effect which very old trees have on people. Because trees live much longer than humans (perhaps with the exception of birch trees), but at the same time have a much shorter lifespan than the seemingly eternal mountains, they become objects of a – so to speak – meso-deep-time. Long before the “geological insult” (Georg Braungart) of the mid-nineteenth century confronted people with the fact that the earth had long got on quite well without their existence, people were fascinated by the longevity of trees. It is a longevity which connects generations and centuries, but which is nonetheless familiar in the sense that, for instance, within one’s lifetime one can observe a sapling growing into a tree. It is no coincidence that the lives of humans and trees have so often been brought into analogy. (See Alexander Demandt: Der Baum. Eine Kulturgeschichte, Köln/Weimar/Wien 2014 [first published as: Über allen Wipfeln. Der Baum in der Kulturgeschichte, Köln/Weimar/Wien 2002]). In this particular tree, the traces of time have inscribed themselves unmistakably. These traces take their significance not from the fact that they are visible and tangible, but from the fact that they are connected to (his)story(ies):

“It is said that the Kaditz lime tree has also served as a pillory for gossipy women and similar evildoers. Indeed, an ingrown piece of iron is found shortly above the ground, which is said to be the remainder of the neck iron. The evil-tongued women sat, with their necks in the iron, leaning against the trunk, while churchgoers passed. But nothing has been preserved on the incidents in documents and so we can only console ourselves in wishing that it may really have been so!”

This story on the lime tree featuring as a pillory (not unusual for a tree), which is mentioned repeatedly in Die Gartenlaube, is used here in a remarkably specific way: The tree, Die Gartenlaube reports, served to punish (mainly female) slander. This task, which is legitimized by the “ingrown piece of iron,” testifies to a moral imperative which says less about medieval or early modern customs than about the magazine’s own imperatives. In fact, the magazine itself does not conceal this agenda. Rather, the tree is not just the article’s object but is used as a stepping stone for providing the magazine’s position, which is legitimized not just historically, but by pointing to a naturally grown witness.

Sachsens Kirchen-Galerie. Inspectionen Dresden, Meissen und St. Afra (Dresden: Hermann Schmidt 1837)
Sachsens Kirchen-Galerie. Inspectionen Dresden, Meissen und St. Afra (Dresden: Hermann Schmidt 1837)

But admirers regard the fact that neither rot nor fire could bring down the lime tree – even though the giant tree needs support, which is provided by humans – as a sign of its own endurance. Thus, the lime tree continues to attract international attention today:

“The ancient lime tree in Kaditz, near Dresden, too, already monumental when Goethe visited it, has survived fire and bombardement to become a local gathering point for carol singing, folk festivals and, in 2010 an outdoor screening of the World Cup.”
(Fiona Stafford: The Long, Long Life of Trees, New Haven 2016.)

The lime tree – thus ennobled by Goethe’s visit – seems to have always stood at the centre of its thousand-year-old history. Despite all political and ecological catastrophes, it is no exaggeration to say that it has participated in life. This is an important perspective on the life of a tree, which characterizes narratives of individual trees: It is not just the traces which both time and history leave on the trees that become the fabric of stories. On the contrary, it is the “curious” trees themselves who become agents in their own history.

This is especially true in the case of the “splinter oak” (Splittereiche) in the Großer Garten. Saxony in general and Dresden in particular have a large number of “special” trees, many of which are protected as natural monuments (for instance the Flatterulmen – fluttering elm trees – on Sachsenallee). But this oak is not distinguished by age (it is no less than 250 years old) nor by its rarity, but by its survival. This tree’s “body” also contains pieces of metal, but these pieces don’t lend themselves to humorous moral tales. Instead, they commemorate the traumatic night of February 13/14, 1945, which this “legend … has survived despite great damage.”5 Precisely because it bears the traces of this catastrophe, which are visible from afar, but continues to live, the oak becomes a symbol of survival, a lasting monument of the evils which war and tyranny have brought onto the city’s people. Unlike the man-made memorials and the reconstructed buildings of this city, the Splittereiche cannot be reconstructed. It can only be preserved, and that, too, comes at a cost. But this is what makes the oak a witness, a witness which cannot narrate the story herself, but which becomes an agent in itself which can be pointed to in telling the story(ies) of this night and the many people who lost their lives. It does so in a different way, and, quite possibly, in a much more convincing way:

“To this day, I, the son who survived, have not made a single visit to the Heide cemetary to stand at one of the mass graves and conjure up an image of my parents. Instead, I go to the Great Garden, across the meadow on its western edge, and stand under an English oak for which Dresdners have a special name: The Splinter Oak. … for years a fungus has been spreading through the inside of the stricken tree, a late consequence of the bombing. It survived that night, but eventually it will be destroyed by the sulfur shelf mushroom. At the Splinter Oak I have a memory, my parents are standing there in front of me.”
(Marcel Beyer: Kaltenburg. A Novel, Boston/New York 2020, p. 25-26.)

To remember deceased loved ones on the basis of a living being establishes a special relationship between the one who remembers and the one who is remembered that is neither imaginative nor merely material, but which assumes in a certain way the living one’s ability to remember. It is about the continuity of a life lived, about people and trees, a continuity which becomes materialized in memorial plaques6 planted to memorialize; natural monuments which are preserved for their uniqueness; or trees which memorialize (something? themselves?): Trees not only belong to the natural history of the city of Dresden, the state of Saxony, Germany, and Europe, they tell these (hi)stories. If not in their own words, then as the culmination of narrative work. In this way, they connect humans and non-humans over centuries in a cultural and ecological way and thus become living archives and agents in an equally living history.

