I don’t remember the first time I heard of Lotusland. It was probably in the early naughties on the pages of Garden Design, when they were in a coastal infatuation phase. It could have been when I was a librarian in the drafty shelves of Weigel at Kansas State University - reading Winifred Dobyns’ California Gardens or David Streatfields’ California Gardens, dreaming of warmer days and balmy nights by the sea.
My love was cemented watching the beautiful footage in Monty Don’s Around the World in 80 Gardens. A surrealist garden made by an opera singer with multiple love affairs? Her last husband disappeared under mysterious circumstances? This is a garden for me.
*by the way, these songs are the songtrack as you listen to this: Robert Ellis's California and Katy Perry's Teenage Dream
I got into Los Angeles late, 4am to my jet-lagged central time adjusted body. I dragged through the rental car station, the In-and-Out full of paper caps and teenage enthusiasm, then the airport hotel. Next morning, I hauled myself up the coast to Montecito. Excavation from the mudslides had only begun. I could see buildings shifted in place, tidewater marks showing where the mud had enveloped buildings, crushed and consumed them.
Fortunately, the forces of destruction had stopped short of Lotusland. You’re not allowed to just wander around and enjoy the place on your own. I was lucky to be assigned to a quite knowledgeable guide called Madge, along with a relatively innocuous group of fellow tourists - a straight couple from Victoria, a gay couple from San Francisco, and an enlightened family group (the daughters had done time helping out with ecotourism in Argentina and Belize) from Seattle.
The thing that had always captured my imagination with Lotusland is that it seemed to explore a treatment of plants in a highly artistic way. In the photos that I’d seen, plants were utilized as aesthetic elements. Their physical qualities were utilized in keeping with an individual, brave, exploratory aesthetic. The actual experience of the place didn't betray that thought. My presuppositions were correct.
There seemed to be a complete innocence and sincerity in the choice of garden elements. Madge explained that the glass edges were the trash from bottle molding at a nearby soda plant. After pouring, the leftover chunks of clear green glass were tossed away. Madame Walska, the creator of Lotusland, saw a new use for them in edging garden walks. The chunks of glowing green glass resonate with the glowing garden greens.
An innocent approach to materials characterizes the entire garden. One of the most iconic images for me has always been the giant shells in the swimming pool garden. Madge explained that these weren’t sculptural replicas, as I expected, but actual giant shells imported from islands in southeast Asia. You could get big pearls out of those.
Such innocence isn’t limited to inanimate objects. It extends to the use of plants. Since my time in south Florida, I’ve thought that it would be amazing to create a forest of ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata). Their weird strappy leaves, corky stems, and swollen root bases give them a Dr. Suess quality that I really want to explore en masse. Of course, there’s a ponytail palm forest already growing at Lotusland. You can walk adjacent to, but not through it - so there’s still scope for my design imagination.
I’m not going to go into the full history of Ganna Walska and Lotusland. Suffice it to say that this garden is a multilayered landscape that reflects multiple individual aesthetics - all layered in to the garden that exists today. The cactus garden is an incredible collection created post-Walska. In it, hundreds of towering cylindrical clusters and bulbous clumps create a singularly monumental experience.
I’ve never seen anything like this cactus garden. It’s so sculptural, with the spires and spines. Hummingbirds flying around, buzzing between jewel-toned iridescent flowers.
After the cactus garden, it was almost a relief to get back to familiarity with an allee of hundred-year old olives. The contorted trunks, silvery leaves, fallen black fruits, resonated with my classically-educated soul. Those filtered shadows felt like home. Not to mention the terminal fountain with horsey motifs.
So far, I’ve been slathering on the adjectives. The next area of the garden needs only two nouns: tree ferns.
In this woodland, coastal live oaks are interplanting with a multilayered canopy of lacey tree ferns casting the most incredible flickering shade. Baskets of staghorn fern are suspended from the live oaks. Begonias and blechnum carpet the forest floor. I’m in heaven.
My vision of Lotusland had been built up to incredible heights over the years. It’s very rare for such hopes not to be ground into the mud on actual experience. But Lotusland was as good as I’d imagined.
