By Sarah Fiorello

Okra and other plants in a garden bed

Cornell Botanic Gardens’ exhibition “Seeds of Survival and Celebration: Plants and the Black Experience” honors the skill, knowledge, and resilience of enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Americas with garden installations featuring more than 70 plants of significance to Black culture. New to the exhibition in its third and final year: an expanded audio tour, a gallery of photographs of traditional African American gardens, and plants that highlight the life and accomplishments of George Washington Carver.

Through plants, art, objects, and information that expands our knowledge, the exhibition shows how enslaved Africans and their descendants continued their cultural traditions under the duress of being kidnapped and enslaved. Plants that came with them on slave ships and new ones available to them in the Americas were grown in gardens around their living quarters to continue culinary traditions and healing practices.

Kofi Acree, director for the John Henrik Clarke Africana Library and curator of Africana Collections for the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, is one of a group of Cornell staff, faculty, and students who co-created the exhibition.

“This exhibition works to shift the image that often comes to mind when envisioning enslaved people from one of helpless individuals, to ones with incredible strength and agency to continue their cultural traditions and create new ones under the challenges they faced,” Acree said.

“Seeds of Survival and Celebration” also demonstrates some of the ways enslaved Africans and their descendants have contributed to the rich cultural fabric of America today. These include culinary favorites such as gumbo, grits, jambalaya.

Black-eyed peas, cultivated in West Africa, were cooked with, rice, greens, and spices, which gave rise to a dish today known as Hoppin’ John, often eaten on New Year’s Day to bring good luck and prosperity. Collard greens were brought to the Americas by European settlers and were used by enslaved people to continue the west African tradition of incorporating leafy greens in soups and stews. Sweet basil is a relative of African basil, which is widely used to soothe colds and coughs. Enslaved Africans applied their knowledge of African basil to use sweet basil available to them in the Americas in similar ways.

Objects and design elements that persist in home gardens today, especially in the South, trace their roots to the time of slavery. Many of these features are shown in photographs from Vaughn Sills’ series “Places for the Spirit: Traditional African American Gardens” on display in the Nevin Welcome Center.

“Thoughtfully arranged objects and plants have spiritual and personal significance,” Sills said. “In these yards, we see the gardeners’ reverence for the cycles of life and nature, for the presence of the spiritual, and for the value of community.”

Visitors to Cornell Botanic Gardens can explore the history of the plants displayed in the exhibit in more detail through listening to audio narratives, accessed by QR codes on plant labels. This year, audio narratives were added for indigo, peanut, watermelon, castor bean, cotton, and amaranth.

George Washington Carver dedicated his life’s work to helping black farmers in the South to earn their living through farming after slavery was abolished. Carver encouraged farmers to grow black-eyed peas, peanuts, and sweet potatoes to both nourish the soil and sell products made from them. You can view these plants along with a sign and audio narrative to learn more about Carver’s life and achievements. Several community groups participated in the George Washing Carver Community Gardens Project initiative, including  The Learning Farm, Ithaca Children’s Garden, and the Children’s Reading Connection.

“It’s an immense pleasure to work collaboratively on the uplift of a project that has been dear to my heart for a long time,” said Christa Núñez, executive director of The Learning Farm. “Dr. George Washington Carver’s life and legacy of regenerative agriculture, equitable food systems, and treating our environment and communities with loving care is absolutely central to what our community is striving to be. Dr. Carver, is helping us bring that to our young people in truly unique ways.”

Visitors can explore “Seeds of Survival and Celebration” every day from dawn to dusk. Staff-led tours are offered July 27, August 31, and September 14 from 1:00 p.m. to2:00 p.m. Watch Cornell Botanic Gardens’ website for more tours and events, including an opportunity to taste cuisines that emerged from the traditions of enslaved Africans and their descendants.