Storytelling in the language of flowers

Storytelling in the language of flowers is a multi-genre project which brings together an interdisciplinary group of people to develop new forms of storytelling in response to the multiple political and ecological crises of our time. Focusing on plants and their people in Cape Town, it brings forth stories about place, history and belonging; stories which root us in the past and prepare the soil from which more just futures can grow. Inspired by communicative practices with flowers of both plants and people, it mixes methods and forms developed in the arts, natural sciences and humanities to not only showcase the beauty of plants, but to further explore the complex entanglements of human and more-than-human life worlds, research hopeful emerging ecologies and add critical layers to current discussions of the Anthropocene.

Shifting narratives about people and plants in Cape Town
In Cape Town, the history botany, agriculture and horticulture is deeply entangled with the history of colonialism and apartheid, and their lasting impact on the present. The establishment of a provision garden was central to the Dutch East India Company’s motivation to found a colonial station. Settlers soon moved beyond the confines of the Company’s Garden to build farms on colonised land. While settlers cultivated imported, exotic plant species, European naturalists collected, named and classified indigenous plants. Botany emerged as a discipline which ordered the world into a supposedly universal knowledge system which marginalised colonised people’s plant knowledge and practices.

Colonialism had catastrophic effects on both colonised people as well as the more-than-human world. It subjected not only colonised people but also the natural world to a racialised and gendered social hierarchy according to which white men were regarded as superior and therefore legitimised rulers over everything. Colonialism fundamentally disrupted relationships between human and more-than-human beings. The legacies of colonialism continue to manifest themselves in spatial segregation, landlessness, poverty, racialised divisions and the marginalisation of indigenous knowledge systems. In Cape Town, this affects in particular the outstanding vegetal world and social relationships between people and plants. Cape Town is situated in the fynbos biome and Cape Floristic Region, which stands out through its high levels of plant biodiversity and endemism. Climate change and other pressures threaten many of the indigenous plants of the Cape with extinction. While there are many conservation initiatives at work, we believe that storytelling is an important addition to these, as it can shift the imagination from preservation to the fostering of care and mending of multispecies social relationships. Stories of people and plants, of nature and culture, of supposedly global science and local knowledges, have for long been told separately. Storytelling in the language of flowers explores the connections in these stories and mixes conventional narrative genres and forms so that new, hybrid stories can blossom.

Multispecies storytelling and the African Anthropocene
In reaction to the multiple political and ecological crises which characterise life in the Anthropocene, feminist scholar Donna Haraway urges us to practice “speculative fabulation” and “storytelling for earthly survival”.[1] As an alternative to technofixes or game-over mentality, she encourages us to develop new forms of “multispecies storytelling” which provide the ground for reimagining kinship between human and more-than-human beings. With Storytelling in the Language of Flowers, we take up Haraway’s call and also respond to the need to decolonise the Anthropocene. Too often, Anthropocene debates are dominated by a white and Northern perspectives. Achille Mbembe, Gabrielle Hecht and others have cautioned us to pay attention to African perspectives on the Anthropocene.[2] Storytelling in the language of flowers provides an experimental platform for multispecies storytelling about the African Anthropocene.

Making flower arrangements and making arrangements for new flowers
Making flower arrangements is at the core of the practice of Storytelling in the language of flowers. We are inspired by the deep knowledge of flower arranging hold by the heterogeneous communities surrounding us. Imagine plants as flower arrangers. Anthropologist Anna Tsing suggests that when we study the social lives of more-than-human actors, we should pay attention to assemblages and form.[3] What stories can we read when looking at the flowers of plants? What do they tell us about the plants’ biographies, surroundings and the past they have witnessed? We further seek out people with expert knowledge of plants and invite them to participate in the making flower arrangements which tell stories about history, place and belonging. The experts we engage work inside, outside, and across disciplines; among them are flower sellers, botanists, gardeners, conservationists, plant enthusiasts, historians and artists. We document the flower arrangements they make as stories, and are inspired by them for the further development of the plot. This takes us from making flower arrangements for new stories to making arrangements for new flowers; the flowers of the future, the flowers that will survive in the Anthropocene, the flowers that will be our future mediators, medicine and memories.

The initial installation of Storytelling in the language of flowers took place on 12th September 2018 during the ICA Live Art Festival at the Adderley Street flower market in Cape Town. The installation included a flower show, a storytelling floristry workshop, a sound installation and the distribution of the Cape Town Floriography Papers.


[1] Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham and London: Duke University Press 2016). Fabrizio Terranova, Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival (film), 2016.

[2] Gabrielle Hecht, “The African Anthropocene”, Aeon, 06.02.2018, (accessed 02.07.2018).

[3] Anna Tsing, “More-than-Human Sociality: A Call for Critical Description“, in Kirsten Hastrup, Anthropology and Nature (New York: Routledge 2013), 32.