Possibly better. Let’s go back soon.
I drove up to see my parents a few weeks ago. Arkansas to Missouri along Highway 67, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the region. It had been raining for a solid week, turning the delta fields into an inland sea.
If you’ve never driven through the delta in flood, you can’t imagine that drive. The water gropes and gurgles at the crumbling asphalt edge of the two-lane road. Semi lights brake 50 feet in front of me, trying to avoid a deep water plunge. A full moon hangs low over the horizon, a matte white disc flecking the waves with light. The waters churn and surge, ever southward carrying silty discharge to the gulf of Mexico. One careless moment and you’re submerged.
For me, that drive is routine, regardless of high or low water. After three years, my car stops automatically at the one gas station along the way that stocks lime Perrier. (What’s up with the citizens of Corning, Arkansas, that they stock such a bougie drink?)
After those first hours driving through the Delta, I get to the edge of the Ozarks - near Poplar Bluff, Missouri, where the mountains jut out into the flat wash of the Mississippi Delta. Climbing those hills, my little Rogue has to put in extra effort - and my cell phone falls to two bars or less. I’m used to this rhythm, plunging deep into downloads over the last hours driving through the mountains and river hills. I’ve listened to Lev Grossman’s Magicians series so many times on that drive, feeling through Quentin’s tribulations and messy journey of self-discovery. Nerd worries.
I follow the audiobook time with a silly - but personally important - musical ritual. I’ve done this for years, starting when I was in college. I take that left turn from J Road (the windiest road in the universe) onto Highway 51, I roll down my windows and blare John Fullbright (Very First Time). Then, as I pass the Walgreens and Sonic and turn down St. Joseph Street, I flip over to Adele (Million Years Ago, Hometown Glory). It puts me back in the headspace for home.
On this last time that I took that drive, I noticed something special. I’d been in Little Rock, where spring was in full swing - with cherries and daffodils and bradford pears in full lascivious bloom - so I was startled by the sudden chill. Besides a yellow flicker of forsythia, the landscape was still in winter drabs. But it wasn’t silent. When I rolled down the window to blare my soulful jams, a solid blast of amphibian orchestration. The forest was frozen, but the spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) were making noise.
Their sound hit me right in the heart. Those noisy buggers were the soundtrack to my youth. But they weren’t the only voices. Hearing the spring peepers made me think of some of the other voices that influenced me as a youngster - and continue to shape the way I approach the world. Here are quick glimpses into five of my youthful influences:
“The edge of the sea is a strange and beautiful place. All through the long history of Earth it has been an area of unrest where waves have broken heavily against the land, where the tides have pressed forward over the continents, receded, and then returned. For no two successive days is the shore line precisely the same.” (Rachel Carson, The Edge of the Sea, 1953) More than any other individual writer, Rachel Carson’s work influenced the way that I think about about writing about nature. She’s the kind of writer that I want to be. If I can evoke the same deep emotion with my words that her writing evoked in me, I’ve succeeded. I read The Edge of the Sea in my early teens and I still think it’s the most beautiful piece of writing that I’ve encountered. It draws you in, word by word, line by line. I don’t know how to be this poetic without being maudlin - but it gives me an ideal to pursue.
“A garden is a mistress, and gardening is a blend of all the arts, and if it is not the death of me, sooner or later, I shall be much surprised. A pleasant sort of death, I venture to suggest, which runs in the family. One of my grandfathers died of a clump of Iris stylosa; it enticed him from a sick bed on an angry evening in January, luring him through the snow-drifts with its blue and silver flames; he died of double pneumonia a few days later. It was probably worth it.” (Beverly Nichols, Merry Hall, 1951) Do I even have to explain how this is significant? Anybody who’s read my writing can probably identify the acerbic influence of this mid-20th century writer on my voice and aesthetic. Nichols’ writings explore queer identity through the lens of aesthetics and garden-making with an incredible sense of absurdity and humor. From what I’ve heard and read, Nichols’ gardening books reflect the most joyful bits of his experience as a human. From early exposure to Nichols’ writing, I understood gardening - not as some purely practical pursuit - but as an approach to life enmeshed in the appreciation of art, music, and story. His words helped a weird kid who liked plants envision a life full of adventure, excitement and beautiful gardens. Thanks, Beverly!
