Deep in my Google Drive, there’s a list of topics for research projects, studios and seminars that I’d like to investigate someday. One area of knowledge that I really want to explore is the representation of landscape in popular culture. I want to understand what trees are most often posted in the background of people’s photos on Instagram. I want to see how gardens are portrayed in advertisements. What landscapes are shown in movies and hit TV shows. For today, I want to explore how landscapes are used in music videos.
My attention was drawn to landscapes in music videos when my brother sent me the video for Calvin Harris’ Slide on a hot afternoon last summer. I was instantly attracted to the languid panning over Senegalese Date Palms (Phoenix reclinata), Washingtonias and Queen Palms (Syagrus romanzoffiana). A heavy green filter emphasizes the lushness of the tropical setting, a growing field of palms.
Music videos for the whole album, Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1, feature landscapes as thematic elements. Of the other videos that support this album, the video for Feels contains some of the most memorable moments. Katy Perry in a yellow dress lounging in a field of staged grasses (I spy Pennisetum alopecuroides, likely ‘Hameln’) intermingled with abundant yellow silk flowers (badly formed narcissus and yellow poppies). New Perennialists wil appreciate this video for its inclusion of an intermingled plant community. Pharrell Williams standing in a rowboat in a turquoise-blue pond. Big Sean enthroned in front of a jungle’s edge, flanked by a pair of scarlet macaws on stands. (Being flanked by macaws on stands is my default mental ideal image of myself, by the way - unless I go full Irving Berlin and adopt a pair of toucans.)
All three of these scenes are presented in oversaturated colors and artificial materials, giving a dreamlike quality. After the scenes are presented distinctly at the beginning, they’re then montaged into a vaguer series of images pastiched together with landscape imagery drawn from the other music videos from this album. At the end, the camera zooms out to show that the individual scenes are part of a larger landscape in which the performers coexist without interacting with or visibly being aware of one another. Such a move emphasizes the scene settings (field of grasses and flowers, pond, jungle edge) as, not only flat backgrounds to the performers, but as part of a larger landscape in which art occurs.
There’s a long history of landscapes - especially ornamental gardens - having a relationship to music, both as setting and subject. During medieval times, it was quite fashionable for the rich and privileged to create gardens as embodiments of paradise. Such gardens provided pleasure for every sense. Illustrations documenting the Mughal Emperor Babur typically show the Emperor enjoying abundant gardens surrounded by attendants, some of which will be playing musical instruments. I particularly enjoy this fragment of illustration, which shows the Emperor standing under a multicolored pavilion supervising the construction of a garden while attendants play drums and lutes on the sidelines. Hmm, new ideas for my garden installation crew.
European medieval gardens operated in much the same way, serving as miniature living paradises where courtly gentlemen serenaded courtly ladies as they wandered beneath blooming trees and across flowering meadows. For a taste of how these songs might have sounded, have a listen to The Rose, the Lily & the Whortleberry. It’s worth it just to enjoy that album name on your recently-played list.
During the Renaissance, musical performance and public spectacle became an increasing component of the program for large gardens. Handel’s Water Music, for example, was composed in order to be played as part of an incredible spectacle in which the British King George and an entire orchestra boarded barges and floated down the River Thames. At Villa d’Este, in Tivoli outside of Rome, a gigantic organ powered by water was designed to blast music out over the surrounding countryside. After several restorations following its original installation in 1571, it’s still in working condition today. By contrast to these prestigious garden spectacles, the enslaved people whose work funded European wealth were retreating to the swamps of Caribbean islands late at night for communal vodou ceremonies. The swamps provided privacy, as well as access to the animals and plants which were central to this animist religious practice. Read Tell My Horse, by Zora Neale Hurston, for a first person account of a vodou ceremony in the swamps early in the 20th century.
Given the tradition of outdoor performance that recurs throughout music history, it should be unsurprising that - when video technology was developed - landscapes would eventually emerge as a setting in movies and television shows. Fantasia is still, to me, a really interesting exploration of the potential relationship between animation and music. It explores the boundaries of what a theatre experience might be outside of the literal capture of performers singing and dancing. I find the Rites of Spring evolution sequence particularly interesting. The abstract possibilities of the relationship between animation and music are something that resurface in contemporary music videos.
