Colourful language in the Horniman’s gardens

Gardens are among my favourite places to visit, including the magnificent Kew (site of many a trip with my son when he was tiny), Oxford Botanic Gardens near where I now live, the National Orchid Garden in Singapore and also the cactus-filled Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona.

So the chance to edit text for the new garden interpretation at the Horniman Museum was a dream assignment.  As I started to dig in to the project, it was clear that the text had a much wider job than simply to identify plants and their properties. The Horniman’s idea was to link the splendid grounds to the fascinating indoor collections, as a great article by Rebecca Atkinson in today’s Museum Practice  elaborates (subscription required).

Need a pretty pot? Dry a gourd.

Need a pretty pot? Dry a gourd.

In the food garden section, the text links an abundance of fruit, vegetables, grains, beans, herbs and spices to objects on display a gourd’s-throw away indoors. In the African Worlds gallery, for example, you can explore evidence that the Egyptians worshipped Renenoulet, goddess of harvest, and left wheat offerings as part of their funeral rites.

In the medicinal garden, we learn that extracts of daffodils and snowdrops can slow the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, and the ways plants have given health benefits to people throughout history. A collection of plants used for materials and fibres links to objects in the Music gallery, like the Ugandan Endingidi spike fiddle. Its bow is strung with sisal fibre made from the agave plant.

My personal favourites, however, are the dye plants newly resident in the much-loved sunken garden. They’re cleverly grouped into the colours they produce using twine enclosures in appropriate colours. This subtle touch is needed because many dye plants – those that produce red in particular – look nothing like the colour they yield. In this garden, you can explore how Native North Americans made black dye from sumac leaves and twigs, and yellow dye from sumac roots, and then go inside to check out traditional American dyed objects too.

The idea with this garden, as it develops, is to offer a historic palette of plants that researchers can use to explore the plant dyes people have used for millennia and rediscover old wisdom. How is it that ancient civilisations knew how to create particular shades and bond them to give long-lasting colour, when modern chemistry still only  has some of the answers? Nobody yet knows.

Red, pink, yellow, orange, blue, purple and black.

Explore natural reds, yellows, blues, purples and black in the dye gardens.