Wild On The Prairie: Plants

The role of story in horticulture

Published Mar 23rd 2003 in Plant Life

Think of the garden as a sandbox, and the plants, hardscaping, and ornamentation as the toys in the sandbox. Each of the “toys” will have stories associated with them. The “toys” stories transmit culture – in other words, stories of our experiences, our knowledge, and our traditions. When a person meets another person of a different culture, conversations are easily started by talking about plants that are used for food, medicine, and materials in each person’s culture. Horticulture means more than the culture (or care) of plants – it also means the transmittal and interpretation of our own human culture.

The stories of the garden add layers upon layers of meaning to our gardens. The design of the garden presents the first story. Is the garden a hill country setting with oaks and groundcovers and rocks, or a severely clipped and manicured replica of formal European gardens, or a cottage garden? The house itself is part of the image. As a person drives around the affluent sections of Midland dozens of styles are represented. We have been blessed with what has been considered cheap and plentiful water, so our imaginations have run rampant, as we have replicated landscapes of places far away.

The plants themselves can add dozens of stories to the garden. For example, the ubiquitous Afghan Pine presents several stories. The species survives because of Afghani and Pakistani warlords preserving regions for their private hunting preserves, preventing the trees from being cut down for firewood. If not for that, Tora Bora and other regions would be as denuded as vegetation as the rest of the region. Geneticists say that the species is closely related to the Austrian Pine, and until the populations were separated by global warming at the end of the ice age, may have been the same species.

Gardeners that cultivate the native plants of the southwest can look at their plants and remember trips to the native location of each species. I grow bigtooth maple in my homelandscape, and when I see them I remember visiting McKittrick Canyon in the Guadalupe Mountains national park during the fall foliage season.

The uses of plants provide more stories. Rosemary, for example, is a wonderful culinary herb. Superb cooks can talk for hours about dishes prepared with the species. It is also useful medicinally. When suffering from upper-respiratory congestion I will add a cloth sack full of the leaves to my bath water, and for an extra tingly sensation, use a soap filled with its essential oil. The oil is also used in liniments. In World War II, a mixture of rosemary leaves and juniper berries were burned in the hospitals of France as a defense against germs – research has proven that rosemary has anti-bacterial properties. To keep stored clothes fresh smelling, and clothes moths from damaging stored linens, add a cloth sack filled with rosemary.

Rosemary also produces a yellow-green dye. Rosemary is also a symbol of remembrance. For years, brides carried rosemary in their bouquets. At funerals, mourners tossed sprigs of rosemary into the grave as a sign that the life of the deceased would not be forgotten. In the Middle Ages, rosemary was put in pillows, to ward off demons and prevent bad dreams.

The plants can also bring to mind stories about the animals that visit the plants. I have a Mexican Oregano plant that once attracted a Calliope Hummingbird, a species that only visits our bioregion once every few years in the late summer migration. This tiny hummer, the smallest in North America, stayed at our house for over a week. When I see the plant, I remember over a dozen birdwatchers sitting in lawn chairs thirty feet from the plant, oohing and aahing at each visit the bird imbibed a sip of nectar. Every time I look at my Wright’s Eupatorium shrubs, I remember my mother sitting ten feet from it, recording the thirty species and three hundred individuals of butterflies that visited it on a warm November morning.

The scientific names of plants hold stories, as well. Autumn sage, or Salvia greggi, is named for Josiah Gregg, author of Commerce on the Prairies. This classic book of life in the 1830s on the Sante Fe Trail should be in every Llanero’s reading list, with its vivid descriptions of Comanches, Comancheros, and pastores. Scientific names also are wonderful descriptors of the plant – for example, Ipomoea (morning glory) means “resembling a worm,” which is an apt description of how the plant’s tendrils wiggle around to grab support from surrounding plants or a trellis. Echinacea (purple coneflower) means hedgehog, which is exactly the appearance of the seedhead.

There are also wonderful folktales about plants. You might know the story of the bluebonnet – once during a great sickness, a little Indian girl made a burnt offering of her favorite doll to the Great Spirit. The doll was adorned with the feathers of the blue jay. After the doll burned up and the fire cooled, the ashes blew over the hillside, and in the morning millions of bluebonnets graced the prairie, and everyone was healed. A folktale about morning glories says that the blossoms were the dresses of fairies who were swimming in a stream, and when a loud noise scared them, they ran and hid, forgetting their dresses. When they came back, their dresses had turned into morning glory blossoms.

People can add another layer of story to their garden with ornamentation. Classical statuary, such as that of St. Francis, Ho-tei, Kokopelli, Kwan Yin, Buddha and others allow the gardener to tell how the figure is personally significant. I personally enjoy metal art, and have images of roadrunners, ravens, javelinas, parrots, feathers, the Green Man, trilobites, horny toads, and frogs scattered about at Gone Native. Cast concrete statuary of animals are also found in my garden.

The addition of hardscaping can also bring stories to the garden. Lots of folks collect pretty or unusual shaped rocks for ornamentation, and each has a story. A person can build a dry stream bed to create an image of a favorite place. Dark flagstones under trees invoke a walk in the forest, a flagstone patio invokes Mexican or Mediterranean landscapes, and a flagstone garden invites memories of walking in a slickrock canyon in the southwest.

Recently, the members of the Llano Estacado chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas enjoyed an evening of “story exchanges,” exploring all the ways a garden can tell stories. For over an hour we brainstormed, listing much more than what is mentioned in this story. Plants can be playthings, like blowing the seeds off a dandelion, and they can be weather indicators, telling us of the coming of spring, or like the barometer bush (Texas sage) forecasting rain.

In Victorian England, an intricate language of flowers developed to send subtle messages in social situations or in paintings. Innumerable traditions are also based on plants, such as the hanging of mistletoe at Christmas. We also thought of leis, laurels, garlands, and wreaths – and of the many cultural forms of flower arranging. The tea ceremony of Japan, and the passing of the peace pipe by Indians are also cultural stories based on plants. Gardens are so wonderful – they are a reflection of our souls.