As recording and viewing technology improved, the sixties saw an explosion of musical movies that drew on the traditions of opera - but weren’t limited by the physical constraints of a stage set. Performers could be videoed singing and dancing through multiple landscapes. Possibly the most iconic image of 60s movie musicals is Julie Andrews twirling around on top of a mountain in The Sound of Music. If we want to look at the interaction of gardens with musical performance, the actors dancing through the Mirabell Gardens later in the movie is more interesting. The actors inhabit the gardens through dance, using their bodies to explore fountains, tunnels, walls, gates, piers, and stairs.
Television and movies continued to become an ever-increasing presence in American and European life throughout the sixties and seventies. In 1981, when MTV launched in 1981 as the first 24-hour music television channel, people were highly accustomed to video within their daily lives. Videos such as Prince’s Sign O’ the Times and David Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes started to explore the possibilities of music videos incorporating an array of different settings. Irene Cara’s performance of What a Feeling from the movie Flashdance was one of the first songs to be pulled out of a movie as a music video on its own. It has a decidedly urban setting, incorporating landscape primarily as a setting. The video has a common narrative trope, of the protagonist of the video starting out her day with a bike commute, approaching a city across a river at sunrise, then along city streets to work. The center part of the video mashes up various, mostly interior clips from the protagonist’s journey, then ends with her busting victoriously out onto the street to embrace a loved one.
This video is at the start of a long tradition of using urban streets as a setting for music videos. The introductory scenes of West Side Story, with the highly stylized and athletic “gang fights” utilizing the streets, alleys, walls and refuse piles in ways that would make any modern parkour practitioner jealous. More of my generation is the transgressive use of urban space explored in Beyonce’s videos - from the gymnastics of Crazy in Love to the Moses-fury of Hold Up with the yellow dress and baseball bat. In these Beyonce videos, the artist’s grace is emphasized by the rough ordinariness of urban streetscapes. These streets are a foil, something to be transcended through the artist’s performance.
Some might argue that urban streets are a stretch when it comes to talking about landscape in popular culture. However, landscape encompasses all sorts of exterior space - whether plants are prominent or not. Just like the different scenes in the Calvin Harris Feels video discussed above, different landscape types are part of an all-encompassing larger landscape.
Besides urban streets, another common landscape trope in pop culture is the idea of the Mediterranean/southern California “paradise” of sunshine, palm trees and the ocean. From Katy Perry’s sunshine-infused Santa Barbara landscapes in Teenage Dream to Lana Del Rey’s hypnotic West Coast, there’s an expectation that year-round sunshine is the ideal setting for human happiness. For European artists, the Mediterranean offers a similarly sun-filled setting with paradisiacal associations. Consider the closing scenes of Ella Eyre’s Together. The narrative of the video is of a group of friends who rent a van and go out having adventures, in a landscape that looks to be somewhere along the Mediterranean - presumably southern Italy or Spain. The video closes with an incredible panoramic view of the landscape, looking out over hilltowns to the sea, flooded with sunshine. This landscape evokes a feeling of pure pleasure.
There’s an equally strong trope of the desert as a wilderness, place for human regeneration away from the pressures of daily life. Consider Lady Gaga’s video for Million Reasons, where the global music superstar is shown lying alone on her back in the desert, until she’s rescued and surrounded by friends. There’s also the incredible moment in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert where the queens perform an amazing lip sync performance of I Will Survive in colorful Abba-inspired costumes. Desert can also be used as the obstacle within the narrative - consider Elle King’s trial of wilderness for her lovers in Ex’s and Oh’s.
This post began as an exploration of the role of landscape in music videos, a consideration instigated by Calvin Harris’s Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1 videos. In questing to understand what types of landscapes appear in music videos and how they’re used, I’ve discovered that landscapes in music videos are often used as a sort of shorthand to convey complex settings and ideas. They are used as physical spaces to be inhabited and explored, as well as emotional spaces that support the narrative and themes of a song. In this brief exploration, I’ve discovered that there’s a wide range of nuance in the degrees to which artists explore both the physical and emotional space of the landscapes in which their videos are set. And I haven’t even explored landscapes as a theme in musical compositions. Enough for today, though. DJ Botanical has left the building.
