Informal naturalistic planting

Native flora as an artistic medium

It is possible to use locally native flora in a way that is entirely conventional in its design aesthetic, and with no intention of creating any kind of plant community. At first, this seems paradoxical. Yet it does have a rationale. Even used as monocultures, native plants will participate in the local ecology by acting as a source of food for specialist fauna. The use of locally native species is also a way of linking the immediate environment of the planting to the wider environment of the region, which can be a particularly valuable way of making this reference in a highly urban setting. The use of natives as an artistic medium, rather than an ecological one, is also a way of communicating their value, and that of the region, vis-a-vis the forces of centralisation and globalised blandness in a way that is acceptable to a large number of people. The classic example perhaps is of Roberto Burle Marx, who, when he became Director of Parks and Gardens in the northeastern Brazilian city of Recife in 1934, planted locally native plants in a public square. This scandalised all those who saw such flora only as worthless scrub, and the colonial mentality that appreciated the classical geometry of the metropolitan Portuguese garden as the only civilised way to grow plants. He went on to build a career that showcased Brazilian native plants but in ways that were totally design, rather than ecology, driven (Eliovson 1991).

Steve Martino’s work in Phoenix, Arizona, USA, has had a similar impact, which he describes as ‘bringing the desert back into the city after the city tried to push the desert away’ (Martino 2001). As well as creating native-based plant communities, his practice also develops small plantings for urban settings that make use of the architectural qualities of desert flora, such as opuntia and ocotillo cacti. The highly defined textures and shapes of such plants stand out in a light that can be exceptionally harsh. These can be particularly effective when their shadows are thrown against flat-coloured walls of the kind favoured by Mexican architect Luis Barragan, who has been a major influence on Martino. An example of such a planting, which won an American Society of Landscape Architects award in 1992, is an arboretum designed for the Arid Zone Trees Company, who supply much of the material for Martino’s practice. He has included sculptural elements, such as giant fin-like barbs, which echo the shapes of agaves (Thompson 1998).

A number of designers have used the structurally less-dramatic cool, temperate North American flora in an ‘un-ecological’ way, usually to make a particular educational or aesthetic point. For example, Burrell and Hagstrom, working with a community group in St Paul, Minnesota, made a prairie garden at the front and then used the same species in a much more stylised way at the back, ‘like modern art’ to encourage people to compare the different way the plants were used. Another project in the same city used bold patterns of native plants in a wetland, with different habitat zones forming concentric rings (Burrell 2001). Morrison has also used wildflowers in plantings at the National Wildflower Research Center in Austin, Texas, to emphasise to visitors their aesthetic possibilities (Leccesse 1995; Morrison 2001).

The ‘xeriscape™’ movement, which is aimed at encouraging US gardeners to conserve water, has also resulted in a considerable usage of native plants, especially in the drier southwestern and southern states. For the most part, they are used in design terms as ‘normal’ garden plants, replacing less drought-tolerant non-native species, rather than in self-consciously ecological designs (Ellefson et al. 1992). In some cases, this has been supported by the water authorities themselves, as in Florida, where the South Florida Water Management District was the first to implement xeriscape legislation in 1991, and built a demonstration water-saving garden in West Palm Beach, where most of the plantings are native, combined with a few colourful exotics. The magnificent Quercus virginiana, a key southern landscape tree, are also now much more often planted (Tasker 1995).