I am walking in a Wardian Case. Above the historic West India docks, above the newly opened Elizabeth line, yet dwarfed by the skyscrapers that crowd the dockland horizon of east London. The city recedes as crisscrossed timber triangles encase me in a miniature world. One half of the garden within is filled with familiar ferns, bottlebrush, and the occasional lancewood; the other half with numerous bamboos standing askew, maple trees, and banana leaves. The winding paths allow me to move across the globe and back again in a few footsteps.
I find myself exploring Crossrail Place Roof Garden in Canary Wharf during a research trip to Europe, an unplanned destination after a visit to the nearby Museum of London Docklands. The award-winning garden opened in 2015. Its layout takes inspiration from its position just north of Greenwich and the site’s surrounding dockland heritage. The elongated space is divided between East and West zones, just as the prime meridian artificially divides the globe. According to the information panel, the garden “celebrates some of the plants that were brought to London from faraway lands by intrepid explorers in merchant ships.” The roof was inspired by the Wardian case that transformed colonial botany. Invented by Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward in the early nineteenth century, these enclosed glass cases transported plants across the world, helping to supply botanic gardens, colonial plantations, greenhouses, and homes. Overall, the space is meant to “evoke a ship laden with unusual and exotic specimens from around the globe.”
Like others, I arrived at the garden seeking a moment to pause in nature, however artificial, among the concrete and glass facades of the area. Yet academic habits die hard, and I inevitably stop to study the sleek information panels. Five panels briefly explain the history of moving plants—as scientific specimens, fashionable garden ornaments, or foodstuffs like pepper, coffee and tea—in the broader context of nineteenth-century London’s global connections. The main panel juxtaposes a map of the world with a map of the garden, positioning the viewer both physically in the garden and imaginatively on a different continent.
A familiar gap on the world map always draws my eye. Empty space where Aotearoa New Zealand should sit, at least on a standard Mercator projection like this one. It’s not too surprising; the absence of Aotearoa from world maps is a bit of running joke among compatriots, with dedicated reddits and tumblr documenting the phenomenon. But this time Australia is missing too. More puzzling. How do you lose a continent? In fact, on closer examination, I find that the unknown cartographer has migrated Australia and New Zealand across the Pacific Ocean to sit closer to the “West,” collapsing the oceanic space and islands between Australasia and the Americas. Instead of sitting just south of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, Australia hovers over the missing archipelagos of French Polynesia.
I like to use maps in my teaching. They demonstrate the unspoken cultural and political priorities of the mapmaker and their society, helping to make the familiar unfamiliar. In my global food history course, maps help my students trace movement while revealing and unsettling our contemporary assumptions as we analyse the environmental histories of sugar, spices, coffee, or coconut oil. An equal area projection map reorients our sense of scale, while a Marshallese stick map for Pacific navigation or the Spilhaus projection recentres the world from a connected oceanic perspective. What then does the garden’s map and its wider design reveal about the history of colonial botany as seen from London today?
The information self-consciously emphasises a lineage between London’s engineering feats, botanical collection, and commercial might of the early nineteenth century and that of the twenty-first century. The impact is a revival of celebratory image of Britain’s imperial past. The people featured across the panels—male and white—are adventurers, discoverers, and advancers of science and commerce, never colonists and enslavers.
Indeed, histories of slavery and colonisation are totally effaced from the narrative. Instead, London traders were “victims of piracy and theft,” with enslaver/slaveowner Robert Mulligan profiled only for his role in establishing the West India Docks. These enclosed wet docks and warehouses were created to provide a protected site for ships and cargo from across the empire from the early nineteenth century, before declining from the 1960s as container ports superseded them. Yet what remains invisible are the knowledges and labour of Indigenous peoples, enslaved peoples, as well as local ship, construction, and dock workers in the creation and movement of the goods passing through this port. For me, the impact is incongruous given the removal of Mulligan’s nearby statue in 2020, and the work of the Museum of London Docklands to present the difficult histories and legacies of slavery just a few steps away. As statues topple and Britain grapples with how to address and redress its imperial past, the garden veers instead towards a living re-glorification of this history.
