Please Touch the Plants: The Sense of Touch in the Garden

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Photo by Ana-Maria Berbec on Unsplash

Author: Claire McCaughey, Master Gardener of Ottawa Carleton

Gardening is an active, hands-on pursuit where the gardener has her hands in the soil, feeling its texture. She also releases aroma from leaves by touching them, feels the surface of rough tree bark when walking along a pathway, and handles fruit and vegetables of many different shapes and sizes when picking them. These sensory activities connect the gardener directly with plants and soil. In horticulture studies, students are often encouraged to feel the soil to better understand its texture and other qualities.

Along with smell and taste, the sense of touch in the garden is important to those who are visually impaired. Being able to touch plants in the garden is also an enriching experience for children (especially when they may not be allowed to touch objects in many other contexts). The sense of touch provides both pleasure and information. Sensory gardens where visitors are actively encouraged to touch plants are often now included in many botanical gardens around the world.

Touch and Smell – A Powerful Sensory Combination

Many herbs and medicinal plants have a particular aroma, but to smell it, the plant must first be touched. Touching leafy culinary herbs such as Origanum vulgare (oregano), Rosmarinus officinalis (rosemary), and Salvia officinalis (sage) or tea herbs such as Agastache foeniculum (anise hyssop) will release their scent, which will also stay on the hands because of the oil contained in the leaves. Even after being dried, the leaves retain their aroma. Similarly, the scent of Lavandula officinalis (lavender) is released when the gardener brushes against it. For this reason, many gardeners grow lavender along the edges of pathways.

From Soft to Prickly

There is a wide spectrum of leaf textures, both on the surfaces and the edges of leaves. For example, the surface of the leaves of Argemone mexicana (Mexican prickly poppy) is shiny and smooth, but the edges of the leaves are very spiny. The surface and edge of the grey-leaved Stachys byzantina (lamb’s ear) are soft and smooth to the touch. Nicotiana alata (flowering tobacco) leaves and stems have a sticky surface caused by glandular hairs on the surface. Salix discolor (pussywillow) has a stem that is very pleasing to touch because of the smooth, soft catkins. In contrast to textured leaf surfaces, most flower petals are soft and silky to the touch.

Rough to the Touch

Tree bark, although often rough to the touch, has a surface that can be appealing because of grooves, rings, or peeling. In fact, these characteristics of bark also represent a way to assist in the identification of trees. Rough surfaces are found everywhere in the garden, not just on plants. Stone and rocks, wooden barrels and raised beds, and even manufactured turface containers all provide interesting tactile experiences in the garden.

Vegetables and Fruits with Interesting Tactile Features

Some of the most interesting plants to consider in relation to the sense of touch are vegetables and fruits. One that I grew last year was a round and smooth Solanum melongena (eggplant) called ‘Rosa Bianca.’ Many tomatoes have a similar round shape with smooth skin. Ribes uva-crispa (gooseberry) is another plant I introduced into my garden a few years ago. The round green or red berries have a slightly prickly surface to the touch, which may discourage some people from eating them. When ripe, however, they are sweet and tasty, and the rough texture seems to disappear, especially when the berries are cooked.

Strawberries also have an interesting texture with seeds (or achenes) on the surface of the “fruit.” I have not had much success growing larger strawberries, as the squirrels and other animals usually get to them first. However, the small wild strawberries, such as Fragaria vesca (alpine strawberries) and Fragaria virginiana (Virginia wild strawberry), make good substitutes with the same texture characteristics as the larger species.

An Interesting Experiment?

It could be an interesting experience for gardeners to walk through a garden with their eyes closed—safely guided by someone else, of course—to see if plants can be identified by touch alone. Naturally, other senses, such as smell, may assist as well. The next time you are in the garden, consider touching leaves and plant surfaces to see if you learn something new about your plants. You might be surprised by the pleasure you get from this sensory experience.

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