‘How I got here’ – Derek Haynes

An interview with Derek Haynes – otherwise known as ‘The Chocolate Botanist’ – who is bringing ethnobotany to the mainstream through his lively social media presence, whilst paving the way for the next generation of Black scientists. Derek is from New Bern, North Carolina (USA), and works in vaccine and therapeutics development using non-traditional plant-based technologies.

Instagram: @thechocolatebotanist

Website: www.thecrazybotanist.com

Email: info@thecrazybotanist.com

Interviewed by student council member Harriet Gendall @harrigendall

1956 words, around ~20 min reading time.

How would you describe yourself?

I would describe myself as the ‘chocolate botanist’. I am intentionally Black, intentionally botanical, and intentionally me. That’s sometimes offensive to some people, but it’s a show of support or inspiration for others, and that’s who I do it for. I am the way I am now because it took time to learn myself, in addition to taking time to know the role that I play within this botanical landscape.

What do you see as your mission?

My mission has kind of evolved. My mission was originally to show people that there’s more than one way to re-pot a plant, as it were. There’s more than one way to do the things that we all enjoy, as far as being botanical or horticultural. But that has now expanded to being able to capture the representation of Blackness in the scientific field. The botanical field and the plant-centric field in general often come off as white; specifically old-white-men-centric. And when I explain to people that I am a Black botanist and I have a degree from a university and I didn’t pay for it outright, but that I’m actually in debt with student loans and everything and I intentionally decided to be a botanist and this is what I do as my career, the people are often flabbergasted.

I am not by far a dry scientist. I am not without my own personality. But I’m also a whole scientist. I’m a whole botanist. I try now to show what that looks like as well.

Derek Haynes selfie with Amorphophallus titanum (Image: Author’s own)

What got you interested in botany in the first place?

As far as I can remember, I’ve always loved plants. I can remember being a child and just being fascinated with science in general. A teacher in high school had us do a project where we had to ask: ‘what do I want to be when I grow up?’, and that work of looking through and defining this plant science thing really gave me a push of: ‘I’m gonna be a botanist’. So, from then, which for me was like 2006-2007, until now – 2021 – I’ve just been continuously going. Granted I knew I was going to do something with plants even before then, but at that point I also had aspirations of being an engineer and doing chemical stuff and fighting pollution – but it just didn’t work out.

What aspect of botany really gets you going?

What really gets me going on a really good botanical trip is considering ethnobotany. Ethnobotany – the study of how plants and society interact, how we work with the plants, how the plants work with us – is my jimmy jam, as the people say. So when I think of the history of these plants and their movement and how we as people have used plants across the history of our society for more than just building log cabins and brewing tea – which is very interesting – the different types of trees we learnt to use and the cultivation therein of all the familiar species. And when we think at a deeper level on the use of these plants over time and space in a medicinal way, that’s something the early botanists of yesterday-year, -decade and -century had no resources for. They couldn’t Google, they couldn’t Ask Jeeves, they couldn’t go to their local libraries. They just had to go out there and F around and find out. And that series of educated guesses and experiments has led us to this grand field where we know that these plants do have a medicinal benefit or value, or these fungi can help us in this way. The historicity of it all just touches me.

Derek Haynes selfie (Image: Author’s own)

Would you describe yourself as a botanist or an ethnobotanist? Or both?

Oh, I’m all of it. I am everything and everything is me. I am a botanist. I am an ethnobotanist – that was in part my concentration at North Carolina State University. That was the area that I loved and paid attention to. But I’m everything. I’m a scientific communicator and I reach it all.

Which plants have really captivated you over the years?

Something that’s recently caught my attention is Lycoris radiata – commonly known as Spider Lily. These beautiful plants with their red inflorescence just seem to pop out of nowhere. Coming from the city I come from – New Bern (NC) – they just seemed to be everywhere, and it seemed to be magic that they would just pop up. Later in life I ended up learning that this plant was brought to the state – to my hometown – by a confederate ship captain who brought it for his niece. She loved plants – I think she was 10 or 12 – and she planted them; and through the decades they ended up naturalising and becoming native to my great city. So, when I think of the childhood home I grew up in, I can see them there. When I think of my grandmother’s home now, I took a picture of them there recently. It’s amazing that through a couple of plants this man brought for his niece are now thriving. But I love roses, I love lilies, I’m a flower man. It generally depends on whatever journey or land I’m in to say, well this is the plant that’s now catching my eye.

Red spider lily (Lycoris radiata)(Image: Author’s own)

Has there been anyone influential in shaping the path you’ve taken or inspiring you?

