Queens in Story
The People and Plants
The smell of jasmine (Jasminum spp.) and patchouli hangs heavy in the air around street vendors selling incense and essential oils. The slap of live fish can be heard on the doorsteps of the many fish markets. Tropical fruits and vegetables, like sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum), mango (Mangifera indica), chayote (Sechium edule), fuzzy gourd (Benincasa hispida), and lotus root (Nelumbo nucifera), seem to tumble out of crowded ethnic food stores and onto the sidewalks. Glass jars stuffed with herbs and roots, with names like chie-keng and pai-shao, line the counters of traditional Chinese herbal pharmacies. Intricately woven silks of the most brilliant greens, reds, and blues come alive in the windows of Indian sari shops.
These sights and smells are a reflection of the great cultural diversity that exists in Queens, one of the most ethnically diverse counties in the United States. Approximately 150 nations are represented in the borough. The rich cultural traditions of the immigrant and ethnic communities that have made Queens their home reverberate on its streets. In Flushing alone, Indian, Afghan, Chinese, and Korean cultures, to name a few, mingle with one another in a small area of a few blocks and have become a permanent part of the Queens landscape.
The vitality of cultures in Queens raises an important question concerning the ways in which cultural traditions may be documented and preserved. As an institution within the community, the Queens Botanical Garden is looking to address this question through understanding the ways in which people use plants in various cultures. The use and symbolism of plants are important reflections of culture, as plants are associated with food traditions and religious festivals, symbolic of human emotions or superstitions, the base of traditional medical systems, and embedded in folkloric histories. Plants play an integral role in the daily lives of Queens residents. Each day, people are busy on the streets outside the Garden’s gate buying fresh fruits, spices, and vegetables for the night’s meal, herbs for a cold, and flowers to place on a religious altar. It is through understanding these connections between plants and cultures that the process of documenting and preserving cultural traditions moves forward. It is also through understanding these connections that the exchange of cultural information within and among these ethnic communities begins to take place. Such cross-cultural information sharing forms the basis of QBG’s cultural research program.
The Garden’s goal in keeping with the cultural vision adopted in 1997 is to become a resource for cultural research that explores the unique connections between plants and people. The success of such research depends on a continued and open dialogue between the communities of Queens and QBG. The Garden has the unique opportunity to serve as a site in which individuals within this diverse area may exchange their many cultural traditions with others.