There is an infinite number of possible plant combinations, but some simply take your breath away!
A classic plant combination is one where the flower or foliage, or both, of each species make a mix which is greater than the sum of its parts, and has a beauty that withstands changes in fashion.
That such a mix is possible has been appreciated in garden cultures since earliest times (18), and in recent ones, some gardeners and designers have become renowned for their ability to combine garden plants in ways that become immediate 'classics'. Some are famous for a single garden (often their own); others are famous for a whole range of commissions.
There can be no doubt that ancient Egyptians appreciated the juxtaposition of plant form and colour, for the frescos in many tombs show delightfully elegant and productive gardens, designed to give pleasure and sustenance to both the living and to the spirits of the dead. The ancient sacred lotus (which provided edible tubers as well as large amounts of religious symbolism), is often beautifully paired with the papyrus plant (Cyperus papyrus) (11), in water scenes, and fruit and flower gardens are often fringed with decorative margins of stylized date palms and olives (12).
Roman frescos too, especially in some of the grand houses in Rome and Pompeii, show pictures of gardens, filled with birds and game, the fruit trees loaded with fruits, and the roses and lilies with flowers. Pomegranate and a red cabbage rose is a common combination, probably symbolic too, for the pomegranate was associated with marital bliss and fecundity, while the rose, beautiful but thorned, gave a different message. Many of these frescoes were themselves meant as pictures of a supposed Golden Age of gardens, and some of the ideas are certainly taken from older Greek models (the ancient Greeks believed pomegranates had been brought by the Gods to Greece from the Elysian fields).
In the Middle and Far east too, beautiful plant combinations often took on symbolic meanings: in ancient Persia (6), the weeping willow was often used as the symbol of Majnun, the lover of the drowned Laila (symbolized by the water lily), and jasmine was a symbol of Vohuman, the archangel of good spirits and divine wisdom (in Zoroastrian thinking) as well as of woman's loveliness. It was commonly entwined with roses and honeysuckle. Far Eastern symbolic associations can be found on pg....
Though little is known about gardening in Europe after the fall of Rome, the so-called Dark Ages were, particularly in Eastern and Southern Europe, turbulent times, and may have seen at least some traffic in garden plants and ideas, most notably from the sumptuous Asian splendours of Byzantium. However, a number of new introductions (Lychnis chalcedonica, for instance), are, at least in legend, associated with the various Crusades, and certainly enough barbarian Crusaders fell in love with Byzantine and Moorish gardens to build themselves copies of such things in places as far apart as Hesdin in northern France, and Palermo in Sicily. That suggests that northern gardens were not captivating places.
The later medieval period is much richer in information about how plants were put together, and a few plant combinations exist from this time, like Lilium candidum, Iris germanica and Aquilegia vulgaris, an association found in many religious paintings and decorative tapestries (17).
In the distant Orient, a rich and beautiful mine of plant combinations can be found in the paintings on screens, scrolls, and ceramics from around 800AD. The beauty of these early works of art (7) soon established such a powerful influence on taste, that the traditional combinations have lasted into modern times, and screen paintings of the nineteenth century often show the sort of plant combinations that were considered both beautiful a thousand years before. (16)
Arabic sources are much harder to judge, and come mostly from literary material. Islam forbids the depiction of anything but the most stylized plant forms, and though carpets, fabrics, mosaic work and painting show what could be a dianthus or a tulip, or willows and cypress, few other planting ideas can be gleaned, even though Arab rulers were often passionate gardeners and collectors of plants.
It is only in Renaissance Europe, and with the widespread use of letterpress and woodcut printing, that the first biggish body of planting combinations can be discovered. Most of these have, not surprisingly, lost contact with any specific originator, and have become part of the traditional plantings of the garden. Even the weeds are documented, not only in herbals, but in the marvellous observed clods of turf painted by Albrecht Durer (9).
They have survived in contemporary writings, particularly in the many garden books that date from the 16th and early 17th century, culled from great garden books and herbals like John Gerard's 'The Herbal', and more particularly John Parkinson's 'Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris' of 1629 or John Rea's 'Florilegium'.
Contemporary paintings only rarely show gardens, and often only as a background to a portrait of a grandee. In any case, most gardening then and even in the eighteenth century was 'collector' gardening, when gardeners were more concerned to have enormous, or at least interesting, ranges of different flowers and shrubs. The many flower paintings of the period show the liking for diversity (8). Though some information exists on how plants were put together in the beds, it seems that plants were combined in mathematically based ways in carefully laid out grids, rather than in ways designed to make visually satisfying combinations.
