“Poppies. Poppies will put them to sleep,” the Wicked Witch of the West cackles in The Wizard of Oz. And put them to sleep the poppies certainly did. But how did the filmmakers put that field of poppies on the screen? Did they plant thousands of poppies in a field? Well, no. They made artificial poppies by the zillions and found a way to wire them to the stage floor, where Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion fell—uncomfortably, one imagines—to sleep among them.
No one would ever mistake Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors for a real flower. Audrey is, in its way, emblematic of the flowers in films, made of silk or plastic (plus, in Audrey’s case, foam and a lot of attitude). The topiary shrubberies in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland are equally unreal, and no one would expect them to be any different, any more than you’d expect the singing flowers in the Disney Alice to be real.
Sadly, garden authenticity is rare in film. That glorious garden in Enchanted April bursts with flowers that simply do not bloom at the same time—except in greenhouses, of course. It’s easier to accept a garden that knows no season in a movie like Green Card because these plants are all in containers. In fact, Andie MacDowell’s Green Card garden is a greenhouse, so all bets are off.
And of course greenhouses contribute to perfect film gardens. Meryl Streep’s vegetable garden in It’s Complicated–surely the Platonic ideal of vegetable gardens—owed its perfect tomatoes and lush cabbages to greenhouse-grown produce, the best of which was carefully placed in exquisite rows.
Even when a film is shot in a real garden, the garden is likely to be some legendary site, managed by a large staff of professional gardeners—Fountains Abbey and Studley Park stood in for the Secret Garden in the film of the same name. Elinor and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility might have been shown tending a little cottage garden, but not a single rose in that cottage garden was blowsy or past its prime.
None of this is a surprise, of course. It’s magic. And magic is the whole point of these gardens and their flowers. They transport us to other worlds. (Almost literally in the case of Avatar, where Pandora’s plant life was invented in consultation with a University of California Riverside plant physiologist and given real-sounding invented Latin names.) They tell stories all by themselves. Consider the gardens in Lord of the Rings: the village green and cheery garlands of Hobbiton, the autumnal grace of Elrond’s Rivendell, the white flowers of Lorien, the long dead tree in a stone plaza in Gondor. Each element conveys a piece of the tale.
Sometimes the plot hinges on a magical flower. The juice of “the little western flower” known as Love-in-idleness causes Titania to fall in love with the first person she sees—Bottom, transformed into an ass—in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, spreading chaos and fun throughout the forest for a night. In the 1940 Thief of Bagdad, the evil Jaffar causes the princess to forget her beloved by inviting her to inhale the fragrance of the Blue Rose of Forgetfulness. And sometimes a garden restores memory, as in the Reese Witherspoon romantic fantasy Just Like Heaven.
And sometimes a flower conveys a character. Take, for instance, an iconic moment from Goldfinger. Sean Connery sheds his wetsuit and reveals the tuxedo under it. And then he fluffs up his boutonniere, because Bond would never join a party with a crushed carnation.