The Deep Roots of Plant Time

A glass terrarium-like installation stands among yellow and red plants in autumn.

This essay explores how plant time challenges human temporal conceptualizations through a discussion of Kapwani Kiwanga’s sculpture On Growth. It is part of the Troubling Time series, which interrogates environmental ideas, spaces, processes, and problems through the lens of temporality. Series editors: Rebecca Laurent, Rudy Molinek, Samm Newton, Prerna Rana, and Weishun Lu.

Visitors to Manhattan’s High Line at Little West 12 Street may be stopped in their tracks by a somewhat mysterious yet luminous object: On Growth, a temporary installation commissioned from the Canadian and French artist Kapwani Kiwanga. 

A metal sculpture of a fern encased in dichroic glass that shimmers and changes color with the light and weather, the installation rises out of the remnants of railway tracks mingled with the surrounding vegetation of the park and in dialogue with the concrete architecture of the adjacent hotel, The Standard. 

The metal and glass enclosure might be mistaken for a futuristic space pod but harkens back to a distinctly nineteenth-century invention: the Wardian case, a precursor of the terrarium. Initially conceived as a protective environment for growing ferns and other houseplants, the Wardian case was quickly adapted for the purposes of colonial botany and global plant transfers. 

Archetypes of the Past

A closeup of the metallic fern in Kapwani Kiwanga’s installation. Photo courtesy of The High Line, 2023.

The artist’s choice of a fern resonates deeply with questions of time, connecting past, present, and future. Kiwanga’s plant is an archetype rather than a faithful depiction of a specific species. As I have argued elsewhere, ferns are a particularly resonant plant for thinking together different temporalities that converge in our troubled present.

Among the oldest plant families, ferns have an unbroken record of presence on earth numbering in the hundreds of millions of years. Ferns embody deep time, not only due to their long evolutionary currents but also because of the geological processes that saw their ancestors buried in swamps and gradually metamorphosed over untold expanses of time into coal and oil. 

It is the burning of these temporal accretions, what paleobotanist Adolf Carl Noé called the “petrified record” of deep time, that powered modernity. The relatively rapid release, in the space of a couple of centuries, of the energy stored by plants hundreds of millions of years ago has transformed humans into, in John McNeill’s description, “geological agents” whose actions are reshaping the planet’s life systems. 

The case doubles as a display that both elevates and isolates the plant, suggesting its extraction from any living ecosystem and its preservation as an artifact for the future.

The traces of human intervention will likely be inscribed into the earth’s stratigraphy, or the accretion of horizontal layers under the force of gravity that provide a legible and datable record of planetary history. Significant events detectable in this layered archive mark the boundaries of different geological periods, as identified by geologists and paleontologists. The inscription of human activity into the earth’s strata is thus being debated as a possible argument for designating a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene. 

Scholars like Dipesh Chakrabarty and Christophe Bonneuil have argued that the Anthropocene is an unprecedented challenge to human experience because of the discordant convergence of the relatively brief span of human history with the longue durée of planetary, geological and biological timescales. Our troubling time is therefore also a troubling of our customary perceptions of time.

An arrangement of pressed fern

Arrangements of dried ferns from a late nineteenth-century New Zealand fern album, 1883. Photo by the author. 

The convergence of wildly different temporalities in Kiwanga’s On Growth is intimately bound up with its vegetal subject. For plant time also troubles human time. More than animals, plants seem out of step with our human phases of growth and our typical lifespan. 

On the one hand, their ephemerality—experienced in the sudden efflorescence and equally rapid decay of bud and blossom—have supplied some of our most poignant images of transience and loss. On the other, their longevity often dwarfs that of animals and humans, with some vegetal organisms spanning centuries, if not millennia. 

As living beings, plants challenge our human temporality in ways that animals do not. They even contest our assumptions about planetary crises and radical ruptures in the succession of life, for plants may not figure as prominently as animals in the record of past mass extinctions, and their evolution keeps a different beat. The uncanny resilience of plants may account for their prominence in artists’ post-apocalyptic imaginings, betraying our fear and loathing at the intimation that they will outlast us.

The Wardian Case

If plants are so hardy, why is Kiwanga’s metallic fern encased in glass? The enclosure is ambiguous, doubling as both protective case and prison—alternatively suggesting care and mastery. The artist draws inspiration from Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward’s serendipitous discovery of a new apparatus for successfully growing and transporting plants in harsh conditions and away from their native environments. Ward’s breakthrough was prompted by his experiments with raising caterpillars in glass hatching jars, but also by his desire for growing ferns in his urban garden. 

A black and white etching of an octagonal Wardian case with glass side panels connecting to a point on top, with a variety of ferns living inside. A cat lurks in the background.

A Wardian case with growing ferns from Nathaniel Ward’s publication, 1852. Image courtesy of Dumbarton Oaks.

Ward’s fondness for ferns was an instance of the broader nineteenth-century “pteridomania”—the “fern craze” that swept the British Isles and colonies—and was repeatedly thwarted by London’s polluted atmosphere. The smoke and particles from the coal fires that powered the Industrial Revolution harmed not only people, but also plants, and despite his efforts Ward was unsuccessful in establishing a fernery outdoors.

