Landguaging with plants: The Dandelion Project (by Rhonda Chung)

A splash of water. 
A cocoon of dirt. 
That spark of germination that sets us afoot.   

Spiraling through the ground. 
Arms unfolding wide. 
Legs tunneling through the dark of time.   

Rooting in place. 
Drinking the sun. 
Plants teach us just how wild we can become. 

The language of plants has been capturing our imaginations since we first evolved onto land. Rocks are our 3-billion-year-old ancestors, moving in a time and space that is inconceivable to our 200-thousand-year-old imaginations. Plants are our second oldest teachers, outpacing us by 500 million years.

Robin Wall Kimmerer is a botanist, distinguished teaching professor, and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. She is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and prominent scholar on plant intelligence and ecology, which includes their communicative patterns. In her chapter, White Pine, Kimmerer (2021) describes the language of trees and their articulatory processes:

The soft sibilance of pine needles in the wind is an acoustic signature of pines. But this well-known “whispering of pines” is just a sound, it is not their voice. […] This is not some kind of mistaken anthropomorphism. […] Plants tell their stories not by what they say but by what they do. They tell their story in their bodies…their storytelling goes deeper than the curve of a windward branch. The tree is an integrator of all its experience and that of the surrounding community. When you have learned its lexicon, the story of the weevils, the drought, the fire, the blister rust, the wind, the canoe makers, and the maples are all plainly written. And more. […] The story of intelligences other than our own is one of continual expansion.

 Reimagining language beyond the articulators of a sagittal diagram, however, has not been the traditional focus of applied linguistics. Language acquisition has largely been viewed as a highly individualized psycholinguistic process (Larsen-Freeman, 2020). Sociolinguistic research nuanced this notion, however, stating that social interaction plays a crucial role in language development (Firth & Wagner, 1997). Post-humanism opens applied linguistics up to the notion that communication occurs not just between humans, but also with non-human interlocutors (Lau, 2022). This can include forming relationships with technology (van Lier, 2004) or the land itself (Chung & Chung Arsenault, 2023). But what do we really know about land, the place that plants call home?

Confronting Allochthonous Identities Through Land-Sensitizing Curriculum

In 2021, Indigenous peoples accounted for 5% of Canada’s total population, meaning that most Canadians are not indigenous to Turtle Island; they are settlers. Most of my ancestors did not consent to the months-long migration to Abya Yala; I am absolutely a descendant of the sun, not snow. I am likely the first person in my lineage to be born this far north, and don’t my aching joints know it at the first hint of autumnal crispness! I don’t know much about this territory, and have always known that I had a lot of catching up to do.

Unfortunately, Canadian educational systems are settler colonial institutions, meaning that the curriculum is usually focused on Eurocentric histories, like the Ancient Greeks or the imperial system itself, rarely discussing the people indigenous to the territory the settlement is situated upon (Battiste, 2013). For example, in my Catholic elementary and secondary schooling in Toronto, none of my classes discussed Indigenous peoples, customs, arts or languages. In university, only two courses included Indigenous-authored material, making Indigenous content very much an optional subject during my educational experiences.

This intergenerational silence regarding Indigenous topics, replicated at multiple levels of the settler colonial curricula, is part of a much larger issue within education. Wolfram and colleagues (2023) describe this discrimination against minoritized people as being so widespread within language education that it is considered an acceptable prejudice, meaning that both instructors and their students deem it appropriate to continue being intergenerationally silent. The silent curriculum is experienced physically through the conditions of the classroom, and psychologically through learning materials, which collaboratively normalize whose learning systems matter. This targeted silencing of minoritized people’s epistemologies in the curriculum contradicts any claims that our educational system is a democratic one, causing Tanchuck and colleagues (2018) to state that it is a liberal democratic obligation to implement mandatory education regarding Indigenous peoples and ecosystems to put an end to the accepted prejudice of the silent curriculum. However, simply incorporating Indigenous content in the settler colonial classroom is not a quick fix; it requires unpacking long-held beliefs and questioning “seminal” work in our fields. Our understanding of plants, for example, is a case study of how settler colonial ideologies have promoted centuries of indigenocide in the natural sciences, under the guise of feminism, for instance..

