Garden Designer's Roundtable: Memory and Plants


NOSTALGIA: The idea that a plant or group of plants can evoke certain emotions based upon an evolved memory of the landscapes they are associated.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our emotional experience of landscapes.  Why do some landscapes make me feel relaxed and contemplative, while others make me nervous or uncomfortable?  Landscape architects, designers, and gardeners have long explored the aesthetic experience of landscapes, but rarely the emotional experience.

I was delighted that the Garden Designer’s Roundtable topic for the month is “Memory and Plants.”  It is the perfect excuse for dwelling a bit more deeply on a concept I’ve articulated before, but only partially.  I want to write about “nostalgia,” a word I’ve used to describe our emotional reaction to planting design. 

Why does this matter?  For me, understanding our emotional connection to plants and landscapes holds tremendous potential for all those who design or garden.  First, it pushes landscape design past the endless (and tiresome) pendulum swing of geometric vs. naturalistic (or formal vs. informal) design.  This fundamentally formalistic concern has distracted us from exploring the full potential of landscape as a dynamic art form.  Second, it offers designers a framework for understanding how to create emotional experiences within gardens and landscapes.

Plants, Memory, and Emotion

We are all likely to have very personal and subjective reactions to specific plants.  The scent of orange blossoms remind me of a winter afternoon I spent in a Dumbarton Oaks conservatory; Southern Magnolias remind me of a giant tree on my grandmother’s property I played in as a child.  These personal memories are poignant connections to plants, people, and places; but these subjective responses are not what I’m interested in here.



Emotions are fundamentally subjective, but I do believe that we share common evolutionary responses to our environment.  Think about walking down a path that bends behind a dark, contorted thicket.  What do you feel?  Fear?  Caution?  Perhaps even a tinge of curiosity?  The emotions may not be exactly the same as someone else, but they will share similar characteristics.  Have you ever hiked to the top of a mountain and looked out over the vista?  The pleasant feeling of scenery was described by British geographer Jay Appleton in his prospect-refuge theory, pointing out that we have a natural preference for environments we can easily see and navigate.

While environmental psychologists have long established the idea that there is an evolutionary basis for preferences for certain landscapes, few have extended that logic to the micro-scale of planting design. 

Think about it: we spent literally thousands of years navigating through field and forests.  We had an intimate connection to plants: they helped us navigate our environments, treat our wounds, and feed ourselves.  Knowing how to distinguish between an edible plant and non-edible plant was a matter of life or death.  It is only in the last 100 years or so of our species that we’ve been removed from the wild landscape. 

While we may no longer recognize plants like our ancestors, it is my belief that we still retain the vestiges of memory and emotion.  The exact memory may be gone, but we still have the primitive circuitry that produces emotions in response to our perception of safety or opportunity.  The same emotional responses we have to larger landscapes can also be associated with plants or combinations of plants.  When we see a certain plant or groups of plants, it can evoke the memory or feeling of a larger, natural landscape.  And the memory of that larger landscape produces an emotional response within us. 

A low grass may remind of us of a wide open, sunny space—like this field shown on the right.  And a space like this makes us feel a certain way.  


Big leaves may remind us of someplace wet, lush, and summery.  Like this bottomland forest shown on the right.  And lush, wet landscapes arouse their own unique associations.


A tight grouping of trees like these Sassafras at the U.S. Botanic Garden may evoke a hedgerow or naturalized agricultural landscape.  Like this grouping of Sassafras shown on the right (image by Rick Darke).  


We respond to these combinations at an intuitive level, even if they don’t know what they’re seeing.  University of Southern California neuroscientist, Antonio Damsio calls associations between reinforcing stimuli (such as a plant) and an associated physiological state (such as a euphoric feeling) a somatic marker.  Understanding how to exploit the emotional associations of plants can elevate planting design from the merely decorative to a meaningful art form. 

Design Opportunity

Nostalgia is my attempt to describe a design strategy that uses plant combinations to evoke larger landscapes.  By nostalgia, I do not mean that gardens should be backwards-looking.   Nor am I advocating a resurrection of any specific garden style. Gardens should speak to the zeitgeist and look to the future.  Nostalgia is a means of arranging plants to evoke larger landscapes (and thus, an emotional response we have in relation to that landscape).

The emotional response is the end goal of the design, but the exact emotion to be evoked in a design does not really matter.  People may have multiple, complex, and often contradictory emotions within a single garden.    In fact, the layering of emotions is what makes some landscapes compelling visit after visit.  A single landscape may have multiple reference points: a shaded section of a garden might evoke a woodland floor brimming with ephemerals, while a sunny border might evoke a forb-rich wet meadow.  What matters is the creativity of the association between plant combinations and wild landscapes.  In some situations, literally transposing the species and patterns of a naturally occurring plant community may create the strongest effect; in other situations, the incongruity of an unexpected plant (a big-leafed tropical dropped into a group of prairie perennials) may create a more robust effect.  What matters is the artistry of the arrangement.

The Paragon of Nostalgia: Piet Oudolf

The work of Piet Oudolf is perhaps the best example of "nostalgia" as a strategy for planting design. I have always felt an intensely emotional reaction to the few Oudolf landscapes I've visited.  This reaction is no accident.  "For me, garden design isn't just about plants, it is about emotion, atmosphere, a sense of contemplation," said Oudolf recently in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, "You try to move people with what you do.  That is the big part."  Oudolf's American landscapes such as the Highline, the Gardens of Remembrance at The Battery, and the Lurie Garden in Chicago's Millennium Park all show Oudolf's remarkable range. Each of these landscapes is a powerful reference to a previous landscape. The Lurie Garden, for example, is a modern, stylized version of an American prairie that now only exists in fragments.  The High Line is an artful expression of an abandoned fallow rail track that no longer exists.  Look at some of these images of the rail track before and after the design.

Left: The fallow rail line with spontaneous vegetation; Right: Oudolf's nostalgic interpretation of that vegetation
The spontaneous vegetation that existed along the rail track had this wonderful quality to it.  Oudolf did not imitate it, but he created a designed interpretation that evoked the spirit of the wild vegetation. The loose matrix of grasses with occasional flowering bulbs was a part of the original landscape; Oudolf repeated those patterns, but in a more ornamental fashion.

A matrix of cool and warm season grasses through which perennials emerge becomes the design concept for Oudolf's plantings
Nostalgia--the ability of plantings to evoke the memory of a larger landscape--is and should be the heart of our art.  “You look at this, and it goes deeper than what you see. It reminds you of something in the genes," Oudolf remarked to an interviewer while looking at a winter landscape, "Nature, or the longing for nature. Allowing the garden to decompose meets an emotional need in people."

For other takes on memory and plants, be sure to check out other GDRT members' blog sites:

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