But when Ward observed that a fern had taken root in a glass jar buried in his garden, he proceeded to experiment with different “glazed cases.” It became obvious to him that plants could thrive for long periods of time in glass enclosures that were almost completely sealed from their environment. His inventions enabled interior, virtually self-sufficient miniature gardens that became desirable ornaments of the Victorian drawing room.

But the discovery had more far-reaching applications. In his 1852 published account, Ward intimated that the new technology would be quickly adapted for the purposes of colonial bioprospecting. The apparatus, as Luke Keogh has recorded in his history of the Wardian case, was first tested on a return trip to Australia with a cargo of ferns. 

A black and white etching of an rectangular Wardian case with glass side panels connecting to a point on top, with a variety of ferns living inside. A small bird sits in front of the case.
A Wardian case, with Ward’s book in the background. 1852.  Image courtesy of Dumbarton Oaks, 1852.

In one of its subsequent deployments, the technology enabled the smuggling of the first tea plants from China to India, as well as the colonial movements of other economically useful plants such as cinchona and rubber. The cases protected the plants from the dangers of long ship voyages: salt water, drought, and the ravages of vermin and insects. 

Ward’s invention thus smoothed the path for the transplantations that enabled the cultivation of profitable plants at enormous scale through the plantation system. These vast and often forced migrations of plants and people transformed economies and ravaged communities and ecosystems around the globe. 

But at its inception, the glass enclosure was invested with benevolent fantasies of control: the microclimate initially designed for plants could be scaled up to create better environments in crowded cities for the working classes and the sick. Unaware of the consequences of all that burning coal, Ward imagined instead that climate would become a phenomenon amenable to human manipulation enabled by the advances of science.

Past and Present Convergences

Situated on the remnants of the railroad tracks that prompted the construction of the High Line, Kiwanga’s sculpture is also tied to the railroad as a disruptor of the human perception of time. Around the same time that the Wardian case was revolutionizing the movement of plants around the globe and extending the reach and ambitions of economic botany at the end of the nineteenth century, freight trains were crisscrossing lower Manhattan on street-level tracks, transporting food and commodities to support the burgeoning metropolis

A large octagonal case with glass sides and a pointed top sits on an elevated concrete block with living plants in the background. The case houses an artificial fern and reflects bright colors in the sun.
The bright colors of On Growth displayed on the High Line, surrounded by the park’s plantings. Photo by the author, 2023.

Due to the frequent fatalities, however, an elevated rail corridor was in place by the early 1930s. It transported millions of tons of cargo for the next half-century, until its decline and eventual closure in the 1980s due to the rise of trucking. The abandoned industrial structure was then recolonized by wild plants, inspiring a campaign for its conversion into a public space that opened in 2009. Since then, the park’s scope has expanded to include a series of art commissions like On Growth

The historicity of the site is thus bound up with the accelerated developments of the past century and a half. Just as the Wardian case globalized plant movement, the nineteenth century spread of train travel prompted an unprecedented standardization of time and vastly expanded the circulation of goods and people. Both the Wardian case and the railroad tracks are vehicles of an incipient modernity that transformed landscapes and ecosystems as well as our perception of time and space. 

While On Growth brings together particular local and global histories, it is not tethered to them. Rather, the work weaves their threads into a fluid and constantly shifting experience. For one thing, the slightly twisting structure eschews the rigid lines of the Wardian case, creating tension between the solid base and the intimation of torque or potential liftoff. Stasis and mobility, rooting and uprooting are both in play in the effect of the structure. 

The metallic fern is also an ironic reference to the growth enabled or promoted by the technological innovation. A plant that will never grow, originally imagined by the artist as made of stone, the fern is a simulacrum or perhaps a future fossil. 

Ferns embody deep time.

Meanwhile, the dichroic glass reflects the surrounding landscape of buildings, people, plants, and river into a kaleidoscope of alternately vibrant and moody color. The atmospheric conditions and light change with the passage of time and their effects are part and parcel of the sculpture’s metamorphoses, occasionally obscuring the plant within. 

The case doubles as a display that both elevates and isolates the plant, suggesting its extraction from any living ecosystem and its preservation as an artifact for the future. If primordial ferns have reached us from the past as fossils or fuel, perhaps this fern suggests forward travel, bringing tidings to the future of present loss and harm.

There is need for time travel, for troubling time as the content of our experience, defamiliarizing, plumbing the depths and layers of time—both to come to terms with our geological agency and its historical roots, and the alternative speculative futures that may be available to us. On Growth is an invitation for us to grow, in time, while there is still time.

Featured Image: On Growth in the the fall, as the sun on prismatic glass reflects bright colors against the High Line’s plants. Photo courtesy of The High Line, 2023.

Yota Batsaki is the executive director of Dumbarton Oaks, a Harvard University research center, museum, and historic garden located in Washington, D.C. At Dumbarton Oaks she also heads the Plant Humanities Initiative that studies and communicates how plants have shaped human cultures. Her recent work has appeared in Environmental Humanities and Environmental History. Her current book project is on plants in contemporary art. Website. Contact.