“Wherever I go, whichever place I travel to, whatever garden I may finally sit in, I’ll never be free of this one. Like some deep tenebrous scar I’ll carry the making of our garden with me forever.” (Mirabel Osler, A Gentle Plea for Chaos, 1989) Not many people know Mirabel Osler’s work, which is a shame. Anybody who uses the word “tenebrous” is ok in my lexicon (see my earlier post “Dictionary Boy Goes to the Garden” for further info on my word madness). Ms Osler’s books introduced me to French gardens, which had an aesthetic and approach that made way more sense for the central United States than the UK-oriented gardening books in which I’d immersed myself. Remember, in the early naughties, this was all pre-Lurie Garden, pre-High Line. Oudolf’s aesthetic was still confined to the Netherlands and a few UK publications. Oehme van Sweden was as naturalistic as we got in the United States. So Mirabel Osler’s approach of taking a wider “landscape” approach to gardening felt like a revelation to this weird boy growing weird plants in shallow clay beneath giant red oaks in the Missouri countryside.
“Once again, the gardening cook has every advantage: not only a crop of bright green leaves, which make a fine cooked vegetable - highly esteemed in Italy and Spain - but also young turnips which can be harvested, at their best, when they are small and sweet and perfect.” (Geraldine Holt, The Gourmet Garden, 1990). It’s completely absurd to think about the vagaries of fortune that somehow led to this book on gourmet vegetable growing in Europe being included in the permanent collection of my small-town library in rural Missouri. I can’t imagine that anyone else ever checked it out. Remember, this was a town in which people let their zucchini grow to the side of baseball bats (let’s be honest, at that stage you have to call them “marrows”and left them like vague threats on the doorsteps of unsuspecting “friends”. Nobody picked turnips when they were the size of golf balls. So, for me, this book was an epiphany. It awakened me to the possibility that there was something wonderful about growing food. I still haven’t successfully cooked a recipe from this book. But it expanded my perspective on edibles from the pedestrian to the extraordinarily.
“In this climate, the sun is a more active and less neutral partner than in a northern one, imposing constraints, demanding attention. At its best perhaps in late winter and early spring, when the mistral has produced this marvel that envelops you like a liquid, it gives as much pleasure, all by itself, as a whole garden of flowers.“ (Louisa Jones, Gardens in Provence, 2001) I actually don’t remember how or where I first encountered this book. I must have seen it referenced somewhere and gotten it by interlibrary loan. This book really drove home to me the relationship between garden aesthetics and the realities of the larger landscape. That, while horticultural techniques and practices could augment or enhance the realities of place (soil, topography, climate), the overall aesthetic of a garden was still directly tied to the qualities of the larger landscape. That successful gardens draw on the best qualities of a place rather than trying to impose something extraneous upon a site. It was actually difficult to pull an individual quote from Ms Jones’ writing, as the whole thing is built up in a wonderful matter-of-fact layering that builds a highly logical approach to landscape - a philosophy that psychogeographers and other garden writers would do well to mind.
Few people have such nerdy landscape histories as I hold precious - and continue to treasure. But these words have shaped how I approach landscape - and life - on a daily basis. They form a chorus that underpins my daily activity - much as the spring peepers bleeped a soundtrack to my youthful gardening endeavors. You may not have the same kinds of ridiculous rituals as I hold precious - but surely there are some voices you’ve cached. Bring them back to the light. Only you know what treasures you’ve buried and forgotten.
I’m an unashamed member of the Google Maps generation. It’s a reflex. Whenever I hear about a place that I don’t know, I’ll click over to Maps, swoop down across the blue-green world and stomp through the disjointed reality of street view. I have a definite sense of resentment when the aerial imagery is pixelated or the blue line of available street view imagery doesn’t go all the way down a rural lane or footpath. “See the world without leaving your couch!”
