Originally from Quito, Ecuador, Lia Enriquez is an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Environmental Studies and minoring in Political Science and Latin American Studies. She is passionate about climate change impacts in Latin American communities. In her free time, she enjoys latin dance, hiking and gardening.
The Woodlands Cemetery in West Philadelphia is a self-described “must-see historic site”1 that serves as a recreation space for many residents that houses many historical tree species from all around the world. The centuries worth of marble gravestones in that site, alongside the significance of the Hamilton family that originally formed the estate, put it on the map as a valuable site for different kinds of historical and botanical research. The discourse around its history throughout its website and other articles is overwhelmingly positive and rarely reconciles with the settler colonial processes that underscore it. While now it is a valuable community hub and a green break in the middle of the gray of the city, it is not absolved from violent origins. The banks of the Schuylkill that harbor the Woodlands were one of the frontlines for the colonial encounter between the Lenni Lenape and English settlers, which subsequently meant the complete removal and reshaping of the natural landscape. The reason for the title and the aim of this project is to trouble the presence of the Woodlands as a park. Not all green spaces are built equally, and the botanical history and current maintenance practices of the grounds show the restrictiveness of the current settler ecological imagination. There is so much more than the park could be if set free from its strict Victorian garden aesthetic prison. What would change if, instead of the same species of grass that need to be constantly mowed, the spaces in between and outside the grave gardens were covered with native flowers? This is what the Seed(Bombs) project aims to imagine while engaging with a species that was native to the Schuylkill banks, see what effect it would have on a rigid settler colonial landscape like the one in the Woodlands.
The Lenni Lenape, the original stewards of the Schuylkill banks, were a nomadic people that were established through what is now Philadelphia and other nearby regions through four state lines. Original colonial descriptions of the land the Lenape inhabited were “wooded with forests of oak, green pine, evergreen, chestnut, walnut, ash, button, magnolia, and hickory trees”2. They were then displaced by Quaker settlements through coercive legal treaties that then allowed for the reshaping of Lenapehoking, the name for their homeland, into colonial estates, such as the one established in the Woodlands by William Hamilton. Since botany was one of his personal passions, he collected and nursed plants from distant lands, establishing a greenhouse and hothouses in proximity to his mansion.3 The figure of the greenhouse has been studied in many different contexts as representative of capitalist expansion, bending and changing environmental conditions to allow agricultural and ornamental exploitation. Hamilton’s botany experiment was no exception. By design, the establishment of hothouses for the cultivation of exotic plants shows the inadequacy of the Philadelphia landscape to host them. They were demolished to make way for the cemetery in 1854, but a sign still marks its previous location.
Figure 1. Picture of the sign with the history of the Greenhouse and Hothouses in the Hamilton Estate. Designed by: Charu Chaudry
Within this time and space, as well as the complex historical processes, the seed ball targeting focused on the green next to the mansion that used to be the greenhouse. In the intricately crafted landscape of a settler ecology, where every detail is planned, every species mapped and the height of the grass millimetrically controlled, letting some native seeds run free without much aim can mean an ecological shift. The lawn where the greenhouse used to be remains an empty patch of grass for the most part. It contrasts with the rest of the park for its absence of marble, flowers, trees or paths. The only thing that would make this blank slate behind a row of thornless honey locusts is the sign from the park that details the history of the horticultural endeavor. The grass in the patch is not as neatly kept as in most other areas. There are visible signs of mud and soil open to the air. If you look in detail, there are some non-grass flower plants that might have escaped the reach of the lawnmower and the gardeners. The neglect of these spaces speaks to the priorities of colonial gardening tradition where plants from far lands serve only as a framing tool to understand the opulence of, first, the Hamiltons and then the wealthy getting buried in the cemetery. Plants got stripped away from their ecological functions to serve exclusively an ornamental purpose, which does not allow visitors to imagine what a functional ecosystem would look like. This is where the potential of the phantom greenhouse emerges: soil that is ready to be covered by weeds that could serve for pollinators to flock towards that is currently ignored, right next to the historical mansion and carriage house, some of the most mentioned historical landmarks of the park. For these reasons, it was the ideal place for a seed bombing to take place.
Figure 2. Empty area where the greenhouse used to be. The grass is more patchy and open and visitors seem to avoid it.
