Are Plants Art ?

– Posted in: Garden Musings, Garden Photography

“Plants are not art”. So began a provocative Facebook post by Benjamin Vogt.

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

California purple sage, Salvia leucophylla ‘Point Sal’ in garden with California native plants in summer-dry, sustainable garden.

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

Benjamin is a friend of mine and a friend of Gardening Gone Wild .  His recent guest post here A 21st Century Garden Ethic created  a great conversation pointing out we need to think about gardening for nature not for ourselves.  He is a deep ecologist thinking deeply, but …

But of course plants are not art.

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

Sunflower, hybridized by American Takii Seed.

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

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

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

Mountain Alder, California native deciduous tree, bare branches in winter in shrub border

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

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

Diospyros virginiana-American persimmon tree in fall color

Diospyros virginiana – American persimmon tree in fall color.

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

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

peeling manzanita bark

peeling manzanita bark, California native shrub in summer

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

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

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

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

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

Path through perennial borders with orange Knifophia in Gary Ratway garden

Path through perennial borders with orange Knifophia in Gary Ratway garden

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

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

Sunset light skimming across hills, Mount Tamaplais State Park California

Sunset light skimming across hills, Mount Tamaplais State Park California

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

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

Frederick Garden

American Trout-lily, Erythronium americana  in Pennsylvania garden

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

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

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

Dried flower stalks of Mullein with Canada Rye grass and Coneflower in Midwest Prairie.

If I use a bit of art to embellish my message, I make no apologies in defense of plants. 😉

Saxon Holt
Saxon Holt is the owner of PhotoBotanic.com, a garden picture resource for photographs, on-line workshops, and garden photography stories. An award winning photojournalist and Fellow of The Garden Writers Association with more than 25 garden books, he lives and gardens in Northern California. PhotoBotanic - Garden Photography online at www.photobotanic.com. https://photobotanic.com
Saxon Holt

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27 comments… add one

Leave a Comment

Chris Woods June 29, 2016, 10:34 am

One could just as easily ask are humans art ?

Gwyn June 29, 2016, 10:51 am

The photos are awesome. I suppose if flowers are art or not is a personal opinion. I love art in many forms and I definitely love my flowers and plants. I feel God gave us nature to love and care for and if we want to call it art so be it.

Anita Stevens June 29, 2016, 11:27 am

One native plant added to each clients garden.
Divide natives from your own garden, and give them away.
It all makes a difference

Saxon Holt June 29, 2016, 12:33 pm

A question that has been asked since the dawn of cave drawing

Saxon Holt June 29, 2016, 12:34 pm

I don’t think anyone would argue this Gwyn. Thanks

Saxon Holt June 29, 2016, 12:35 pm

Great advice Anita – this is surely the best way to speed success

Courtney Helena June 29, 2016, 3:32 pm

As a designer of sustainable potagers, I see nothing wrong with fruit and vegetables being art. that said, i think it’s a risk to define plants ONLY as art, because in our world, we do view art as something abstract and extra, and not something necessary for our well-being. i believe art and beauty are nearly as essential for a healthy planet as food / plants are.

Saxon Holt June 30, 2016, 2:54 am

I certainly believe art is important to humans having healthy lives, but do the plants care ? They are only art in our interpretations, and the argument has been made that we spend too much attention on the art we see and not the beauty of deep ecology.

Benjamin Vogt July 1, 2016, 12:43 pm

maybe I’ll join in after all, Saxon. 🙂 this is from a blog post I did a year ago — a lot of these ideas will be in my forthcoming book:

“Designed landscapes can be for us – utilitarian in their sidewalks and fruiting trees, gorgeous in their flowers and foliage – but there’s no reason in the world that at the same time they can’t be places for birds to raise their young, butterflies to lay eggs, bees to forage for nests, and soil life to flourish. To think that gardens are just for us is self-defeating and selfish, and is simply a lack of imagination; I even believe it’s an inability to extend our ethical circles in some really cool ways that would enlighten and heal many of our cultural and social problems. If nature calms us, if nature helps us recover from illness faster, if nature eases ADHD, why can’t gardens also help us see through another’s eyes, champion equal rights and equal pay, become the people we dream ourselves to be in our best moments (like those stories that end every news broadcast).

A designed landscape that does not see beyond the human is a landscape that is devoid of the human – it’s devoid of forgiveness, mercy, hope, equality, and community.

Human art is an attempt to express the inexpressible, a way to bridge how we interpret the world emotionally, how we internalize and experience life, what we value in our most authentic moments of reflection and connection. Plants themselves are not art. What we do with them — how we honor their life processes in a garden — that’s art.

