LGBT Kew: Queering the greenhouse
An exhibition of four bespoke installations by LGBTQ artists at Kew Gardens, west London, explore the connection between nature and queer culture. Barney Pau visited to dig deeper into the roots of how horticulture intersects with gayness, queerness, and otherness.

Kew Gardens is a marvel of biodiversity, housing upwards of 50,000 species within just over one square kilometre. Self-professed as “one of the most biodiverse places on Earth,” in a single afternoon, visitors can stroll from tropical rainforests to arid deserts. Yet, until now Kew has remained largely un-diverse by upholding archaic systems of classification.

This is changing with their new Queer Nature festival, a celebration of the connections between queer people, plants, and fungi. However, though Queer Nature ‘queers’[1] classification, it is only a single step on the path to challenging conventional conservation.


The festival takes place in Kew’s Temperate House, a hallowed hall of horticulture designed by Decimus Burton and formed of wrought iron and glass with an entrance guarded by Romanesque statues. This austere Victorian architecture finds a refreshing contrast in the artworks of the delightful diversity of LGBTQI+ creatives featured in Queer Nature.

Upon entry, the main hall is taken up with House of Spirits by artist Jeffrey Gibson, a hanging sculpture of brightly coloured fabric. Printed with botanical drawings and short phrases such as “whose body is this?,” “perpetual nourishment to the system,” and “the immediate organs of sense,” it explores nature’s queerness at its intersection with Gibson’s own Indigenous Choctaw-Cherokee heritage.

Today, the importance of Indigenous wisdom in botany is more-widely recognised, yet during the Colonial Project Kew played a role in the erasure of this wisdom, serving as a nursery for species extracted from occupied lands. Upon arrival, plants would be assigned Linnaean names, replacing their Indigenous epithets. These plants were sometimes then destined for overseas plantations grown on stolen lands, further feeding the empirical machine.[2] Hanging House from the House’s 19-meter-high ceiling is a bold admission of reparation on Kew’s behalf.


Head left, and the South Octagon’s wrought iron rigidity is wonderfully skewed by the curving beds of Patrick Featherstone’s Breaking the Binary. Bursting with bright blooms chosen for their non-normative reproduction, this installation reimagines botanical classification as ‘chosen families:’ groups based on chosen bonds, not biological ones. In queer communities, many are ostracised by their ‘families of origin,’ so chosen families engender kinships free from normativity. Kew is largely planted along biological and taxonomical guidelines, so bedding species by their non-normative traits is a potent allusion to how many queer communities form.

An adjacent panel quotes philosopher Judith Butler, “We form ourselves within the vocabularies that we did not choose, and sometimes we have to reject those vocabularies or actively develop new ones.” Traditional botany’s vocabulary relies on Linnaeus’ Systema Sexuale, ranking species into 24 descending classes by their perceived reproductivity, from monandria, plants with perfect flowers, to cryptogam, seedless or flowerless plants. It is no coincidence that ‘gender’ shares etymological roots with ‘genus’, both are forms of classification which divide based on prescribed attributes. By reimagining classification within queer narratives, Breakingsubtly challenging the Linnaean foundations of the very institution in which it is exhibited, inviting us to rethink the norms with which we perceive both plants and humans.


In the intersection of two greenhouses is perhaps Queer Nature’s most poignant installation: two beds planted with pansies. This is artist Paul Harfleet’s The Pansy Project, which plants pansies at sites associated with homophobia and transphobia. Queer Nature mostly celebrates joy and diversity, so this is an important reminder of the violence also faced by queer communities. Wander on and you will hear the lilting voices of artists Ama Josephine Budge Johnstone and LiLi K. Bright reading their spoken word pieces, jointly titled Reverberations. Their words resonate through 10,000 plants; gentle narratives filling the flora with thoughts and feelings on the diversity, beauty, and queerness of the natural world.

Compared to the meditative quietness of the above works, the North Octagon’s Queer Voices is a burst of loud, camp joy. Brilliantly coloured curtains break up the space, from between which the voices of queer Kew staff speak about the intersection of their identities and the natural world. The curtains, courtesy of artist Adam Nathaniel Furman, celebrate New London Fabulous, a non-normative movement challenging the monochromatic minimalism which dominates contemporary design.

