Tree Cultures at Kew

Date and time
Tuesday, 9 July 2024
10.30 - 17.00

Lady Lisa Sainsbury Lecture Theatre,
Royal Botanic Gardens,
Jodrell Gate,
Kew Road,

What is Tree Cultures at Kew?

Tree Cultures at Kew will bring together researchers and professionals from the arboreal humanities to explore how we understand and regard the value of trees in the cultural imagination. This one-day symposium will showcase emerging literary and environmental history scholarship on trees and tree spaces, and foster discussions around how the arts and humanities can continue to investigate and communicate arboricultural concerns, past, present and future.

This event is being held at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, a UNESCO World Heritage site of significant arboreal, botanical, and conservation interest. Kew's treescapes will foreground the day's discussions, and attendees will also have the opportunity to participate in a guided tree walk of Kew's arboreal collections. The day will include two panels on 'Literary Trees' and 'Arboreal Histories'. Both panels will be followed by a Q&A discussion. 

Find out more about the talks taking place and speakers below.

'Literary Trees'


Trees branch throughout the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s various forms of composition, from the Gilpinesque landscape drawings of trees in his Genevan and Italian notebooks to rhetorical figures within his poems, to descriptions of trees observed in letters, and within the list of Alpine seeds that the poet intended to cultivate in his garden in Marlow. Trees—real and imagined—are vital to Shelley’s poetry.

This talk focuses on the recurrence of a particular tree—the pine—in Shelley’s poetry, letters, and manuscript notebooks. While drawings of broadleaved trees comprise the bulk of Shelley’s arboreal sketches, the pine reappears throughout the poet’s writing as a tree of literary import. Shelley’s Geneva notebook seems to depict real, living trees, such as plane and chestnut, in situ.

However, the pine recurs in the poet’s writings of this period as a tree that muddles the boundaries between the real and imagined. Redeeming the pine from its contemporary perception as a tree of commodity, Shelley’s depictions of the pine ground the tree in a distinctively literary lineage. By invoking the poet’s predecessors, from Boccaccio to Virgil, Shelley’s pine is a most poetical tree.  

Speaker details

Dr Amanda Blake Davis is a Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Derby with specialisms in Romanticism and poetry. She is preparing her first monograph, 'Shelley and Androgyny', alongside a postdoctoral project entitled 'Shelley’s Trees: Intermedial Ecologies'. Amanda is the Early Career Representative for the British Association for Romantic Studies and an organiser of the Shelley Conference. She has published articles on Shelley in journals including Romanticism, the Keats-Shelley Review, and the European Romantic Review. She co-convenes the arboreal research seminar series, ‘Tree Talks’, with Dr Anna Burton, alongside their collaborative project: 'Romantic Trees: The Literary Arboretum, 1740-1840'.


John Ruskin (1819-1900) and Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) were both Londoners in the Lakes. To varying degrees, their artistic outputs, conservation attitudes, and cultural identity became grafted to their subsequent residence in this region. Both were keen gardeners at their Lakeland homes — Brantwood, Hill-Top, and Castle Cottage — and central to their cultivation of these spaces, was an interest in the presence of trees, including regional species like the Keswick Codlin.

Through using diaries, correspondence, and sketches by the authors, alongside a consideration of literary works — from Ruskin’s 'Modern Painters' (1843-60) and 'Prosperina' (1879) to Potter’s 'The Oakmen' (1918) and 'The Fairy Caravan' (1929) — this talk will explore how Ruskin and Potter cultivated trees, woodland, and orchard spaces on their respective properties, and will draw out similarities in their attitudes towards arboreal caretaking, more broadly. In turn, this talk will investigate how, at the turn of the nineteenth century, Ruskin and Potter’s corresponding arboricultural ideas contributed to their similar and significant environmental vision(s) rooted in, and responsive to, this particular landscape.

Speaker details

Dr Anna Burton is a Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Derby. Anna's research is concerned with representations of trees and woodland in nineteenth-century English literature and culture; her book, 'Trees in Nineteenth-Century Fiction: The Silvicultural Novel', was published with Routledge in 2021, and her current project focuses on the literary and cultural history of tree planting in the English Lake District. Alongside Dr Amanda Blake Davis, she also co-leads the 'Romantic Trees: The Literary Arboretum, 1740-1840' project and the interdisciplinary 'Tree Talks' seminar series.


Toru Dutt (1856-1877) was a prolific Bengali poet, translator and novelist, who, before her death from tuberculosis at the age of 21, had already written two novels and a collection of poetry. One of the first Indian women to tour Europe, she possessed ‘education and mobility […] undreamt of by other women of [her] generation’ during a period when Indian “satires mocked the English-speaking woman as ‘unfeminine, promiscuous and unfit for domestic work’’. A Francophile and a Christian convert, Dutt was simultaneously ambivalent about Indian culture and subjected to a European critical reception framed by imperialist hauteur, racism and sexism.