The ongoing nature of colonial racism in the present is subtly on view in the map’s division of Eastern and Western hemispheres. White settler colonies of Australia and New Zealand seemingly cannot be placed in Asia, the East. Perhaps this choice helped balance the planting of the garden or echoed the voyages of the white men featured, such as Robert Fortune’s “successful transportation of tea” in Wardian cases from China to India in 1848 on behalf of the East India Company or Charles Maries who “discovered” over 500 species in Japan, Taiwan, and China. There is no mention of the “botanical espionage” that Fortune employed to acquire tea specimens, nor of the local knowledge of Maries’ so-called discoveries. The map represents a troubling conflation of geographic and geo-political interpretations of the world, as well as an erasure of our largest ocean.
Conveying historical complexity in museum labels—or garden information panels—is a challenging task. Is it too much to expect from a commercial development? The garden does work to be historically informed in its design and presentation. Perhaps there is also something fitting that the site of colonial accumulation in the nineteenth century and of capital accumulation in the twenty-first century unintentionally demonstrates the ongoing (plant) life of imperialism in London. The world in the Wardian case reflects this reality at least.
I think, however, the Roof Garden could take up art historian Alice Procter’s call to “display it like you stole it,” acknowledging rather than obscuring the imperialism and violence of colonial collecting.
A garden can be both a space of beauty, and of reflection, after all.
 “Crossrail Place Roof Garden,” Gillespies, accessed 10 July 2022; “Crossrail Place Canary Wharf,” Foster and Partners, accessed 10 July 2022; Ruth Slavid, “Above Its Station,” Landscape Journal (Autumn 2015), 30-36.
 For a more nuanced history of significance of the Wardian Case, see Luke Keogh, The Wardian Case: How a Simple Box Moved Plants and Changed the World (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2020).
 “Crossrail Place Roof Garden Information Boards,” Canary Wharf Group, accessed 10 July 2022, https://canarywharf.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/canary-wharf-arts-events-crossrail-place-roof-garden-information-boards.pdf.
 The named individuals on the panels include Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward of Wardian case renown, Robert Mulligan, David Douglas, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, Robert Fortune, and Charles Maries.
 “Robert Milligan statue statement,” Museums of London (June 9, 2020). More widely, see Sally-Anne Huxtable, Christo Kefalas, Emma Slocombe (eds.), “Interim Report on the Connections between Colonialism and Properties now in the Care of the National Trust, Including Links with Historic Slavery,” National Trust (September 2020); Georgie Wemyss, “White Memories, White Belonging: Competing Colonial Anniversaries in ‘Postcolonial’ East London,” Sociological Research Online 13, no. 5 (2008): 50–67.
 Luke Keogh, “The Wardian Case: Environmental Histories of a Box for Moving Plant,” Environment and History 25, no. 2 (2019): 226; Robert Fortune, A Journey to the Tea Countries of China (London: J. Murray, 1852). Recent biographies frame Fortune variously as a “plant hunter” and a “thief,” see e.g. Sarah Rose, For All the Tea in China : Espionage, Empire and the Secret Formula for the World’s Favourite Drink (London: Hutchinson, 2009); Alistair Watt, Robert Fortune: A Plant Hunter in the Orient (London: Kew Publishing, 2017).
 Alice Procter, the exhibitionist, accessed 10 July 2022. See also Alice Procter, The Whole Picture: the Colonial Story of the Art in Our Museums & Why We Need to Talk About It (London: Cassell, 2021).
*Cover image: The Eastern hemisphere plants of Crossrail Place Roof Garden under the gigantic Wardian case inspired roof.
[*Cover image description: Giant prickled rhubarb and banana trees grow the foreground, surrounded by other plants in low beds. A winding pathway running through the middle. Behind the plants, everything is enclosed by a curved roof of wooden beams arranged in triangle formations, with blue sky visible in the background.]