Together, these creatives have actively queered an institution which has been instrumental in the standardisation of normative botanical classification. Through Queer Nature, Kew is actively queering its own conventions, offering an insight through which the general public might understand the constraints normativity places on the natural world, and their place within it. In this respect, it provides ample provocation, yet the festival feels like a ‘lite’ version of what it could be, intended for visiting families instead of breaking boundaries. So, what might it look like to really queer Kew?


Conservation is the basis upon which botany is built, which seeks to preserve, protect, or restore natural environments. Under its auspices, botanical gardens are taxonomically arranged and maintained, presenting what are thought to be primary examples of species. Each specimen neatly occupies its space, its organic nature conservatively curbed to not incur upon its neighbours. Stray out of line and they’ll likely be pruned, just as dead foliage will be removed and blemishes turned from view.

However, these gardens hardly reflect the real world. No ecosystem is ever in stasis, existing instead in constant flux;[3] just as none have avoided interference from humans. So, instead of being replanted, might the plants of a queer Kew be left to decay; dead stalks standing tall through a new season’s growth? Would weeds be encouraged, and so-called invasive species thrive? Might rubble replace rockeries to encourage ecologies of dereliction to form, or beds be left unsown for windblown species to seed? Perhaps ponds would be poisoned with heavy metals for phytoremediating plants to decontaminate?

My intention is not to suggest queerness as a contaminant or weed: far from it. In a world reeling from our impacts, it is important to remember the ecologies which negate our neat notions of normative botany, for it is these that will thrive in the future. Much like the creatives exhibiting in Kew’s Queer Nature, I see queerness as a way to understand that we are part of the natural world, not apart from it. In the face of human destruction, it is important to see the queer ecologies that thrive in our waste, for unlike conservation, they represent our joint natural future.


[1] ‘Queering’ is a practice rooted in queer theory which subverts normative narratives. This informs ‘queer ecology,’ the intersection of ecocriticism and queer theory, which rejects heterocentric and cisgendered norms in ecological thinking. Queer ecology also challenges the dualistic notions of ‘natural/unnatural’ by instead perceiving nature as unbounded by human binaries.

[2] Gray, R. & Sheikh, S. “The Coloniality of Planting”. Camden Art Audio. The Botanical Mind [Podcast audio], June 31, 2020. Available on: Apple Podcasts []

[3] p.231. Pierce, F. (2015), The New Wild: Why invasive species will be nature's salvation Icon Books: London.

Barney Pau is a creative working at the confluence of food, art, and writing, whose practice focusses on food futures, queering consumption, the history of agriculture, and domesticity. He recently completed the MA Art and Ecology at Goldsmiths, University of London. He believes that food, in its ubiquity, transcends language, and by applying its powers of communication as a medium, it is possible to impart the wisdom of sustainable consumption to others. In this, bread has been my touchstone: it’s entwined history with agriculture; the infrastructural problems it causes; and the potential solutions it presents.
When not baking bent bread, peering at plants on the pavement, or painting erotic landscapes, you can usually find him foraging for my food or reading books on baking.

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is a world-famous scientific organisation, internationally respected for its outstanding collections and scientific expertise in plant and fungal diversity, conservation, and sustainable development in the UK and around the globe. Kew’s scientists and partners lead the way in the fight against biodiversity loss and finding nature-based solutions to the climate crisis, aided by five key scientific priorities outlined in Kew’s Science Strategy 2021-2025. Kew Gardens is also a major international and top London visitor attraction. Kew’s 132 hectares of historic, landscaped gardens, and Wakehurst, Kew’s Wild Botanic Garden and ‘living laboratory’, attract over 2.5 million visits every year. Kew Gardens was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2003 and celebrated its 260th anniversary in 2019.


Queer Nature runs ar Kew Gardens until 29 October. Further information available at:


fig.i House of Spirits by Jeffrey Gibson at Kew's new festival, Queer Nature © RBG Kew.
fig.ii Patrick Featherstone at Kew Gardens © RBG Kew.
fig.iii Adam Nathaniel Furman installation, Queer Nature, Kew Gardens © Gareth Gardner.
fig.iv © RBG Kew.
fig.v  © RBG Kew.

publication date
11 October 2023

Decimus Burton, Judith Butler, Patrick Featherstone, Jeffrey Gibson, Paul Harfleet, Kew, Kew Gardens, LGBTQI, Adam Nathaniel Furman, Nature, New London Fabulous, Pansy Project, Barney PauPlants, Queer, Queer Nature, Weeds