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5 – 7 July at St Catz, Oxford,
and 14 – 29 July Online

Our 2024 theme, while “concrete,” can encompass a wide array of disciplines and perspectives, ranging from art and the humanities through the physical, biological and social sciences, to the realms of the policy-maker and, especially, the practitioner laboring in the kitchen, orchard, or garden. Symposiasts voted for “Gardens, Flowers, & Fruits” at the conclusion of our (exclusively online) 2021 symposium: it was an optimistic moment, with a fresh, almost spring-like sense of renewal as the pandemic was slowly receding, yet it was cast against the backdrop of how quickly our fragile lifestyles can change. Our selection of “Gardens, Flowers, & Fruits” reflects that precarious balance, celebrating the joys of the natural world while conscious of the significant stresses in our environment.

Artists, poets, and writers have long used gardens, flowers, and fruits to convey messages, obvious or encoded, and symposiasts might investigate these meanings. Still life paintings, nature morte, remind us that the showy flowers and fruits bursting from canvases are transient, as are we. Tales of literary gardens bear freighted names, whether Paradise, Eden, Earthly Delights, or Good and Evil, while other literature captures the allure of fruits: the Daoist peach of immortality blessed favored mortals, while other fruits unleashed dreaded hardships: we endure winter’s temporary deadening of the earth because Persephone ate pomegranate seeds, while the Fall of Man followed that fateful bite from the apple.

The use of gardens, fruits and flowers in our dining environments, such as the illusory garden frescos adorning Livia’s triclinium, or the frequent incorporation of such motifs on tablewares or in our dining spaces, could contribute to our discussions. Symposiasts will undoubtedly devise many creative explorations around the language, lore and meanings of gardens, flowers and fruits.

Science, medicine, botany, and horticulture form other important ways of investigating our theme. What is considered a fruit and how classification systems developed could merit study. Medico-dietary theories and practices could be another avenue to explore, whether fruitarianism, modern nutritional systems, or humoral, Ayurvedic or other ancient traditions. Agricultural history (and prehistory) might be considered: our Neolithic ancestors’ domestication of selected fruits and flowers launched the slow transition to more settled lifestyles, as our early gardens yielded surpluses and the dawn of urban life.

Defending these important sources of food, whether from marauders, pests, or environmental disaster presented conflicts and challenges that have echoed throughout history in many different forms, as our recent extreme weather attests. The origin and evolution of the kitchen garden is another rich subject, as are recipes, tools, and techniques for cooking, preserving, and consuming wild or cultivated fruits, flowers, and the garden’s bounty.

Our climate crisis is the elephant in the room, and the role of industrial agriculture, pesticides, and bioengineering designed to produce more, bigger, disease-resistant, and shelf-stable fruits, will likely spark interest. Closely related is the issue of biodiversity and the declining number of fruit species, with dietary consequences for human and non-human animals. The environmental impact of transportation and the erasure of seasonality, whether through trade or technologies such as greenhouses, are ripe (apologies for the obvious metaphor) for discussion. Efforts to return to traditional varieties and ways of cultivation, whether through food forests or regenerative agriculture, might be explored, as well as the less traditional, such as modern urban gardens: vertical, roof and hydroponic gardens are new ways of helping to feed cities. Proposals relating to food democracy and justice are welcome, provided they relate explicitly to gardens, flowers and fruits; as examples, proposals might consider public allotments, farmers’ markets and their impact on producers or consumers, or the culturally specific use of indigenous fruits and gardening techniques.

The Columbian Exchange and globalising food systems may provide inspiration: how and why fruits and flowers have moved through the world, how they have adapted to different climates (and, of course, climate shifts), or how certain plants became accepted far from their points of origin might be considered: what explains the rejection or embrace of flowers, fruits or gardening systems? How have different stages of plant development been valued? Examples include the capsicums’ ornamental flowers, which tantalized the Chinese eye long before their capsaicin-laced fruits tickled the palates. The diverse roles of flowers in the garden is another promising approach, whether in attracting pollinators for fruits, or as culinary ingredients themselves, or as cover crops, or as means to an end, such as honey or certain seed oils. Wines, ciders, or cordials could also be relevant; please note, however, that our primary focus is on food and cookery, so we hold papers discussing drinks to a demonstration of compelling relevance during paper selection.

The garden is especially crucial in times of crisis, nourishing both body and soul. Proposals exploring victory gardens during wartime, folk and fakelore, such as the poisonous tomato, or even curiosities of history, such as France’s Louis XVI donning potato blossoms and stationing guards outside his garden to persuade the French to accept the potatoes as food, could be explored. In short, “Gardens, Flowers, & Fruits” provides abundant ways to investigate our relationship with the natural world, whether past, present, or future.

We invite paper proposals on the topic of “Gardens, Flowers, & Fruits.” from the 1st October, with a submission deadline of the 31st December.

We aim to have the decisions to you by mid-February. Approved paper submission will be due mid-May and online visual presentations by 31st May.