Colah B. Tawkin on brdige in front of waterfall

Last Fall, Colah B Tawkin, founder of the Black in the Garden podcast, visited Cornell University and hosted a series of events focused on the celebratory uses of plants in Black cultures. During her visit, she engaged with several different groups within the Cornell and Ithaca community, and created spaces for us to authentically bond through our unique and similar cultural connections with nature. Through these connections event participants were able to share and realize our collective interdependence with nature and the importance of safeguarding this in the future. Colah is a featured professional in the Cultivators of Celebration exhibit at Cornell Botanic Gardens, which highlights the work of experts who preserve Black plant traditions and practices.

Forging Student Connections

Colah is a storyteller, and her expertise is in curating conversations between others, evoking memories and associations people have with plants. This is exactly how she started her visit at Cornell, facilitating an intimate discussion with students. Students from various majors and backgrounds attended a lunch conversation with Colah, to learn about her unconventional career in horticulture and share their own plant connections.

While reminiscing on their earliest experiences with nature, many students were able to track how these memories influenced their current academic and extracurricular choices. Nathan Rhoades, for example, fondly remembers his mother’s lemon tree that she cultivated throughout his childhood. The conversation also gave us an opportunity to consider how our passions for the environment could continue to shape our careers and political actions. Nathan’s connection to his mother’s lemon tree partly contributes to his academic exploration of environmental engineering, illustrating how a personal bond with plants at a young age fosters a sense of responsibility and care for the environment. This is especially beneficial with the increased environmental vulnerability caused by anthropogenic climate change.  Marginalized communities are disproportionately impacted by deforestation around the globe, even within US cities, where the loss of tree cover results in greater risks of extreme heat, flooding, and chronic and respiratory illnesses that are triggered by pollutants.

Students and Cornell Botanic Gardens staff attend a luncheon with Colah B. Tawkin, Black Plant Media Curator and storyteller
Photo: University Photography

Colah’s emphasis on these environmental and sociopolitical injustices has profoundly influenced my integration of environmental health into my social epidemiological career aspirations. By highlighting the harms wielded against us, we began to form alliances and create tools to protect ourselves.

For many of us our conversation with Colah was not the first step towards this future. Earlier that fall, some of the same students joined Cornell Botanic Gardens at the Farming for Freedom Trail, visiting different BIPOC farms and gardens in the city, to link individuals in the pursuit of food and environmental justice. This network, founded by educator, entrepreneur and creator, Christa Nunez, serves as an alternative system against social barriers and protects Black farming practices.

Colah’s time on campus, however, helped deepen these relationships and provided opportunities for new community collaboration. We ate plant based versions of traditional Ghanaian food with Chef Kuukua Yomekpe, where she also shared the significance of specific food plants in her life and career, including those found in the Seeds of Survival and Celebration exhibit, like taro and black eyed peas. As we ate okra, we reflected on the evolution of some of these plants, and how they represent continued resistance against exploitation. We connected the surge of Black community gardens that we were introduced to during the Trail to the contemporary legacy of historical oppression felt through systemic injustices. Both Christa Nunez and Chef Kuukua Yomekpe, are featured in the Cultivators of Celebration exhibit, as well.

Inspiring Young Environmental Guardians

For older generations, climate change seemed like a concern of the distant future, while the youth of today are confronted with the reality of a drastically changing environment. Inspiring the next generation of environmental stewards to address the decline of biocultural diversity is a major goal of both Cornell Botanic Gardens and Colah. Colah extended this facilitation of meaningful relationships with audiences outside of Cornell, at Ithaca’s Children’s Garden.

Colah started the “Underground Arborist” organization, to plant a female native tree in every US state, to combat deforestation and encourage environmentalism. As part of Colah’s visit, she planted a tree at the Ithaca Children’s Garden with local children from the Greater Ithaca Activities Center. As a community, we planted the Haudenosaunee Tree of Peace, the white pine, in a familiar and accessible space, where children already have daily learning experiences.

Photo: University Photography

Colah has described the “childlike joy” she receives from gardening, and planting this culturally significant tree with children. By doing so in a place where they already experience joy these children gain a greater sense of pride and intentional care for the environment. Each child participated in the planting, taking turns carefully covering the tree’s roots with dirt, which fostered a hands-on connection to environmental stewardship. Staff at the Children’s Garden provided additional resources and various education activities for children to further explore the importance of trees and environmental conservation. Cornell Botanic Gardens’ Learning by Leading Garden Ambassador Team, a student-led group focused on outreach programs and education, also developed and led learning experiences. They distributed pages of Colah’s “Black in the Garden” coloring book, and children got to see and create images of BIPOC people positively interacting with plants. A tree identification activity examining the pawpaw, a native tree with biocultural relevance to indigenous and other American communities, helped children understand their local environment. By helping to organize this event, the Garden Ambassadors strengthened the gardens’ commitment to creating a world of beauty, diversity and hope.

Photo: Sonja Skelly

From Soil to Soiree

These collaborations continued in Colah’s interactive lecture at the Africana Studies and Research Center, where Colah beautifully weaved the plants of the “Seeds of Survival and Celebration” exhibit with celebratory narratives from Black communities. She provoked the audience to think about the significance of corn during celebrations like Kwanzaa and collard greens and black eyed peas for New Year’s dinner. Food sovereignty and urban agricultural activist, Jay Smith, Christa Nunez, and I participated as panelists in this lecture, where we shared our knowledge of celebratory plants and our personal traditions. Jay and Christa spoke from a perspective of long-term advocacy of transformative return of Black and Indigenous groups to the land, where access to agency over our own food and health is more than worthy of celebration.

Photo: Sonja Skelly

From Cornell students, to local children to adults, Colah provided these audiences with the opportunity to reflect on plants that are significant to their lives and how we can safeguard the stories and cultural heritage associated with them, by forming intersectional coalitions. Through this, we advance the safeguarding of nature and our biocultural interdependence with it.

Jakara Zellner is an Education Program Assistant for Cornell Botanic Gardens


Cultivators of Celebration

Explore the life's work of living connectors to the historical roots of Black plant traditions


Seeds of Survival and Celebration

This garden and exhibit tell stories of the deep connections of the formerly enslaved to plants and illustrate their contributions to the cuisines enjoyed across American society today.


Verdant Views: Cultivators of Celebration

This webinar features several individuals profiled in the exhibit “Cultivators of Celebration.”