Breaking Ground; So Beautiful This Ghastly Flower
By Michael Pollan
The New York Times, September 18, 1997
STRUGGLING the other evening to stake a particularly menacing Scotch thistle without incurring too great a loss of blood, I suddenly realized that Morticia Addams has become an important influence in my garden. I haven’t quite reached the point where I snip the blooms off my roses in order to showcase their thorns, but the philosophy behind such a practice—that there is something to be said for the thorn as well as the rose and that there are times when flowers only get in the way—no longer seems so perverse.
It’s often said that flowers count for less and less the longer one gardens; so, I would add, does mere prettiness. Over time, you discover that there are other kinds of plants worth cultivating in the garden—and other stories about nature worth telling. This might explain why I seem lately to be developing a taste for the sort of plants one would expect to find in the Addams family border: the diabolical leaves of the cardoon, the sunlight-blotting blooms of a black hollyhock, the sinister eccentricity of the castor bean. Black flowers, malevolent leaves, bizarre and even poisonous plants: I want to offer a few words here on behalf of the gothic garden.
If the conventional ideal of the garden is an ever-blooming paradise of happiness, the gothic garden is a subtly haunted place where beauty is shadowed by intimations of mortality. This is not a new idea, only a half-forgotten one. Threading through the history of garden design in the West is a persistent gothic strain, offering a counterpoint to more mainstream notions of beauty. Indeed, it is only in modern times, when a relatively benign and sentimental view of nature emerges for the first time, that the gothic has been forced out of the garden. Go back a ways, and you find not only a more ambivalent view of nature, but also a belief that a garden should contain all the colors of human emotion, even the very darkest.
During the 18th century, when landscape design briefly moved to the center of English culture, gardens routinely made room for episodes of melancholy and even the occasional frisson of horror.
The great picturesque gardens were the theme parks of their time, their designers deploying all manner of special effects to evoke in the visitor a carefully orchestrated sequence of thoughts and feelings, from pastoral delight to reflections on death. For much the same reason we gravitate to horror movies, people used to stroll through gardens hoping for a good scare. And the garden makers obliged, erecting pseudo-decrepit ruins, horrific statuary and brooding grottoes, some of them manned by actual paid hermits—the forerunners of the costumed characters populating Disney World.
Granite monsters haunted Italian gardens, which classically had little use for flowers. In France, a certain M. de Brunois put his garden into mourning upon the death of his mother, replacing the water in his fountains with black ink. The story is recounted in Medlar Lucan and Durian Gray’s “The Decadent Gardener” (Sawtry, 1996), a somewhat eccentric history published in England that also describes a garden in Surrey with its own Valley of the Shadow of Death, guarded by gateposts made of stone coffins and human skulls. Of course, literature has always had its gothic gardens: think of the collection of gorgeous but deadly flowers in Hawthorne’s short story “Rappaccini’s Daughter” (“And down he hastened into that Eden of poisonous flowers”), or the consignment of horticultural monstrosities ordered by the hero of Huysman’s antiromantic novel, “A Rebours” (“Nidularium, whose sabre-like petals opened to reveal gaping wounds of raw flesh”).
Given this long history of metaphorical snakes in the garden, how did our own gardens ever become so wholesome? I suspect it was the Victorians, with their sentimental worship of flowers, who set our gardening on its present sunny path. With the Industrial Revolution came the belief that nature had been tamed by man, a conceit nowhere more eloquently expressed than in Victorian bedding schemes. Here flowers were massed by color and then arranged into elaborate, carpetlike patterns—unruly nature reduced to so many tractable tubes of paint. You begin to understand why someone like Thoreau would be moved to declare that he’d much rather live next to the most dismal swamp than the most lovely garden; I would too, if the garden told such a bowdlerized tale about nature.
Though looser, more naturalistic styles followed the Victorian fashion, even the so-called wild gardens of William Robinson and the cottage gardens of Gertrude Jekyll—perhaps the two most important influences on our own gardening—implied a nostalgic view of nature as a soft, pastoral refuge from the hard edges and rigid geometries of industrial life. It was Jekyll, a painter by training, who taught us to think of gardens in terms of harmony and subtlety and pretty pictures.
