Anyone else bothered by the term “ornamental” to distinguish certain plants from those that are considered useful, usually edibles?

For example,Wikipedia uses this petunia to illustrate the term and offers this definition:

Ornamental plants are plants that are grown for decorative purposes in gardens and landscape design projects, as houseplants, for cut flowers, and specimen display.

The Wiki authors (and I’ve noticed, users of the term generally) make it clear that the plants are for aesthetics only:

Commonly, ornamental [garden] plants are grown for the display of aesthetic features. In all cases, their purpose is for the enjoyment of gardeners, visitors, and the public institutions.

If we hadn’t already gotten the point: (bold in the original)

Ornamental plants are plants which are grown for display purposes, rather than functional ones.  While some plants are both ornamental and functional, people usually use the term “ornamental plants” to refer to plants which have no value beyond being attractive, although many people feel that this is value enough.

Pollinator garden in Greenbelt, MD

At Buddy Attick Park in Greenbelt, MD

So to challenge the notion that they have “no value beyond being attractive,” here are some of my favorite ornamental gardens. Obviously they do more than beautify.

Lurie Garden in Chicago

Lurie Garden in Chicago

Conifer Collection at the National Arboretum

Conifer Collection at the National Arboretum

Chanticleer Garden in PA

Chanticleer Garden

Coleus and Joe Pye Weed in Maryland

Even on a tiny scale, like the front garden of my townhouse (above), where I ripped out the lawn and replaced it with a mix of native and nonnative ornamental plants, the plants serve a variety of ecological purposes – food and shelter for wildlife, stormwater management, and cleaning the air.

While today’s gardeners are well aware of the eco-services their ornamental plants perform, the Wiki entry is silent on them, referring simply to the “many people” who feel there’s value “enough” in being attractive.

So my second complaint is with this dismissive attitude toward attractiveness, which is then thoroughly debunked by another Google result for the term “ornamental plant.” It’s the article “Ornamental Plants and their Role in Human Psychology” in the journal Agrotechnololgy. These researchers in India see the whole picture, as evidenced in the Abstract:

ornamental plants play important role in human health and psychology. Human health depends on well-functioning ecosystems. We cannot live without the goods and services that nature provides to purify our air and water, maintain soil fertility, pollinate plants, break down waste, provide food and fuel and keep diseases in check.

They cite some of the myriad studies proving the benefits of beautiful plants to our psyches:
Exposed to plant settings, people have more positive emotions. In a plantscaped office, people recover from stress quicker and employees show a significant improvement in their efficiency and concentration. Problem solving skills, ideation and creative performance all improve substantially. In a workplace with plants and flowers we are more productive and green workplaces help recruit and retain workers.
When plants were added to an interior office space, the employees were more productive (12% quicker reaction time on the computer task) and less stressed (systolic blood pressure readings lowered by one to four units). Immediately after completing the task, participants in the room with plants present reported feeling more attentive than people in the room with no plants.
When we shop in a plantscaped environment, we visit more frequently, stay longer, rate quality higher and are willing to pay more. Hence, interaction with plants, both outdoor and indoor, can change human attitudes, behaviours and psychological responses.

Coneflowers in High Line Park, NYC

Imagine how office workers in Lower Manhattan must feel after strolling the High Line (above) on their lunch hour.

So what’s a better term than “ornamental”? I like the simple, less judgmental “nonedible” to describe plants we don’t normally eat.

MORE Dissing
There’s one more use of the term “ornamental plants” that bugs me and that’s to contrast them with natives, a usage that manages to insult both types of plants at once. To state the obvious, natives can be beautiful!