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18th Century Black Gardener, Kidnapped from Africa as a Child, Honored with Yellow Rose for Life’s Work

John Ystumllyn, one of Britain’s first recorded Black gardeners, is being honored for his life’s work. Ystumllyn has a yellow rose — with yellow symbolizing friendship — named after him in celebration of his life. It’s reportedly the first rose to be named after a person of color in the United Kingdom.

According to historians, Ystumllyn was kidnapped when he was roughly 8 years old in Western Africa in the 18th century while he “was on the banks of a stream amid woodland attempting to catch a moorhen.”

Ystumllyn, whose birth name remains unknown, was later brought back to North Wales where he lived at a country estate in Gwynedd. Though he ultimately became a servant in the Wynn family household of Ystumllyn, Dr Marian Gwyn, who’s at the helm of heritage for Race Council Cymru, said records indicated that he was not enslaved and lived as a free man. He would later learn horticulture and become a well-respected gardener, having had a natural ability to do so.  

Zehra Zaidi, the founder of We Too Built Britain, which focuses on raising awareness of the achievements of under-represented groups, approached Harkness Roses, the winner of the Chelsea flower show about the idea of creating a rose in the wake of the recent Black Lives Matters protests.

The Hertfordshire nursery had previously bred roses named after Queen Elizabeth of England and the late Duke of Edinburgh. BBC News reported that ultimately the yellow rose was chosen, which many campaigners believe symbolizes friendship and is the first to be named after a member of a marginalized group in the United Kingdom. 

While speaking with the British outlet, Zaidi said she wanted something that would  represent Ystumllyn and reflect inclusivity and friendship, stating, “We’ve done it out of friendship, which is why the colour is yellow, it stands for love, it stands for community. Anyone who knows John’s story knows those are the values he embodied.” 

The activist also aimed to bring people closer with the newly created flower, well beyond just spreading Ystumllyn’s story. “We wanted to connect people. You could have a statue that’s perhaps a three-hour drive away – but you can plant a rose in your garden, you can give the rose as a gift to someone,” she added. 

Ystumllyn, who was also referred to as ac Du, meaning Black Jack in Welsh, was almost rarely out of work. Zaidi argues that Ystumllyn and his achievement are so important because “His story allows us to see integration, to see a more inclusive history of gardening.” 

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