California purple sage Salvia leucophylla 'Point Sal' in garden with California native plants, Torgovitsky

Plants are not art. So began a provocative Facebook post by Benjamin Vogt this past June 17.

I did not have time to jump into the social media conversation that his post sparked, knowing I would say something too quickly, too passionately, or misunderstood.

But of course plants are not art.

Sunflower, California Spring Trials 2015, flower display at American Takii Seed, Salinas California

By definition art comes out of the human imagination. Plants care about as little for human imagination as do butterflies, or diamonds, or the clouds.  But thank goodness humans care about them (for better and worse). Thank goodness we see beauty in the natural world

Benjamin speaks for deep ecology; beyond shallow lip-service ecology we too often advocate to make us feel good. He wants us to understand that real beauty is not up to human interpretation. He is an important voice, advocating for a holistic, a sustainable approach to gardening that honors all living creatures in a world much more complex than most humans recognize or, sadly even care about.

Alnus tenuifolia - Mountain Alder; California native deciduous small tree, bare branches in winter in shrub border with Cornus
Alnus tenuifolia – Mountain Alder; California native tree, in winter in shrub border.

Yes, we humans place too much superficial value in beauty and waste too many resources chasing an aesthetic that has little value in nature, but let’s not deny that the beauty of plants can be as much a visual treat for humans as they are a feast for an animal or companion for soil microbes. Indeed, an argument can be made, as did Michael Pollan, in The Botany of Desire that some plants have evolved to take advantage of man’s fascination with them.

I certainly will make no apology for my human weakness for plant beauty.

Diospyros virginiana-American persimmon tree in fall color
Diospyros virginiana – American persimmon tree in fall color

I will make no apology that I try to manipulate gardeners with the beauty of plants. The very fabric of my life’s work is to encourage gardeners to make thoughtful choices and have success, to show sustainable gardens can be beautiful.  The best way to do that is to pander to the human interpretation of beauty.

Living and working in a summer-dry climate it is sometimes a struggle to overcome assumptions about garden beauty as seen in many garden publications. Here in California, green lawns are ugly. Here in summer, the native landscape starts to go dormant and bare.  Still, plants are beautiful in all seasons if you care to observe.

peeling manzanita bark
Peeling manzanita bark – Summer in California garden

If a photograph can show off a bit of eye candy and get us to observe them, more people than not will recognize the importance of honoring a plants true beauty within nature, and will engage in one of the biggest issues of our time – climate change.

Family walking through pollinator garden of flowering California wildflowers at Los Angeles Natural History Museum
Family walking through pollinator garden at Los Angeles Natural History Museum

It is an issue that is impossible to ignore. Even climate change deniers recognize the issue – climate and ecology is in the news. Anyone who does the least bit of critical thinking understands humankind must work much better with nature rather than trying to ignore and conquer it.

Sustainable gardening practices may seem almost incidental to the larger planetary issues, unless one starts thinking of the entire planet as one garden, now touched everywhere by humanity.

Path through perennial borders with orange Knifophia in Gary Ratway garden

There are certainly big, political disagreements on how we even define the issues around climate change.  Geopolitical economic interests, worldwide social forces, and population pressures seem to overwhelm the conversation about who “owns” nature’s resources.  The beauty of nature may seem inconsequential, as it surely is, to the billions of people who struggle just to survive, but to those who have some influence on the shape of gardens to come, the art of plants is important.

Just recently, the American Society of Landscape Architects issued A New Landscape Declaration:  Visions for the Next 50 Years, a sweeping  call to action to “address the serious issues of air, water, food, and waste in developing countries”. While landscape architects are not usually considered plant geeks they certainly understand plants as part of their art form.  More importantly, ASLA members are in positions to affect change and they are thinking of the entire world as a single garden, a single landscape that must be preserved.

Sunset light skimming across hills, Mount Tamaplais State Park California
Sunset light skimming across hills, Mount Tamaplais State Park California

So in this way too plants are art, part of a human of formula for preservation.

Whether a plant knows it is beautiful to humans or not, it certainly is, in some way, in some season.  In whatever way we use plants to define art, our lives are enriched and our planet can be saved.

Ribes sanguineum, California curant flowering in California spring garden
Ribes sanguineum, California native currant flowering in spring garden

I most certainly agree with Benjamin that ultimately we must understand a plant does not care if we think it is beautiful, it has a higher calling.  But it is the humans who are destroying the earth and we need to convince humans that plants are vital to our survival.

If it is a trick to say plants are beautiful, they inspire us, please take care of them; then I will do all I can to call attention.

Dried flower stalks of Common Mullein (Verbascum thapsus ) framing Canada Rye grass (Elymus canadensis) and yellow flower Gray Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) in Crow-Hassan Park, prairie reserve
Dried flower stalks of Mullein with Canada Rye grass and Coneflower in Midwest Prairie

 

 

5 COMMENTS

  1. Well said, Saxon. I agree completely. I would add that it’s ok to find beauty in the world for the simple purpose of pure pleasure too, with no agenda required. Natural beauty is one of our great pleasures in life, and I see no need to apologize for liking plants for aesthetic reasons. But of course once you care for their beauty, if you didn’t already, you soon come to care for their sustaining purpose in the world. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Most of the time, it’s both.

    • My point exactly Pam: “But of course once you care for their beauty, if you didn’t already, you soon come to care for their sustaining purpose in the world”

      On the other hand once we know of a plants beauty, there are too many instances where man had gone out in the wild to ravish it. Think of the Dutch with the tulip craze. Chinese ginseng gatherers, Rosewood in the Amazon, etc Not everyone “gets” the connection of plants to healthy ecosystems.

  2. Wonderful post Saxon, and those images are just brilliant. Maybe the plants themselves aren’t art , but your images are, and so is garden design. All one has to do is stand in the Lurie Garden or the heather garden at Mendo Botanical , or Marcia Donahues garden to see that. My concept of what a garden is and what makes a beautiful garden has certainly broadened since I was in my 20’s-for that I am grateful;it allows me to enjoy almost every garden I visit, and find the art there.

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