T.S. Eliot considered April was the cruelest month. For me, that cruelest month has always been January. April at least offers hope and springing green. January is bleak and cold, grey and brown.
You’d think that I’d be hardened to the cold - I had five winters on the Kansas prairie, after all. But I’m still a wimp. I’m a Mississippi Valley boy who flinches at the breath of cold and cancels work at the threat of snow. Monet’s Le Pie, with its frosty white-blues and slash of shadow, is one of my favorite paintings. But I’ll sit and enjoy it from beneath a pile of blankets.
It’s at this time of year that regional differences of climate and planting styles emerge in dramatic ways. In the southeastern part of the United States - late winter is a particularly weird time for gardens. The relatively warm temperatures, dramatic freeze and thaw cycles, plus abundant winter rains mean that gardens in the southeast have a range of winter issues that aren’t as troubling in other parts of the United States. Winter weeds, mostly annuals, are particularly problematic. They germinate abundantly in and around dormant gardens - emerging early in the season and crowding out tender emergent growth. Weeks of warm weather foster tender new growth which is then blasted to a quick death by sudden cold snaps. Lack of snow cover plus excessive freeze thaw cycles cause frost heave, damaging the tender crowns of tender perennials. Abundant rainfall cause vegetation to break down quickly, reducing soil cover and promoting erosion. Grasses that stand proud and sparkling in the heavy frost of colder regions, or delicately crowned with snow, are soon disintegrated into mush.
As a designer, I want to understand how regional garden traditions and local plant communities have evolved to thrive in the unique conditions of the southeastern United States. Here are some strategies that I’ve observed for winter success.
Evergreen Foliage Southern gardens are dominated by an A-B-C-M plant palette. That’s Azalea, Boxwood, Camellia, Magnolia for those not indoctrinated in the southern garden tradition. Many southern gardens don’t look all that different in January than they do in July. Brown turf with flecks of green, mounds and billows of green leaves - matte or shiny. Not a flower to be seen. In wild landscapes, you’re most likely to find larger evergreens buried deep in the forest - hidden specimens of southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) or American holly (Ilex opaca) down in ravines, hidden from wind, sheltered deep in the midst of the forest. You’ll also find evergreens closer to ground level, tucked up against the warm earth. Flick your hand through the cover of leaves and you’ll turn over the delicate sprigs of partridge berry (Mitchellia repens) or Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides).
Densely Interwoven Plant Communities Plant communities that interlock closely - grass matrixes interspersed with low evergreen shrubs, forbes, and/or ferns - cover ground and protect the soil from erosion. Last year, at Kisatchee in northern Louisiana, I saw incredible communities built from an array of native grasses, interwoven with low plants of yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) kept small by fire, with incredible intermingled silver fronds of southern wood fern (Thelypteris kunthii). Layers of fallen plant material - pine needles, dropped leaves, branches, grass thatch - diffuse the impact of rainfall on the ground.
Sporadic Winter Bloom Given North America’s often dramatic fluctuations in winter temperatures, it’s unsurprising that only a few native species find it worthwhile to devote their energy to producing winter flowers. Ozark witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is one of the few that flowers in warm spells throughout the winter, starting in October and continuing through winter - depending on the individual plant’s proclivities. Species from many parts of Asia are less prudent. On a quick drive through any southern town, you’ll find cultivated favorites in bloom on any warm day - wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox), Winter Jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum), and Sweet Box (Sarcoccocca hookeriana humilis). Some Mediterranean species are also favorites in southern winter gardens. Think Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger) and Paperwhite Daffodils (Narcissus papyraceous).
January has passed. The thirty day satisfaction guarantee to the New Year is up. February has arrived, bringing spring in its wake. Ready for it?
It’s a snow day in Arkansas. There’s a light skim of ice on the roads, maybe an inch of powder in my car. I actually had to zip up my coat as I ran from the warmth of my car to the (weak) warmth of my office. With all the frigidity outside, my thoughts turned back to my year on the gulf coast.
