Velvety leaves, shiny ribbon-like foliage, smooth dimpled bark, or so incredibly delicate you-can-barely-feel-it flowers are my thing. Yes, I love fragrance and colour but when I get up close and personal with a plant, I realise how tactile I am. I want to pat, stroke and fondle.
And when I come up against a plant that has covered itself in impenetrable spines or razor-sharp leaf edges I feel hurt, sometimes literally, but often just emotionally. Like it doesn’t want to be my friend, even though I know we will tolerate or deeply respect each other for other reasons.
For gardeners with impaired or failing sight, or younger children who like to touch everything, designing gardens with plants that say ‘touch me‘ is essential. I think even for the rest of us, it encourages an interaction that goes beyond the impersonal familiarity of everyday gardening. An encounter with a plant that begs to be caressed brings out nurturing in us the same way baby animals do. It sends a signal to our brains that it’s a time to stop, turn off our hyperdrive lives, and feel something.
I think touching plants is also the best way to practise mindfulness meditation in a garden. Mindfulness concentrates your mind on the ‘here and now’, banishing all other thoughts and it’s a proven way to manage or ward off mild depression. The practised exponents can get down to just thinking about their own breathing, but if you’re less able to shut down your thinking brain (like me), focussing on a particular sense is a good start. I’ve tried ‘sound’ with some success, but I’ve found shutting my eyes and feeling plants is even better. There’s something about the tactile that draws in your consciousness to the tiny focal point of what’s under your fingertips. Add the soothing sensation of felty, furry or ultra smooth, and your garden is your own healing help centre.
Although aromatic plants are also good to touch as they generously release pleasant volatile oils for us to smell, here I’m talking about plants to touch based only on what they feel like, from leathery to lacy and soft to satiny.
Using touch in design
As we move around a garden, plants that invite us to touch become design details at the smallest possible scale. It’s more intimate than just looking at small leaves or tiny delicate sculptures, and we can use those tactile invitations to encourage a much closer and more personal exploration of a secluded corner.
Combine some of these plants with hardscape elements that are also good to touch, like smooth polished roundness of pebbles, the slightly rougher texture of sawn sandstone and the glazed surface of ceramics.
Here are my Top Plants to Touch, including recommendations from friends and family:
Stachys byzantina – lamb’s ears (from Jenny, my mother-in-law). When I asked several people about their favourite plant to touch, lamb’s ears was the most common answer. It has impossibly soft, downy foliage. I’ve never stroked a lamb’s ear – does anyone know if it really feels the same?
Tibouchina urvilleana – Forget those ghastly raspy-leafed Tibouchina granulosa cultivars (the species name says it all). I once had a Tibouchina ‘Kathleen’ and brushing past its stems and leaves so bothered me I had to take it out. Tibouchina urvilleana is the opposite, with beautiful soft, velvety leaves that are divine to stroke. The flowers are gorgeous too – a deep, imperial purple.
Adiantum aethiopicum – the lacy fronds of maidenhair fern (adiantum) are so thin and light that it’s almost too delicate to feel.
Murraya ‘Min-a-min’ – this is my most ‘pattable’ plant. You know when you can shear something so tightly that its foliage becomes bound as one, and patting it moves the whole plant in a very appealing blobby kind of way? That’s my Murraya Min-a-min.
Cryptomeria japonica ‘Elegans’ – unlike most conifers (especially those bad tempered junipers), the foliage of the dwarf Japanese plume cedar, or sugi, is a delight, with billows of fine, soft juvenile leaves, just asking to be pulled through the fingers. An added bonus is the deep plum colours it develops in winter, even in quite warm climates.
Adenanthos sericeus – (from Helen) the obviously named woolly bush is truly a plant for the tactile-aholic. Its narrow leaves and stems are covered in fine, silky hairs and when the stems are long, you can pull your hand along them, just like stroking a cat’s tail. A great substitute!
Asparagus densiflorus ‘Myersii’ or ‘Meyers’ – unlike its prickly (and weedy) cousin, the foxtail fern has long, soft plumes of fine foliage and looks fantastic planted where you can see light behind it. (Note – this foxtail cultivar rarely self-seeds and is specifically exempted from weed declarations in Australia)
Molineria capitulata – palm grass or weevil lily (who called it that?) has wonderful pleated leaves that need to strummed across with a gentle fingernail.
Moss, various. Although not a ‘plant’, moss growing in a cool shady place in the garden is a very inviting surface on which to oh-so-gently place your hot, fevered hand. Now doesn’t that feel better?.
Lawn grass – (from Tony) bare feet and soft, not-too-closely-mown lawn. Nothing like it.
Pachyphytum oviferum Moonstones (from Steven Wells) – this Pachyphytum is a nice smooth one, with pearl grey waxy leaves just right for getting up close and personal.
Banksia spinulosa – hairpin banksia has upright, wiry flowers that look like deep orange candles sitting in the tree. The flowers have looped-over styles, just like the end of a hairpin but much softer and more pliable. I love to wrap my hand around it and just gently squeeze, feeling the slight, springy resistance.
Actinothis helianthi – flannel flower has the most strokable petals I’ve ever felt and they’re much softer than any flannel I’ve ever come across, and even softer than flannelette. I’ve found it impossible to grow in my garden but I’m lucky to have bush nearby, with plants happily growing in sandy gravel by the roadside.
Callistemon species – who can resist touching a bottlebrush? Bundles of tiny staminate flowers form a brush that’s soft to the touch. Just watch out for bees!
Snapdragon – I love making gently squishing the sides of a snapdragon flower to make it ‘talk’. I found this Youtube clip that explains how. Totally ridiculous but fun.
STEMS AND BARK:
Melaleuca quiquenervia – paperbark lives up to its name with stacked sheets of soft, papery bark in beautiful creams through to pale orange. I don’t poke around too deeply among the sheets though, as several times I’ve surprised a huntsman spider (and myself!) as this is one of their favourite habitats.
Eucalyptus haemastoma – there’s no way you can resist tracing the fine squiggly lines across the surface of a scribbly gum’s trunk.
Eucalyptus deanii, or Corymbia citriodora or Corymbia maculata – there’s nothing like a smooth-barked eucalypt for patting – a bit like the way you’d pat a muscly, short-haired dog. They just feel so dense, so strong and solid. Corymbia maculata has the added bonus of cute little dimples.
Prunus serrulata – the impossible sheen of the bark on a flowering cherry is matched by its texture – just like a smooth satin ribbon. Beautiful to run your fingertips over it.
Brachychiton rupestris – a bottle tree is one of the most huggable trees I know. There’s something about its squat fatness at shoulder height that just makes you want to put your arms around it, like a favourite tubby uncle.
Have you got a ‘must-touch’ favourite?
[And visit Karen’s Garden Tips website for her longer list of tactile plants]