In our own time, environmentalism has instructed us to regard nature as fragile and gardening as a virtuous pastime. Proponents of natural gardening talk of serving the planet by simulating natural habitats and expelling any trace of exoticism. The gardener’s calling is to nurture and defend the nation’s delicate native species, who without our care would be promptly set upon by hordes of “invasive aliens.”
What we have here, of course, is a classic gothic narrative—native innocence besieged by foreign evil—except that in this case all the drama is kept safely outside the garden gate. Out, out purple loosestrife! Molest not our fair natives!
Wouldn’t it be much more interesting if a little of this repressed gothic anxiety could begin to find its way into our gardens? I’m not talking about literally throwing the garden gate open to all manner of botanical horror, to actual weeds and diseases. A garden is an idealized version of nature, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t stand some unbuttoning, so that it might disclose a few of our less-polite passions as well as nature’s own occasional awfulness. What I have in mind are botanical metaphors of invasiveness, leafy figures of malevolence, green tropes of strangeness and threat—all qualities in which, I’m discovering, the world of plants abounds.
The first truly gothic character of my horticultural acquaintance was the sanguineous castor bean, a plant that in a single season can metamorphose from a fat, mottled—and incidentally poisonous—seed that looks like a tick into a 10-foot-tall carmine-leaved specter. I’ve come to think of the castor bean (the source of the purgative from which generations of children have recoiled in disgust) as the evil twin of the sunflower, its principle rival for airspace in my annual bed. While the sunflower’s cheery disk follows the sun across the sky like a smiley face, the castor bean refuses to ingratiate itself, keeping its spiky Day-Glo pink flower—a contraption such as Dr. Seuss might conceive—under wraps, down below the eight-fingered hands of its darkly gorgeous leaves. In the baleful presence of a castor bean, the smile of a sunflower becomes positively heartbreaking.
Many gothic plants are like that: they throw a startling new light on familiar flowers, rendering the pretty almost poignant. Probably my favorite corner of the garden this season is the one where a stiletto-sharp fountain of gray cardoon leaves rises up from a bed of near-black foliage: a deep purple sweet-potato vine, a mass of opal basil, saw-toothed perilla and a handful of maroon lettuce plants—Merlot, the very darkest I could find—that I’ve let go to seed. It sounds weird, I know, but against the backdrop of so many sunlight-sucking leaves, the cardoon looks to be electrified with light, as if plugged into a live socket.
Elsewhere in the garden I’ve assembled a collection of gothic giants, what a friend likes to call my “N.B.A. border.” Here, easily dwarfing their six-foot-plus gardener, looms a silvery Scotch thistle, possibly the scariest-looking plant this side of the cactus family; a clump of hollyhock nigra, eight-foot towers topped with single blackish disks that look fully capable of tuning in radio signals from other worlds, and a crowd of ice-cold plume poppies, whose dusty blue leaves look like monstrous paws, particularly when matched with the warmer upturned palms of the castor bean. To step among these behemoths is to be reminded that nature has better things to do than to flatter our sense of self-importance or to make us feel at home.
My gothic garden is just begun, but everywhere I turn these days I seem to find new ideas for it. I’m saving up for Hillside Black Beauty, a pricey, patented black cimicifuga that I spotted in the Wayside Gardens catalogue.
Just up the road, in the theatrically gothic garden of Michael Trapp, I saw a blackish, serrate-leaved angelica whose maroon flowers uncurl themselves from creepy pods right out of “Men in Black.” An Internet search turned up a whole gothic gardening Web site with helpful plant lists and theme-garden ideas (“the garden of ill omens”).
And out on Long Island a few months ago, I encountered the ultimate in gothic garden furniture. In the garden of a woman somewhat embittered by a recent divorce, I spied two Adirondack chairs, one of which had been rendered painfully uninviting by a spiny cotoneaster that she had trained to grow up over the seat. Next to its still-comfortable companion, such a chair makes a point about a marriage, obviously. But by itself it is a kind of memento mori, telling of nature’s inexorable power to reclaim for itself what is, after all, only temporarily our own.
I don’t know if I’m quite ready to plant such a mannered chair in my garden. But to see that bristling seat is to realize just how many other faces of nature and shades of feeling our gardens might display, if only we would release them from their accustomed obligations to niceness.