May 17, 2012
Shape and form: Flower shapes can inspire


Simple complexity � tiny florets of Echinops ritro 'Vietch's Blue' make up a sphere.
Spend a little time looking out your window at the garden. Set your mind free to really appreciate the shapes and forms before you. You will notice that straight lines are very rare in nature. Mother Nature seems to have a definite preference for gentle, curving shapes. It is the human hand that adds straight, rigid lines to the composition.


According to experts, we recognize up to 10,000 things by their shape alone. The right side of the brain perceives whole shapes, while the left side recognizes the shapes of the parts that make up the whole. Physical characteristics such as outline, shape and volume define the form of an object. Form is powerful, often stirring deep emotional reactions. In a garden, we first see colour and then form.

Dazzling colours
While bright colours may dazzle and gentle ones soothe, on closer inspection we will notice there is beauty in form as well. Examine the intricate surface of a simple flower, rich, translucent, reflective, sparkling, velvety and spiky are but a few of the adjectives that describe the texture of form.

Form is often functional in nature
It is as if the flowers themselves were structurally designed to attract the specific insects that will become their pollinators. Similarly, grasses offer fluffy blooms that sway in the slightest breeze, dispensing pollen to be carried by the wind.

In both art and nature, form can be classified into three basic shapes, the circle, square and triangle. Each is unique in character and stirs a variety of images in our minds. In the spirit of the modern designers such as Piet Oudolf (who was recently commissioned to design The Gardens of Remembrance at the site of World Trade Centre in New York City) and the New World landscapes of Oehme and Van Sweeden, I offer the following compilation of simple flower shapes and descriptions of their remarkable ability to in-spire our imaginations.


The circle is nature's most basic shape, as expressed in Helianthus 'Ring of Fire'.
Anethum graveolens is an example of nature's fine engineering in umbrel shapes.
Complex, spire-shaped grasses provide vertical accents as shown here with Calamagrostis x acutiflora.
  The circle is the simplest visual pattern
A circle is a perfect shape. It is infinite, having no ending, just one curved line that continues around and around. Circles re-mind us of the sun and moon. The ring on your finger is also a circle. It is beautiful, simple, a pure symbol of life itself. It re-presents continuity, security and balance. In nature, round forms are seldom flat. Rather, they are seen in perspective as elliptical. This variation between width and height adds complexity and interest to the form.

Globes and buttons
A globe or button is often made up of hundreds of tiny star-like flower heads, each supported by a wiry stem. Button-like flowers and globes stand out effectively against screens of misty grasses such as dwarf maiden grass (Miscanthus) or switch grass (Panicum virgatum). They appear as concentrated globes of colour atop rigid, nearly imperceptible stems. Notable examples of globes include members of the Allium family and globe thistle (Echinops ritro). Certain flowers, such as sea holly (Eringium giganteum) and various pincushion flowers (Scabiosa), assume a spherical form when their petals drop or become less prominent.

Daisy-shaped flowers also represent circular form. Daisies are described in my dictionary as a small composite plant with a central yellow disc with white rays. But a daisy is much more. It is simple, pure, fresh, cheerful, youthful and undeniably optimistic. Just envision a field of wildflowers illuminated by summer sunshine and daisy shapes will surely come to mind, along with a smile.

In the case of the daisy-like coneflowers, the mainstay of modern, low maintenance designs, the rays that surround the central disc fall off as the plant becomes dormant in the fall. The centre discs turn shades of gold or dark brown and then near black and stand persistently until cut down during spring cleanup. These seed heads offer a source of food to native birds, as well as convenient perches in the winter landscape. Examples of daisy forms include purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), and members of the Coreopsis, Rudbeckia, Helianthus and Aster families, to name but a few.

Umbrella shapes
Reminiscent of the structure of an umbrella with narrow supports of equal length that spring from a common centre and having a curved (or sometimes flat) surface, flowers characterized as umbel shaped are fascinating. This unique and remarkable engineering marvel was not bestowed upon the elite of the garden, but rather that of the wildflower commonly known as cow parsley or Queen Anne's lace. Oudolf, obviously enamoured himself with this delightful form, describes umbels in his book Designing With Plants, as being "composed of hundreds, or even thousands of minute individual flowers. Many have flower clusters that form highly complex patterns, often umbels within umbels."

Umbels are well suited to the naturalistic designs we have come to appreciate in modern gardens. They are magnets for butterflies, moths and bees. Their soft, gentle colours and form associate amicably among perennial grasses, coneflowers and edible herbs. Examples include dill (Anethum graveolens), Angelica, fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium) and members of the yarrow family (Achillea).

Spires also offer a complex and interesting inner structure, this time representing a loosely triangular shape. Spires are described as a tapering cone, usually wider at the base and forming a sharp point at the top. In botanical terms, a spire is a flower cluster formed of many flower heads attached closely on a long stem.

Those with a tightly packed habit offer a cleaner shape. The spire shape is found in lofty places such as mountains and church steeples; trees are often spire-shaped as are many garden obelisks. Spiky shapes represent lofty aspirations or triumph. They direct our vision skyward, toward the heavens.

Spire-shaped flowers look best in strong groups in the border. One plant is often too weak to be effective. However, a drift of salvia, foxglove (Digitalis) or speedwell (Veronica) will create a dramatic and strong statement in the garden. Their upward form offers a welcome contrast to the rounded forms of most plants. Of course you can get too much of a good thing.

A garden that includes too many strong vertical lines will be just as monotonous as one that includes only rounded forms. The key to success lies in a balance of several forms, each planted in large, significant drifts, complemented by the form and colour of their neighbouring plants. Other examples of strong spire-shapes include members of the lavender (Lavendula), bugbane (Cimicifuga) and delphinium families. Foxtail lily (Eremus robustus) and feather reed grasses (Calamagrostis x acutiflora) are also dramatic vertical accent plants.

Let's take another look out of that window at the garden. Perhaps our eyes will now consciously absorb more beautiful shapes to file away to be amplified by our imaginations.

Theresa Forte is a garden columnist, photographer and garden consultant based in Niagara Falls, Ont.