Thursday, September 29, 2011

Meaning in Landscape Architecture and Gardening

“Just as there are levels of meaning and discourse in language, ranging from laundry lists to business letters, from narrative fiction to lyric poetry, so too are there levels of meaning in landscape. They range from the mundane to the profound whether they are attractive or disheveled, beautiful or not, small or large…Landscapes are made of many diverse phenomena - visual, aural, tactile, olfactory - that may trigger the recall of things from our own personal environmental history, which in turn combine with a world of information from our education and experience. For this reason there is no question in my mind that the art of landscape design - when it is an art - is possibly the most complex and sophisticated art we possess.” 

Laurie Olin from an essay in Meaning in Landscape Architecture & Gardens

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Umbellifers: Selections from my Favorite Plant Family

As an admitted plant-aholic, it is pretty easy for me to fall for a plant. I have a bad habit of seeing virtue in almost every green darling. Of all of my plant crushes, one in particular stands out: I am particularly crazed about umbels.

The plant family Apiaceae (also referred to as Umbelliferae) is a family of aromatic, hollow-stem plants most commonly known for their lacey, umbel-shaped flowers. For herb and vegetable gardeners, you are probably quite familiar with many characters in this cast: carrots, parsnips, cilantro, chervil, cumin, dill, fennel, lovage, and parsley. It was the family’s usefulness for cooking that initially attracted me, but it is their striking forms ultimately seduced me.

Umbels often have low basal foliage from which mostly leafless stems arise to support striking disk-shaped flowers. From the side, the flowers look like an umbrella turned inside-out by the wind. A close look at the tiny flower clusters (umbels) is a joy in itself, as radially-symmetrical fractals reveal hundreds of sparkling blooms. Staring into an umbel, I have the same thought as I did when I gazed upon the rose window in Chatres cathedral: how can there be such exultant power in so much delicacy?

Tom Stuart-Smith's 2010 Laurent-Perrier Garden, Chelsea.  Photo by Allan Pollok-Morris
Usually flowers with such intricacy lose their effect from a distance. But seeing umbels from a distance is precisely my favorite vantage point. Think about the frothy and effervescent effect of Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) tossing among a tall grass. Placed in a smaller, garden setting, few plants are as evocative of larger, wild landscapes as umbels. Their spumous blooms channel the ephemeral like few plants are capable of doing.

While I have long loved these plants, I have not gardened with them enough. Seeing Tom Stuart-Smith’s use of Cenolophium denudatum stunning 2010 Laurent-Perrier garden has convinced me of their power in designed landscapes. Stuart-Smith has the rare ability to create plantings with a dreamy, ethereal quality, but I am convinced his use of Baltic Cow Parsley gave this garden its transcendent, fairy-tale like quality.

Here are few seeds I have ordered for next year’s border. I’d love to know if any of you have gardened with them:

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