Chandran C July 2, 2016, 8:03 am

Hai Saxon Holt
The images are very beautiful. Gardening is a good hobby. Thanks for uploading the images and sharing the post with us.

jeannine Romero July 2, 2016, 10:58 pm

F COURSE, PLANTS ARE ART. I RECENTLY APPLIED AS A VENDOR FOR A juried ARTISAN SHOW. I SUBMITTED PHOTOS OF MY WORK WITH SUCCULENTS AND TILLANDSIAS, WHICH are ALMOST ALWAYS PLANTED AND ARRANGED IN ANYTHING BUT A POT. I use BUDDHAS, DRIFTWOOD, AND WOOD FRAMES, among other platforms. I WAS REJECTED because THE JURISTS DO NOT CONSIDER PLANT ARRANGEMENTS to be an ART FORM. tHEY ARE WRONG. My customers don’t buy my arrangements because they just want plants. Most tell me “you have a good eye for this,” or “you are talented.” They buy an arrangement because they like the composition speaks to them. Whether you design landscape, a container, or a canvas, a plant is a medium and nature can be a work of art.

Satya P July 4, 2016, 1:23 am

Gardening gives a lot of happiness. Seeing the plants grow gives lot of happiness. The plants are very good and it creates a good atmosphere and brings in good vibrations.

Sophie July 5, 2016, 4:06 am

HEY Saxon, I have to agree that I was going to make a rash comment about plants not being art but in hindsight it makes sense. as for climate change.. we know that the planet is getting warmer but to say it is entirely human activity is a falsehood. to say that we should not conquer nature is going against the progress we have made, I dare you to live in vegas without air conditioning. climate has historically been bad to humanity and we have developed technologies to counter it.

Deepa.S July 9, 2016, 4:48 am

Growing plants are more good than having pets. To see the plants grow and blossom is an experience which no one can define. Good work and keep posting more.

Saxon Holt July 11, 2016, 3:54 am

Thanks for adding your most thoughtful comments, Benjamin. indeed what we do with plants becomes the art of gardening and how we interpret a plant, flower, fruit, bark, or berry for our human enjoyment may be entirely personal, so we who are concerned about the interconnectivity of the world hope and enlightened definition of beauty that incorporates the function of plants along with our interpretations.
However, I don’t think we can expect gardens by themselves to solve some of the world’s problems and social injustices.
Carry on, my friend.

Saxon Holt July 11, 2016, 3:56 am

Thanks for dropping by Chandran. I do hope those of us who do garden will look at it as more than a hobby, and a way to heal the earth.

Saxon Holt July 11, 2016, 3:57 am

I agree Satya, and think gardens can do even more if they honor the plants and their own function within the world.

Saxon Holt July 11, 2016, 4:13 am

Oh Sophie! I think you have made quite a rash statement. At this point in our rapidly changing climate it doesn’t really make any difference who we blame or how we got here, we need a way forward. You seem to make the point that we need to continue to find technologies that will conquer the mess we have made without recognizing is we who made the mess. I have no idea how you can say “climate has historically been bad to humanity” as humans have pushed their way into climates that are not hospitable. I don’t mean to imply that we can somehow find a Garden of Eden for the billions of people on the planet; we certainly must live in places that require us to overcome obstacles, Las Vegas being one of the extreme examples, but to think we are going to conquer nature is a folly. It’s not working, let’s try working with nature.

Saxon Holt July 11, 2016, 4:16 am

Thank you Deepa. Certainly no one can define art or emotion – experience is everything. I just hope we recognize our own human experience is too often colored buy our own human interpretations rather than recognizing the plants (or pets) have a point of view we must consider.

Deepa July 14, 2016, 4:47 am

Gardening helps in connecting to the nature and will benefit you in many ways. Once you get into gardening and then you will realize how happy it makes us.

Chandran C July 20, 2016, 8:15 am

This is the best hobby in the world. Even growing plants which gives no fruits and vegetables gives you very much joy.

Saxon Holt July 20, 2016, 2:07 pm

Thanks Chandran – It so truly a way to feel connected to the earth – and want to take better care of it.

Madhu bala July 26, 2016, 8:04 am

The best thing about growing plants is that it creates good atmosphere. Try siting under a tree and relaxing, that is the best feeling one can get.

Saxon Holt July 26, 2016, 10:17 am

One more great reason to take care of the planet, Madhu.

Kathy August 15, 2016, 11:09 pm

Plants are many things but I see them as art all the time. They grab my attention, they compel me to study them and they bring me great joy. they make me think about deeper issues and often they just fill me with wonder. If that’s not art, albeit not by human hand, what is?

Rajesh Kumar September 9, 2016, 7:06 am

Who gives you good pure oxygen, shade, fruits and flowers? Plants are just great. I like reading the blogs on growing and benefits of plants. Even watching images of the plants gives a sense of peace to our mind. Keep posting more. Even

Raji Chandran October 3, 2016, 5:17 am

Gardening gives very much joy. It is a feeling which can’t be explained when we see the plants grow. Beautiful post. Keep posting more. Dell Laptop Service Centers in Chennai

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