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.