My proposed presentation will examine Dutt’s poem ‘Our Casuarina Tree’ through an ecocritical lens, exploring how the representative strategies employed to depict the tree reflect Dutt’s complex positionality, creating a ‘literary ‘graft’- a hybrid which is more than the sum of its parts- with the poem’s problematic literary predecessor, Wordsworth’s ‘Yew Trees’. These nineteenth-century works will be linked to my original poem, ‘Stump’, which considers how their strategies might be repurposed by contemporary ecopoetics.

Speaker details

Shani Cadwallender is a poet, part-time English teacher and CHASE-funded PhD student at Birkbeck University of London, working on a creative-critical project about trees in the poetry of three ‘marginal’ 19th-century women writers. Originally from County Durham, she is now based in London. Having won their writing competition, she is the current poet-in-residence at walking arts organisation Walk-Listen-Create, where she is organising a series of events about nineteenth-century poetry and place. Her own work has been published in Propel Magazine, Ink, Sweat&Tears, Dreich Magazine and The 87 Press journal The Hythe, amongst others.


In his science fiction epic 'Star Maker' (1937) and short story ‘The Man Who Became a Tree (c.1940s), the philosopher and author Olaf Stapledon (1886 – 1950) imagines what it is like to be a tree. This paper will explore the otherworldly ontologies of Stapledon’s ‘vegetable humanities’ in his intergalactic myth of human evolution spanning billions of years, and his story of a man whose consciousness melds into the physiology of a beech tree to experience the ecstatic sensations of photosynthesis and ecological intersubjectivity. Returning to Stapledon’s stories in light of recent scientific developments in the field of ‘plant cognition’, I argue such speculative experiments of the imagination may be necessary if we are to consider trees as ethical subjects.  

Speaker details

Dr Dion Dobrzynski is an environmental humanities scholar and Immersive Impact Fellow at Bath Spa University. His PhD, funded through the Birmingham Institute of Forest Research (BIFoR) at the University of Birmingham, examined forest ecology in the fantastic imagination in the context of socio-ecological crises. Dion has been working with BIFoR and Ruskin Land in the Wyre Forest National Nature Reserve, running immersive 'reading walks' in the forest to embed interdisciplinary and innovative pedagogical and environmental engagement methods in the curriculum.

'Arboreal Histories'


Heavily deforested in Jamaica during the eighteenth century to meet the demand for furniture in Europe and North America, the mahogany tree and its products had violent connections to enslavement. Mahogany objects have appeared in recent exhibitions on the legacy of enslavement in Britain; the Fitzwilliam Museum’s ‘Black Atlantic’ exhibition included a chronometer made from enslaved-produced mahogany which was used to aid in maritime navigation along slave-trading routes, demonstrating the central role of trees in histories of colonialism.

Mahogany remained the touchstone for beautiful, high quality, wooden furniture in the nineteenth century, and found new uses, such as in the frames of Wardian cases which transported plants between botanical gardens as part of global networks of plant cultivation and consumption. This paper will consider the place of mahogany in Kew’s archives in the nineteenth century, after the peak period of deforestation in the Caribbean, and the role of the tree in plantation economies. Though mahogany trees cannot grow in British gardens, they continue to ‘live’ in British interiors, as well as in Kew’s Palm House, and are thus one of the most visible tropical trees associated with enslavement in Britain.

Speaker details  

Heather Craddock is Techne-funded PhD researcher in English Literature at the University of Roehampton, London, in partnership with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Her project, ‘Kew’s Colonial Archive: A Plant Humanities Approach to the Caribbean Miscellaneous Reports, 1850-1928’, examines Kew’s colonial history through ecocritical and plant humanities approaches.   


Trees can be invested with, and accumulate, cultural history and meaning. In gardens they are often also markers of events, entangled relationships, journeys, and ideas, and are central to the making of place. In an arboretum context, as part of a scientific living collection, they also reveal themes of colonial collecting and plant mobility, and quests for knowledge and skill; they are central nodes of connection within a web of other stories.

All these things mean that trees can become potent objects, holders of cultural memory, radiating many potential paths of inquiry. Starting with the story of an individual deodar cedar (Cedrus deodara) at Kew I will show how a ‘tree biography approach’ can offer a unique perspective on the history of both trees and place – specifically in the development of the arboretum landscape at RBG Kew from the 1840s onwards.

Through stories of its introduction, use in the landscaping of the arboretum, in horticultural experimentation, and national and international projects, I will reveal how deodars physically shaped the aesthetics of Kew, and can represent the breadth of its global network and influence, from the nineteenth century to today. Through using an interdisciplinary approach in studying arboreal histories, within the realm of the plant humanities, we can find a deeper understanding of the contribution of individual people, their practices and global networks, and how trees have long been used for scientific and horticultural knowledge-making and -sharing.

