29 September 2023

Uprooted: Two centuries of forest change

Kew PhD students reveal a new exhibition for Kew’s Library Reading Room, discovering new histories of forest conservation and use across 200 years of history.

A person observes a museum exhibit containing letters and wood samples

'Uprooted' begins with a lacebark doily, a piece of kauri gum, and a slice of deodar wood. 

These three intriguing and seemingly unrelated items from Kew’s Economic Botany Collection begin an exploration of our relationship with trees and the origins of forest conservation in the nineteenth century.

We uncover the tales of four very different tree species - the deodar cedar from India (Cedrus deodara), the St Helena ebonies (Trochetiopsis melanoxylon and ebenus), the lacebark tree of Jamaica (Lagetta lagetto), and the kauri of New Zealand (Agathis australis). 

Archive and collection materials from Kew reveal how these trees have been used around the colonial world, leading to deforestation and habitat loss. They also teach us how cultural histories in each of the trees’ locations have affected forest conservation and brought lessons in caring for nature. 

This new exhibition – ‘Uprooted’ – is named to represent the act of deforestation, but also the transfer of trees and forest methods across the imperial network in the 19th and 20th centuries, as recorded in Kew's archives. 

A table holds a plank of wood, a circular doily and some gum that has been petrified transparent rock
The first part of the uprooted exhibition features a lacebark doily, kauri gum, and a slice of deodar wood © RBG Kew

Kauri – the New Zealand endemic 

The bright orange amber-like gum displayed in the exhibition is sourced from a kauri, a tree found wild only in New Zealand. It signifies how the forests here were once harvested for this precious resin. Initially it was drained from living trees, and then by digging over deforested land in the search of hardened ‘copal’ resin left behind. 

The gum became commercially valuable in making varnishes and many hundreds of ‘gum-digger’ settlers earned a living this way through the nineteenth century.

What began as 1.2 million hectares of kauri forest dwindled rapidly, felled by settlers for its timber, gum, and the valuable land on which the forest lay. The deforestation ignored the cultural beliefs and traditional uses of these trees by the Māori communities. 

Author Annie Proulx memorialises the history of kauri forests, logging camps and the consequences over 300 years in a single quote taken from a conversation between an individual in the forestry industry and a member of a Māori community. 

We wonder if it is possible to plant infant kauri trees, perhaps one for each large one that is cut, to care for the young trees as they grow and age?” Ahorangi gave a small laugh. “The big kauri trees are very old - thousands of years. [...] It would certainly be a hundred human generations before a seedling could replace one fallen mature kauri of such girth.” - Annie Proulx, Barkskins (2016)

By contrast, Māori beliefs and the legal ‘rights of nature’ are considered in the conservation of remaining kauri forests today.

Men sit atop a massive tree trunk, they're dwarfed by the size of the tree
Loggers and their families sit atop a kauri tree they have just felled, image taken from New Zealand Forestry by DE Hutchins (1919) held in Kew's library.

We end with a showcase of the links between the archives and Kew’s current scientific work with a focus on reforestation in St Helena.

Here we present just a few of the many tree conservation projects and in-country partnerships that Kew is now involved in.  Kew’s archival materials show that there has long been awareness of the need to protect St Helena’s native forests. Where once the main concerns were safeguarding rainfall and local resources, today forest management is an essential part of the larger collaborative fight against biodiversity loss and climate change.

The St Helena Cloud Forest project is an important example of using nature-based solutions to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. In its aim to conserve water supplies, the project displays the continuities in forest conservation from the nineteenth century to today.

A map of St Helena
A report on a visit to St Helena (1883) by Daniel Morris, from Kew's St Helena Miscellaneous Report in the Archives. His account connected the need for forest conservation to rainfall and conserving water supplies on the island.

Creating an exhibition

This new exhibition is a product of our PhD research on the history of Kew’s arboretum and global botanical networks (Christina) and colonial forestry (Heather), but also the connections we’ve seen in recent media headlines about deforestation. 

As humanities researchers at Kew, we wanted to find links between Kew’s historic archival material and its current scientific research to examine and compare past and present attitudes to forests and trees.

Starting with the nineteenth century, we dove into Kew’s Archives, Illustrations, Library and Economic Botany collections. Together we gathered a range of letters, reports, artworks and objects relating to deforestation, forest conservation and reforestation. 

It proved a challenge to uncover visual material that clearly conveyed the impacts of deforestation or tree planting. Rather than presenting vague ideas of forest, we decided to focus on the nuanced stories of a few individual tree species and their relationship to Kew.


Down a long corridor of full shelves containing books and records, a researcher looks to the resources.
PhD student, Heather Craddock examines the archives for key records. © RBG Kew
PhD student, Christina Hourigan adds final touches to a portion of the Uprooted exhibition © RBG Kew

Lessons from archive exploration. 

The most surprising discovery in our research was how concern over deforestation has been well documented in Kew’s archives for over 150 years. Correspondence, maps, reports and books show awareness of and debates about the impact of deforestation on the climate and environment. 

In a letter dated 1878, Kew director Joseph Hooker outlines many concerns around deforestation that are still today the primary worries – its effects on: water supply, soil fertility, timber supply, and the threat of “alternating disastrous flood and disastrous droughts”. A century and a half ago he called for a “system of forest-felling by selection and planting to repair loss.” 

A handwritten letter begins "my dear Darwin"
"My dear Darwin", begins a letter from Sir Joseph Hooker to Charles Darwin about the deforestation the former had witnessed first-hand in India. © RBG Kew
A letter from Sir Joseph Hooker outlines his concerns about deforestation in the United States.
A letter from Sir Joseph Hooker outlines his concerns about deforestation in the United States. © RBG Kew

Reforestation future? 

In early 2023 we heard Professor Suzanne Simard reflect on the huge part that trees play in our modern economy, with new roles in carbon capture markets and ecosystem services – monetised ‘nature-based solutions’. On accepting the Kew International Medal she claims that in this new world, only by working together across nations and world-views can we address the challenges of better forest management, biodiversity loss and climate change. 

Over time Kew has transformed from a key player in imperial forestry practices to a champion of forest research and sustainable practice. Local resource management, soils and weather were the key concerns of the nineteenth century. Today these are combined with global biodiversity loss, climate and ecological resilience as some of the critical themes in Kew’s current scientific work. 

Vast green forest - photo taken from above
Amazon rainforest © Wikimedia Commons
A man examines plant specimens in an exhibition

Visit us for the full story

Uprooted: archival stories of forest conservation is on now until 23 November in the Reading Room of the Herbarium Building on Kew Green, Admission is free, no booking required.


Christina Hourigan and Heather Craddock are both AHRC Techne-funded collaborative PhD students. Christina is based at Royal Holloway, University of London and Heather at Roehampton University. 

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