The technique of planting by seed bombs was popularized by the Japanese farmer and philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka, who pioneered a lot of hands-off farming techniques. While remaining skeptical of his opposition to all human intervention in the natural environment, viewing the possibility of recovery through native flora can open possibilities of what post-industrial capitalist landscapes might look like. In a few sites explaining how to create seed bombs, the language was very subversive for talking about a ball of dirt with some seeds. The Wild Seed Project called it “Dispersing seeds with Guerrilla action”4, while others take on Fukuoka’s technique to practice Guerrilla gardening5 in challenging places. These had the power to elicit a powerful affective response and allow individuals to plant in heavily surveilled places. The day of the seed bomb experiment also took place when close areas were getting mowed. The grass around the greenhouse site was even covered by the trail marks of a lawnmower and remainders of freshly-cut grass. The muddy, patchy areas seemed to be neglected by the multiple gardeners that walked by my work site, yet they still tried to watch what I was up to. Knowing that gardeners and park rangers would routinely pace around, the choice to use seed balls made sense as an inconspicuous way to sneak plants into the park. With some wet organic compost and some clay, the goal was to get 10 seed balls successfully planted and let them germinate through the spring and summer.
Figure 3. One of many gardener trucks that drove by the seed(bombs) site during the breaching experiment.
The next step was to pick which kind of seeds to use. There are many unpredictable variables when merging species together that might make it successful or not: pest and disease transmission, level of shade, water usage, energy, and nutrient needs. The plant chosen for this engagement took research on what the soils in the Woodlands could support, along with how to retain some sense of harmony with the existing ecology. In addition, it had to be a resilient species that could flourish through some unpredictable weather during this season as well as the possibility of human removal. This meant it needed to be in a goldilocks level: it should not require intensive intervention to sprout but also it should not outcompete
the plants already present. The chosen variety of Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias verticillata L.) is a drought-resistant species that can survive up to later in the fall, making it ideal to plant during May6. Applying the plant turn framework that Chao used to theorize oil palm’s role in the lives of the West Papua communities, one can see the grasses at the Woodlands as “communicative, sentient, and worldmaking actors”7. Unlike the idle grasses of the Victorian cemetery, the milkweed sprouts could serve to recover long-lost insects, mammals, and birds, particularly the migratory monarch butterfly that can only lay eggs in milkweed species.
Figure 4. Milkweed seed mix that includes the Asclepias verticillata L.(bomb) balls that were used at the site.
In many of his letters over the years, William Hamilton explains his endeavors traveling through the English countryside and modeling his vision for the Woodlands out of what he saw in that landscape.8 Following the British garden tradition, everything was perfectly planned to serve a purpose in signaling the capability of the colonial project to bring exotics over to the Americas and the power display of these specimens from other colonized lands being able to survive. This was no easy task when these over 9000 species of exotic
plant9 came from such different climates and conditions to the Philadelphia soils, needing the artificial condition of a greenhouse just to stay alive. Thus, planting natives where the greenhouse was becomes an act of rethinking empty spaces in the land. The gaps less valued by the logic of the commonsense ecology become a prime target to construct new ecological networks.Following the legacy of the Hamilton estate, the current gardening protocols for the Woodlands follow Victorian English tradition that is labor, energy and water intensive, outweighing a lot of the park’s ecological benefits. At the time of carrying out seed(bombs), there were at least six separate gardeners actively working on the spaces between the gravestones.
What seed(bombs) proposes is not a complete retaking of a “pure natural state”, since that is a non-existent construct that ignores the coexistence of humans within ecologies for millenia. Instead, it borrows from Myers’ observations about oak savannahs where she describes the making of that ecosystem as “naturalcultural formations”10, which describes the long-lived human intervention from indigenous peoples with the disruptive knowledge to contribute to the balance of the environment. The overgrown savannah that encapsulates the “de-peopled landscape that has become the conservation ideal for forest restoration”11 is not the end goal of re-spreading these native flowers. Instead, I hope that this experiment shows pathways to coexistence between the species that were brought against their will and the species that were eradicated, two kinds of victims of the colonial project. While the transatlantic botanical trade of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries displaced the Lenapehoking ecology, individual flora and fauna from each now interact and try to coexist in the modern Woodlands.
Figure 5. Example of a grave garden with a sign about the volunteer program calling out for more engagement from visitors.
There is immense value in all the different species that grow there currently, in spite of being outside of their original ecological niche. The human connections formed by the volunteer programs create community, as well, add to the richness of the park. However, it just takes a short look at the volunteer grave garden website website to find descriptions with prideful slogans about Victorian-era influences. They cite a 1850 guidebook to Philadelphia praising the Woodlands for their cradle graves “in the french style” and require “period appropriate plants”12 that tie to the botanical legacy of William Hamilton.While the cradles do contain diverse flowers that attract pollinators, they inherently require the proliferation of non-native species, which in turn requires constant labor and money to maintain. The standards for a well-kept garden, too, mean the removal of unwanted weeds and maintaining a pristine uniform grass, usually of one singular species.
The goal of the engagement with the site is not to dismiss the value that the Woodlands bring to the Philly urban space. On the contrary, I am a frequenter of this park, and that is why I want to critically engage with it. Instead, seed(bombs) aims to offer a
different view of how the park came to be and question the botanical status quo.On the week of April 24th, I took the seed bombs to the site and aimlessly threw them around the empty brown patches. As seen in the video, this breaching experiment aimed to question the social role of a park visitor as a passive agent to instead engage with the ecology by actively changing it. In a similar fashion to the volunteer grave garden program, the seed(bombs) project can hopefully be a way for visitors to become engaged with creating the space they enjoy through hands-on experiences beyond the tradition of William Hamilton that prioritized exotics to natives, aesthetics to function and passive enjoyment to active ecological engagement.
