Many gardeners think of colour in the garden but often neglect the importance of the tactile experiences people can gain from plants. For many visually impaired people it is one of the most significant experiential considerations in their sensory world. For children it is highly meaningful too, they simply love to feel the different textures of plants. I certainly witness it in my own children and without being too sentimental about it, I remember many different plants that I liked as a child simply because they were lovely to touch. ‘Feely’ plants that spring to mind are Mimosa pudica, a sensitive plant that quickly folds up its leaves upon fingertip touch. I remember these intriguing plants both as a child, and also as a young adult whilst travelling in Trinidad and Tobago and like a big kid I went around poking the plants with my sandaled feet. My children are now growing M. pudica from seed and they are looking forward to seeing them as mature plants. I cannot guarantee a very long life for these plants as it is likely they will get mauled a fair amount by little fingers.
I have never understood people’s dislike of ornamental grasses. No other group of plants are more tactile than the grasses or more beautiful to look at. Planted at the edges of borders or at garden thresholds, you can simply run your hand through them as you pass by. A garden I managed for a few years in Somerset had plantings of Miscanthus sinensis ‘Yakushima Dwarf’. It is a lovely grass, which forms distinctive clumps of green foliage with a white midrib. The pink fluffy flower heads emerge in the summer, silvering in the autumn months and persisting well through the winter. Some consider it too chunky in its form, Christopher Lloyd described it as having a dumpy carriage but it is one of my favourites because of its tactile qualities and the way it moves in the wind. Planted either side of a path passers by can swish their arms over and through it. Children often pull off leaves, flower heads or seed heads of grasses and then play games, like blowing through grass blades to make trumpet noises or using seed heads as mini catapults. I have no qualms about my children picking the plants in our family garden. I want them to be able to touch different plants, although I do draw the line at excessive picking and they certainly know not to collect wild flowers. This year I am growing both Hordeum jubatum and Pennisetum villosum from seed, having seen my youngest child gently stroking the pink barley like fluffy seed heads of Hordeum when visiting a garden. Pennisetum villosum is equally lovely forming tufted clumps of fine green leaves with fluffy wheat-like flower heads. For fluffiness, many of the Clematis species provide clouds of the stuff. Particularly good is C. tangutica, the variety, ‘Bill Mackenzie’ with yellow flowers, which will put on an extended show of blooms. To get the attractive seed heads a different approach to pruning is needed with a hard cut back in February. For soft velveteen leaves the groundcover of Stachys byzantina is reliable but I love the bigger silver whorls of Verbascum bombyciferum ‘Polar Summer’. Fuzzy buds of pussy willow and Magnolia sp. also add early season texture in gardens too.
Ferns are another highly tactile plant. Colin Ward from Swinesmeadow Farm Nursery, who sells a number of different varieties at plant fairs, always places what he terms the ‘touchy-feely’ ferns to the back of the trade stand as more often than not they end up looking very bedraggled if placed near the front. People simply cannot resist touching them. Some wonderful species include Adiantum venustum which has delicate lime green fronds, Athyrium otophorum ‘Okanum’ with silvery pale green fronds with red flushed mid ribs and Onychium japonicum, commonly called the carrot fern for its beautiful airy and lacy fronds.