About the author:
Dr. Solvejg Nitzke joined the TU Dresden in November 2017 as an Open Topic Postdoc. Associated with the Department of Media Studies and Modern German Literature, she researches ecological narratives and (proto)ecological knowledge in German literature and culture of the nineteenth century. Before coming to TU Dresden, she worked on catastrophes, science fiction, the history of knowledge and climate (in) literature in Bochum, Charlottesville (USA) and Vienna (Austria). Together with Dr. Stephanie Heimgarnter and Dr. Simone Sauer-Kretschmer, she edited the collection “Baum und Text. Neue Perspektiven auf verzweigte Beziehungen”, which will be published by Christian A. Bachmann.

German original “Sachsen’s arboreale Merkwürdigkeiten, oder: Wie man Geschichte(n) verwurzelt” published on Saxorum. Blog für interdisziplinäre Landeskunde in Sachsen.
Translation by Ulrike Stockhausen.

  1. This article reflects in itself a history of successful cooperation, which combines Jens Bemme’s and Martin Munke’s (Saxorum/SLUB) work in indexing and linking historical sources in Wikisource and Wikidata ( with the author’s own research interests. I would like to thank Jens Bemme and Christian Erlinger for providing the data on the “curious trees” in Wikidata and for programming the query for their graphical presentation. []
  2. See Claudia Stockinger: An den Ursprüngen populärer Serialität. Das Familienblatt „Die Gartenlaube“, Göttingen 2018. []
  3. More on this can be found at the Literary and Cultural Plant Studies Network, which hosted its first international conference from June 6 to 8, 2019, at Deutsches Hygiene-Museum in Dresden: []
  4. Deutschlands merkwürdige Bäume. Die Kaditzer Linde. In: Die Gartenlaube (1890), H. 4, S. 130 []
  5. Jochen Leimert: „Splittereiche” im Großen Garten wird kontrolliert. In:, 13. November 2018. URL: []
  6. Gerrit Menk: Gedenktafel an Splittereiche im Großen Garten Dresden enthüllt. In:, 26. Februar 2018. URL:, magazine articles, church registers, botanical testimonies and, as seen above, in literature. Be it commemorative trees ((äume_in_Dresden []

Just published: Rumphius’ Naturkunde. Zirkulation in kolonialen Wissensräumen

In the early stages of the interdisciplinary Rumphius project, I read Richard Sennett’s „The Craftsman“, and I underlined a paragraph in the editor’s foreword to Het Amboinsche Kruid-boek from 1741: „[…] this great Man was so skilled in this work, that at the time all sorts of Plants that were unknown to other people, were sent to him from the remotest parts of the Indies, even though he was already robbed of his vision and of the light of day. He could discover the leaves, fruits, or seeds from the smell, taste, shape, or other attributes, and assign them to their proper genus, which surely shows a most amazing knowledge and perspicacity.“ (translation E.M. Beekman) Now that the project publication is out in the world and other historians’ research in the near future might be limited to the digital sphere, I think of the archives, libraries and museums I was able to visit in person. It has been a privilege of access – of geography, of language, of affiliation, of funding – to take manuscripts and books and letters into my hands, to sit and think with paper ensembles, to perform the choreography of reading large folios. I remember the workers in the National Archives, The Hague, who guard the entry to the reading room and bring the boxes from the shelves, and I am drawn to a few lines from Esi Edugyan’s novel Washington Black: „But I will never forget the feeling of paper in my hands, those first months, rough, an unfamiliar thing, like compressed dust. The wonder of it. I would finger the pages, and out would come an abrupt, medicinal smell, like a package from an apothecary’s.“ Narrated by Wash, the enslaved boy on Barbados, who will become an illustrator and scientist in his own right.

Leuker, Maria, Esther Helena Arens und Charlotte Kießling. Rumphius’ Naturkunde. Zirkulation in kolonialen Wissensräumen. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz 2020. Printed version 978-3-447-11358-8, E-book (pdf) 978-3-447-19957-5

The Plantation and the City: Rubber, Labour, Cologne (2)

After dipping into research on the Kölnische Gummifäden-Fabrik, its colonial connections, and the lack of collective memory on the site, I wanted to explore different ways of writing with the historical material. After the workshop “Speculative Actions” at the Akademie der Künste der Welt in September, I took part in the subsequent sci-fi-a-thon and played with a few ideas. Here’s the text I wrote and read.

School Is Over. They Said

Ok I can take you, I had said in an unguarded moment, and there you are, standing at the former entrance to the yard, looking uncomfortable in your civilian clothes in this area of the space movers, who emerged from the „the 1 percent“, not knowing what to expect, and of course you wonder if the agreement was a mistake on both our sides. When you had to decide, when school was over, you chose earth and science and the field, and how could you have done otherwise, all those Fridays formed your mind and body, with both feet on the ground, the air had become an no go-zone for all of you, and sometimes I had wondered when you would ditch your footwear for good as well and grow those ugly roots. With the decision we had parted ways, and it was the accident on the bridge, where neither of us needed camouflage, because water, where we met and reconnected.

So, now, I hand you over the suit and watch you struggle with the unfamiliar gear, especially the hand part. How to fit something in where there is only place for no-thing, I can see how that would take time and some sweat and expletives. The winds are favourable, you the lucky child, always, I remember that, and I can steer the bubble easily for you to enter. Yes, you would ask about numbers and technology, not understanding how we were powered by stories, and I can sense already how this visit will end unpleasantly. I can only hope that you will not report on it because the information would neither bring more resources to your lab nor enhance your product. The irony, the total disregard for us flyers, and the lack of imagination, in not seeing how we would melt into the artists and, finally, how the rubber trees would choose to join us, and how our energy was not to be harvested for others, much less by others.

