No disrespect to beautiful home landscapes, but when you look at a pretty space, it doesn’t mean you’re present in the moment. It’s easy to admire attractive plants and then slip back into the subcurrent in your mind: the call you need to make, the proposal due on Thursday, did you put the garage door down?
Sensory gardens encourage us to slow down. They inspire us to explore the natural world with our hands, nose, ears, mouth, eyes or even memory. They fully engage our senses, so we can get out of our heads and be totally mindful of what we’re experiencing.
While this mindfulness is valuable for everyone, it’s especially important for homeowners who are going through life changes—such as those who are aging, navigating illness (like cancer), discovering how to thrive with less mobility or a special need, or experiencing memory loss.
Here are plants to consider for home landscapes to stimulate the senses and elevate your clients’ well-being.
Plants that spark memories
Memory is closely linked to our senses. Almost everyone has a story of a plant from childhood: Mom’s geraniums… Dad’s roses… A neighbor’s lilacs… Irises… Petunias…
Memory plants remind us of another time, bringing back happy moments. For people with dementia, these nostalgic plants can create reassuring connections to the past—calming restless minds that often feel the stress of not knowing where they are.
Angie Andrade, associate director of therapeutic horticulture at Denver Botanic Gardens, loves to include the Vicks plant (Plectranthus tomentosa) in sensory gardens. This fuzzy-leafed, annual herb smells like Vicks ointment. She finds that these plants spark lively conversation and connection.
Keep in mind, it’s helpful to understand the generation you’re designing your homes for: What was popular in their childhood? Where are they from? For children of the 1950s, a plant that smells like Vicks may bring up comforting memories of caring mothers. But if you’re designing for families with teenagers, they may have no connection to that scent.
Of course, there’s one scent that crosses generations: chocolate. Chocolate flower (Berlandiera lyrata) has long-blooming yellow daisies that fill the air with a rich chocolate aroma in the morning. Andrade believes this Colorado native “should be in every sensory garden” with its familiar smell.
Herbs and snackables
Herbs—like lavender, oregano, rosemary, thyme and culinary sage—are the rockstars of sensory gardens. They introduce fragrance, taste and tactile textures to the home landscape. They evoke memories of favorite meals from the past, like grandma’s Thanksgiving dinner or that weekend trip to Sonoma. Many herbs are perennials in Colorado, returning year after year.
“Snackables”—like cherry tomatoes or edible berries—are another strong addition to sensory gardens, says Erin Lovely, a horticultural therapist from Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colo. Many people interact with plants through taste, including kids and adults with visual impairments or memory loss.
A big part of a sensory landscape is creating connection: Inspiring someone to talk about a plant. Tapping into their imagination. Sharing a moment of whimsy.
At the sensory garden at Denver Art Museum, Red Birds in a Tree (Scrophularia macrantha) is a mid-summer conversation starter. The flowers on this long-blooming, xeric plant look like red birds perched on tree branches. This plant attracts hummingbirds, adding energy to a garden. Place a bench nearby, and you have a front row seat to avian entertainment.
Hens and Chicks (Sempervivum tectorum) is another sensory garden star with a story. This tactile, drought-tolerant plant is made up of rosettes. The larger rosettes are the mama plants—the hens—and their small rosettes are their baby chicks.
Lamb’s Ear (Stachys byzantine) and shorter-lived Silver Sage (Salvia argentea) have velvety-soft leaves in a silver gray. Just try to resist running your hands over their foliage! These drought-tolerant plants offer contrast and visual relief to more vibrant flowers.
Ornamental grasses are another tactile favorite. In addition to inviting touch, they provide fall and winter interest, and create beautiful movement and sound in the wind.
UNDAUNTED® Ruby Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia reverchonii ‘PUND01S’) is a standout for texture. This low-maintenance grass has clouds of airy seed heads that turn a reddish pink in late summer. Its flowers dry and stay attractive all winter.
Trees and large flowering shrubs
These majestic plants bring so much to a sensory landscape: shade from our blazing Colorado sun, wildlife and pollinators, sound and movement in the wind, and changing interest from season to season. The key is to think through where you place them, so people can enjoy them without the hazard of roots or low hanging branches.
Ann Kendall, Western garden writer and Certified Colorado Gardener, Plant Select. Plantselect.org.