The Pull of Signature Plants

Frequently, visitors to the Dunn remark on plantings in the garden in personal terms.

            “Poppies. Wonder how I can get mine to look like those.”

            A visit by some elderly women a couple of years ago was particularly poignant. Of the group of five, most had walkers so progress around the garden was slow, made slower by each telling me individually their mean age was 88. They took more than the usual pleasure in the flowers we passed and attached memories to many of them. These were almost always from their childhoods. One of the guests pointed to the Star Jasmine Trachelospermum jasminoides by the Cottage, resplendent in white flowers and glorious. “My mother had one of those by the back door in every house we lived in.” Each of these ruminations was accompanied by an additional tale of their lives; baby sisters, the color of the kitchen, the favorite baked good from childhood and so on. Such is the tenacious and encompassing power of memory.

            I was reminded of that ‘memory’ tour when an out of town friend, who is also besotted with plants and gardens, visited recently and we took a stroll together around Seattle Arboretum.  Walking into the New Zealand section was a huge emotional jolt. The area has grown substantially since I last was there and now looks like a concentrated version of the terrain of my childhood. In one area are tussock grasses, flax, ferns, veronicas, corokias, pittosporum and more plants that I took for granted growing up. Now the swan-like flowers of the flax, Phormium colensoi evoke the sulphur smells that often permeated my hometown of Rotorua sitting as it does in a volcanic area.
            In addition to the native plants, I also attach closely to hydrangeas since my mother had a particular fondness for them. As a result I love this particular time of year at the Dunn since the hydrangeas are bursting into lusciousness. We have more than my mother’s blue ones on site.  Japanese hydrangea, Schizophragma hydrangeoides, a vine growing up many of our Douglas firs are on the brink of stunning. I admire them anew every year. But they are hardly alone. The link will take you to a summary of the hydrangeas at the garden prepared by a Dunn Gardens docent, Penny Kreise and it give you a sense of the range.

            It appears I am not the only person on the planet who regards hydrangeas as a signature plant. A young woman, Marissa is marrying this July in Dunn Gardens. Her venue choice was governed partly by her affection for hydrangeas she has seen in the garden.  

            Trees, bushes and flowers that people respond to for personal reasons are their own signature plants. But the concept of plants that have particular meaning is much broader, of course. At Dunn we are fond of saying that trilliums and erythroniums are the signature plants of the garden; they are closely associated with its history and are prominent in the landscape in the spring.

            History has another view of signature plants. An idea dating from the earliest time of medicine and developed fully in the 1500 and 1600s is the Doctrine of Signatures. In what sounds like a terrible idea from our perch in the 2000s, is the belief that herbs resembling a body part could be used to treat an ailment of the said part. For example, the common name of Euphrasia, is eyebright, a reference to the plant’s use in treating eye infections.  Not unexpectedly, the flower supposedly resembles an eye. A noted botanist of the 1600s by name of William Coles provided a theological justification of the doctrine. He maintained the signatures, the resemblance to an eye, a kidney, or a lung were God’s way of showing men what plants are useful for.

            Not unexpectedly, adherence to this doctrine of signatures carries some risk. The flowers of the species Aristolochia clematitis resemble the uterus and that earned it the common name of birthwort. A preparation from the plant was given to women upon delivery to expel the placenta; it contains a lethal toxin, aristolochich acid aristolochic acid that is carcinogenic and damages the kidneys.

            At this time of year Dunn cannot boast our signature plants since they are spring ephemerals. But given the range of plantings at Dunn Gardens we hope you will find your personal ones among them. As noted, if hydrangeas are one of them you will be in luck as they are now blooming. In addition, you can admire them at the family picnic June 24. The event is free, open to the public and a chance to relax in a famous Seattle summer evening. It would be a particularly winning night for you if you happen to be celebrating your fourth wedding anniversary. The hydrangea is the flower of the moment in that case.

Pictured is the tepal of the flax, Phormium colensoi           


Phormium colensoi - tepals