Even you, the gifted earther, had not been able to anticipate the biggest mistake of the space movers here, calculating that by destroying the old brick and iron and concrete structure, minus the decades of pigeon shit, and by employing asbestos protection infrastructure in the process, and all those security guards, the energy would again manifest as concrete gold along the street, earth bound, gravity in place. But no, quietly, subversively, thankfully no. Powerfully no. The rubber trees had remembered, and the plantation workers, and the women on the factory floors, and the apprentices at the machines, and the trainees painting the walls. They all had remembered: how leaf became hand, how hand became rubber, how rubber became woman, how woman became boy, how boy became machine, how machine became place, how place became school. On earth, school is over. Where the bubble takes you now, school is everything. You still don’t understand.

You speak of that, as we ascend, as the rubber of the bubble stretches in the trajectory of the old chimney, as you can see how the imprint of the former forest realizes itself further west, you speak of the shock when so many of the trees chose to leave, of the un-growth, of the dis-solidarity. How you had expected a dangerous cloud now and then, like the earlier mushroom kin in the air, how you and everybody else had kept their masks ready, and how long it had taken to re-adjust to the emptied fields and parks. You are not able to use our language, you are not giving in, you are not able to speak of it, of migration and loss and nightmares and grief. Your children came programmed, a protective measure you say, and anyway, why should they waste capacity in learning of the trees if they will never meet them, it would not be productive. As the city becomes smaller, you also remind me how the veins of the forest-botanical garden in the south have been erased completely, before you recall that our trees do not remember this site. But we both notice it, how you do not mind to talk of my pain, and you pause.

You try to play it cool when we arrive, to focus on the faces, to not look at limbs at all. You know about the outcome of my decision and therefore feel comfortable around me, but it takes you courage and discipline to step over into the busy welcome cell, I can tell by the flicker in your eyes. You want to speak to our elders, even though the visit would take a form of patience which you normally don’t display, I could tell back on the bridge by the urgency in your voice. You really do not need to inform me that earth spins faster since the trees left, I understood long ago, where would you learn of slow-time after the layers below your feet kept their vows of silence, even those shifted and exposed and accessible. You are asked to absorb the rules for your schooling today, I had explained early on, we do not hand over, we use breath to communicate. The time has come to meet the elders.

While you stand still, the first elder has moved his cell right next to us, so you can easily step over, and it is daytime still, so you need to pull up the face cover only, out of consideration for their health. You exchange your first pulses, and the cell switches to transparent mode, and it dawns on me: we are above water, and here, and now, is where the potential opens, and the schooling might lead to reproduction, and reproduction might lead to our destimation or to yours or to the multitude that has not been dreamed of since the migration. 

The Plantation and the City: Rubber, Labour, Cologne (1)

Late summer, a nicely curated gift shop. Between children’s books a few gimmicks, among them a small rubbery hand you might put on top of a pencil. The proportions seem a bit off and I find the grey-brownish colour disconcerting. After I realize that there are yellowish and pinkish hands as well, intended as representations of different skin colours, I go back to buy a right hand in each colour. I still don’t see a human limb, but something monstrous, perhaps because of the elongated fingers and the way the wrist is cut off. I begin to examine my inherent bias and racist presumptions, and how I would like to ask school children what they associate with these hands.

The Dutch language history books have been lying around for quite a while before I take them to a library where they might be a good fit. On the way back I realize: books about the Congo, chapters on colonial violence, accounts of black workers’ hands cut off. I would like to revisit the shop with other historians and ask them if the gimmick can be just that.  

Early autumn, preparing my space in Gebäude 8 for the open studios weekend. Gebäude 8 is a 20th century industrial building in red brick, part of the former Kölnische Gummifäden-Fabrik (literal translation: Cologne rubber-threads factory) that is being developed by an investor. I arrange Lefebvre quotes with my fotos of the site’s transformation and leaf through the factory’s festschrift from 1957.* The book is bound in cloth, printed in gravure, with many black-and-white illustrations. There is one of black workers harvesting rubber and delivering the commodity, a foto of black children playing outside with balloons – which very much look like a later retouching – and one of a woman moulding bathing caps on the factory floor.

Festschrift illustration of workers on a rubber plantation, 1957
Festschrift illustration of workers on a rubber plantation, 1957

I remember my visit in the Rheinisch-Westfälisches Wirtschaftsarchiv (archive focused on records from businesses in the Rhineland and Westphalia) the year before. I had looked into the files that a former manager of the Gummifäden-Fabrik had transferred to the archive after the factory’s demise in the 1970s. Apparently, asbestos was used as a filler medium to process rubber for certain products. One file included an English language report about an asbestos mining in Transvaal, South Africa with a “Table of monthly Native labour distribution for 1957“, of which „a) 54% of the total labour complement is used for the mine, which should be about 30% and shows, that underground distances make it imperative to use so many boys for transport. The overall figure of 0.271 ton of ore per boy shift, is a sign of gross inefficiency and the figure should become at least 1 ton per boy shift.“** Apartheid, and its racist language, and exploitation are a given in this text, to be analysed in economic terms only. I wonder how many of these black miners, constantly exposed to the fibres, must have died from pulmonary fibrosis and cancer, and if they or their families ever received compensation.

Festschrift fotos of woman worker moulding bath caps and children with balloons, 1957
Festschrift fotos of woman worker moulding bath caps and children with balloons, 1957

Asbestos was also used for insulation around the chimney in front of Gebäude 8, a landmark dismantled early on in the re-development by East European construction workers who were more or less following the strict German rules regarding asbestos clean up and the handling of waste. I wonder if the industrial and colonial history of the site will vanish completely once the workers and artists have been replaced, as intended, by the creative industries.