My grandmother, when I was a child, she grew a couple of houseplants – she had this 20-30 ft long ‘pothos’ which we had until it died, and she also had a couple of ‘purple queens’ which were beautiful. My family in general and their love of plants, and sometimes their fear of keeping houseplants, drove me into learning and getting better. I had other science teachers like Mr Duncan at New Bern High School – a bowtie-wearing science teacher – who taught me that quirkiness can be it. I had other teachers that taught me to just give my personality, various teachers who imparted something to me whether it was information or a spark of charisma or a seed of encouragement. There were so many people that were beautiful supports for me then and still support me now. Three I can think of are Charletta Sims Evans, Monica Dowe and Daphne Stancil. Also Pastor Bowset and previous religious leaders who have spoken life and wisdom into me, who gave me that encouragement. Because being a scientist – especially a Black scientist – has just so many levels of difficulty.

What would be your advice to someone who wants to get into botany but feels like they’re a minority and doesn’t see many Black role models in the profession?

If you are a minority I would say when you feel like you’re alone, know that just because you don’t see a person in front of you doesn’t mean you are the only person in your field. I’m so grateful for where social media is now and how I’m able to utilise it because I’m able to find through the magic of Black Botanist Week, and through LinkedIn, Black botanists who are in the field. And I can go and have Black conversations with them without necessarily being fearful of stepping on white toes. Get you that resource, that mentor, that confidant you can talk to, whether in the science field or not. Granted I loved having other Black friends in STEM because they could understand that Organic Chemistry sucks and it’s hard to work to go to school and then deal with being the Black person in the class. I have to deal with racism and that weight on my shoulders and my back, in addition to the gnawing piranhas of academic success biting because they teach us as if we’re gonna be asked information at gun-point without the opportunity to look up any resources as we do in the real world.

I felt very lonely as a Black botanist at NC State and there wasn’t any good resources I could go to. If I went to botany club when I wasn’t working – because I was working just about full time as well as doing school and going through a lot of mental issues – I was the only Black person there. So that’s one of the pearls of wisdom in addition to speaking to the lie of graduating within a certain track and timeline. I had my hope and aspiration of getting my four-year degree, but they should classify it as ‘this number of credits, however long it takes’, because with some of us it does take extra time. I was a person who was working, and I had to beg teachers to get classes when I needed them. So it was that frustration and that loneliness on all levels. If you’re going through it in your academic journeys, I get it. I value that. However, when it comes to us minorities – because we have another level of crap beating us on the back as Black and Indigenous people of colour – we have it so many orders of magnitude harder. So to that I say I see you. I value you. And if you’re looking for a person to vent your woes to, who understands you, I’m here. I’m not always accessible. I’m not accessible to all people – some may not like my vibe and my answers – but at the end of the day, I understand.

How do you see the future of the field?

I hope that the role of scientific communicator will be filled with more Black and Brown people and more women – especially women of colour – to be able to share our viewpoints and our experiences. I would love to see more doctors at these universities who are again people of colour, because I noticed that a lot of teachers were white. And with that, you’re not going to understand the life that I live as a Black man, even if you’re an ally. And I know some of you may be like ‘Why’s he mentioning race so much? It’s not even that important’. But it is. Because just as if you’re a horticulturalist, the care you give for a cactus is not going to be the care you give to a carrot or a Philodendron – there’s gonna be three different expectations – you’re gonna be treating them differently.

Derek Haynes selfie with Philodendron (Image: Author’s own)

Opening that door allows in our viewpoint and our knowledge that we have. Because some Black and Indigenous groups of people are not gonna trust a group of white folk coming in and saying ‘give us your knowledge’. I know for a fact that one group said they would lie to the white people when they asked us how we used these plants, because we did not want them to have our information. So, you’re getting information that you may be publishing in a text-book, but you’re ignoring that because of the history you may just be getting wrong information. This may be the reason why you try something in the lab that you’ve seen a person do in the forest in a hut and it’s not working because they didn’t tell you! So often that cultural knowledge is missed.

Any social media accounts, books and podcasts you’d like to recommend?

  • Black in the Garden [https://blkinthegarden.com/]  – Colah B Tawkin | Instagram: @blackinthegarden | + Black in the Garden podcast
  • Black Plant Chick [https://www.blackplantchick.com/] – Jade | Instagram: @blackplantchick | + Black Plant Chick podcast
  • Soul Sista Plants [https://www.soulsistaplants.com/] – Lucrecer | Instagram: @soulsistaplants
  • Other podcasts: In Defense of Plants [https://www.indefenseofplants.com/podcast]; Wander, Forage, & Wildcraft [https://www.thewanderschool.com/podcast.html]
  • Books: Lessons from Plants (Beronda Montgomery), Soul Care (Pastor Braxton Bowser)

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