Too Much of a Good Thing Can Be Wonderful – Mae West
Maybe all my post titles should be taken from anti-bot software – i.e., the warped-looking letters you have to copy when registering on many sites to prove you are “human” (my faves use actual words). “For gaudiness” was my ticket into blotanical.com – a gardening blog review site, but I liked the concept, so here we are.
gaudy: Gaudy or Gaudie (from the Latin, “gaudium”, meaning “enjoyment” or “merry-making”)…
stridently colored … tastelessly showy….tacky.
Surprising that Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi has nothing to do with it – his no-holds-barred use of color and form fits all of the above. I like to think he enjoyed the aural association, and that he tended toward the “merry-making” rather than “tacky” end of the spectrum. Naturally, loaded words like “strident” and “tasteless” are going to muddy the waters of our discussion. What pains you to look at, especially after a night of too much liquid gaudiness, might be just the jolt I need to wake up in the morning, or vice versa. If we can evade the Pit of Judgement, and focus on the colorful excess, that may help.
What’s Your Gaudy Number?
We each have our own gaudy-meter, the line you fear to cross. I met a woman from Texas at the nursery this weekend, and I asked if the grey licorice plant in my hand would look crazy cool in a pot covered in grey beach stones (as my inner Martha hoped) or boring (as my inner Little & Lewis feared). No contest for her. “I go for punch,” she said, punching the word like she was pitching Suds-O.
Sometimes gaudy is in the context, as I saw moments later when I brought a magenta-edged purple Martha Washington geranium too close to a chartreuse Lysimachea aurea – a full-tilt complementary combo. “STEP AWAY FROM THE LIME,” the geranium intoned to me, in an oddly mechanical voice. “TRY A PEACH VERBENA.” I understood; I was not ready for it. Only experienced colorists should attempt to drive this course.
Sometimes gaudy is just built-in – the phrase “Velvet Elvis” comes to mind – and like art that skirts the fringes of propriety, many plants have been feted and successively frowned upon thanks to that showiness. Dahlias, coleus, cannas, and hydrangeas have each hit the horticultural skids at various times, scorned for being somehow “too much”. (The large-flowered Hydrangea macrophylla probably got its nickname during one of those periods – “mophead” is hardly a name for a popular plant.
With some its size that matters – it’s difficult, as a flower, to aim for the demure look when your blooms are 10″ across. Like the well-endowed girl in the sixth-grade class, there is no bushel under which that light can hide.
Others, like coleus and cannas with dramatically painted or variegated foliage, are the plaid chintz of the garden – they pack pizazz, but add one pattern too many and you uncork visual chaos.
The Victorians, known for quite a bit of restraint inter-personally, went a little nuts on exteriors – in fashion, architecture, and gardens. No need to text Dr. Freud for his take on that one. Bedding schemes recreated intricate Bokhara carpets, weaving with coleus and pansies instead of wool. It was the golden age of the plant-hunter. Conservatories brimmed with the biggest, weirdest, smelliest exotic discoveries that explorers like E.O.Wilson could find.
Gertrude Jekyll, octogenarian queen of the mixed-border, exploded the Victorian stranglehold on garden design. She favored naturalistic drifts of plants in micro-engineered color sequences. Unlike the sports-franchise contrasts popular with the Victorians, Jekyll’s borders were soothing lullabies made up of bass notes of grays and blues with high notes of pinks, whites, and purples.
Much like my mother’s fun orange leather club chair had no place in the dusty mauve/slate blue world of the 1980s, eventually the loud bedding plants, palms and outsized cannas came to look brash and bizarre amid the pastel schemes of Jekyll.
But today tropicalissmo has taken hold, thanks to pioneering designers like Richard Hartlage , Marco Polo Stufano and Piet Oudolf, and prominent gardeners like Thomas Hobbs and Linda Cochran. Bold is the new black. Actually, in gardening, black is the new blue, but that’s a post for another day.
Dahlias and canna cultivars are increasing like very happy rabbits; compact dahlias, called “border dahlias,” are even allowed to play reindeer games with the daylilies and bee balm. Coleus, once sold as nameless mixes, have leapfrogged into botanical garden borders, and sport actual names. The memory of the stigma lingers, however: Stainedglassworks.com, retailer, writes: “The handful of plantsmen still pretending to disdain COLEUS simply have not caught up with the Victorian gardeners!”
Meanwhile some plant publicist is trying to prove these are not Queen Victoria’s coleus; the names definitely depict life on the wrong side of the tracks. For example: “Hit and Run,” “Private Dancer,” “Rising Temperatures,” “Devil’s Seed,” and “Satanic Embers.”
These flamboyant baubles can add just the right sparkle to containers – as designers have discovered. A bit of red blood grass (Imperata cvs.), purple-leaf canna, or lime sweet potato vine (Ipomea batatas) will add pop and instant street cred to your geraniums.
Gaudy may be in the eye – and maybe the inner recesses of the beholder’s psyche – but, like wearing spandex, pulling it off is all about attitude! Show your joy, your gaudium, and the world can’t help by smile – even if for some it’s only the inside.