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Exotic Monsters & T.E.P.E.'s

Jason describes himself as an 'Exotic Gardener', and herein he shares his hopes and fears for the 'new movement' in European gardening. What is the new movement? Well T.E.P.E.'s of course!
Jason de Grellier Payne, 148 Mortimer Rd, London NWU, UK
Chamaerops No. 20, published online 23-07-2002

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There has not been a recognisable horticultural movement or new style in Britain and probably Europe since the likes of Jekyll, Lutyens, or the fashionable interest in plants during the Victorian period. Most horticultural works are today built in an urban environment as opposed to that of the country mansion with estate grounds or rustic old country village with its cottage gardens. In the absence of large public projects and parks being built, our gardens are now created in a man-made environment in a way which fits them into smaller, more enclosed spaces, the urban garden has adapted to this environment rather than imposing a style upon it. What has all this to do with exotic monsters and, more to the point, palms? Well, EPS members may be at the forefront of the Horticultural Movement of the new millennium, that is the modern equivalent of yesteryear's cultural movements. Many of the western gardens were an expression of society's wish to control and order nature into avenues and formal lines. After the English romanticism of Capability Brown and the formality of Le Notre must come the Exotic Landscape. As we become a global community we've all been to Florida, the Sahara, seen rainforest and mangrove (alive or destroyed) on our TV screens, have all heard about the environmental issues. As perceptions of plant life change and wild or natural gardens become more popular, people must become more aware of plants in an ecological context and on a more international scale. I hope that this effect will filter down to alter horticultural traditions, and that the idea of sharing an environment with plant life will lead to living in a planted urban environment.

The garden has a life of its own, nature has taken over. Towering overhead, dense canopies of foliage and the crowns of palms sway gently in the breeze. Strange sounds and the rustlings of creatures emerge from the undergrowth. The plants are almost visibly growing and competing for the light reaching through the still humidity, dripping after the rain, growing on every available surface from the tallest tree to the smallest moss-encrusted stone. Densely populated, the stillness and shelter have created a micro environment, a pocket of jungle, exuberant with lush green foliage.

If your garden matches the above description: BEWARE! you may have a T.E.P.E. on your hands. Do not touch the potential T.E.P.E. but call your nearest exoticist! The T.E.P.E., or Totally Exotically Planted Environment is becoming more common in Europe in the late 20th century, it was first sighted in Britain during Victorian times and is believed to have arrived on the ships of plant hunters. Once a T.E.P.E. has established itself it can completely overpower its host limiting vocabulary to Latin and creating dangerous fetishes with spiky objects.

It may sound far-fetched to think of the EPS as being at the forefront of a new movement in horticulture, (not that anything so radical ever occurs in horticulture anyway!), but palms are the most spectacular exotic plant, and just as the vogue for conservation gardens has popularised the use of grasses, wild flowers and naturalising bulbs, so may green issues popularise a globally aware taste for palms and understory planting. I don't expect that we will read about this in the papers and perhaps eras in the style of gardening are only recognizable in hind sight, but I do wish the above were a true warning to the unsuspecting public and that exotic gardening could suddenly be at the forefront of horticulture. But it is not, and I am not possessed of the patience to carefully explain and convince that palms really do grow in England for much longer. So it's time to launch an exotic jihad, wave the banner and have a good moan about the general public's ignorance of exotic plants, from the viewpoint of a frustrated Exotic Landscaper.

Exotic plants planted exotically, orchestrated in compositions of exuberance or laid out as emblems of prestige and power, are the most powerful visual tool available to landscape architects and gardeners anywhere in the world. Apart from plants that may provide dazzling displays of colour, the forms of exotic plants provide the perfect compliment to architecture such as the plantings around large corporate buildings, hotels etc. Without equal for poise and architectural form in the plant world must be palms. Think of the archetypal Californian highway lined with 30m tall Washingtonias, the oasis surrounded by date palms, the long white beach fringed by coconuts; the palm is the western emblem for exotica. Although recognised by landscape architects and garden designers, the above seems to have passed 90% of the horticultural world by; dismissed as inappropriate, labelled by those of rigid categorising disposition as foreign! What farcical view of plant life would condemn a species to obscurity in the horticultural world of a country, even a continent, deny a species or even a range of species the right to grow in a climate that would support it, and that probably did before the intervention of a brief but traumatic phase of the planet's climatic cycle? When people ask why I have not included any indigenous plants in a design I like to ask, 'pre or post ice age?', and mention that pollen grains of many palms have been found in the clay subsoil of London.

