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Exploring the Garden by Touch

October 4, 2022

By Ali Brown, Volunteer, Royal Botanical Gardens

The other day, I went for a walk in the Rock Garden to see how it had fared after this year’s long, hot, dry summer.

I paused for a quiet rest on one of the garden chairs and was able to observe several groups of visitors. To me, the appeal of the great clumps of grasses waving in the wind is visual, accompanied by the sound of the breeze gently rustling the seed heads as the wind blows through them, however I noticed that many visitors brush their hands through the seed heads. I had never thought very much about the tactile element of plant appreciation but to many of our visitors touching seemed to be very important.

  • rough bark of the phellodendron amurense tree
  • Burnt orange strawflowers
  • Cluster of rounded fir needle structures tipped in white

The three-dimensional effect produced by the rough bark on the river birches attracts a soft touch to confirm the pattern.  The needles of the larch and bald cypress are soft and silky – not stiff and sharp like other conifers. The downy leaves on the lamb’s ears are a favourite with children who love to stroke them.

Sometimes we are fooled the other way and what looks soft is hard and brittle. The spent flowers of ornamental allium look soft but can give you a poke if you grasp them tightly. Who hasn’t grasped the soft leaves of a nettle plant and almost instantly regretted it?

We live in a world where sight is the ‘king’ of the senses but a walk through the gardens gently touching plants gives us an entirely new perspective. It takes a bit of practice to describe what we are feeling as we don’t have many adjectives to describe how something feels. After a bit of practice, we can develop an entire vocabulary of ‘touch sensation’. Rose petals are soft but straw flowers are stiff and hard. When we combine our new feel of a plant with the sight of a plant, we can actually see the plant more clearly.

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