NOSTALGIA: The idea that a plant or group of plants can evoke certain emotions based upon an evolved memory of the landscapes they are associated.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our emotional experience of landscapes. Why do some landscapes make me feel relaxed and contemplative, while others make me nervous or uncomfortable? Landscape architects, designers, and gardeners have long explored the aesthetic experience of landscapes, but rarely the emotional experience.
I was delighted that the Garden Designer’s Roundtable topic for the month is “Memory and Plants.” It is the perfect excuse for dwelling a bit more deeply on a concept I’ve articulated before, but only partially. I want to write about “nostalgia,” a word I’ve used to describe our emotional reaction to planting design.
Why does this matter? For me, understanding our emotional connection to plants and landscapes holds tremendous potential for all those who design or garden. First, it pushes landscape design past the endless (and tiresome) pendulum swing of geometric vs. naturalistic (or formal vs. informal) design. This fundamentally formalistic concern has distracted us from exploring the full potential of landscape as a dynamic art form. Second, it offers designers a framework for understanding how to create emotional experiences within gardens and landscapes.
Plants, Memory, and Emotion
We are all likely to have very personal and subjective reactions to specific plants. The scent of orange blossoms remind me of a winter afternoon I spent in a Dumbarton Oaks conservatory; Southern Magnolias remind me of a giant tree on my grandmother’s property I played in as a child. These personal memories are poignant connections to plants, people, and places; but these subjective responses are not what I’m interested in here.