The climate is continually changing as we are all too aware, and one might argue that as it warms, the re-introduction of warm temperate plants to northern Europe might be an entirely natural phenomenon.

Everyone wants their garden to be impressive. As a designer of gardens for many different people and businesses I have found that after practical considerations everybody wants their garden to look as 'good' as possible (design then becomes a quest to understand and hopefully influence ones client's definition of 'good', or nice'). From this point onwards, if one is aware of all the possibilities, deciding what one wants to do with a garden becomes a matter of asking: exactly how far do you want to go?'. Given that climate is not really a problem, (exotic-looking, completely hardy plants can make an exotic garden almost anywhere in the British Isles), the sky is the limit. People do seem to have a problem when first discussing ideas for their lOx4m patch of lawn/beds/fence & washing line when I suggest the planting of a bamboo grove or an avenue of palms. Sometimes it feels as though one is being asked to assault a patch of urban mediocrity with a pea-shooter when you know that you have a nuclear arsenal in your back pocket!

People do generally agree that they would rather have green in their garden during the winter and that a lush looking garden is preferable, usually with lots of colour and smells. It's just a matter of finding out how serious people are. After all if you are, or can be made to be aware of the potential, what reason could there be for not aiming to fulfil that potential? Anywhere in Europe why have roses and Forsythia when you could have Cypress, palms, jasmine, yucca, bamboo, ferns and ariseanas.

But, 'hold on a minute mate', I hear you say, not everyone wants an imposing, in-yer-face, powerful, triffid-like garden', and I must say that it is true but, then it is not the only kind of exotically planted environment. Exotic is the key word in defining the other styles of environment, although its standard meaning describes something from foreign countries, it is also popularly used to communicate extravagance, exuberance, luxury, even hedonism. The word can evoke a host of images: wild, over the top, bohemian, loud, bold. It can also imply the serene experience, such as Zen, or that of powerful natural landscapes.

'Exotic' is a problem word, we don't mean it literally which leaves it open to personal interpretation. When the word is interpreted as meaning only 'tropical beaches', it can conflict with some of the more subtle images that I consider to be exotic, such as the still rocky pool surrounded by Trachycarpus woodland, winding Zen paths between stones, or bamboo weeping over water.

My personal image of 'exotic' refuses to be labelled by any other word, after searching for the means to communicate my designs to clients, I am sure that I know of no better word. Of all the meanings that other people have found in it, and expressed in the arts, there are some general characteristics that apply to them all, whether Oriental, Caribbean or Mediterranean, architecture, painting or landscape. It must be Rich, Luxuriant, Powerful.

Historically in art or landscape architecture every style has or has had its philosophies and its emblems, surely The Palm is the emblem and no matter what individual style, the simplest philosophy is to use the plants exotically, boldly: the most massive seen closest, the most architectural in brutal contrast or space, potency of scent and wild diversity of shape and colour. In an exotic landscape most of the components are exotic in their own right, many of the plants are extremely vigorous in growth, (amongst the fastest growing in the country), adding to the exotic feel of the garden through the presence of their virile energy. Other plants used in concert create an exotic effect through profusion and the appearance of natural community. Quite apart from all the individual elements, the garden functions as a tangible whole, whether the density of vegetation is such that each species must be ideally suited to its niche in the community, or space is proportioned to relate to features of single plants or stones set in a simplistic interpretation of nature. A good example of the whole being considerably greater than the sum of its parts.

Could the gradually changing public awareness of plant life slowly alter our attitude to our immediate environment, which plants are in it and how they are treated? Could it be that as the ecosystem becomes more fragile, people may value and covet their own patch of land and want to create their own microenvironment, a garden that would be a reflection of plant life as a whole? Watch this space!

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