With these proclivities, you’d might expect that I’d have a solid route planned out when I go to visit a garden. I do when it’s a garden I know well. But the first time that I visit a place (garden, city, rural environs), I want to discover it on foot. No expectations, no agenda. I’ll take a map from the stack, just in case, then shove it straight in my back pocket.
This is partly due to my complete lack of any sense of direction or orientation. The more professional-sounding explanation is that I want the place to reveal itself to me as I move through it. I’m fortunate enough to be relatively physical able (though lazy), so I have the privilege of being extravagant with my movements. I don’t mind trekking back and forth, discovering new views and spatial experiences as I move through the landscape. Insect-like, I follow a jerky and convoluted path as I dart from one object of interest to another. Usually, it’s a plant.
All of which setup is a long way of getting to the point that, when I visited the Huntington Library, Art Collection, and Botanical Gardens two weeks ago, I went through the gardens in the “wrong” direction.
I’d already been startled in the parking lot by the bloom of a giant magenta tabebuia in full flower, plus the glory of California-blue ceanothus lapping in puddles between rows of parked cars. So once I’d gotten through the admissions process, I took the first right directly into the garden. This put me in a weird succession of spaces - lawns with planting bays designed for showcasing rotating collections of large-scale exterior art installations.
After a bit of aimless wandering through this uninteresting bit, I stumbled into a thicket that was labelled as the camellia collection. These camellias weren’t the giant bastions of bloom I’m used to in Little Rock. Apparently the mild California winters mean that they dole out a few blooms at a time. Stingy, if you ask me. Pushing through a few of these disappointing plants, I emerged into sunshine. A giant lawn spread out in front of me, flanked by banks of camellias, lined with astonishing Washingtonia palms and a revolting collection of figurative marble statues with classical aspirations. With this, I started to realize that - for me - the Huntington was a combination of moments of sheer beauty and instances of incredible ugliness, ricochetting from one pole to another with a fierceness that I hadn’t experienced for a long time.
The next area of the garden was another example of this aesthetic badminton. You’ve already seen the digitalis meadow photo in the entry paragraphs. I loved those chunky digitalis spires rising out of messy grass. Directly across the way, those same digitalis were enmeshed in a horticultural purgatory of lisianthus, matthiola, and pansies.
The Asian gardens - both Chinese and Japanese - evoked equally conflicting feelings. I loved the wonderful craft evidenced in the materiality of hardscape, furnishings, and plantings. Just look at that carefully-laid stonework and regularly irregularly edging. Somebody thought about that.
But the overall effect of the Chinese garden didn’t work for me.
In the strange intersticial woodland area between Chinese and Japanese gardens, I found a planting that I absolutely adored - the anemone-like Eomecon chionantha with its dangling white flowers naturalized in between bolsters of crimson camellias and shag carpet clumps of liriope.
There were a few other strange and wonderful things in this area - multi-tiered azalea standards planted in scattered drifts, cymbidiums naturalized on the forest floor, and unfortunate outcroppings of volcanic rock.
Mounting the many stairs to the Japanese garden (I counted them but didn’t jot the number down, it was at least 3 digits), I was thrilled at the wonderful material complexity. My designer soul got all excited about those multiple layers...mondo grass, cut stone, pebble, raised wooden barrier, cut stone setts, cut stone paver. That’s how you define an edge.
After all this aesthetic badminton, I got into some parts of the garden that resonated more strongly with me. The cactus gardens were truly incredible. The forms are so different to anything that I work with on a daily basis - glowing spheres of barrel cactus, bristling pincushions of mammillaria, all-consuming tufts of puya. They challenge my aesthetic vocabulary - I don’t encounter these forms, colors, and light effects in the wet subtropical and temperate ecosystems of the southeast.
So, yes, I went to the Huntington. It’s a truly wonderful place. Some beautiful bits, some ugly bits. I learned about southern California plants - and I learned about me. Maps can give you a lot - but they can’t give you the sensational memories of a walk in the California spring. Time to lace up your walking shoes and go...
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?