* Rompf, Reinhold. 1857 / 1957 Kölnische Gummifädenfabrik. Festschrift zur 100. Wiederkehr des 1. Juni 1857. Köln: M. DuMont Schauberg.
** RWWA, Bestand Kölnische Gummifädenfabrik vorm. Ferd. Kohlstadt & Co., Köln, Abt. 56, Laufzeit: 1948–1978.

“The reader of the trace”: Colonial materials and mediality

In the framework of the research project on Rumphius at the University of Cologne, I handled botanical and conchological materials that had been transferred or translated from the late 17th century Moluccas to the archives, libraries, and museums of the 21st century Netherlands. These include Rumphius’ manuscripts and printed books as objects in their own right, as well as illustrations and specimens. Also, I analysed historical material represented in Rumphius’ Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet and Ambonese Herbal. In the Herbal, there are many passages on individual plants at a specific place and time, for example “Here in Amboina grows a Jambus Tree in front of Victoria Castle that often bears fruit twice a year […].“ (Ambonese Herbal, 2011, I:32) These little biographies are a result of direct interaction between organism/object, different from the passages across both books where information and  knowledge from third parties is incorporated and passed on to the reader – often from non-European locals forced into the colonial media infrastructure of natural history. I still grapple with the question how I can analyse the material origin, underlying interactions between plants and gardeners, for example, and practices in a non-essentialist and non-binary manner. 

I found a concept to think with in Sybille Krämer’s Medium, Messenger, Transmission. An Approach to Media Philosophy (English translation 2015), in the chapter on “Reading Traces”: 

“The formation of traces is always due to a disruption of order, which is then integrated into a new narrative order by reconstructing the trace-forming event as a story. And the story that corresponds to this reading – and thus the ‘semantic’ of the trace – is dependent on the interests of the reader, who is searching for a way to resolve something uncertain or unknown with the help of this practical and theoretical activity. Reading traces thus means ‘making things talk’, yet things are mute. They only become eloquent – and thus become traces – through the stories told by readers. And there are always many possible stories; traces are thus polysemic.” (p. 177)

“The reader of the trace acts as an addressee of something whose unintentional sender must first be reconstructed.” (p. 177)

In Rumphius’ case, I can see two different approaches to the reconstruction. One within the bounds of natural history, where the unintentional sender might be an object such as a stone or a shell, or an organism such as a cone snail or a shrub. The other one, committed to a decolonial history of knowledge, where the unintentional sender might be an enslaved person working for or a local woman married to the natural historian in question. Both might intersect when oral/acoustic forms of communication are changed into the visual forms of text and image.

Bananas: From Local Food to Global Research

In the second Garden Broadcast at Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam, the designer Johanna Seelemann talked about the Banana Passport for a single fruit, a joint project with Björn Steinar Blumenstein (more here). While the banana has become an everyday food item, the fruit undergoes a complicated global journey from the tree to the supermarket shelves, and the passport illustrates this process mostly hidden from our perception.

Before, when I spoke about plants between Asia and Europe in the colonial context of the 17th and 18th centuries, moderator Tamar Shafrir had asked me about plants that underwent a transformation when transplanted from one garden into another one, from one socio-cultural context into another. The banana would be just that: Part of the kitchen gardens in the Moluccas, as observed by Rumphius in the Ambonese Herbal, but a rare species in a hothouse in the Netherlands.

When Rumphius and his workshop were assembling the manuscript of the Ambonese Herbal in the late 17th century, he placed five chapters on the domesticated banana plant in Book VIII that is focused on plants used for food and medicine. He remarked that the banana was so widespread and had so many sub-species different in size and taste that it is difficult to describe all of them, as it would be with apples and pears in Europe (chapter 1). The plants were cultivated in the mountain gardens of the Ambonese as well as around the houses, and banana mush was the first solid food given to babies (chapter 3).

In the 1730s, the Anglo-Dutch merchant and banker George Clifford made Carl Linnaeus the custodian of the plants in his collection at de Hartekamp estate in Heemstede. Linnaeus, turned botanist after the completion of his doctorate in medicine, worked together with the gardener Dietrich Nietzel on the best conditions for a banana plant in the hothouse. After a specific plant was able to flower and to fruit, it became the subject of a biography – in 1736 Linnaeus published a small book about the Musa Cliffortiana with two copperplate engravings, one of the potted plant and another detailed one of the flowers and fruits. The book is available in a digitized version on the website of the Linnean Collections, and the second image is available in the Picture Library of The Royal Society. Also, the book has been reprinted in 2007 with a translation from the Latin into English by Stephen Freer and an introduction by Staffan Müller-Wille.

A letter from The Linnean Correspondence shows that the Musa Cliffortiana not only lived on because of its transformation into print, but also as a growing organism. On 28 April 1746, the botanist Johann Philipp Breyne in Danzig wrote to Carl Linnaeus about his own Musa as “granddaughter” of the plant in de Hartekamp. The Letter L0679 has been summarized in English and reads as follows:

Most important, however, is the Musa, which has enriched him with flowers and fruits. In 1740 he received a young Musa from George Clifford, their common patron, together with an elegant Camphorifera tree. Breyne thinks his Musa is a granddaughter of the Musa Linnaeus celebrated in 1736, i.e. in the Musa Cliffortiana. It was flourishing in a small hothouse for a couple of years, but with no flowers and fruits. In September last year all of a sudden, it became eighteen feet high. It has a very robust stem with many flowers and fruits thanks to the newly built hothouse. Sixty tasty fruits ripened successively from the end of January until the end of March. This was the first time the Musa had flowers and fruits in these northern parts. Of course it attracted a lot of curious spectators.

