On the Dissing of “Ornamental Plants”

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Anyone else bothered by the term “ornamental” to distinguish certain plants from those that are considered useful, usually edibles?

For example,Wikipedia uses this petunia to illustrate the term and offers this definition:

Ornamental plants are plants that are grown for decorative purposes in gardens and landscape design projects, as houseplants, for cut flowers, and specimen display.

The Wiki authors (and I’ve noticed, users of the term generally) make it clear that the plants are for aesthetics only:

Commonly, ornamental [garden] plants are grown for the display of aesthetic features. In all cases, their purpose is for the enjoyment of gardeners, visitors, and the public institutions.

If we hadn’t already gotten the point: (bold in the original)

Ornamental plants are plants which are grown for display purposes, rather than functional ones.  While some plants are both ornamental and functional, people usually use the term “ornamental plants” to refer to plants which have no value beyond being attractive, although many people feel that this is value enough.

At Buddy Attick Park in Greenbelt, MD

So to challenge the notion that they have “no value beyond being attractive,” here are some of my favorite ornamental gardens. Obviously they do more than beautify.

Lurie Garden in Chicago
Conifer Collection at the National Arboretum
Chanticleer Garden

Even on a tiny scale, like the front garden of my townhouse (above), where I ripped out the lawn and replaced it with a mix of native and nonnative ornamental plants, the plants serve a variety of ecological purposes – food and shelter for wildlife, stormwater management, and cleaning the air.

While today’s gardeners are well aware of the eco-services their ornamental plants perform, the Wiki entry is silent on them, referring simply to the “many people” who feel there’s value “enough” in being attractive.

So my second complaint is with this dismissive attitude toward attractiveness, which is then thoroughly debunked by another Google result for the term “ornamental plant.” It’s the article “Ornamental Plants and their Role in Human Psychology” in the journal Agrotechnololgy. These researchers in India see the whole picture, as evidenced in the Abstract:

ornamental plants play important role in human health and psychology. Human health depends on well-functioning ecosystems. We cannot live without the goods and services that nature provides to purify our air and water, maintain soil fertility, pollinate plants, break down waste, provide food and fuel and keep diseases in check.

They cite some of the myriad studies proving the benefits of beautiful plants to our psyches:
Exposed to plant settings, people have more positive emotions. In a plantscaped office, people recover from stress quicker and employees show a significant improvement in their efficiency and concentration. Problem solving skills, ideation and creative performance all improve substantially. In a workplace with plants and flowers we are more productive and green workplaces help recruit and retain workers.
When plants were added to an interior office space, the employees were more productive (12% quicker reaction time on the computer task) and less stressed (systolic blood pressure readings lowered by one to four units). Immediately after completing the task, participants in the room with plants present reported feeling more attentive than people in the room with no plants.
When we shop in a plantscaped environment, we visit more frequently, stay longer, rate quality higher and are willing to pay more. Hence, interaction with plants, both outdoor and indoor, can change human attitudes, behaviours and psychological responses.

Imagine how office workers in Lower Manhattan must feel after strolling the High Line (above) on their lunch hour.

So what’s a better term than “ornamental”? I like the simple, less judgmental “nonedible” to describe plants we don’t normally eat.

MORE Dissing
There’s one more use of the term “ornamental plants” that bugs me and that’s to contrast them with natives, a usage that manages to insult both types of plants at once. To state the obvious, natives can be beautiful!

12 COMMENTS

  1. This is an interesting topic. In the small town I live in, gardening with flowers isn’t even gardening for a lot of people. Twice now, I’ve looked at someone’s flower bed (even one that was large) and said, “How’s your garden doing?” and they’ve answered, “Oh, I don’t garden.” Now that I’ve been here awhile, when I tell people I garden, I let them know it’s with flowers, otherwise almost everyone assumes I’m growing vegetables, plus more weight seems to be given to veggie gardening and manicured lawns.

  2. A plant breeder I know uses the term “landscape plants” rather than “ornamental plants.” I like this because it puts the plants into a context.

  3. When they say “ornamental”, the plant has no ecological value and is, by definition, a non-native plant. You won’t see a lot of insects on it, ever.

    Native plants, while beautiful and perhaps decorative, are never just that: they provide food & shelter for insects. Without them, we lose most of our pollinators.

  4. I’d be willing to bet that there’s not a gardener among the Wiki crew. And I think Steve’s suggestion above for “landscape plants” is a good one. Certainly better than ornamental.

  5. The expression “I’m planting a garden” means different things to different people. In the UK you don’t “plant a garden”, although you might “plant THE garden”. What we call “the yard” is “the garden” over there. “Landscape plants” indicates to me that you are planting at least a 1/4 acre, mostly with woodies. Ornamentals just means those “not widely consumed by people” as opposed to herbs and veggies. And of course “herbs” includes so much more than just culinary ones: “any plant valuable to mankind”. What about bee-attracting plants that forage for pollen that results in honey? Flax that is used for fibers, medicinal herbs, dye plants, etc.? I don’t really care what you call them. . .just grow them well and with joy!

  6. I try to distinguish it by flower and edible gardening. It is very difficult to get people to talk about flower gardening. I find so many more people are edible gardening than flower gardening. There are niches, of course, but someone cultivating a flower garden is harder to come by than someone with a couple of raised beds or a community garden plot, IMO.

  7. I wish food plants got half the love the ornamentals do.

    At least 3/4 of every nursery is ornamentals. Most yards – at least the front – are planted in them. Food plants seem to have been relegated to a sort of ghetto – in a corner of the nursery, in the furthest part of the garden. Some folks are working against that decades-established trend, but it’s swimming upstream.

    My rule is that if a plant isn’t producing food – either for me or for beneficial insects, I don’t plant it. But I only have 1/12 acre.

    • I’ve broken the rules for a proper mid-Atlantic, Pennsylvania-Dutch yard way too many times. My veggie garden is in the front, my wildflower garden is feet off the front street, I’ve planted pawpaw trees to supplant root-heavy ornamental trees, and in normal years (ones where we don’t have dumping rain every few days when we should normally be droughty) we mow once every 2-3 weeks. I’m just waiting for the day when someone will tell me my yard is an eyesore… because my backyard is small and stupidly fenced AND graveled, there’s less sun back there, and our deck is uncomfortably high and visible to the neighbors. My yard, my rules. Thank goodness my development seems laid-back so far (ATVs in the street, golf cart ruts in the grass, overgrown invasive woods across the street).

    • I’ve wondered for years if vegetable gardens were usually relegated to the far back corners of the yard because they usually look tatty after a bit (weeds, bare spots, diseased leaves, etc), or if vegetable gardens look tatty because they are relegated to the back corners.

  8. Yes, that bothers me too as if “ornamental” plants do not soak up storm water, clean the air, feed and shelter wildlife, provide flowers for pollinators, etc.
    I’m not sure what term could be use – “landscape plants” gets us closer to it – but I think we need something better. I’ll start ruminating and searching on that.

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