In the heart of London’s Kew Gardens, a remarkable story unfolds beneath the sprawling canopy of the Temperate House. The Ruizia mauritiana, a once-thought extinct shrub with heart-shaped leaves, stands as a symbol of resilience. Previously believed to only produce male flowers, scientists at Kew Gardens made a groundbreaking discovery: this plant’s gender depends on temperature, growing male flowers in warmth and female ones in cooler conditions.
This revelation is just one of the captivating narratives at Queer Nature, a festival at Kew that explores the rich tapestry of plants and fungi and their profound connection to the LGBTQ+ community. The world of botany and LGBTQ+ identity intersect through language, as many flowering plants exhibit both male and female reproductive structures, often described as bisexual or perfect.
Fungi, with their countless mating types, share the spotlight with citrus trees, known for their ability to transition between sexual and asexual reproduction, and avocados, which open their flowers twice, enhancing genetic diversity. Artist Jeffrey Gibson’s House of Spirits installation, inspired by his Choctaw-Cherokee heritage and the writings of gay activist Derek Jarman, pays homage to this natural freedom. Gibson believes that nature offers a liberating contrast to the societal constraints that limit human expression.
LGBTQ+ gardening groups have sprouted across the UK, exploring topics from community gardening to environmental justice. Queer Botany, founded by Sixto-Juan Zavala, finds inspiration in nature’s diversity, highlighting the queerness inherent in plants’ sexual and asexual reproduction. Zavala underscores that societal constructs imposed on both humans and nature often fail to capture the innate diversity found in the nonhuman world.
The link between plants and the LGBTQ+ community extends back through history, inspiring poets, artists, and activists alike. Ancient Greece’s Sappho wrote poems about women intertwined with references to flowers, while Oscar Wilde’s green carnations became a symbol of homosexuality in 1892. In 1970, a radical lesbian feminist group in New York adopted the name Lavender Menace, drawing inspiration from a common purple flower.
These connections continue to thrive today. Reti, the author of “Garden Variety D*kes,” celebrates lesbian gardeners and their role in shaping a unique culture. Despite the changing times, gardening remains a significant part of the lesbian community, offering a space of empowerment and identity expression.
As Queer Nature opens its doors at Kew Gardens, it stands as a testament to the enduring relationship between the LGBTQ+ community and the vibrant world of plants. In an era marked by climate change and food insecurity, these botanical bonds remain a source of inspiration and unity.