Thinking of south Florida, my mind instantly goes back to one of the landscapes that had the strongest influence on me. A place that embodies the lushness, determination, and pure absurdity that characterize the culture and landscape of this weird peninsula. The place that I have in mind is the Koreshan State Historic Site in Estero, just north of Bonita Springs on Highway 41.
You’ve probably never heard of this place, unless you’re well familiar with southwest Florida. Or are interested in utopian cults of the early 20th century. It’s a weird spot that you’d zip past on your way to somewhere far more glamorous. There’s a “mobile village” (trailer park) to the north and a convenience store complex to the south. The buildings aren’t particularly interesting. The sequence of landscape spaces isn’t particularly well-thought out. But it’s a glorious mess - a living reminder of dreams that didn’t turn out as expected.
The Koreshan State Historic Site is what remains of the settlement built by the Koreshan Unity, a utopian cult established by Cyrus Reed Teed (AKA “Koresh”) in the 1870s (thanks, Wikipedia). After a remarkable vision of a “beautiful woman” (straight guy problems, I guess), Cyrus Teed changed his name to “Koresh” and fucked off to Florida, followed by 250 glassy-eyed devotees. They didn’t blink when he constructed a pier on Naples Beach which claimed to demonstrate that the horizon curved upwards every eight miles, thus “proving” that the habited surface of the earth was the interior of a vast sphere. They hacked through this mess of palmettos and pines along the Estero River to set up a utopian community.
As part of the community’s social structure, Koreshans established a hierarchy of three social classes. Those at the highest level of initiation, “The Pre-Eminent Unity”, lived in the main house and were committed to celibacy and religious purity. Those at the middle level of initiation, “the Department of Equitable Administration”, could marry and lived in smaller cottages throughout the site. The lowest level of participation, the common people, were called “Patrons of Equation” and could live and work within the community without being fully devoted to its religious and social duties. Residences and communal buildings are still preserved throughout the site.
For me, Koreshan wasn’t just about the story of the eccentric colonists who settled the area. The interesting bit was to see how different plants - both exotic introductions and native species - had settled in over the past 100 years to create a mesmerizing series of spaces and plant communities.
The plants still thriving on site aren’t limited to ornamentals. Like other colonial Floridians, the Koreshan Unity experimented with many exotic crops. Sour oranges hang off thorny trees around the settlers’ cottages, leaning nearly to the ground with their burden of fruit. Several giant mango trees flare with flower in the autumn and hang heavy with drooping fruit in the summer. As the site was about to close on one warm May evening, I recklessly hopped up and slapped Lychees hanging pendant from a mature tree. I cracked their warty red skins with my teeth and sucked out the sweet translucent fruit inside. Koreshan condemnation withstanding, stolen fruit is always sweet.
Down by the river, introduced bamboos swarm the soft ground. They tower overhead, culms clattering together. There are several introduced species here - Phyllostachys, Dendrocalamus, and Bambusa blending together in ongoing competition for light and sandy riverside soil.
The trees overhead and to every side are festooned with bromeliads. Patrick Blanc’s green walls seem unadventurous in comparison to these tortuous four-dimensional plant communities. There are native air plants in abundance, from festoons of dangling spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) to large spikes of giant airplant (Tillandsia utriculata). Non-native bromeliads are evident in abundance as well - Neoregelia, Aechmea, Billbergia clambering over every tree trunk.
There’s something intriguing to me that, after the human endeavor of the Koreshan Unity’s settlement has been forgotten, the plants they brought to this place, the spots where they intervened in the landscape, remain. “We Live Inside” was the motto that Koreshanites used to reinforce faith in the hollow earth. Literal interpretations of this motto have been disproven (hello moon landings). The kingdom of heaven may not be built on earth. But we live on this tiny blue ball, hurtling through the void of space, sheltered by a pale wash of atmosphere. We do live inside. What will the evidence of our lives look like a hundred years from now?
Rose garden, perennial garden, shade garden, kitchen garden. All of those spaces occur as part of a larger landscape that most of us would call, generically, the garden. Isn’t it absurd to use the same word for a conglomeration of things and a single thing that’s a part of the conglomeration?
