Plants are our personal time machines

Fynbos flora on the cliffs overlooking Cape Town
Fynbos flora of South Africa.

By Andy Winfield

There have been three occasions when our team have seen people reduced to tears due to plants. The first was in our New Zealand display. Now, don’t get me wrong, this is a very interesting display botanically, but many people wouldn’t note it as their favourite or the most beautiful in the Garden. In fact, most people walk straight through it on their way to the toilet or the glasshouses. There they were though, two people, a couple who were from New Zealand but had been in the UK a while, laughing and crying at the same time. It reminded them of the landscape of home. The second, a large South African man with a big beard in the glasshouses; he said he didn’t realise he was homesick until he saw and smelt the Fynbos plants and seeing them made him both happy and sad. Thirdly, a Brazilian woman who hadn’t been in Brazil for twenty years; the giant waterlily in the glasshouses reminded her of her childhood and made her feel reflective. These are the people we’ve seen, there may have been more.

These experiences from Garden visitors set me thinking that despite plants being all around us, their influence is almost unconscious, silently triggering our memories; it could be a scent, a rustle, or just the ambience that the landscape and its props give. I have one myself, whenever I see honesty seed heads, it takes me back to a memory; I have no idea where the place is, or who I’m with, but the plant is there with its paper thin flat packs of seed. There’s a garage concrete wall and lots of other plants growing out of cracks, but its the honesty that takes me to that place, wherever it is.

Blue flowers of Lavender in front of cypress trees.
The bee magnet lavender flowers.

With this in mind I picked the brains of colleagues, friends and family to see if they have plants that transport them back in time whenever they see them, and everyone I talked to had a childhood moment from an interaction with plants that is vivid today. Here’s a few…

  • Sitting on the ground and picking tiny wild strawberries with a realisation that this sweet small fruit was growing from the ground.
  • Standing on the cliffs as a child in Cornwall where they lived, looking at the beautiful natural colourscape caused by plants and thinking to themselves, ‘remember this’, and still remembering it fifty years later.
  • Puppeteering with snapdragons and being so enthralled with them that they were planted every year just for them.
  • Transported back seventy years in time whenever they see and smell ‘Peace’ Rose to their childhood home and mother, vases full of the flowers from the garden in grey London.
  • Learning that a fuchsia pistil, when pulled carefully from the flower, has a lovely sweet drop of nectar at the end, and spending time alone with the plant, sitting on someone’s front garden wall unbeknown to them, silently picking off flowers and taking the reward.
  • The combination of the sound of bees and the smell of lavender takes them back to their childhood bedroom where a lavender shrub is outside the open window.

I would guess that all reading this has a plant that sparks a positive memory, maybe, like the Garden visitors, they don’t know it yet, but we all have one. So, my challenge to you is to hang out with plants, smell them, hear them and see where it takes you.  

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