12. Queer Plants with botanist and illustrator, Anja Van Geert

Last year, Anja and I released Queer Plants and friends, another zine in our queer ecology colouring book series, full of Anja’s beautiful illustrations. In this cosy chat, we geek out about plants and queerness, we discuss how Anja is bringing community, healing and drawing together, and we get excited about some of our upcoming collaborations!

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After completing a PhD in Plant Ecology, Anja Van Geert has been part of many ecological projects and adventures including growing herbs at an urban farm in their home town of Brussels. They currently live on a farm in the south west of Scotland with their partner Emma and lots of non-human friends. Find out more at pinprimrose.co.uk

Show notes

Anja’s website

Queer Plants colouring zine

Our Queer Plants and Animals series

Books Beyond Bars

Solidarity Apothecary


Kes Otter Lieffe: Hi, I’m Kes Otter Lieffe and welcome to Margins and Murmurations the podcast. If you enjoy this episode, please share it with your friends. As I don’t have social media, this is the best way for people to find out about me. And if you’d like to know more about my work, you can check out otterlieffe.com otter like the animal, L I E F F E, and you can support this podcast at patreon.com/otterlieffe

Kes: Last year, Anja and I released Queer Plants and Friends, another zine in our Queer Ecology colouring book series full of Anja’s beautiful illustrations. In this cosy chat, we geek out about plants and queerness. We discuss how Anja is bringing community healing and drawing together, and we get excited about some of our upcoming collaborations.

Kes: After completing a PhD in plant Ecology, Anja Van Geert has been part of many ecological projects and adventures, including growing herbs and an urban farm in their hometown of Brussels. They currently live on a farm in the southwest of Scotland with their partner Emma, and lots of non-human friends. Find out more at pinprimrose.co.uk.

Kes: So we just released our gorgeous new queer plants colouring zine, following the Queer Animals colouring zine. And in both of these zines, Anja did all the illustrations, which are just completely gorgeous. We must have released it a few months ago, we’ve already been selling really well, giving lots of donations to solidarity apothecary, there was a fundraising breathwork event evening. It’s been all go in queer plants world. And um, yeah. You are the plant, one of the two of us. How, how have you been feeling about this new zine in the series?

Anja Van Geert: Yeah, I’m happy that we did it, we made the zine. I’m glad that people like it and it’s finding its way.

Kes: How was illustrating the plant zine compared to the animal zine?

Anja: For me there were a couple of plants that were a bit more emotionally challenging I think compared to any of the animals. Because I feel like I know them quite well and that it was really difficult to get it right. And so I think on my part there was quite some procrastination for certain plants compared to the animals zine.

Kes: So because you know them better, you wanted to get them more right? Or you knew that you weren’t getting it right, more than a Giraffe that you haven’t seen many Giraffes, I guess.

Anja: Exactly.

Kes: Which plants were they that were more challenging?

Anja: Definitely the Primrose was quite challenging and things like Violet, I found quite challenging as well. And I have redone a couple of times and like the Violet, for example, is one that I’ve changed like just before calling it final. I’ve changed it many, many times.

Kes: Yeah, I guess I have the same with writing. There’s some that I maybe know their story more intimately, so I just spend a lot of time trying to get it really accurate and kind of express some of the feelings they have about their stories, whereas some of them I’m just like, I’ve never met this bird, don’t really know anything about them. This is a story that I’ve cobbled together with some bits of research. And there’s nothing, there isn’t quite the same connection of like trying to get it really, I’m still trying to get it correct according to the research, but I don’t really know them very well. Whereas if it’s a story that I know really well, I want to like, I don’t know the Nemo story or something, it’s, there’s, it’s already been told a few times. I want to like tell it a new way. I want to get it right. I don’t know Clownfish very intimately, but I know the story so, they were definitely, yeah, I have different relationships to different profiles somehow when I’m writing them.

