Sometimes it’s easy to forget how exuberantly beautiful a vegetable can be. This fading but vital red chard arrested me as I was passing through a friend’s garden, just at the moment when the sun backlit it.
In the past twenty years or so, there’s been a movement to get vegetables back into the ornamental landscape (or maybe it’s the other way around). Pioneers such as Rosalind Creasy an Robert Kourik proved that edible plants can be ornamental, and that landscaping can provide food.
This seems like a new idea (it’s still controversial for some zoning boards and neighbors), but it’s actually a very old one. Food plants didn’t get split up from other plants until the age of European colonialism.
Colonialism opened up new vistas of plants, and for the first time, it wasn’t just curators of botanical gardens who were plant collectors. Wealthy people became aware that they could show off their status by using exotic plants in their gardens. Though slow transportation and primitive shipping methods meant many foreign plants arrived dead, avid collectors were willing to pay the price. Wanting to be the first on your block to have something is not a modern phenomenon.
Neither is showing off to your neighbors. Wealthy Western Europeans started to display their substance to the world by planting only ornamentals in the visible parts of their gardens and landscapes; the vegetables and fruits were relegated to areas visited only by the servants. To show only ornamentals was to announce that you were too wealthy to farm; someone else could do that work for you.
This trend only applied to the wealthy, of course. Workers and farmers kept on doing what gardeners have done for millenia: they grew what they needed as near to the door as they could get it. Plants that provided medicine or dye or food or were just the gardener’s beautiful pets or breeding project were all grown in one place: the original definition of a cottage garden. For many people, the idea of edibles as ornamentals has never passed away.
But as time went on, Western Europeans (including the ones who emigrated to the what became the U.S.) adopted the styles of those who were wealthier than they were. This trickle-down or social climbing in styles is a very pervasive feature of Western European cultures. The styles don’t necessarily have to make sense for us to adopt them. The reason why Spaniards lisp, for instance, is because one of the royals a few hundred years ago had a lisp. In order to save him embarrassment, the courtiers-the wealthiest class-followed suit. Since the courtiers were wealthy and prominent (the equivalent of movie or rock stars today), people copied what they did. The lisp spread until now standard Spanish Spanish means lisping, and not only on the “s” sound.
Our culture is full of stories like these. Many of our fashions are not only the sign of deep changes; they are part of creating them. On a larger scale, the separation of food and ornamental plants-something you see in most of the gardens of the modern-day U.S.-reflects the economics of colonialism. A garden that shows that you don’t have to work the land yourself, that unseen others do the dirty work for you, is the basis of colonialism, where far-off workers make cheap goods for our sometimes uneasy consumption. It’s a knotty issue we’re still struggling with. Maybe we can begin to unravel that knot by appreciating the beauty of red chard.