Today, in the global North, the banana might be a houseplant still admired for the shape and color of its leaves, and the fruit is ubiquitous on breakfast tables. But some of the garden spaces in the South have turned into plantations and monocultures, with the cloned “Cavendish”, as Johanna mentioned, threatened by a fungus around the world.

Materia medica in the Water Indies: Categories and Boundaries in Rumphius’ Ambonese Herbal

Presentation at the conference “Materia medica on the move II”
Amsterdam, 4-6 October 2017

Introduction: The Materials of the Ambonese Herbal

As we are focusing on materials on the move during this conference, I would like to start with the Ambonese Herbal as a moving object in different spaces. The different parts of the Dutch manuscript for the Amboinsche Kruid-boek went from the hands of G.E. Rumphius in Kota Ambon via the governor-generals in Batavia to the Heren VII of the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC, Dutch East India Company) in the Oostindisch Huis in Amsterdam during the 1690s. For almost five decades, the twelve books and the so-called Auctuarium lay still in the archives of the company until the botanist Joannes Burmannus was licensed to edit the work in the 1730s. He provided commentary and translated the Dutch text into Latin. Based on a subscription model, three publishers pooled resources and printed the first bilingual volume in 1741. The last volume of this edition reached the book market in 1750. (Beekman Introduction, p. 93–103)

Back to the original manuscript and the botanical materials represented in text and image: The soldier turned merchant turned natural scholar G.E. Rumphius had assembled the manuscript in the second half of the 17th century on the Moluccan island of Ambon, which was the centre of one of the VOC governments in what is now Indonesia. For his research in natural history, Rumphius was able to draw on the company’s resources, not least among them books sent from Amsterdam for his library. (Buijze) Also, he had access to a kitchen/medicinal garden, as well as illustrators and writers at his command. Because he lived and worked on Ambon from the 1650s until his death in 1702, the Ambonese Herbal was a long-term study of plants on the Moluccas and the surrounding islands. His botanical writing included experiments and recipes for medicine because of the material that he was able to amass in the “Water Indies” for almost five decades: he collected specimens, experienced manifold practices, and heard stories over a period of almost five decades. (Foreword Rumphius) So the Herbal can be read as a repository of information on illnesses and medicines as well. Additionally, the completion of the manuscript relied on non-visual practices of collecting and researching as well as contributions by co-workers: Rumphius had turned completely blind by 1670. (Beekman Introduction, p. 67f.; Foreword Burman, Ambonese Herbal vol. 1, p. 183)

While he had to leave his post as merchant (koopman) and chief (opperhoofd) in Hila on the Hitu peninsula, Rumphius kept administrative functions at Victoria castle/Kota Ambon. (Loderichs, p. 459) In this place, and with the company recruiting the men who wrote and sketched for him, botanical research was naturally intertwined with the business ventures and military exhibitions across the archipelago, within Asia, and between Southeast Asia and the Netherlands. Each of the books of the Ambonese Herbal is dedicated to a certain group of plants, and the individual entries are structured by the subdivisions of description, name, place, and use. Many entries record how botanical material was on the move within and beyond the Indonesian archipelago, on ships between the islands of course, but also between different communities in one place such as Kota Ambon, and how it was transformed into materia medica.

Questions and Method: From Plants to Bodies

The commercial and military context of these interactions raises questions about Rumphius’ “ways of knowing and ways of working” (Pickstone, p. 236), especially about the categories and boundaries he employed to order and represent materia medica on paper. At first glance, the materials were taken out of circulation and fixed along the lines of the emerging botanical taxonomy. But the last part of the texts on “use” often included detailed properties of a medicine, i.e. the tangible effects of its application or ingestion on the human body. As Chris Shilling states, “our bodies also inform the metaphors we use to imagine, understand, and classify the world around us” (Shilling). I am interested in the connection between botanical knowledge and the workings of the colonial regime, in the sense that Pratik Chakrabarti has formulated for the Caribbean: “[…] the need to understand marginalization and violence in the hybrid, networked, and ‘connected’ world and that exploitation is inherent to propinquity.” (Chakrabarti, p. 11) However, I am just starting to write from this angle and therefore looking forward to the discussion about this first case study. Until now, my focus was on the way that Rumphius’ material in general changed hands, places, and forms, so for the materia medica in particular I was looking for fitting examples and a model of analysis.

For this presentation, I will use entries on the ginger family (Zingiberacae) and on Cannabis sativa from Book VIII “Containing Potherbs Used for Food, Medicine, and Sport”, all plants whose derivatives are contextualised in different ways today. As the book’s title suggests already, the uses of these plants were manifold and hybrid, depending on their journey and the intended purpose of a specific preparation made from roots, leaves, or seeds. As medicine, they moved on the border between simplicia and composita, or between anti-depressant and recreational drug. I will use John Pickstone’s schema to parse these entries. While Rumphius was “sorting kinds” (Pickstone, p. 236), he alluded to humorism as well as to the doctrine of signatures, i.e. to established categories of European natural history. When “crafting from kinds”, I will argue, he first categorised the materia medica he encountered in the Moluccas on ethnic and religious grounds, thus aligning his scholarly findings with social boundaries to evaluate, recommend and, where applicable, commodify medicine for collectives.

