Do you really “see” the gardens you visit?   I mean, do you see what the creator of that space wanted you to see?   Do you see it the same way others do? Maybe.

At times we may all have unseeing eyes.  We look.  But we don’t really see . . . appreciate . . . what’s in front of us.  This is what Henry David Thoreau was driving toward when he observed: “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”   

Seeing What You Were Intended to Notice

If you’re experienced in the gardening style of the place you’re visiting, you may not need any guidance to appreciate what its creator intended to achieve.  The rest of us, though, would find it helpful to have read a guidebook or have a docent point things out.

Sometimes, we get in our own way.  We may harbor opinions that are not based in fact.  Mark Twain observed: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

As an example, you are likely familiar with Monet’s series of waterlily paintings.  There are 250 of them.  Mentally, you might be saying to yourself: “Yeah, they’re paintings of water lilies.”  But are they all really paintings of water lilies?  Look at these pictures:

The subjects of Monet’s paintings here are the reflections of sky, trees, and clouds . . . not the water lilies.  Once pointed out, it’s hard to “see” the pictures in any other way.  (For more information about Monet and his focus on reflections, you might visit the website “Claude Monet – Paintings, Biography, and Quotes.”)

Knowledge and Experience Help.

It’s helpful to know something about plants and garden design when visiting a public garden, or even when just looking over a neighbor’s fence.  The more you know, the more you actually see (recognize). 

If, for instance, you were an experienced forager, you might notice the edible nature of some of the groundcover.  If looking at Mayapples, you might appreciate the foliage umbrellas spread over their fruit.  You might also understand that eating them raw might make you feel like you’d look forward to meeting the Archangel Michael in person.

In some gardens, a child might see cozy hiding places, where you see a retreat.  Or if you’re a butterfly, you might see lunch.  We all bring our past experiences and learning with us when we view a garden.

Your Perceptions are Valid.

Sometimes, what we see may be quite different than others’ perceptions, even different from the painter’s, or the gardener’s intentions.  You might see that the horticultural pundits are full of compost.  Your opinion of a garden may include insights just as valid as anyone else’s.

When I look at my own garden, I sometimes only notice the weeds, not the flowers.  At other times, what I notice most is the beauty of serendipity.  In a significant fraction of the time in my garden, Mother Nature has intervened to create combinations I had not intended.  There are happy accidents in my beds.  And we should realize that the same probably happened in Gertrude’s, Vita’s, or Martha’s gardens.

Do we all See the Same Way?

Yes and No.

See this block of color shades?

You know it as “magenta.”  Nursery catalog copywriters tell us it’s “Rosy Purple,” “Rose,” or sometimes “Fuchsia.”  Catalog shills be damned! With apologies to the Bard:

        Magenta is Magenta. 

        Called by any other name t’would be just as garish.

Well, whatever you call it, it technically does not exist

Yep, you read that right.  There is no wavelength of light that produces magenta.  The color is entirely made up by our brains.  Amazingly, though, we all pretty much see the same color even though our brains and eyes may differ, as explained below.

But first, it might be helpful to acknowledge that none of what we see in the wilderness evolved for us to see.  It’s for the pollinators and distributors of seeds in the other kingdoms of fauna.  Some markings are displayed in wavelengths we cannot see. Bees, for example, see flowers in ultraviolet.  So do many other insects and birds.  Nevertheless, the forms and colors of the plant world are attractive to us.  But not always in precisely the same way.

Some See More.

Some of us differ anatomically in the number of cones (color receptors) in our eyes.  Folks described as tetrachromats have four color cones rather than the normal three.  Do these super seers see different colors?  Again, the answer is “Yes and No.”

They see the same colors we do.  But also, they see a whole lot more.  Most of us can normally differentiate among a million shades of color.  However, super seers can see 100 million different shades!  But only 2 per cent or so of the population has this ability.  (For more information about super seers, you may enjoy NYU’s “ScienceLine” on the subject.)

And Some See Less.

Only women can be super seers.  Men are never so lucky. Additionally, one in twelve men has some degree of color blindness.  In women, that fraction is one in 200. 

I happen to be one of those with a modest deficiency in being able to see all colors.  Blues and purples look very similar to me.

Here’s a picture of Dame’s Rocket in our garden.  Da Missus says that they’re purple.  They look more bluish to me.  To salve my injured pride, we call them “blurple”.

Being a typical male, I know maybe eight colors, like yellow, green, red, and so on.  Men don’t often include chartreuse or carmine in their vocabulary. For many guys, color boils down to what we like and what we don’t.  Color wheels, adjacencies and opposites don’t enter our conversations much.  Maybe this is due to our more prevalent deficiencies in color perception.

Do You See All the Colors? 

By now, the curious reader will want to know whether they might have some form of color blindness.  You can (sort of) find out online with simple tests showing color pictures like the one below, with numbers or other features embedded within them. 

If you can’t see the embedded “71” in the test above, you may have a color deficiency (and should consult an ophthalmologist to find out).  The online color testing companies, like ColorMax  (where this sample came from), caution against using their tests for a definitive diagnosis.

Another Type of “Blindness”

You should know, however, that men’s color blindness is not related to their infamous “refrigerator blindness.”  Notwithstanding the dismissive, often critical, opinion of womankind, this “blindness” is actually a valuable evolutionary step. 

If you have not yet had a close living relationship with the standard American male, refrigerator blindness manifests like so:

“Sweetums, where is the ketchup?”

“It’s right there in the refrigerator door.”

“I don’t see it.”

“It’s right here!” (Reaching for the bottle in the front of the refrigerator door.)

The reader might assume that this shows a defect in the male of the species.  Not true.  Well, at least, not always. 

Predator animals and male hunters notice their prey more easily if the target moves.  Spotting moving prey improves results in hunting.

But alas, bottles of ketchup do not often move in the refrigerator; nor do socks in a drawer or the remote in the living room.  We (the bearded ones) can’t see ‘em.

The exasperation caused by refrigerator blindness is just the price wimmin-folk must pay for the survival value of men successfully hunting (and tracking golf balls in flight).

The moral of this is that you might hear different reactions from a male companion, if one is along with you when you visit a garden . . . especially if moving deer (rats with antlers) are lurking within. You might then come away with quite different opinions of what you saw.

Our experience, learning, brains, genetics and gender can all make a difference in what we see. Regardless, it’s always enjoyable to see what others are growing.  Whee!