The great age in Europe, really the beginning of 'planting design', started with the craze for bedding gardens from 1820 or so. There were many reasons for its rise, political, economic, and botanical. The last is easiest to deal with here: huge numbers of new plants had been arriving in Western Europe since the last half of the eighteenth century, especially half-hardy ones from central America, South Africa, and tropical Asia (important groups like verbenas, pelargoniums, calceolarias, salvias, penstemons and many more) (15). None of them could easily be fitted into the standard 'landscape' garden then fashionable, and though some gardens had areas devoted to 'flowers', the passions of garden theorists and designers was really concerned with 'landscape' rather than with flower gardens.
About 1820 or so, a few English garden owners decided to cut beds into their extensive lawns, and fill them with some of the new flowers. This tiny step unleashed a huge flood of excitement, not the least part of it being that it at last enabled gardeners with tiny gardens to copy what grand gardeners were doing.
This colossal revolt against 'landscape gardening', and the search for a style which was possible in middle (5) or prosperous working class gardens coincided with huge improvements in printing both of text and pictures, and the subsequent rush of new garden books and magazines fuelled excitement about the new freedoms. They are filled with planting plans and interesting plant combinations.
For the first time, with so much documentary evidence, classic plantings can often be attributed to a designer, so your own garden can have plantings designed by Sir Joseph Paxton, and other great mid-19th century designers. It is only a short step from a 'bedding garden', to one using big 'drifts' of much larger plants like asters, lupins and so on, so once the 'bedding' craze began to fail, especially under the withering attacks from William Robinson (who advocated the 'wild' look in the garden (10)), and others, the herbaceous garden took over, producing many great designers and plantsmen and women. The influence of Gertrude Jekyll was especially important, for, using her training as an artist, she made painterly colour combinations, and often using changing sequences of color through the length of a border, and sometimes through the seasons too.
Though perhaps her most famous garden was the one that she created around her own house, Munstead Wood, she designed many others. Many, like the gardens at Barrington Court and Hestercombe and Lindisfarne, are now being restored, but even in the short time between creation and restoration, many of the plant varieties she used have vanished... However, many of her schemes and their derivatives were captured on photographs or in the paintings of artists like Anna Leigh Merritt and Edith A Andrews (19, 20), both of whom produced huge numbers of sentimentalized pictures of Jekyll's new style of plantings.
But great late 19th C painters, too, painted their own or their friends' gardens, and captured, if in impressionistic ways, not only the changes in style of gardening in the last decades of the nineteenth century (13), but also the look of the plantings. A number of the artists gardened too. Renoir gardened (his garden still has huge plantings of the pale blue iris 'Aline' named after his wife), and Monet's garden at Giverny (14) in northern France, first being photographed in the 1920's, notably by 'Country Life', is still being enormously influential...
At the time he started gardening, European artists were discovering the art of Japan, and rediscovering the art of China. Fans, screens, ceramics, brocade from the East were in every fashionable Western drawing room. Bamboos, maples, stone lanterns, were in many western gardens, and soon bridges like the one at Giverny were draped with wisterias, and have views of new varieties of waterlilies, bred in the West from varieties grown for centuries in the East.
In terms of the history of garden, none of that was long ago, and only a few decades separate them from great planting designers like Vita Sackville-West, and only one or two more from more obviously modern designers like Roberto Burle Marx, James van Sweden, Piet Oudolf, and many others.
In this book, the plantings are grouped into garden styles and periods, ranging from the gardens of ancient Greece and Rome, through the gardens of Mughal emperors, to the great herbaceous borders of late Victorian and Edwardian England, and, lastly, to marvellous modern plantings worldwide, from Brussels to New York.
The plantings range, too, from ones suitable for walls and pergolas, woodland and pond-side, to others suitable for wildflower meadows, or kitchen and cottage gardens, inner city gardens or ones in deep countryside. They include ones that will be most glorious in earliest spring, to ones that will make autumn splendid. Many will still be worth looking at in deepest winter. Some will do best in shade, others in full sun; some will grow perfectly in cold gardens, a few others need warmth and shelter. All of them have been selected not only for their beauty, but also for the ease with which any gardener can grow the plants, for speed of growth, and for simplicity of maintenance.
The book also shows how to link the plantings with others in the book, so that a rich and rewarding garden, of any size, can easily be created. It also show how to augment the plantings for even greater richness, or length of season. The suggestions are taken from other species used by the original designer, or ones that I have used myself in similar combinations. The book also gives information on how to maintain both plants and plantings, as well as where to find the plants.
Each chapter profiles a famous planting designer. With so many brilliant examples to choose from, this involved many difficult decisions. In the end, we chose designers who characterise one recent strand of planting design, even if their creative imagination has been focussed on only one garden. After all, nowadays, a single garden that captures the eye of writers and photographers can easily win as much influence for its creator as fifty major commissions for a designer with less good fortune. The book gives locations for the garden, or for some of their most famous commissions, if these are open to the public.
However, even where the originator of a classic plant combination in these pages is unknown, many of them, even if anonymous, still have a history that gives their beauty an extra and, I hope, fascinating significance.
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