Anja: Definitely, definitely. And I feel what I had a little bit less with the plants and I don’t know why, which I definitely have a lot with the animals, is that kind of moment in an illustration where you’re really pulled to it and kind of, I get a little bit obsessed by the image and really like it at some point. And somehow with the plants I didn’t really have that and I don’t know why.

Kes: Hmm. Yeah. I was always imagining like, hmm, are you gonna be like more into drawing the plants or would it be more difficult? Sounds like it’s a bit of both.

Anja: I think a bit of both, definitely. Yeah. I would not say that the plants were easier than the animals. And of course, like the plants came a bit later in kind of my journey with making those images. So, I think I already kind of learned a lot of the tricks and the ways of doing things, with the plants compared to in the beginning with the animals. So I don’t know, maybe it’s a matter of getting used to it as well, like used to the magic.

Kes: Makes sense!

Anja: A little bit of desensitisation of how amazing it can be. Maybe?

Kes: I also found it a different challenge writing the profiles for the queer plants and friends. And the format’s quite different. So there’s an introduction to queer fungi and then like, not so many individual species profiles, which makes sense because fungi in, in their generalness are very queer. And it’s quite hard to kind of make a story out of specific species, uh, apart from a few that we did, but it was, yeah, it’s quite different to animals, which I think people are like more, I don’t know, aware of, or like the profiles were just like, were easier to write as like a species rather than like a whole group. Um, so it’s also just quite different between the two zines. I really enjoyed the challenge.

Anja: Yeah, I guess with animals it’s, it’s a bit more, the parallel is, is easier to draw between an animal and a human being and what we understand as being queer.

Kes: True. That makes a lot of sense. Do you wanna tell us something about why plants are queer? Why we made a whole zine about plant queerness?

Anja: Um, yes, of course. All right. So if we think about the plants that have very similar kind of organisation as we can see in the animal world of having a male individual, a female individual, and, um, to reproduce they have sex and, and make offspring. Plants have that kind of organisation as well, but we only see it in five percent, five to six percent of all species and all the rest has something else going on. And all that else can be basically considered a little bit queer, or a lot queer in many examples. And something else that I think kind of, again, draws that parallel between the queer communities and plant communities is that there is a lot of interdependence, a lot of stages in the life of a plant are dependent on other plants, are dependent on animals, the elements, the wind, the water, the air, all that kind of thing. That can be, for example, for pollination, so moving pollen to the stamen of an of another flower or the same flower even and that can also be, for example, for moving seed after the seed has been produced by the plant.

Anja: So I think that is quite cool and very queer. Um, and so as I already said, those like 95% of the other plants that are a little bit queer, they actually have quite complex reproductive systems and they can also reproduce vegetatively, so without any mixing of genes, just making a clone of yourself which is pretty cool.

Anja: Plants genetics is incredibly complex. There, there are more examples of hybridisation in plants compared to animals, which basically means that you kind of are able to make offspring with very related species. So yeah, in that case, you don’t even limit yourself by the, by the boundaries of your own species, which I think is pretty cool.

Anja: And something that I think is again, like drawing that parallel – you know, those things are up for debate – but what I also find pretty queer about plants is their ability to be how you say that like, have phenotypic plasticity, so be very adaptable to their environment, change their appearance according to their environment and like the typical example and the example that is also in the zine is a tree that kind of grows around the fence or you know, it can be anything but maybe something more subtle is like the appearance of a Dandelion leaf changes when there is a lot of nitrogen soil compared to when it’s very poor in nitrogen.

Anja: And that is the truth for a lot of plants as well. So it’s like that super adaptability.

Kes: Yeah, it reminds me of the Spiderplant that we also put in there, um, that they reproduce, um, asexually, which are all the little tiny babies that we’re always giving away to our friends, even if they don’t want them. Also sexually, they have flowers once in a blue moon, and then also they have phenotypic plasticity because the one that I have on my windowsill and the one you have on your windowsill might be different, particularly with like varigation. And how much green they have in their leaves, depending on how much light they get. Even though they are asexual clones, they’re genetically identical, but they look completely different just depending on their light condition. So they kind of are a really nice example for a lot of those things. And that’s all just super queer. Yeah, super complex. Super. Yeah. Um, surprising I think for a lot of people.

