06 March 2006

De gustibus

My sister was taken aback, to say the least, when I tried to tell her that I too was a traditionalist in garden. “But what about all your preposterous exotic plants,” she said, thinking presumably of the puya, among others.

“Tradition” of course implies a series of value judgements for my sister and me, who both believe that taste is very much to be disputed. There is something suspicious and possibly disreputable about the exotic. But, as I pointed out at the time, a lilac (or even a rose) is a much more exotic plant to find in a California garden than a puya, which comes from a nearly identical climate. Even grass is a luxury (luxury is also suspicious) out here.

But taste cannot be merely growing what the authorities call “appropriate” plants. Gardening has always been about collecting the rare, or at least the especially beautiful, as much as the imitation of nature. Our sense of propriety may come from England, but lilacs come from China. Harmony is important, but it can’t be definitive for the same reason. The preference for plants that are called old-fashioned is a dubious criterion, as the cyclical fashions in roses demonstrate (if anything, hybrid teas are old fashioned these days).

Bad taste is easy to identify when you see it. Those roses the florists sell dipped in blue glitter: bad taste. Coleus, period. I’m going to have to put hostas in the same category. Cyclamen? On the fence.

Birds of paradise, most of us would agree, are a bit tasteless. The problem comes when you pass a relatively happy stand of them in front of some shitty apartment building and really look at them, as I sometimes do, they are astonishing things: maybe not beautiful in the conventional way of something like peonies (themselves verging on garish in their floppy abundance), but a truly spectacular marvel of nature. And let us not forget that birds of paradise are exotic not so much because they come from far away, but rather because you can’t grow them in your zone. You know you would if you could.

There is a lot more to say about taste in the garden. As I plant my own and see what happens, maybe I'll figure out what it is.

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3 Comments:

Anonymous kk said...

Exotic, tastless, spectacular, call them what you will, you (and your mother) have always liked the bird of paradise. Aside from the fact that I can't grow them in this zone, even if I had a garden, which, of course, I don't, I wouldn't. Because I think flowers should smell nice. Not like lilies: vulgar. And peonies are like Mozart. And clearly taste is not so disputable when it is my own.

3/07/2006 3:52 PM  
Anonymous kk said...

Which is not to say that I'm not excited for the kwaZulu Natal. Or even Bird of Paradise, which I like fine as long as they aren't invading my own (imaginary) garden. Which is not at all the same as a secret garden, whatever you might suppose.

3/07/2006 3:57 PM  
Blogger mmw said...

Fragrance is essential in the tasteful i.e., English garden.

Re: the birds: There are few crueler fates for an exotic plant than to lose curiosity value.

For me, it's always been the question: what the fuck pollinates these things? Emily Green suggests sunbird feet, which makes sense, but there is some question about that.

The point being the childlike wonder that all inflorescences, and esp. the diversity thereof are supposed to invoke in us. I've just been reading about rodent-pollinated proteas...

3/07/2006 5:04 PM  

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