The Preservation and Curation of Historic Plants

In Robert Cook’s “Is Landscape Preservation an Oxymoron,” he cites the difficulties of preserving materials that, by nature, cannot be preserved- namely plants and wildlife. In my own experience, however, I have found that many varieties and species of plants are being preserved in ways that seem more similar to our brand of conservation than that of ecological conservation. Many nearly extinct varieties of plants are not being preserved because they are central to a certain ecosystem but because they themselves are historic markers of time past.

At the Potager du Roi at Versailles, it has been branded as “Préservation Végetale.” A movement that is gaining speed in many historic potagers around France, vegetal conservation is a means by which historic varieties of plants, namely edible plants such as fruits and vegetables which are no longer consumed or grown, are continually grown, seeded, and displayed in their historic environment. At Versailles, this doesn’t just mean continuing to grow Louis XIV’s favorites (such as peas) or continuing to use historic technologies to grow exotics (such as pineapples, cacao beans, and coffee), but it means growing varieties of plants that are no longer grown or consumed at the site they were developed.

“Fraises Versaillaises” are about the size of a dime, bitter, and an unsightly reddish-brown color. They resemble today’s strawberries only in name, and are inedible by today’s standards of gastronomy. However, at the Potager du Roi, a functioning place of production that relies on the sales fruits and veggies to stay afloat financially, a petite carée is dedicated to the berries. These berries can’t be sold, eaten, or appreciated outside of their historical context as a variety that was developed, grown, and eaten on site.

Plants often can carry historical value in their own right, sometimes separate of the landscape they are connected to. For example, think of Monet’s waterlilies at his home in Giverny, who have become immortalized through art and are carefully preserved as heritage today. As biodiversity decreases and more and more species are at risk, it is important to not only take an ecological approach to preserving plant species, but a historic approach as well.

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