Kes: I’m curious how you see this, so for animals, it’s definitely a part of the story is that animals have let’s call it queer gender, sex and sexualities. And a part of the history of that is like uncovering that, because it’s been covered, it’s been hidden, it’s been lied about, it’s been misrepresented, in the same way that it has for human queerness. And I’m curious how that looks for plants. Is there also this kind of myth making about like in general, all plants are boys or girls and then they make little baby plants, and that’s how, that’s what life is for in the way that it is with every mainstream wildlife documentary, or is it more a little bit open to all of these things because we’re not really calling it queerness in general, so there’s not really the, the same myth making.

Anja: Well, I think the myth making is there in the sense that we actually do call things, male and female in the plant world, which makes maybe sense in a broader like perspective of larger and smaller gametes, but apart from that, it might be a bit weird. And obviously I think in the scientific world there is a little bit of a detachment from that, kind of very heterosexual way of looking at things just because plants are so different, right? Like if you think like, okay, 95% or 94% of plants have a reproductive system that is different from what we, what we think as like a standard,

Kes: It’s not much of a standard if it’s only five percent right?

Anja: No, it’s not much of a standard if it’s 4, 5, or 6%, exactly.

Kes: But it is still a standard, right? So people. At least non-scientists will still assume that there are boy trees, girl trees, and they make baby trees.

Anja: Well, I assume so.

Kes: Because no botanist is making that assumption. Everyone’s like, oh yeah, hermaphrodism is everywhere. That’s really common.

Anja: That it, yeah, exactly. I think anyone with the knowledge of plants, like the very basic first lesson in like plant evolution, you learn about, maybe not the very first lesson, but you know, you learn about the ferns and the mosses all all those different types of life cycles. People who don’t know a lot about plants, probably think there is, you know, male, female seed.

Kes: Yeah, it’s quite different I guess to animal representation, non-human animal representation, because I don’t know how many thousands of hours of wildlife documentaries I’ve seen, and no one told me that there were gay penguins. And very rarely was it mentioned, I don’t know that like clownfish are sequentially hermaphroditic.

Kes: I think those things are just, you can know a lot about animals without ever meeting any of that information. Whereas with plants it’s like just so fundamental to understanding anything about plants that you just wouldn’t be able to move very far without knowing that a lot of plants will contain like polleny bits and ovary bits and big gametes and small gametes in the same plant at the same time.

Kes: And maybe that’s because animals, non-human animals, feel closer to humans. So it’s a bit more challenging.

Anja: I think it’s a bit more challenging. And I also don’t think that the people understanding the fact that you’ve got pollen producing parts and seed producing parts in the same flower, they won’t kind of draw that parallel to, oh this is a hermaphrodite plant.

Kes: Hmm okay.

Anja: In that sense, I think it’s quite confusing. There’s a lot of bias, like unexexplored bias, and obviously in the animals for sure, but like in the plant world, I feel like a lot of our beliefs have been absorbed in like how we think about plants that have never been examined very deeply.

Kes: Hmm. Um, yeah. And the last thing I wanted to ask you about is you’ve been combining a whole bunch of different things from different parts of your life. So we were talking earlier about the breathwork event that you did recently. So you were bringing breathwork in as a fundraiser, raising funds to send copies of the zine to, uh, LGBT plus folks in prison through Books Beyond Bars. Each zine also raises funds for Solidarity Apothecary – our friend Nicole. doing amazing revolutionary work and I’m really enjoying how you’re bringing all these things together. And obviously like the zine was illustrated, so you did these illustrations and it would, like, the breathwork was kind of a queer space. So I love how like you’re bringing all these strands of different parts of your life and different things that you’re passionate about in just such a gorgeous way that you can bring all those things together. And I’m curious like how that’s feeling for you. Are there like other ideas of things that you want to thread together?