A word on words: Rumphius uses descriptors such as “our Water-Indies”, “our nation” and “in the Fatherland”, but the idea of a “motherland” seems to me a later imperialist invention. In Beekman’s English translation, “Indies” refers to the company-controlled areas in today’s Indonesia, “Indian” depending on context on the people in the Indonesian archipelago or those in South Asia, and “Moors” refers mostly to Muslims, and thus often to traders of Arabian, Persian or Indian background. And another note on the side: In the captions of the printed original Amboinsche Kruid-boek, editor Burman usually kept a Malay word along with the Latin translation of the plants’ names, which will show up on later slides. (reference to concept of “epistemic violence” by Londa Schiebinger)

Categories: Sorting Kinds as Scholar and Merchant

The Ambonese Herbal was conceptualised with a learned European audience in mind. Rumphius started out writing in Latin, but then switched to Dutch after he lost his sight because potential readers in the VOC were not grammar school-educated like himself. (Loderichs, p. 459f.) When ordering and identifying plant material in the subsections about description, name, and place, Rumphius took to “sorting kinds” within the framework established in Herbals printed and circulated in Europe, among them works from Plinius’ Naturalis historia to the Hortus Malabaricus by Van Rheede tot Draakestein. He referred to earlier representations of material (more text than illustrations) to compare leaves, flowers, and seeds, to add his own observations from agriculture to etymology, and to argue for corrections or re-ordering of taxonomical categories. For example, in the entry on tobacco he stated that “One cannot write much more about Tabaco, since complete books have been published about this plant; I will only add some reflections and experiments which I came upon in the Indies.” (AH vol. 4, p. 149) In regard to movement between places, Rumphius’ approach could be sweepingly global because he had access to information circulated within the company. For example, he wrote about the “Large Ginger” (nl. De groote Gember, lat. Zingiber majus, Malay Alea in the Kruid-boek; Zingiber officinale according to Merrill) that “Travel Accounts report that Ginger grows in Africa, Madagascar, and Brazil” (AH vol. 4, p. 54) – all regions in which Dutch merchants were involved in the slave trade. (Rossum, p. 36f.)

In regard to his own observations and findings, especially in the subsection on the “Virtues and Use” of plants that were popular and abundant in the Moluccas, Rumphius took his time to describe and interpret the specifics. In these sections, his “sorting kinds” was aligned to commercial categories, extending to production methods and markets. The first sentence on the use of the ginger-like “Bangle” (nl. De Bangle, lat. Bangleum, Malay Bangle; Zingiber Cassumunar) is typical for the entries in the book on Potherbs: “This root is counted among the medicinal spices, and it is never used as a food.” (AH vol. 4, p. 48) But these classifications were stable only for a local group of people that Rumphius constructed as stable object of observation. In the colonial situation that the Dutchmen of the VOC found themselves in, bodily sensations changed and categories with them, as the entry on Curcuma (nl. De groote en kleine Curcuma, lat. Curcuma, Malay Cuning seu Cunjet; Curcuma longa) shows:

Curcuma is used in the Indies both as food and as Medicine, for the Indians, especially the Javanese, Malay and Balinese, are so used to it, that they mix Curcuma in all their sauces and sops, especially what is called Karri. It is for our Nation slightly disgusting at first, because in our opinion, it has a salve-like smell, but one gradually gets used to that. (AH vol. 4, p. 62)

Still, even in the networked world of the VOC, there existed impediments to the movement of materia medica in the literal sense. Rumphius noted the problems with the commodification and shipment of the “Large Ginger” for European markets:

This [difficulty to dry the root] is why even today so little dried Ginger is shipped from the East Indies to Europe, except for some that the Portuguese bring to their Country; but the preserved kind is shipped in large quantities, prepared by the Chinese, but the green Ginger is used so much more throughout the East Indies, to wit, the white one as food, and the red as Medicine. (AH vol. 4, p. 52)

Boundaries: Crafting Kinds for Drugs

Against the backdrop of the VOC as a company heavily invested in securing production of valuable commodities such as cloves and nutmeg by military means, and developing into a major player in the intra-regional trade in Asia (Nagel), it is not surprising that Rumphius turned to the medicinal value of plants for local populations and the company men in the Moluccas – “[t]he botanical sciences served the colonial enterprise and were, in turn, structured by it.” (Schiebinger, p. 11) In the entry on the “Small Ginger” (nl. De klyne Gember, lat. Zingiber minus, Malay Alea Padi; Zingiber officinale var. minor), Rumphius made a distinction of medicine along a distinction of bodies according to humorism:

Here you have in general how the Indians use the small Ginger, though I would not want people to follow them in everything, especially in Dysentery and fevers, unless it is a very small amount, for they have on their side some specific evidence which, according to our teaching, should not be made into a firm rule, for the two illnesses mentioned the most by the Natives are usually caused, according to the Native, by cold and intemperance, wherefore, Ginger can be of use there, and for our Nation for its irregular way of eating and drinking, and inflammation of the blood, where it is again not advisable to use Ginger. (AH vol. 4, p. 55f.)

In the entry of the “Large Ginger” he also referred back to European medicinal/pharmaceutical practices to make the process of making medicine understandable and relatable:

The Native Maistresses [nl. Mesteressen, lat. curatricibus] commonly use the same Ginger for all sorts of tonics which they administer internally, but only in small quantities, in order to whet the powers of other Medicaments, just as one adds Ginger to certain purgatives in Europe, to correct them. (AH vol. 4, p. 52)

Here the figure of the local woman as knowledgeable and potential partner to the European merchant or soldier bridges the gap between different ways of knowing and working and hints at the exchange that Rumphius experienced in his own household. He had children with a local woman and here and there refers to his family’s contribution to his work in the Ambonese Herbal. (Beekman Introduction, p. 63ff.)

At the same time, the house is different to the field – in the sense of the fieldwork of the natural scholar, in the sense of the commoners and slaves working the fields or plantations, and in the sense of the battlefield. When (implicitly) “crafting kinds” of drugs – from the plant material, for the medicine he encountered – it was for groups of people with specific tasks or characteristics that came to define the colonial regime. Now I will quote longer passages, again from the entry on the “Large Ginger”, to illustrate this point (all AH, vol. 4, p. 53).

