At least once a week I volunteer at Lawton Greenhouse, our city’s hub for plants that strut their stuff at our zoo, our parks, our conservatory, and our streetscapes.
It’s a gig I love for so many reasons: I get my hands in dirt year-round, there’s always something blooming, and no one cares that I do a lot of plant whispering and hugging. I take notes every time I work, some of which I include as part of my Master Gardener requirement, but also because I learn so much and need to write it down or it wanders out of my brain.
Lately I’ve been working with the succulents, which have me stopping more than usual to take pictures– another thing no one seems to find peculiar– and I’ve fallen down a spiral rabbit hole researching the patterns I see.
Phyllotaxis, the arrangement of leaves on a plant, in succulents includes a stunning amount of Fibonacci patterns, and a few others I’ve learned about here and in a fun Vi Hart video here. The Fibonacci spiral gets me every time. Mother Nature’s design aesthetics always floor me but the swirls and symmetry of spirals in nature are among my favorite things.
Pine cones, ferns and sunflowers all sport great spirals, but oh, these succulents! The patterns are delicate, fierce, complex, and mesmerizing.
Opuntia – Mammillaria – Titanopsis
In the short, gray days of February spending time in the greenhouse lifts me above the winter blues and I find myself humming along to the music in my earbuds. When that one song comes on, the one that connects me to my mom, I smile, give a little shimmy in a sunbeam, knowing she’s in and amongst the whole of nature now. I think about how nature tends to soothe sadness, not only for me but also for so many scientists, writers, philosophers, and artists.
Charles Darwin, having lost his eldest, and some say, favorite, daughter at the age of ten, worked through his grief in the pages of On the Origin of the Species. His final statement speaks to a faith in nature’s infinite ability to design structures, in which “…from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
A few years later Darwin received a book of drawings from Ernst Haeckel, who had discovered and catalogued more than four thousand tiny single-cell marine organisms called Radiolaria. In awe of Haeckel’s discoveries, Darwin wrote in a letter dated March 3, 1864, that he hoped Haeckel could banish the painful remembrances of his own loss of his wife by continuing his scientific study of “such extremely beautiful structures.”
It is in observing these intricate and varied designs that Haeckel found some comfort, beyond dutifully reporting his findings, just as it was for Darwin and Monet in their gardens, and Helen MacDonald, whose book H is for Hawk looks at the solace of nature through her relationship with her bird, Mabel.
There are many unknowns in nature; many hypotheses unproven. That’s certainly part of the appeal for me. I don’t want to know everything, all the answers. There’s an elegance to the mysteries that tethers me to a faith in something much grander than I can ever know. With each new theory of why nature does what she does I imagine there are other reasons we aren’t yet aware of, and may never be.
There are complex equations to creating patterns, as in why succulents and other plants form a Fibonacci sequence. Scientists believe it’s a combination of strategies to absorb the most sunlight possible, produce the most leaves or branches, and funnel phytohormones around the whole structure. Whatever forces of nature are in play, the resulting beauty in design is what I find reassuring. The circles, fractals, hexagons, and spirals add a softness and flow throughout my garden and in the greenhouse that bring me peace.
Over my shoulder at this moment is a brilliant beam of sunlight stretching out the tree shadows across a fast-melting snow. It’s an unseasonable forty-seven degrees and the birds are singing. Time to wander outside and let nature surprise me with all her extremely beautiful structures.
Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 4419,” accessed on 24 February 2021, https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/letter/DCP-LETT-4419.xml
Jonathan Swinton, Erinma Ochu and The MSI Turing’s Sunflower Consortium, 5/1/2016, https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.160091
Mathematical lives of plants: Why plants grow in geometrically curious patterns Julie J. Rehmeyer Science NewsVolume 172, Issue 3, 9/30/2009
“In all things in nature,Aristotle
there is something of the marvelous.”