Speaker details

Christina Hourigan is a third year CDA PhD student in the Department of Geography, Royal Holloway University of London, and at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Her (mainly archival) research focuses on the cultural history of the British arboretum using Kew as a case study. Viewing trees as embodied history, as agents of landscape change, and markers of social and scientific history is key to her research, as is revealing the historic hidden voices of the workforce at Kew in a social history of education and labour in the arboretum. Prior to starting her PhD, Christina worked at Kew for over 20 years, and completed an MA in Garden History. She is the author of several titles on trees including 'Remarkable Trees', 'Kew's Big Trees', and 'Treasured Trees' which highlights the heritage trees of Kew alongside the paintings of Masumi Yamanaka. 


In different parts of the world, the Andean Fever tree (Cinchona spp.) and Australian gum tree (Eucalyptus spp.) are invasive species. Cinchona poses a threat to natural habitats in the Pacific, especially in the Galapagos. Meanwhile, Eucalyptus plays a significant role in forest fires globally, including Europe. But why are these trees so far from their native homes? Between the 17th and 19th centuries, both trees were pivotal in medical advancements and became essential crops during the era of ‘colonial agro-industrialism’ (van der Hoogte & Pieters, 2014).

The fever tree, known for its antimalarial properties, was cultivated in British and Dutch colonies as a ‘tool of empire’ (Headrick, 1981). Initially sent to Europe and the colonies for fast-growing timber, the gum tree later helped transform surgery due to its potent antiseptic qualities. Adopting a collections-based approach using the large medicinal collections or the Economic Botany Collection at Kew, this talk explores the historical trajectory of these two trees and the ongoing ecological impact resulting from large-scale plant transfers.   

Speaker details

Dr Kim Walker, a biocultural historian, holds a PhD from Royal Holloway University of London and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (2023). Her thesis focused on 19th-century fever tree (Cinchona spp.) pharmacy collections at Kew and their role in developing quinine as a drug. She authored 'Just The Tonic: A Natural History of Tonic Water' (Kew, 2019) with Mark Nesbitt and has a forthcoming book on the history and legacy of Coca (Erythroxylum spp.) and Cocaine (Kew, 2025). Her interests are in the intersection of history of botany, medicine and empire.


The ‘long’ nineteenth century saw rapid urbanisation across the Atlantic world and despite the harsh industrialising reputation of some cities at this time, the greening of the modern town through the nurturing and planting of private gardens, squares, public parks, garden cemeteries and street trees. Encouraged by developments in arboriculture and forestry, the transatlantic world saw the formation of tree collections across the parks, gardens and urban green and blue spaces of Europe and North America.

Though increasingly threatened by industrial-scale forestry, the seemingly boundless North American forests, with their bewildering range of trees, inspired the formation of tree collections and arboretums. The biodiversity of the North American forests spanning subtropical to boreal, from coastal to montane was exemplified by the ninety-nine native species of conifers now believed to exist north of modern Mexico compared to the mere three native species of conifers (and generally much fewer native trees) growing in Britain and Ireland. The creation and development of public tree collections like the Derby Arboretum and Arnold Arboretum are most effectively perceived as a global, and especially transatlantic phenomenon, stimulated by new thinking in arboriculture and forestry and the spread of ideas, large-scale immigration, industrialisation and botanical exploration.

Utilising case studies of British and North American examples, this talk demonstrates how the new public arboretums were simultaneously social, civic and scientific institutions which furthered and exemplified changing relationships between modern humanity and the environment.

Speaker details

Paul Elliott is Professor of Modern History at the University of Derby. His research interests include the social and cultural history of science and medicine, local, urban and regional history, historical geography, landscape and environmental history and the history of education.

His books include: The Derby Philosophers: Science and Culture in British Urban Society, 1750-1850 (Manchester, 2009); Enlightenment, Modernity and Science: Geographies of Scientific and Improvement Culture in Georgian England (London, 2010); (with Charles Watkins and Stephen Daniels), The British Arboretum: Trees, Science and Culture in the Nineteenth Century, paperback edition (Pittsburgh, 2019); British Urban Trees: A Social and Cultural History, c1800-1914 (Cambridge, 2016) and Erasmus Darwin's Gardens: Medicine, Agriculture and the Sciences in the Eighteenth Century (Woodbridge, 2021).   

Booking and further information

This event has been organised by researchers from the University of Derby with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. It is funded by the Creative and Cultural Industries Research Theme at the University of Derby. If you have any questions about this event, please email the organisers, Dr Anna Burton (a.burton@derby.ac.uk) and Dr Amanda Blake Davis (a.davis2@derby.ac.uk).

Attendees should access the event via the Jodrell Gate, Kew Road. 

Refreshments will be provided. This event is free, but booking is required. 

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