Born in Germany, Maria Sibylla Merian was an entomologist and botanical illustrator who moved to Amsterdam in the late 1600s. In 1699, at the age of 52, she and her daughter, Dorothea, embarked on the seaward journey to Paramaribo, Dutch Guiana (currently called Suriname) in Abya Yala, earning her the title of the first woman to travel to the Americas for scientific purposes. Upon arrival, Merian made use of the already enslaved Indigenous peoples to learn about local insects and flora. In particular, her documentation of plants with abortifacient and emmenagogic properties led some to view her as a feminist icon for bodily autonomy; however, this information was obtained because Indigenous women had confided to Merian that they consumed these plants after having been raped by plantation overseers. Merian returned to Europe, absconding with her Indigenous “helper”, effectively separating her from her family and the land she knew intimately. In 1705, Merian’s botanical illustrations were finally published, and Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium was considered a contemporary work of art. Silent in this discourse, however, was that Merian’s academic success is entirely principled on the knowledge of unnamed Indigenous women.

Watercolour and bodycolour on vellum. ‘A pineapple surrounded by cockroaches‘; the first plate of Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium

The imperialism that settler colonialism flows from operates on a dual process of deterritorializing indigenous ecosystems while reterritorializing settler norms through national policy (Motha, 2014). Deterritorialization involves intergenerational tactics of land seizure, resource extraction, and a relentless indigenocide towards all species (human, plant, animal) native to the ecosystem (Wolfe, 2006). Reterritorialization describes large-scale migration to and occupation of the unceded territory, so as to replace Indigenous peoples and ecosystems through assimilative and monocultural practices (e.g., plantations or linguistic policies) to ensure the settlement’s longevity (Wolfe, 2006). However, when citizens of settler colonial states become land sensitive, they take intergenerational responsibility for learning about Indigenous peoples and ecosystems, and they move towards repairing their relationships with the land and its first peoples.

Landguaging with Plants

By Landguaging a territory, we can more clearly identify what is autochthonous (indigenous) or allochthonous (non-indigenous) to our landscape, acknowledging the limitations of our knowledge, and raising ethical questions regarding ecosystem diversity and maintenance. For my own part, I am continually confronting how little I know about the land I live on.

In June of this year, I was admitted to the City Herbal Apprenticeship Program, located on the Loyola campus of Concordia University, to deepen my knowledge of plants. The program consisted of weekly shifts clearing and planting herbs in the garden, harvesting them, preparing medicines (teas, tinctures, salves, electuaries, hydrosols, etc.), saving seeds, and closing the garden in late October for the impending winter. After each shift, a plant from the garden was highlighted, and we discussed its ideal growing conditions, the prime time for harvesting it, which part of the plant held the most medicinal properties, and where the plant originated from, including long-standing preparation techniques.

When we interact with plants as part of a collective, we move in a different time and space. We celebrate one cycle of a plant’s life through canning exercises, fire cider preparation, elderberry syrup making or harvest parties. Plant intelligence, therefore, is a collective knowledge that encompasses not only caring for plants throughout the seasons, but also understanding how to prepare and consume them.

When we interact with plants individually, however, time slows even further, sharpening other senses. While tending to the garden alone one morning, I heard what I thought were footsteps on the path. I turned around, but no one was there. It happened again. And again. And again. Until I realized I was not alone in the garden at all. Catapulting their bodies forth from large leaf to large leaf, grasshoppers leapt, making sharp crisp sounds against the foliage, leaving an audible footprint.. Grasshoppers may only live for one year, but they have been living this cycle for 200 million years.

