GardenCOMM 75th Annual Conference, Hilton Minneapolis Downtown, Minneapolis, MN, USA
Scent is a plant’s most ephemeral and capricious quality, and arguably its most cherished. Hear about the scent classification systems, the ...
GardenCOMM 75th Annual Conference, Hilton Minneapolis Downtown, Minneapolis, MN, USA
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In the history of garden writing, color has received countless amounts of coverage, so our initial focus is on fragrance and aroma - flowers and foliage! We could use a perfumer's approach, but most of us already have some wine vocabulary and sampling experience, so wine tasting is a better model for appreciating, evaluating, and discussing plants.
Pollinators and people both make a "beeline" towards colorful flowers, and later in the year birds and animals (including us) find ripening fruit just as compelling. Flowers, foliage, and fruit are more than just one "color" - thanks to genetics, atmospheric conditions, and the plant's life cycle, attentive onlookers can savor a progression of beautiful colors, in some cases even while the bloom or leaf is dying, or being dried for preservation.
Just as we should appreciate that a drop of honey represents the life's work of a bee, we should keep in mind that each cultivar is the product of years (or decades) of careful work by a plant breeder. Every plant has a story, and every good cultivar should also have a long future. A great garden is a combination of heirlooms, contemporary classics, and the best new releases. It also offers fragrance and color for 10-12 months a year depending on climate zone.
As someone who chaired the young friends board for an internationally respected art museum, and later worked professionally in fundraising and event production for a maritime museum, I'm a proud history/museum nerd, who actually reads the small notes next to the art or artifact! At the same time, aside from major exhibitions, even the best art and history museums are relatively static. After 2-3 hours, I've usually seen it all, but I could spend every day in a historic rural cemetery, a public garden, or a city known as a horticultural hub. It can be subtle, but gardens change every single day - growth, death, color changes, light changes, responses to weather, mean that every visit is a new experience. Garden tourism is fun and it's great for economic development.
An important part of experiencing and loving flowers is knowing their names, stories, and meanings. Most of us are familiar with Shakespeare's line in Romeo and Juliet, that "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." This is true and flowers are for everyone, even those with zero interest in horticulture.
Botanical Latin is hard to love, but it helps make sure you get the plant you want, and it often gives clues to size, color, fragrance, texture, traditional uses, and place of origin. It's also an important asset when reading garden writing, since writing can range from all common to all Latin nomenclature. I truly hated Latin when I was in school (barely passed it all three years), but now I'm working to learn late 19th and early 20th century botanic names (which have often changed due to new research and DNA testing), so I can read the classics of garden writing without frequently Googling obsolete terms.
Common names are useful as a translation for people who are not plant people, but can also offer insights about a plant's traditional uses, flavor, scent, physical qualities, bloom time, and origin. For some plants the common name is a portion of their botanical name (Boring!!!), and others can have dozens of common names, based on their geographic reach and cultural importance.
The story of a plant includes:
1) its official Western history (geographic origin, who "discovered" it, which plant breeder created the cultivar);
2) its indigenous history (the plant's uses and meanings for the people who have been using/cultivating it for thousands of years);
3) its unofficial history - your history ("this is my Aunt Maryellen's rose", "my neighbor Bob gave me cuttings", "I found this heirloom pumpkin through Seed Savers", "we were married under that oak", etc.); and
4) its "Victorian Language of Flowers" meaning (the red rose for love, and bay laurel for success or triumph are probably the best known, but there are several hundred plants in the Anglo-American tradition that have one or more meanings attached - whether it's a long or short list, it's safe to assume that every culture and civilization has its own "language of flowers" and they are all equally valid as a form of human expression).
As Shakespeare made clear, you don't need to know any of this background to love flowers. At the same time, I would encourage everyone to take a deeper interest in their favorite flower or favorite genus (e.g. daffodils, lilac, or dahlias). Few of us want to know everything about the vast subjects of wine, beer, or spirits, but I think most of us enjoy knowing the history of our favorite winery, brewery or distillery. Your commitment to being a plant nerd is a personal decision, but at least dip your toe in the water!
While this may be a snobby, self-proclaimed title, it's a half-joking and half-ideal alias for a garden educator, and I actually have worked in the wine business and written hundreds of tasting notes for a boutique wine shop.
At the same time, I don't believe that my sense of smell or tastebuds are special. With wine and flowers (as well as with beer, salsa, and chocolate), I have my favorites, but I also appreciate that there's a time and a season for almost everything.
In your own flower journey, some colors and scents (and shapes - e.g. trumpets, disks, and spires) will resonate more than others, but the joy is in the journey.
Sadly, some plants aren't reliable in every climate and location, but if a plant performs well in your garden then it's a good plant. If you love it, it's a great plant! If you share seeds, or cuttings with fellow gardeners it becomes a "Passalong" - which is the ultimate compliment a plant can receive (but the RHS Award of Garden Merit, and recognition as an All-America Selection are also highly coveted).
I'm not here to tell you what's "in or out," but to highlight interesting plants and places for you to explore. Some will be old, some will be new, some will be temperate, some will be tropical, and a lot will be available as seeds or bulbs, because these are the most cost effective ways to connect gardener and plant. A reputable garden center is a good place to start your plant hunting, but in the 21st Century, we can have it all, if we're willing to do a bit of homework.
Before I considered becoming a garden writer and designer, I was a fan of Impressionist painting, which while primarily French in origin, originated about the same time Robinson wrote The Wild Garden in 1870. As you might expect, I've also been a fan of Piet Oudolf since the Highline opened in NYC, as his work has the same impressionistic qualities, but with an innovative prairie and grassland plant palette - which offers winter interest.
A Wild and Romantic Garden can be a large space or a small courtyard. It can be temperate or tropical, or a combined planting where the climate is suitable (e.g. Charleston and Savannah).
Old buildings, mature trees and shrubs, and antique garden elements contribute to a wild and romantic ambiance. For me, the appeal of the style is the abundance of colors, fragrances, textures, and atmospheric qualities.
Ephemerality is also an important quality of the wild and romantic garden. Plantings provide 3-4 seasons of interest, wildlife come and go, plants rise and fall like water in a fountain. Desirable plants are allowed to self-seed. It's a space where people feel something.
At the moment my focus is on writing projects and speaking engagements, but starting in the autumn of 2023, I will be available for design consultations. In the meantime, I'll be adding a lot of photos from my travels and garden visits to help convey this philosophy and aesthetic.
I'll also be posting links to gardens which are strong examples of this design genre.
In many cases, the best way to appreciate a flower is to leave it in the garden until it's time to deadhead. At the same time, many plants are agreeable to our artistic and culinary pursuits, and every gardener should grow enough flowers to allow for some guilt-free cutting.
In addition to bouquets, wreaths, and holiday arrangements, there are many ways to be creative with flowers.
There are container gardens, Kokedama, Ikebana, dried flowers, pressed flowers, wearable flower arrangements, potpourri, teas and tisanes, floating arrangements, edible flowers, photography, landscape painting, and botanical illustration.
While I can't claim to be an expert in all of these areas, I am an enthusiastic learner and supportive teacher and/or someone who can direct you to the best sources of information.
All of these activities are therapeutic, and your work product will be a source of personal pride - as long as you remember that floral arts are like yoga - you learn a position, and every time you practice, you work closer to the ideal.
The Flower Sommelier
Lafayette Hill, Pennsylvania and Townsend's Inlet, New Jersey
Copyright © 2022-2023 The Flower Sommelier (Christopher Barrett Sheridan) - All Rights Reserved.
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