1 The Woodlands. (2022). Hamilton’s landscape. The Woodlands. Retrieved April 28, 2023, from https://www.woodlandsphila.org/hamiltons-landscape
2 McConaghy, M. D., Duffin, J. M., Licht, W., & Frazier Lloyd, M. (2023). The original people and their land: The Lenape, pre-history to the 18th century, part of West Philadelphia before the 20th century 20th century social and economic trends. West Philadelphia Collaborative History – The Original People and Their Land: The Lenape, Pre-History to the 18th Century. Retrieved May 4, 2023, from
3 Horticultural History at the Woodlands, Arcgis Storymaps. March 1, 2021.
4 Reynolds, R. (2013). Seed Bombs: A guide to their various types and functions. Guerrilla Gardening Seed Bomb Guide. Retrieved May 5, 2023, from https://www.guerrillagardening.org/ggseedbombs.html
5 “NATIVE ‘SEED BOMBS’ CREATED FOR BEE POLLINATORS.” Indian eGov Newswire, 26 June 2021, p. NA. Gale OneFile: News,
link.gale.com/apps/doc/A666480181/STND?u=upenn_main&sid=summon&xid=74f4b9c1. Accessed 5 May 2023.
6 8 types of milkweed you can plant in Pennsylvania (and one to avoid!). Bird Watching HQ. (2022, November 28). Retrieved May 5, 2023, from https://birdwatchinghq.com/milkweed-in-pennsylvania
7 Chao, Sophie 2022. “Introduction”, In the Shadow of the Palms: More-Than-Human Becomings in West Papua, pp 8
8 Smith, Benjamin H., and William Hamilton. “Some Letters from William Hamilton, of the Woodlands, to His Private Secretary.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 29, no. 1, 1905, pp. 70–78. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20085268. Accessed 5 May 2023.
9 Horticultural History at the Woodlands, Arcgis Storymaps. March 1, 2021.
10 Myers, Natasha. “Becoming sensor in sentient worlds: A more-than-natural history of a black oak savannah.” Between Matter and Method. Routledge, 2020. 73-96
11 Myers, 2020
12 The Grave Gardener program . (2020). Victorian plants. The Woodlands Grave Gardeners. Retrieved May 5, 2023, from https://www.gravegardeners.org/victorian-plants-1
The Woodlands. (2022). Hamilton’s landscape. The Woodlands. Retrieved April 28, 2023, from https://www.woodlandsphila.org/hamiltons-landscape
McConaghy, M. D., Duffin, J. M., Licht, W., & Frazier Lloyd, M. (2023). The original people and their land: The Lenape, pre-history to the 18th century, part of West Philadelphia before the 20th century 20th century social and economic trends. West Philadelphia Collaborative History – The Original People and Their Land: The Lenape, Pre-History to the 18th Century.
Retrieved May 4, 2023, from
Horticultural History at the Woodlands, Arcgis Storymaps. March 1, 2021. https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/28a21408f7a14440ab0c508904ef69a0
Reynolds, R. (2013). Seed Bombs: A guide to their various types and functions. Guerrilla Gardening Seed Bomb Guide. Retrieved May 5, 2023, from https://www.guerrillagardening.org/ggseedbombs.html
“NATIVE ‘SEED BOMBS’ CREATED FOR BEE POLLINATORS.” Indian eGov Newswire,
26 June 2021, p. NA. Gale OneFile: News, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A666480181/STND?u=upenn_main&sid=summon&xid=74f4b9c1. Accessed 5 May 2023.
8 types of milkweed you can plant in Pennsylvania (and one to avoid!). Bird Watching HQ. (2022, November 28). Retrieved May 5, 2023, from
Chao, Sophie 2022. “Introduction”, In the Shadow of the Palms: More-Than-Human Becomings in West Papua
Smith, Benjamin H., and William Hamilton. “Some Letters from William Hamilton, of the Woodlands, to His Private Secretary.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 29, no. 1, 1905, pp. 70–78. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20085268. Accessed 5
Horticultural History at the Woodlands, Arcgis Storymaps. March 1, 2021. https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/28a21408f7a14440ab0c508904ef69a0
Myers, Natasha. “Becoming sensor in sentient worlds: A more-than-natural history of a black oak savannah.” Between Matter and Method. Routledge, 2020. 73-96 The Grave Gardener program . (2020). Victorian plants. The Woodlands Grave Gardeners. Retrieved May 5, 2023, from https://www.gravegardeners.org/victorian-plants-1
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