5 precious plants chosen by artist Charlotte Smithson

24th August 2021

Ahead of Charlotte Smithson’s installation for the Oak Project at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, she told us about 5 plants with special meaning to her and invites us to look at plants in a new light.

Plants provide for us in lots of ways – medicines, clothes, furniture and even our homes are all derived from plants. But looking at plants as materials to be harvested and used doesn’t necessarily connect us with nature. It’s this broken relationship that we need to remedy.

Connecting to nature is about choosing to notice the landscape around you and developing a conscious, meaningful bond with it, through your senses and emotions. These five medicinal plants have a lot more to offer than their healing properties.

1. Fennel – switch on your senses

Fennel plants are big multi-sensory living sculptures, surrounded by a fragrant cloud. The quivery jumpiness of their heads makes their tiny flowers appear like a big yellow umbrella. Their fluffy frondy leaves feel like feathers on your skin. In late summer and autumn their heads rattle, full of their tasty medicinal seeds. It’s impossible to capture their true character on camera. It’s something you experience with all of your senses, rather than just see.

2. Nettle – find hidden meaning

In the language of flowers, nettles signify pain. Probably because they sting. But to me they symbolise gratitude.

In my first garden, the nettles were persistent and prolific and their sting was so painful. Embarrassed by their abundance I ventured into the garden. Naively I thought this garden could be whipped into shape in no time, but the nettles had other ideas. Each year they’d reappear and out I’d go, spending nearly all my spare time tidying them up.

It was in that garden that I learned about nature’s nature. I learned about its power, strength and tenacity. But I also learned about it’s fragility, befriended a hedgehog and overcame my toad-phobia. It is where I worked through problems and distracted myself from grief. Where I toiled, laughed, cried and hid. It was the backdrop for me reconnecting with nature. And where I learned that nettles are our friends not foes. It was the nettles that got me out there and I’ll always be grateful to them.

3. Wildflowers – embrace emotion

Sorrel, pignut, sweet vernal, melancholy thistle, cranesbill, yarrow, dogstail… The wildflower meadows of Swaledale are where it all began for me. I grew up in North Yorkshire in an area where knee-high spring meadows annually burst into life. They appear in our family photograph albums as frequently as birthdays and Christmas and I still return annually to see them. Immersed in Swaledale’s meadows is my happy place – where the fields throng with bugs and butterflies, swallows swoop overhead, curlews call and the air smells sweet and clean. They hold so many happy memories. The fact that these ancient wildflowers meadows are amongst the remaining 3% left in the country troubles me deeply.

If you’re unfamiliar with Swaledale’s landscapes I encourage you to visit – you’ll fall in love, I promise! June is their most colourful month.

4. Liquorice – soak up natural beauty

Curiosity led me to growing liquorice this year because I had no idea what the plant form of the famous sweet looked like. It grows on my window ledge and each time I walk in the room, my eye is drawn to it’s lovely leaves. They are sharp and regular and at night they close as though they’re going to sleep.

Recurring patterns and shapes that appear in nature are known to have a calming effect on the human body. They help to reduce stress, fatigue and anger, lower blood pressure and enhance our concentration and mood. I’ve noticed that I feel good when I’m surrounded by plants and sometimes when I’m working at my desk, I bring plants from other rooms to keep me company. It’s incredible to think that admiring them could be doing me good at the same time.

5. Ginkgo Biloba – show compassion for nature

There are fossils from over 290 million years ago which show Ginkgo’s distinctive leaves. Incredible medicinal ingredients are extracted from its dried leaves, in fact it’s their leaves that fascinate me most.

Ginkgo ‘Biloba’ means ‘two-lobes’ and when you look at the leaves you can see why. Each leaf is heart shaped and are unique because their veins fan out to the leaf edge, but don’t fork or form a network. They’re one of the oldest trees on Earth and currently considered endangered. They remind us to treat nature with care and respect, and certainly have a place in my heart.

Thank you Charlotte – Great Oaks from little acorns grow opens at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show on the 21st September. We can’t wait to see which plants are included…