Think about it - When it comes to buildings, an individual space is a “room” while a conglomeration of rooms is a “building” or “house”. Why don’t we have words to describe such distinctions in gardens? Just calling them “garden rooms” doesn’t count.
The language of landscape - especially words that describe physical features in agricultural landscapes - has received flickers of attention in recent years. Given the vast population shifts from rural subsistence farming to urban life over the past decade, it’s not surprising that language reflects such changes in human experience. Every few months, the old story resurfaces from the 2008 protests over removal of nature-related words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary. This story in itself isn’t all that interesting, but it’s helped draw attention to the relationship between landscape and language.
As a result of that story, there have been a wonderful new crop of books - particularly in the UK - that catalogue names for landscape features which might otherwise be lost. I’m building a small stack of them in my own collection. Uncommon Ground: A Word-Lover’s Guide to the British Landscape by Dominick Tyler is a particularly beautiful example, with stunning photographs of the features given name in the book. Landmarks by Robert MacFarlane (one of the instigators of the Oxford Junior Dictionary kerfluffle) is a more literary approach to words of the same region. How to Read Water by Tristan Gooley is an incredibly joyful bit of writing that also contains an incredible number of terms relating to water in the landscape.
I don’t know of anyone who’s done such poetic studies of disappearing landscape language here in the US (please shoot me an email if you’re aware of someone whose work I’m missing). I have Barry Lopez & Debra Gwartney’s Home Ground, a doorstop of a book which does a quick glance over the landscape language of the entire United States. But we lack works that celebrate the landscape words of the Ozarks and Appalachians, Cajun country, Florida - to name just a few of the regions I know well.
Collecting regional words for landscape features isn’t enough. Garden design and landscape architecture are creative practices - they involve naming spaces, relationships and objects that we desire to create. So far, the language that we use in garden and landscape studies reflects the hybrid nature of our inquiry. The words we use derive from many different disciplines: art, architecture, anthropology, botany, ecology, geology, geography, are just a few.
But there’s still something missing. There’s no quick verbal distinction between a single flower bed (which we’ve all heard someone call their “flower garden”) and an immersive space where you walk in between and through masses of planting. The word garden still means “vegetable garden” to most people in the south and midwest. There’s no easy way to describe a garden’s relationship to its context within the landscape, whether it flows into its surroundings or is cut off and inward-focused. These are just spatial aspects - they don’t even address the social and ecological dynamics of gardens.
We lack language to adequately describe the physical and spatial qualities of landscapes. I’d argue that this lack is limiting our industry’s agency in society. If you can’t name something, that thing doesn’t matter. It’s time for those of us who care about gardens and landscapes to be both more creative and more intentional about the language we use. Once we can more clearly describe what makes the places we love valuable, we’ll be better able to bring others along to understand and appreciate them with us.
It was a warm dark evening in early August. We stood in a slow-moving line outside Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, its weird glass hexagons illuminated with blue-white light. A buttercream moon hung low in the sky. Its cast weird shadows on the pavement. I think they were the outlines of a star magnolia’s knotty branches. I stood in line with my grandfather, waiting to go into the dome and see the exhibit. Behind us, my friend Roxanne was making out with her new boyfriend Dave. The heavy sweet scent of lilies and potted butterfly gingers (Hedychium gardnerianum) mingled with assorted body odors of the crowd.
When we finally got into the Climatron, came around the corner of the artificial cliff, and saw the illuminated confection of pink glass that floated above the waterlilies, I knew that I’d hold this night in my heart for the rest of my life.
It wasn’t that glamorous of an experience. It certainly wasn’t exclusive. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of people there that night. We didn’t have money for the tiny rounds of toast and caviar that were being passed out in the black tie area. I wasn’t old enough for champagne. My grandfather’s only experience of buying alcohol was the Manischewitz he bought to administer to ailing parishioners. But that night, I experienced a true spectacle. I saw saw how it could delight and entertain people who - on most days - couldn’t give a fuck about gardens or the environment.
