Botanical Garden Zurich

Kai Kersten, Decolonize Zurich


Baber, Zaheer: The Plants of Empire: Botanic Gardens, Colonial Power and Botanical Knowledge, in: Journal of Contemporary Asia (2016), p. 659-679.

Haila, Yrjö: Beyond the Nature-Culture Dualism, in: Biology and Philosophy 15 (2000), p. 155-175.

The first Botanical Garden of the University of Zurich was founded in 1836 in the Schanzengraben by Heinrich Zollinger (1818-1859). He traveled to Java (Indonesia) in the mid-19th century as a plant collector for Alphonse de Candolle (1806-1893), another important Swiss botanist. In the 1840s, Zollinger collected thousands of plants in the Dutch colonies in Asia and established a coconut plantation with his family in East Java in the 1850s. By using plants imported from Java and heavily relying on the colonial structures built by the Dutch empire at the time Zollinger was complicit in colonialism.

In the gardens, botanical knowledge coming from the European empires was displayed and organized in a particular way, presenting this knowledge as inherently new even though they relied heavily on indigenous guidance, thus, erasing indigenous contributions. The botanical garden therefore contains images of colonial surveying of the world and nature. They illustrate that in the European imperial understanding, there is a clear division between society and nature. This dualistic worldview also shaped the colonies, in which nature was deliberately altered, for example, to increase the profit of plants on plantations.

While botanical gardens in Europe reflect the impressive diversity of plant species around the world, colonization made these plants rare in the first place through plantation management and other plant eradication. Today, these rare plants are a biological treasure in European metropolises as a remnant of colonization, and where they once were, they are often extinct.

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Louis Agassiz and his colonial legacy
Neumarkt 13
Sihl and Limmat: colonial and natural-cultural entanglements
Study on racist house names in Zurich