Anja: thank you. I first started playing with this idea of hosting an online breathwork group where everyone who participates pays towards sending a copy of – in the beginning it was the queer animal zine – to Books Beyond Bars, and I think after that first session, it was really nice. I love holding the space for people and we were able to send a whole lot of copies to, Books Beyond Bars. So that was really amazing. And then I kind of realised, well actually I have quite a lot of people in my friends group and friends of friends group that are making amazing “Works of art” and, you know, like books and, and zines and all of those things. And so it, it kind of became a little mission of me to contact everyone and organise one of these fundraisers each month. And we’ve had your books and we’ve had Yarrow’s book about ritual. We’ve had Nicole’s books. So now I’ve been working together with my friend Kate, who is also a breathwork practitioner, and together we are the Queer Breathwork Collective.

Anja: And I think the idea behind that is like both Kate, we both have health issues basically. And I think in my case one of the challenges hosting sessions is that I can get a migraine, um, on the day and then I have to kind of push through and take lots of drugs to be able to do it. And the idea behind the collective is that if that is the case, we can like ask our mate to fall in for us, which yeah, it just feels nice to not be by ourselves with that kind of stuff.

Kes: Right. Yeah. I love this idea of having work be collective. And that be an anti ableist process in itself that you can like show up for each other, you can have like changes in capacity, you can take care of each other, process. I think there’s something, yeah, it often doesn’t work that way in collective, but when it does, it can be so beautiful. And it’s just so practical as well. You’re just like, there’s a backup. And I’m that person’s backup and we back each other up and we just know that that might be a thing that we need rather than just being like all alone running a thing, which is an important thing with a lot of responsibility. So it’s like really, I dunno, it feels responsible to me to share that and make sure that like yeah, you’re taking care of yourselves as well as like the people that you’re taking care of during the sessions.

Anja: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

Kes: Very beautiful. Uh, anything else you wanna tell? Tell us about the Queer Plants, upcoming Queer Ecology projects. We have some zines in the pipeline as well.

Anja: We have some zines in the pipeline. Um, I think somehow, I don’t know who’s more excited about the dinosaur zine

Kes: Pretty sure it’s me!

Anja: I don’t know. I’m pretty excited about the dinosaurs.

Kes: We’re both very excited about the dinosaur zine. “Queer Birds and other Dinosaurs” it’ll be called

Anja: Queer Birds and other Dinosaurs. And I think, again, for me it will be a journey into making the drawings of like animals that we don’t really know how they looked like. Making my own interpretations of that and I’m looking forward to that and giving them lots of feathers.

Kes: Yeah!

Kes: It’s going to be really cute. I can’t wait to write their profiles. It’s gonna be a lot of, uh, artistic license, I guess.

Anja: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Definitely. And another zine, I think that will be maybe a small, like extra zine is a Nudibranch special

Kes: Yes!

Anja: Just because I wanna make some nudibranches. Why not? Right. And then we’re working on the book together. Which kind of blows my mind as well.

Kes: Yeah, for those listening, we’re working on a queer ecology book, which will be a non-fiction, science book. We are scientists, we’re doing the thing. Um, and we’re both very intimidated and it’s all a bit surreal and we have a lot of imposter syndrome, but we’re still writing it anyway because we’re, we’re those kind of people. And it’s already amazing and I can’t wait to get it out in the world. It’s gonna be really, really cute.

Anja: Yeah, I think it’s gonna be a really nice process to kind of go through writing it. I’ve been doing a little bit of research and like, honestly the plant world really blows my mind as well. Because obviously we’ve been talking about reproduction and, and stuff like that, but there’s so much more. There’s so much more.

Kes: Coming soon!

Anja: Coming soon!

Kes: Thank you so much!

Anja: Thank you.

Kes: If you’d like to learn more about my work, you can find everything at otterlieffe.com. I have a monthly newsletter in which I share updates and resources. You can find my novels and colouring books in bookstores and online. You can support my work financially at patreon.com/otterlieffe. And in other ways at otterlieffe.com/support. Thank you so much for listening.

Kes: The music you’re listening to is Barista Barista by Tiefgarage