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A Garden’s Welcome Mat: The Textures of Plants

The other day while strolling through a nursery looking for signs of spring and inspiration, I saw a lot of pussy willow branches, a sure sign of spring’s approach, and chuckled to myself. Always fascinated by the texture of plants (almost as much as color), I’ve consistently been attracted to plants with “people friendly” textures and shunned those less kind to the human touch.

As a very young child, the soft, velvety texture of a pussy willow attracted me much in the same way as babies form an attachment to a soft, cuddly “blankie” and it becomes a child’s cherished, comforting object. Intrigued by pussy willows, I would rub the soft, white, fuzzy buds between my fingers, loving the velvety texture and the way it felt to stroke the softness – rub it any direction and it became softer and more soothing. The advent of spring, for me, was the bunch of pussy willow branches my mother would place in a vase and seeing forsythia line the street.

My admiration for forsythia wasn’t terribly strong (still not a favorite of mine) but those pussy willows? Joy. Pure joy. I still love them and look forward to having a few sprigs in the house as a way to transition to spring from winter. As a child, however, my admiration for the pussy willow didn’t stop with a simple touch or a glance at the artfully placed branches in a vase. Stashower Lore will happily tell you that I, obsessed with caressing those pussy willow buds, took it one step further . . . and as I held a single pussy willow bud in my hand, feeling the deliciously soft texture, I just couldn’t help myself and I brought that bud up to my face to feel the velvety texture against my skin. Somehow – I just don’t “remember exactly how” that bud ended up . . .  in my nostril. As in LODGED in my nose. Panicked, I ran to my mother who clearly was horrified and knew that any attempt to remove it would probably make the situation worse. So, off we went to the pediatrician who, with a scary looking instrument, extracted it.

That experience has kept me from shoving pussy willows up my nose but it hasn’t diminished my love for soft textures and an appreciation for plants that, in my definition, are “people friendly.” At the same time, I’ve also developed a strong dislike for plants that are sharp, prickly and to my touch, aren’t welcoming, comforting or soothing. Yes, it’s just another thing to add to my persnickety selection of plants: it’s about color, fragrance, growth pattern, interest and . . . texture.

My preference(s) for certain textures and dislike for others always comes into play when planting, selecting stems for bouquets and/or merely enjoying the scenery. I despise plants with sharp edges because I can’t enjoy touching them and they discourage exploration, so they are banished from my yard. The first to fall victim to my less than rational attitude was a Pyracantha (AKA “Firethorn” which I feel is particularly apt) near the entrance to our garden. The orange berries were delightful, I loved the way birds were attracted to it and it took up enough real estate in a not yet developed garden to warrant its placement – it really wasn’t doing any harm. But when I got near it and was pierced by the thorns and found it impossible to prune without “gearing up” I knew it had to go. Those lovely orange berries would have been delightful in a vase near the window, particularly against a backdrop of snow, but those sharp thorns and rigid branches were too big a deterrent so, with help, I was perfectly fine removing it from the garden. In its place are my beloved Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’ (no berries but that corkscrew silhouette during winter more than makes up for the lack of color) and an Edgeworthia chrysantha (providing the brilliant color in warmer months).

corylus-and-edgeworthiaCorylus avellana (left); Edgeworthia chrysantha (right)

To be fair, I appreciate the aesthetics of many plants and landscapes that are strictly “hands off” and when, years ago, we enjoyed the unique, spectacular sights of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson (https://www.desertmuseum.org), I developed newfound appreciation for that magnificent landscape. The shape of the saguaro cactus with white flowers in spring and covered with red fruit in summer is magnificent and a hallmark of the Sonoran Desert. I appreciate their history and ability to adapt to a specific climate but all the same, those spines definitely kept me at arm’s length. The incredible variety of cacti were lovely to observe and learn about – I would love to see the desert in bloom and it is a photographer’s dream any time of the year but when texture comes into play, my preference is to admire these plants through a lens and from a distance. I would love to see the desert in bloom but have no desire to try my hand at growing cacti no matter where I live.

desert-cactiPictures Courtesy of the Sonoran Desert Museum

I wasn’t crazy about learning about ‘the jumping cholla cactus” and discovering how this plant’s common name came to be. While in Albuquerque one summer for a family bar mitzvah, my husband and I spent an afternoon exploring a shopping district, wandering into cafes, looking at the shops and enjoying a quirky neighborhood. The streets, lined with lovely landscapes of native plantings, seemed removed from foot traffic yet I managed to lose my footing, tripped and fell right into a tiny patch of native plantings – including one of those jumping cholla cacti. I think every single thorn jumped off their cactus and landed directly into my sunburned, already sensitive skin. Hours later, after suffering the indignity of it all and painstakingly (literally and figuratively) pulling out those prickers one by one with tweezers, I once again vowed to steer clear from plants that couldn’t welcome someone’s skin without protection. It might not be an enlightened gardener’s view or very practical – it might limit my inventory – but at least I won’t feel the pain of gardening merely by walking past a plant!

jumping-cholla-cactusJumping Cholla Cactus

In my own yard in Maryland, the previous owners lined the walls defining our yard with hollies. You guessed it – not a favorite. I appreciate the year round color, I like the berries and the birds they attract and yes, they mask the ugly walls I despise in our yard but slowly, I’m trying to replace those hollies with other choices – leaves that don’t get stuck in bare feet and welcome people into the garden. So far I’ve removed quite a few and found suitable replacements but this is going to be a long, expensive process.

holly

If I could fill my yard with plants that encourage touch, I would. Even if touch isn’t the goal, I would be satisfied with plants that, at the very least, don’t discourage people from appreciating their beauty. I’ve added a smokebush because the fluffy “smoke” hovering above the bush is both beautiful and doesn’t repel someone who might brush up against it and many other shrubs add interest, height, texture and color, helping to evolve the landscape. The succulents I’ve added might not be the sort one would spend a long time touching but they’re not going to harm anyone and I enjoy them all the more when they bloom.

I love lamb’s ears, multi-hued, velvety violets, rows of edibles, exuberant sundrops, feathery amsonia and the way many plants sway in the wind. The lush, almost jelly-like filled succulents, stonecrop, fescue, nepeta, scotch broom, sedum, lady’s mantle and spring ephemerals in the Green Bed add color, pattern and yes, acceptable texture. You won’t find any plants with thorns or stiff textures in my landscape if I can help it. Slowly, over time, I hope to be surrounded with color, interesting, varied, welcoming and people friendly plants that encourage exploration with no fear of injury. I’d like my garden to say, “Please, Touch Me!” It’s OK with me to touch the puffy globe of allium and walk through the native bed to gather phlox, cardinal lobelia, bluebells, daisies, lily of the valley, mountain mint, helenium, camass and more. The fothergill, ninebark, hydrangea, viburnum, witch hazel and little gem magnolia have replaced many hollies and I’m trying to figure out what shrubs and/or trees will be added this year.  Like everyone else’s garden, mine is a work in progress and there are so many variables as well as seasons of trial and error. But what you won’t find in my garden will be new plantings that intentionally discourage visitors from touching, smelling and experiencing (safely) the landscape.

Lambs Ear

Stonecrop

Phlox

Allium

Allium

Witch Hazel

Witch Hazel

As spring approaches and the beautiful beginning of a new season emerges, I hope to soon begin my morning ritual of exploring the garden and delighting in whatever nature brings. No shoes required.

by Emily Stashower, Behnkes Guest Blogger

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Lovely notes, and despite your childhood difficulties!, you always manage to capture a contemplative thread of meaning in the garden that both captures the garden scene and its many layered meanings.

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