The Inhabitants of Manado eat a small claw of their red Ginger with some other food, on an empty stomach in the morning, then they drink some Saguer, and thus fortified go off to their forest plots. (about workers)

Our close Neighbours, the wild Alphurese of Ceram, are so hardened by nature that they can bear to have the sap of red Ginger squeezed directly into their eyes which, they maintain, clears up their vision, and toughens them for combat […]. (about fighters)

The aforementioned preserve and Atsjar are particularly healthy on Sea Journeys, because the coarse food and the sea air will cause one to get a foul stomach, a stinking breath, and in this Country during the cold rainy months it is very healthy to eat a small claw of this preserve to ward off the heavy and infected air […]. (about sailors and soldiers)

In addition to these practical questions of health and power, crafting drugs also contributed to crafting kinds of people according to the value system and social boundaries of the VOC. In the entry on the “Soncory Plant” (nl. De Soncory Plant, lat. Soncorus, Malay Tsjonckor; Kaempferia galanga), Rumphius introduced questions of morality to the use of materia medica in the colonial context: “On the other hand it can be harmful, whether taken internally, or rubbed on the body, it is so damaging to pregnant women, that it will cause a miscarriage, an art that is as common to the Chinese and other Heathens, as it is wicked to Christians.” (AH vol. 4, p. 74)

In this train of thought, he dedicated large parts of the entry on “Indian Hemp” (nl. De Indische Hennip, lat. Cannabis Indica, Malay Ginji; Cannabis sativa) to the use of Cannabis between, in modern wording, medicine for psychosomatic symptoms and recreational drug. Rumphius attributed the drug use to – for him in this text – distinct groups of people, all different from the Dutch he identified with:

The Moors throughout the Indies use these leaves and seeds a great deal because, according to them, it relieves their minds of great fears dread, and anxieties, and brings delights and makes for diverting dreams, as the Ancients said their Nepenthes did. (AH vol. 4, p. 125)

The Malay call this dizzy drunkenness Hayal, saying that it is an attribute or habit befitting their Kings, who otherwise would not be able to bear the burdens and cares of government if they could not at times get Hayal from this or similar Drugs. (AH vol. 4, p. 126)

By pointing out the bodily effects of the drug, he stressed the loss of control among the users:

I have seen those who smoke it with Tobacco become totally enraged and only want to fight and hit. Others, with moister and more melancholy humours, began to cry, grimace, howbeit they threatened as well. (AH vol. 4, p. 125)

This observation extended to sexual performance as well, explicitly used to deride Muslim men. When turning to the preparation of other forms of medicine from Hemp, Rumphius still used religious and ethnic descriptors and repeatedly pointed out the connection to sexual practices. Again, I quote longer passages:

The Moors from Hitu took the root of the male or flower-bearing plant (which in European herbals are not readily distinguished) from my garden, and gave it to eat to those who were held in the grip of Gonorrhea, and they also gave the green leaves of the female plant, cooked in water with Nutmeg, to folks who felt a great oppression and stabs in their chests, as if they had Pleuritis. […] The leaves of the male plant, pulverized and taken internally, stop looseness of the bowels, improves a weak stomach, cures the native illness called Pitao, as explained by Commelin, and tempers the bile. (AH vol. 4, p. 126)

When the smoke of this powder is used instead of Tobacco, it makes one drunk, but if mixed with Tobacco, and applied to the lower parts, it will cure a Hernia. Eating the leaves will retard the natural seed when lying with a woman, which is why it is much sought after by the Moors […]. The flowers have similar virtues, and when mixed with other stimulating items and baked into cookies, fortify the genitals. The male was held to be more powerful in every aspect than the female plant. (AH vol. 4, p. 127)

In this chapter, Rumphius came close to the later literary techniques of othering and orientalising in crafting kinds of drugs and people. And yet, in contrast to the various chapters on the ginger family, Rumphius did not give unambiguous advice about hemp. The part on the preparation of medicine could be read as condemnation – or as instruction.

Conclusion: Ways of Working and Ways of Knowing

This brief analysis into Rumphius’ practice of “sorting kinds” has shown that his way of knowing cannot be separated from his way of working within a colonial regime. The focus on materia medica moving within the VOC shifts questions the reading of the history of botany in the way that Pratik Chakrabarti has suggested – “as narratives of intellectual attainment, colonial enrichment”, as in my case here, and beyond “also as tragic displacements and dislocation?” (Chakrabarti, p. 15), in my future focus on enslaved people represented in the Herbal.

The examples from Rumphius’ colonial practice of “crafting kinds” point to the security and bio-politics of later imperial governments. In her latest book about the connections between the colonial past and the colonial present, Ann Laura Stoler briefly mentions the “expeditions that collected flora, fauna, and ethnographic exoticisms across the seas” and that “these, too, were critical in shaping the qualified knowledge used to make colonial projects work”. (Stoler, p. 11) The circulation and impact of the Ambonese Herbal as the result of an intensive long-term study outside of European academic spaces, and therefore as source on the construction of taxonomic categories as well social boundaries, remains to be analysed.


The Ambonese Herbal. Georgious Everhardus Rumphius. Translated, annotated, and with an introduction by E.M. Beekman. New Haven and London: Yale University Press 2011, vol. 4.

Beekman, E.M. Introduction. The Ambonese Herbal. Georgious Everhardus Rumphius. Translated, annotated, and with an introduction by E.M. Beekman. New Haven and London: Yale University Press 2011, vol. 1.

Buijze, W. Rumphius’ Bibliotheek op Ambon 1654–1702. Een biografisch lexicon van wetenschappelijke contacten destijds in Azië en vanuit Azië met Europa. (S.l.) 2004.

