The Botanical Legacy of Colonialism (

Europeans carried plantain seeds on the soles of their shoes across North America.

Europeans carried plantain seeds on the soles of their shoes across North America.

Photo: xblickwinkel/F.xHeckerx

The colonial powers of Europe left deep scars in Africa, Asia, America and Australia, arbitrarily drawn country borders, enslaved millions of people, and wiped out indigenous peoples, cultures and languages. The consequences of colonialism are still evident in the affected areas today. This also applies to the plant world. From sugar cane To the European rubber tree or oak: the colonial powers, intentionally and unintentionally, transferred numerous plant species from one continent to another. These changes are still present and some are still being implemented. This has now been established by an international research team led by biodiversity researchers Bernd Lenzner and Franz Essl from the University of Vienna.

At the end of the fifteenth century, the major European powers began to establish colonies on other continents and largely divided the world among themselves. To this day, this border can be recognized from the point of view of botanists. Scientists studied exotic plants introduced in 1,183 areas of the former colonies of Great Britain, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands, covering a total of 19,250 plant species and varieties.

Areas that were once occupied by the same European colonial power are still more similar botanically today than other areas not dominated by the same power. According to the magazine, the longer territories occupied by a colonial power, the more similar they are “Nature’s Environment and Evolution” Published research results. “Restrictive trade policies ensured that plants were traded primarily between regions that were occupied by the same power,” explains Research Director Lenzner: “As a result, the flora of regions that were under the same colonial power became more similar compared to other regions.”

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In addition, regions that played particularly important economic or strategic roles during the colonial period show greater similarity in species composition to each other, compared to regions with less influence. Examples include former trading centers such as areas in the Indo-Malay Archipelago, which were crucial to the international spice trade, or islands such as the Azores or Saint Helena, both of which were important stopping points on long ocean voyages. The study also found that the British changed the biodiversity of their colonies more than others and the Dutch changed less.

From primitive plants to novice plants

Thousands of years ago, people took their native plants with them on their travels or exchanged them with other peoples, which contributed to their spread outside their natural environment. Scientists refer to these strange plants as “primitive plants.” However, with the first transatlantic crossing of Genoese Christopher Columbus in 1492 and the beginning of the era of colonial empires, the global transport of foreign plants multiplied to unprecedented proportions. Species that humans have consciously or unconsciously introduced from this time into areas where they did not occur naturally freshmen.

The new European colonial powers initially introduced crops to the new lands, primarily for economic reasons, in order to ensure the colonists’ survival and to promote the development of settlements. “But the plants were also taken for aesthetic and nostalgic reasons,” the scientists wrote in their study. In particular, many species were traded in and out of the colonial areas for food, forage and horticulture, giving rise to exotic plants in these areas over time.

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For example, Dutch settlers brought not only vines from southern Europe to South Africa, but also European oaks. The trees were supposed to provide the raw material for the wooden barrels needed to ripen South African wines and build houses. Technically, however, the project turned out to be a failure. Because of the subtropical conditions, the quality of the oak wood was not good enough.

However, many of the so-called novices also came to the colonies as “free knights”. The “White Man’s Kick” is an example of this. This is what the natives of North America called the banana plant imported from Europe, whose seeds were attached to the soles of settlers’ shoes and which, in the truest sense of the word, spread step by step with the settlers’ travels across the United States. and the “Wild West”.

The global exchange of plant species then intensified in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with the increasing number of botanical gardens and so-called acclimatization societies. Organized into a global network, plants and animals have thus been imported, published and published for scientific, economic and aesthetic reasons. At the height of the British Empire, there were more than 50 acclimatization societies and 100 botanical gardens, the most famous being the Kew Gardens in London.

The researchers concluded, “Our results highlight the continuing legacy of human activity, which is reflected in the similarity in the composition and homogeneity of their plants.”

“It is remarkable, that we can still find such legacies for several decades, sometimes even centuries, after the collapse of European colonial empires,” says Franz Eisel, senior author of the study. “This shows that we need to be very careful and aware about the types of plants we pass on around the world. the world where it is likely to have lasting impacts on biodiversity and human livelihoods in the future.”

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