Patterns In Nature

 In Garden Design, News

As a former creative director in the fashion industry, I am used to working prints, patterns, and colour on fabric. However, in 2016 I had the opportunity to work on the Beauty of Mathematics Garden sponsored by Winton Capital Management and designed by Nick Bailey. The garden was based on the Fibonacci sequence that exists throughout nature. This is what has led me to write this blog. Patterns in nature seems to be all about chaos but look closely and there is order within.

Photo Credit: Manoj Malde

The Beauty of Mathematics Garden clearly shows the patterns and rhythm created through the repetition of colours. The purples weave through the planting using lupins, salvia, alliums and lysimachia. Vines drip down along repeatedly along the belvedere.


There are various types of patterns in nature that are associated with mathematics.


Spirals are very common in the plant world. They can be seen very clearly in the arrangement of leaves, flowers, and seed heads of certain plants. One of most well-known is the phyllotaxis spiral based on the Fibonacci ratios. A good example of this is the Aloe polyphylla. The fermant spiral can be seen in the mature seed head of a sunflower. This is also based on the Fibonacci ratio approximate, the golden angle 137.508° governing the curvature of fermant’s spiral.

The Fibonnaci spiral can be clearly seen in the arrangement of this sunflower. This spiral exists in so many areas of the natural world from plants and flowers to wildlife. It can be seen in the shell of a snail and of the nautilus.


Fractals are infinitely complex patterns in nature. A general definition would be when a parent branch divides, creating smaller version of itself (not necessarily identical). These repeat the same divisions producing further smaller branches like itself. This can be clearly seen in Romanesco broccoli.

Photo Credit: Manoj Malde

A Romanesco broccoli showing fractal patterns


Tessellations are patterns formed by repeating tiles all over a flat surface area. Although quite common in art and design this is less so in living things. However, a plant that does show this pattern is Fritillaria meleagris (the snakes head fritillary).


How do garden designers think when they are creating gardens? They look at repetition, rhythms, lines, and colours. These are the things that create harmony, movement, and a journey through the garden. The Collins dictionary defines pattern as ‘an arrangement of lines or shapes, especially a design in which the same shape is repeated at regular intervals over a surface’. This is exactly what garden designers do, but not always. Sometimes designers break the rules. Rather than same shapes at regular intervals an abstract repetition takes place. What holds it together is an element that works like a string. This could be a pop of colour or a style that weaves itself through the whole space.


This is all part of evolution and survival. Flowers have lots of different patterns on their surfaces. These are like flight paths to guide bees and other pollinators towards the nectar and pollen. The pollinators pick up the pollen. Fly to another flower, pollinate the anthers there by insuring the survival of that specie.

Part of the grand gardens at Versailles. Repetition in extravagant shapes and patterns that also in turn create ornate pathways. Even the placement of the Cypress trees is very considered.


Patterns have been intrinsic to designing and creating gardens throughout history. If we look at the Moorish, Islamic, Paradise gardens. There is form, symmetry, and balance throughout the gardens. These gardens often incorporate tiles with geometric patterns. Even the architecture of the buildings will include patterns that are inspired from nature.
At Versailles we see the extravagance and drama of the French Baroque style. The grandeur of the gardens are executed in large curved forms, complicated shapes but controlled by a symmetrical layout.

The Renaissance estate and castle of Villandry are best known for its beautiful formal gardens. Carefully manicured clipped box parterres are laid out in endless geometric repeat pattern.
However, not all gardens have such controlled forms. If we look to the east, Japanese gardens avoid the extravagance of European gardens. They are inspired by and imitate nature. The patterns we associate with Japanese gardens are those in the raked gravel that represent the different motions in water.

Ren-mon = ripples
Maru-uzu-mon = water drop wave pattern
Uzumaki-mon = vortices
Ryūsui-mon = stream patterns
Kyokusen-mon = meandering stream patterns

There are various others. The low morning or evening sun casts long shadows in the garden creating abstract patterns of their own. The reduced colour palette and vegetation allows our attention to be drawn to the subtle details.

Opposite to the formality of the gardens of Versailles, Japanese gardens imitate nature. Everything is paired back. The focus then goes onto the patterns of the raked gravel, shapes of the islands, the natural rock formations and the limited palette of shrubs and trees.


We are attracted to plants for many different reasons. Their alluring scent, the glow of their gorgeous colours and the shape of their blooms or foliage. However, the attraction to some plants is because of the patterns they hold. For instance, the petals of Geranium Ballerina blooms have fine darker veining that remind me of the veins that you see on some butterfly wings. The paddle shaped leaves of Canna Durban have stunning multi-toned stripes. Most gardeners plant these for their foliage rather than the flowers. One of my favourite plants is Veronicastrum. Not just for the flower spikes but for the whirls of leaves that grow in groups of 5 or 7 up along the stem. Garrya eliptica is at its best when it is dripping in its Christmas decoration like catkins.

Photo Credit: Manoj Malde

The delicate darker veining on the petals of Geranium Ballerina

Some plants have intricately pleated leaves. Veratrum viride has always reminded of Fortuny pleated dresses. Fan palms named so because they have the concertinaed pattern of handheld fans. The foliage of cyclamens has a marbled pattern.

Euphorbia acanthothamnos grows in rock areas in Crete. It is commonly known as the chicken wire plant. This plant grows in a hexagonal pattern. There are numerous plants that I could list that have a kaleidoscope of patterns. This is one of the wonders of nature that never seizes to amaze.

The Chickenwire plant (Euphorbia acanthothamnos). We can clearly see the hexagonal patterns being formed by its growth.


There are trees with stunning bark patterns. Arbutus x andrachnoides reveals the most incredible orange stripey trunk when it starts maturing and sheds its bark. Prunus serrula Tibetica is a stunning tree. Known for its polished burgundy trunk that looks like it has copper wire spun around it. The trunks of London maples (Platanus x acerifolia) always remind me of army camouflage fatigues. Patterns are also created in the positioning of trees. Planting avenues of trees creates is in fact creating a pattern, but it is also creating a direction to a destination.


Part of designing a garden is creating patterns. Designers play with shapes, materials, and textures. The trick of course is to make sure that the scale, balance, and proportions create unity.

Walls Pathways & Paving

Walls can be made to look interesting simply through the choice of materials. Longs piled up with the cut ends on show can look beautiful. Livings walls can give you the opportunity to create patterns using plants. A brick wall with a brick poking out at regular intervals or laid at an angle just under the soldier course, to create a zig-zag effect suddenly adds depth and interest. These days you can get some incredible tiles with textured and 3D effects.

Using some imagination, pathways, patios, and terraces can also be laid with interesting patterns. In Islamic gardens you see the zellige tiles laid in a herringbone pattern. Whilst these tiles may not be suitable in a cold, wet climate, clay pavers, and sandstone setts can also be laid in this pattern. Hugo Bugg created a garden at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2014.

Photo credit: Manoj Malde

The fractured patterns created by the earth drying was the inspiration behind the creation of the hardscaping in Hugo Bugg’s garden at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2014. Hugo has extended the shapes into the formations of the planting areas, seating and the water feature.

One of my favourite images is of the dark hedges in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. A beautiful avenue of beech trees that were planted by the Stuart family in the eighteenth century. Notice the arched pattern they create above the road.

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