It’s easy to laugh. Today, Chihuly has exhibited everywhere but your uncle’s garage. But that was 2006. At that point, Chihuly had four major exhibits: Venice, Jerusalem, Kew in London and Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago. That was it. Seeing the glass sculptures, lit at night, integrated into incredibly curated plantings, made me realize that - at their best - gardens could set up conditions for transformative and memorable experiences. They made me want to be involved with creating such incredible spectacles myself.
There’s a tradition of humans enjoying specific elements of landscape and celebrating them as spectacles. Think about the cherry blossom festivals, or Hanami (花見, "flower viewing") held in the spring in Japan. A single cherry tree itself is a magical thing. Thousands of them in bloom are a cause for worship and celebration. Washington DC has usurped the notion of hanami and now has thousands of tourists who visit each spring just to enjoy all the pink.
Holland has its own spring spectacle - in the Bollenstreek (“bulb fields”), tourists swarm the bulb fields on foot and in helicopters when the tulips bloom, the fields transformed into giant colorblocked mats.
Even uncultivated nature gets framed as spectacle. We’ve all seen the news reports on Death Valley: “California’s Superbloom is so massive you can see it from space”. Marvel would kill for that headline.
Spectacles aren’t confined to floral events. Think fall foliage. In New England, they call the tourists who come to gawk at fall foliage “leaf peepers”. Business Insider claims that tourists spend over $3billion annually in admiring the region’s forests’ colorful senescence. While New England is the most dramatic example in the US, you’ll even find tourists crowding the broken asphalt shoulders of the 54-mile Talimena Scenic Drive in Oklahoma on those few early November weekends when the hills go orange and burgundy. Plus the overly dramatic skies.
If humans are willing to devote such staggering quantities of time, money, and attention to natural spectacles, it seems worthwhile for those of us who work in the green industry to pay attention: what makes for a successful spectacle?
Two qualities immediately emerge. For a phenomenon to be worthy of the term “spectacle”, it must be transient and significantly physically different to the status quo. California redwoods and Kansas prairie grass swathes are impressive in scale, but they’re the status quo for at least part of the year. Southern Louisiana cypress swamps go golden for a few weeks in winter, Missouri forest floors ripple with blue Phlox and pink Claytonia. Neither of those changes is dramatic enough in scale to draw the attention of crowds. A spectacle must be both temporary and physically impressive to draw significant admiration from us fickle and easily-distracted humans.
Many public gardens have been attempting to put on spectacles in recent years. The Chihuly phenomenon sparked a rash of installations at different institutions, ranging from the transcendent to the truly banal. For those of us who work in the green industry, certain exhibits and trends seem pretty much omnipresent. I’m at the point where I’ll scream if I see another photo of Amorphophallus titanum. But that’s just me. I’m sure it’s quite exciting if you’re a punter who spends most of their time watching ESPN or Real Housewives.
As someone who was raised in a family where the primary values are restraint and humility, the idea of creating spectacles seems a bit grandiose. It’s easy to point out ways that a spectacle could fail. It’s easy to point out that the money and effort invested in a spectacle could be used for something else. The words “wasteful” and “extravagant” are doing vulture circles in my head.
But our world desperately needs spectacles. There’s an oil slick of horror over many of our daily experiences of the world, hiding the wonder and beauty that’s out there. As people who love the earth, who work to understand our fertile planet, it’s up to us to frame up new spectacles. We have contact with the incredible plants and natural systems which share our earth. How can we fail to honor them by framing their glory as spectacles? It’s time to wow the world with things that are wonderful, delightful and extraordinary. No room for small dreams here.
Beyond the three central photos, which are of the Talimena scenic drive in Oklahoma during November 2017, these images were taken in June 2017 at the Olympic Park in London. These plantings were designed as a true spectacle to showcase the breadth of global horticulture during the 2012 London Olympics. Given their scale and influence, they’re a great example of a spectacle - even five years later. Planting consultants included Sarah Price, Nigel Dunnett, and James Hitchmough.
It’s been eight years since I’ve had daily exposure to a garden of my own. Oh, my life is full of gardens - I work with them on a daily basis. But that’s a different story to having a garden of your own. I’m one of over 30 million Americans who live in apartments and don’t have their own plot of land. So, I’m dependent on public space for my exposure to nature.