As Kimmerer taught us, the articulators of plants are not limited to their root or leaf systems. They exist within multiple nested ecosystems, each operating in a particular time and space that as a human, I cannot fully grasp.

 The Dandelion Project

The Dandelion Project emerged from a plant interaction that I had years ago, when I learned that dandelions were not indigenous to North America, but were brought to the territory by French colonists. In fact, many of the plants and animals, including even earthworms and honey bees, were brought to the territory by Europeans in the 1600s to facilitate their long-term resettlement process, sometimes referred to as the Columbian Exchange.

 It came as no surprise to me, then, to learn that the majority of plants in the Loyola garden were European in origin. Loyola campus, after all, was established in 1635 by Jesuits whose mission was to evangelize the indigenous inhabitants of the territory and create a religious colony. The plant knowledge, the harvesting, the medicine making, everything that I learned in that class, just like in all the others, came from European mores. But I wasn’t upset at the plants; how could I be? They didn’t consent to their migration here–something I myself and my ancestors understood quite personally.

 In mid-October, we apprentices conducted our exit projects from the program in the rooftop Greenhouse of Concordia’s downtown campus. About 25 members of the community came to learn more about plants in their surrounding environment through tea tasting, crafting, or medicine making.

 In my presentation, participants learned about the migration of certain plants to the “Americas.” The first spring flowers, like tulips, snowdrop, or the scent of the summer lilacs were all imported to Turtle Island–indeed, we experience the flowers of spring and summer as Europeans would. Participants were then invited to take part in a scavenger hunt of 16 plants found in the Greenhouse, using either a geo-locating plant app, like iNaturalist, or the plant print-outs provided. Each printout contained the plant’s common and scientific name, the region to which it is native, and its medicinal properties.

After milling about solo or in pairs, scrutinizing the plants, and comparing printouts, participants slowly gathered back at the main table, where we discussed what the plants might be teaching us.

 Participants overwhelmingly talked about being in “community” with our “surrounding environment” as an important part of being a “nurturing neighbour” (n = 8), particularly the importance of “adapting” to our environment (n = 6). Respondents also stated that plants taught them that life should be viewed as a series of “cycles” (n = 5), meaning that we are meant “to slow down” and “focus” our senses on the “now”, and “appreciate the moment” (n = 5). There’s something mesmerizing about being lulled into different times and spaces.

 What Do Dandelions Teach Us?

Since Landguaging involves identifying what is and isn’t indigenous to the landscape, one can’t help but face the limitations of our knowledge. As an allochthonous person to this region, I am constantly confronting how my knowledge is overwhelmingly rooted in European mores, yet that’s only one region where I, and the plants that actually fed my ancestors, really come from. 

Like other flora and fauna currently residing in this region, the dandelion did not consent to its migration here. It was brought to serve the interests of the settlement for medicine and food. It is difficult to fault the dandelion for not only surviving its transplantation, but also flourishing in its new environment, yet we cannot deny that it has contributed to radically changing the ecosystem here. I recently had a chance to talk about this tension with Willie Ermine, Assistant Professor at the First Nations University of Canada, and member of the Sturgeon Lake First Nation in the north-central part of Saskatchewan. He spoke to me about Stephen Buhner’s notion that the earth has living memory of its plants, making successful transplantation an act of remembering one another for the purpose of symbiotic and mutual flourishing.

When I reflect upon what the dandelion might be teaching me, it may very well be what Tiago, an attendee at the workshop, said to me afterwards. It wasn’t that plants were colonizing a region, he explained, it’s that the plants colonize us. So attached are we to their medicines and to the ritual of creating recipes from them, that we bring them all around the world to be with us.


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Chung, R., & Chung Arsenault, W.  (2023). ‘Landguaging’ the L2 classroom: Inclusive pedagogies & land-sensitive curriculum through teacher reflection art. Concordia University Working Papers in Applied Linguistics, 7, 29-54.

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