Chakrabarti, Pratik. Materials and Medicine. Trade, Conquests and Therapeutics in the Eighteenth Century. Manchester/New York: Manchester University Press 2010.

Loderichs, Mark. Naar dat iemand schrander is in het bespiegelen. Rumphius als wetenschapper en schrijver. Rumphius’ wonderwereld. Zeventiende-eeuwse natuurbeschrijvingen uit Ambon. Gekozen, geannoteerd en van een nawoord voorzien door Mark Loderichs. Zutphen: Walburg Pers 2004.

Merrill, E.D. An Interpretation of Rumphius’s Herbarium Amboinense. Manila: Bureau of Printing 1917.

Nagel, Jürgen. Abenteuer Fernhandel. Die Ostindienkompanien. 2nd ed. Darmstadt/Mainz: Verlag Philipp von Zabern 2011.

Pickstone, John V. A Brief Introduction to Ways of Knowing and Ways of Working. Hist. Sci. xlix (2011), 235–245.

Rossum, Matthias van. Kleurrijke tragiek. De geschiedenis van slavernij in Azië onder de VOC. Hilversum: Verloren 2015 (Zeven Provinciën Reeks, 35).

Rumphius, G.E. Het Amboinsche Kruid-boek. Amsterdam e.a.: François Changuion e.a. 1741ff.

Schiebinger, Londa. Plants and Empire. Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlanctic World. Cambridge, MA/London: Harvard University Press 2004.

Shilling, Chris. The Body A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2016.

Stoler, Ann Laura. Duress. Imperial Durabilities in Our Times. Durham/London: Duke University Press 2016.

Burman the Botanist, Digitisation, and Circulation

In the 1730s, in Amsterdam, the desk of Jan Burman was one of the busier nodal points in the network of botanists stretching out from the Netherlands along the routes of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and across Europe. A practising physician and a botanist with the latinised name Joannes Burmannus, he worked on his own Thesaurus Zeylanicus (Amsterdam 1737) while maintaining correspondences for example with Carolus Linnaeus. In the course of the decade, he managed to get access to the manuscript of Rumphius’ Amboinsche Kruid-boek guarded by the VOC and to edit it for publication. At the same time, he worked on the Dutch commentary for Johann Wilhelm Weinmann’s Phytantoza iconographia with its 1.025 colour illustration (Regensburg 1737-1745, digitised version of the Latin commentary here*). The commentary was published under the title Taalryk register der plaat-ofte figuur-beschryvingen der bloemdragende gewassen (Amsterdam 1739-1748).

A couple of months ago I had the chance to work with both Burman’s commentary and the coloured plates at the Koninklijke Bibliotheek (KB) in The Hague. Afterwards, it came in handy to compare my notes and images with the digitised versions. The KB cooperated with Google Books to put an ebook of the Dutch commentary online, which limits complete access to those with a Google account and does not necessarily cater for academic research interests in full. Then I came across a survey by book historian, Shakespearean, and digital media scholar Sarah Werner (@wynkenhimself). In a blogpost she explains her project of an “Early Printed Text Digitization Wishlist” and from my work on natural histories I contributed a request for the Taalryk register because it highlighted some of the problems of digitisation and research on material culture that I have come across. Within a few days someone from the hive mind directed me toward a version of the Taalryk register at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich. After reading in the letters between Burman and Linnaeus about the exchange of first print runs, this felt like a 21st century-equivalent of scholarly correspondence.

The Taalryk register is tagged “taxonomic literature” in the KB online catalogue. The Dutch edition of Weinmann’s illustrations – that is Duidelyke vertoning, eeniger duizend in alle vier waereld’s delen wassende bomen, stammen … en uitwassen &c. – combines a Dutch title page with descriptions in Latin and German on the coloured plates (5 volumes accessible in the Special Collections of the KB). The plates might have been produced in Germany and bound into the separate volumes in Amsterdam. The Dutch register then makes the information accessible for a general public in the Netherlands. Upon closer inspection it is also an important source on the cooperation and circulation in botany. For example in the first volume, the dedication to Willem Carel Henrik Friso, “Prince van Oranje en Nassau” (Munich scan 5 to 8), the list of subscribers (Munich scan 13/14), and the preface (voorrede) by D. Albrecht Haller (printed p. 1-32) show the interest in updating botanical knowledge among the elite from physicians to merchants. Burman revised the original text and included information from Rumphius’ Amboinsche Kruid-boek (Amsterdam et al. 1741-1750) as soon as the book matching an entry in Weinmann was published (cf. the entry on Galanga in Weinmann, vol. 3, p. 1-3). Perhaps the bilingual structure of Weinmann’s work encouraged Burman to follow a similar path as editor of the Kruid-boek. Rumphius’ manuscript had been written in Dutch, but the book was finally printed in Dutch and Latin, each page divided into two columns with Latin on the left and Dutch on the right side (cf. the digitised version at the Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Göttingen). The surviving copy of the advertisement is in Latin only (cf. the digitised version in Geheugen van Nederland). These material questions I have explored further for publication in the framework of the Rumphius-project in Cologne.

*All websites accessed 15 January 2018

Present in the Ruins of Empire. A Visual Essay from Lisbon and Sintra

“Ruins are not just found; they are made. They become repositories of public knowledge and new concentrations of public declaration.”

“One task of a renewed (post)colonial studies would be to sharpen our senses and sense of how to track the tangibilities of empire as effective histories of the present.”


from Ann Laura Stoler. Duress. Imperial Durabilities in Our Times. Durham/London 2016, p. 364 and p. 378.

by Esther Helena Arens, Lisbon (Belém, Jardim Botânico Tropical, Museu de Marinha, Museu Nacional de História e da Ciência) and Sintra (Palácio Nacional da Pena), December 2017.

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