Here in Arkansas, there isn’t great access to public gardens or parks with interesting plant communities. What we do have are Wildlife Management Areas. Like the Conservation Areas that I grew up with in Missouri, these are plots of land owned and administered by the state that are managed lightly to support wildlife and indigenous plant communities. In Missouri, these lands are administered by the Department of Conservation. In Arkansas, they’re administered by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and called “Wildlife Management Areas”. Hunting and fishing - more than ecological conservation - are the top management priorities. But they’re the best examples of lightly managed plant communities and naturalistic landscapes that I can easily access.
Last year, when I took Noel Kingsbury’s excellent course “Planting Design with Perennials”, I realized that it would probably be a good idea to make a practice of observing regional plant communities on some kind of regular basis. So I made a commitment, this year, to regularly visit the Camp Robinson State Wildlife Management Area - ideally as often as once a week.
The Camp Robinson State Wildlife Management Area stretches over 19,000 acres in central Arkansas, 20 minutes north of Little Rock. It’s directly east of the town of Mayflower (population 2,430), and wraps around the east side of Lake Conway. It sits at a location where the Arkansas River Valley winds through eastern tip of the Fourche mountains. I tend to focus my wanderings on the southern part of the site, where an east-west ridge (reminiscent of the cuestas of the Flint Hills in Kansas) rises to form a boundary to the floodplain along the north shore of Lake Conway.
Over the past year, I’ve made a point to get out and explore Camp Robinson as frequently as I could. I’ve ended up out there every other weekend, on average - exploring, walking the landscape and observing the changes from week to week. There are some wonderful tree and shrub communities on the site, but for this piece we’re focusing on perennial plants - especially the forbs with colorful flowers. Gardener’s favorites. Here’s a quick visual essay of five things that I’ve noticed about the perennial plant communities on the site:
Succession of Bloom Changes Quickly
The majority of species bloom for only a few weeks, two or maybe four weeks at a maximum. Some arrive in waves, with populations in different areas erupting into bloom at different times depending on exposure, aspect, and sunlight. As a designer, I can’t help thinking about how this would translate to a planting design - what a high diversity of species would be required for a designed planting to mimic these quick shifts. In the photo above, an annual coreopsis erupts from dense grass - two weeks later, the coreopsis were done.
Individual Species Differ Dramatically Depending on Conditions
While walking around different areas of the 19,000 acres that make up Camp Robinson, I noticed populations of the same species occurring in different conditions. Seeing these differences made me consider how much the appearances of each species might differ from year to year. Designers are usually attempting to strategize for plantings that look relatively similar and create coherence across a site - both in place and in time. It’s an interesting shift to think in terms of matrices that might differ in proportions from year to year. Just in the quick view above, you can see how the different species respond to subtle differences in topography...
Palette of Southern Regional Plants for Horticultural and Design Purposes is Underexplored
Seeing the plants at Robinson made me realize what a narrow selection of regionally native plants are widely available in general horticultural commerce. Just in this year’s wanderings, I’ve seen some incredible variations of Phlox, stunning deep orange and fire-engine red butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) [above], a maypop with pure white flowers (Passiflora incarnata alba) [above], and a Blazing Star with incredible pyramids of bloom (Liatris aspera).
Immersed in a Big Drift of One or Two Species is Wonder-Inducing
We all know that humans have a weird affection for monocultures. Just witness all the lawns. Or the craze for visiting Dutch tulip fields and western American fields of sunflowers. A huge massing of a single species signals that something unusual is going on - especially when it’s some kind of mass bloom event. The sense of being dwarfed by a plant community in bloom is something that tickles me with an absurd sense of joy. Just look at those liatris in the photo above - they felt like a purple haze floating down directly above the earth.
A Successful Plant Community is Full of the Sounds of Life
People talk about the noise of the city. I was overwhelmed in late summer by the experience of a wet meadow in full obnoxious bloom. Vernonia, rudbeckia, eupatorium shouting out in full bloom. All of this Pantone 2018 purple is just a coincidence. Butterflies, birds, dragonflies, and bees make a joyful noise. Watch the videos below for sound effects.