Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Diagram of a Love for Plants Gone Bad

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Diagram of a Love for Plants Gone Bad

Article excerpt


This article uses a surprising horticultural event--an unplanned, collective 'theft' of plants from the Montreal Botanical Garden in 1981--as impetus to interrogate the contribution of garden plants to public life in so-called 'green' cities of the late twentieth century. As sites of both social nature and material culture that are perceived as socially and environmentally beneficial and frequently designed to appear more-or-less natural, gardens are normally quite difficult to see or think in politically differentiated terms. Taking a historical 'eventalization' of civic horticulture as a means to enable critical perception, I develop the diagram (as introduced by Foucault and interpreted by Deleuze) as an analytical tool conducive to identifying and historicizing the perceptual and socio-spatial effects produced by the use of garden plants in urban public spaces. I outline the local historical context of the theft at the Botanical Garden and analyze the functioning of a program of horticultural beautification coincident with it as a means of establishing the theft's more general intelligibility. This illuminates, not only a change in the functioning of plants in Montreal's urban landscape, but also a means of recognizing the historical specificity of relations between people and plants, and socio-cultural change as more-than-human.


Diagram, plants, civic horticulture, social nature, urban environmental history, public gardens


On Thanksgiving Monday, 1981, a couple hours before closing, hundreds of visitors to the Montreal Botanical Garden walked away with plants they had pulled from the gardens. As one article described the scene police officers found upon arrival:

... close to 500 people were there. Total confusion reigned. Openly and publicly, but to the bafflement of regulars, some of whom did not hesitate to show their anger, most people left the park with flowers or small trees, uprooted then and there, in the wide open spaces of the Botanical Garden (Cedilot, 1981). (1)

The 'vent de folie' (or 'wind of madness') was reported to have been set off by a rumour that spread among visitors, to the effect that 'people were free to help themselves because the season was over' {The Gazette, 1981). This rumour was, of course, baseless--as one article assured readers, the Garden had never given away a single plant. Damages were estimated between $10,000 and $15,000 (Pouliot, 1981).

Characterized as an act of vandalism undertaken by a mob of wild barbarians, as a 'raiding' of the garden, and as a 'rampage', the incident, though somewhat shocking, was clearly seen as isolated, and explanations tended to go no further than to ascertain the source of the rumour (a false news item on a local radio show). While it is not mentioned in the official history of the Botanical Garden (Bouchard, 1988), nor in histories of the city's parks and green spaces, the comments of one journalist point towards a seemingly contradictory subtext suggestive of a broader significance. 'It's amazing', wrote Paul Pouliot, 'that the "love of flowers" and a penchant for good food can lead people to destruction' (1981). It is worth noting that this event took place in the midst of what has since been viewed as the blossoming of a passion for gardening among Montrealers. The city had hosted a spectacular horticultural exhibition, the Floralies internationales, the year before and at the same time, launched a series of horticultural initiatives designed to inspire citizen involvement in efforts to beautify the city. Together these initiatives and their associated media described a city transformed by gardens: 'la ville fleurie' (or, the city in bloom). In this context, was Pouliot implying that such efforts had gone too far, inspiring a horticultural obsession or creating confusion about the difference between stealing and harvesting plants? Perhaps not in a serious sense, but the comment is suggestive of complex, perhaps even unstable relations between people and plants during this time. …

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