A new series of stamps celebrates the diversity of public gardens.
By Zach Mortice
Showcasing the diversity of American landscapes, past legacies of cultural stewardship, and the skills of generations of landscape architects, the U.S. Postal Service recently released the “American Gardens” stamp series, commemorating 10 landmark gardens across the nation. The gardens, many of them created by historically significant designers and makers, raise the visibility of landscape design in the American cultural realm by putting them into our hands and mailboxes every day, everywhere. The stamps were designed by Ethel Kessler and feature photos by Allen Rokach, a former director of photography at the New York Botanical Garden.
The stamps are a reminder of the vital role the outdoors offers during the COVID-19 quarantine, says U.S. Postal Service Director of Stamp Services Bill Gicker. “Time spent in nature, especially a beautiful and cared for garden landscape, can be very uplifting and rejuvenating—just what many people can use at this time,” he says.
The 10 botanic, country estate, and municipal gardens are publicly accessible and include Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C.; the Biltmore Estate Gardens in North Carolina; the Brooklyn Botanic Garden; the Chicago Botanic Garden; the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens; the Huntington Botanical Gardens in Los Angeles; the Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park in Florida; the Norfolk Botanical Garden in Virginia; Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens in Ohio; and the Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library in Delaware. The American Public Gardens Association hosted a virtual release event in May, featuring video presentations from several of the gardens.
While the gardens geographically skew to the east, they nod to the diversity of garden makers in U.S. landscape history. Two of the gardens, Dumbarton Oaks and Winterthur, were designed by women landscape architects, Beatrix Farrand and Marian Coffin respectively; the Norfolk Botanical Garden was established with a grant from the Works Progress Administration and built by more than 200 African American women and 20 African American men.
Diversity of plant expression, rather than comprehensiveness, guided the stamp designer’s selections. The Huntington’s stamp features lush succulents in deep purples and understated teals, rather than its arguably better-known roses. Kessler designed the individual stamps as single compositions, but also looked at the entire group of 10 as one unit. “It was looking for diversity of color [and] texture,” she says. “It was, ‘How can I put this puzzle together?’” Mirror-still water, shaggy grasses, and the full spectrum of blooming flowers marble the pane of stamps.
To design each stamp, Kessler says she looked to “anchor” each tiny image with a strong geometric element, allowing the viewer’s eye to trace out more granular details from there. There’s the axial walking path lined with white birches at the Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens, the mist-shrouded peninsula of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden, the sharply reflected symmetry of the Winterthur reflecting pool, and a creeping perimeter of bushy grasses at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. “In each one there’s some small graphic line,” she says. “There can be lots of detail because your eye already knows how to stand in that space.”
For Rokach, the photographer, the beauty captured in the garden stamps is testament to the commitment and vision of their designers and maintenance staff. With gardens, “the beauty just didn’t happen by itself,” he says. “It takes a lot of caring, a lot of hope, a lot of disappointment, until you get it absolutely right.”
Thaïsa Way, FASLA, the Resident Program Director for Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, says the new stamps are an opportunity for rediscovery within the landscape architecture profession and beyond. “Since the 1960s we have neglected the reality that garden design has played a huge part in this profession,” she says. The stamps’ focus on public gardens underscores the importance of public-sector landscapes. “In an era when we have not taken seriously the stewardship of our public realm and our urban landscapes, [the stamps remind us] that there was in fact an era where we considered the design of places and landscapes [to be] really important.”
By focusing on designed gardens, this stamp series puts landscapes firmly in the public eye. The public’s perception of landscape design is likely to include public parks or residential gardens, though national parks and individual plants (both previous stamp series) may also come up, but this series is a reminder that public gardens are cultural objects as well as “natural” expressions of ecology and geology. “We have remarkable cultural assets in the landscape, and landscape architects should be proud of this diversity,” Way says.