On February 11, Walt Disney studios is releasing a new movie, Gnomeo and Juliet, bringing to the big screen two icons of the garden, superstars with devoted fans across the globe: garden gnomes and pink flamingos. These pillars of pop culture are adored by gardeners, unlikely legends that spark passion in people.
Those that adore one usually scoff at the other; the few who festoon their gardens with both are looked upon as needing to change their medication. These cheerful, brightly colored statues are beloved by many; others, such as Britain’s Royal Horticultural Society – organizers of the premier Chelsea Flower Show – ban them for life. But love them or hate them, they’ve carved a niche in garden lore.
“The appeal of gnomes and flamingos lies precisely in the fact that they’re tasteless art,” says Dr. Brian Ott, Visiting Professor of Media Studies and pop culture expert at the University of Colorado, Denver. “Our older generation may have put them into the garden with a straight face, but now – particularly with pink flamingos – people are doing it tongue in cheek, as a means of irony.”
Gnomes became popular centuries ago, first being produced in Thuringia, Germany, by Philip Griebel, who based his sculptures on local myths of gnomes helping gardeners at night. From there, the gnomes caught on, with societies promoting them and fan clubs devoted to ‘freeing’ them. Though Travelocity’s gnome mascot travels the world willingly, most gnomes are victims of pranksters who steal them to send abroad. Recently, two teenagers in Gillette, Wyoming, allegedly pilfered over 140 gnomes before they were nabbed.
Flamingos are newer, introduced in 1957 by Don Featherstone, an artist who worked for Union Products. Sold in pairs, with one standing tall, the other with head lowered to eat, flocks of these fowl are often used as a prank, planted onto lawns as a surprise greeting to the homeowner. To celebrate one famous flocking, the Madison, Wisconsin, Common Council declared the plastic pink flamingo the official city bird in 2009.
“I have no idea why people love flamingos so much, but we get calls from across the country from people who want them,” says Claude Chapdelaine, Vice President of Cado Products Company, makers of the original plastic pink flamingos. “We make plastic frogs, turtles, penguins, but the flamingos are the thing people want.”
Purchasing the copyrights and molds in 2010, Cado Products are keeping the American icon alive after a brief stint out of production. “It’s taken us a little time to get ready for full production,” said Chapdelaine, “we had to put an addition onto our factory in order to make them. But demand is huge, and this year we expect to sell over 100,000 pairs of them.”
Gardeners are drawn to displaying this kitsch for two reasons, says Ott: to make an ironic statement celebrating tastelessness (which we actually really love), and as a conversation piece in particular spaces. Stumble upon one in the garden, and you’re sure to question the gardener about their sanity.
Are the differences in devotees of gnomes or flamingos? Ott believes so, speculating that what you display says a lot about how you want the world to view you. Someone who favors gnomes is projecting a playful personality, one of ironic sensibility. Gnomes are whimsical, but because they’re small, they’re less noticeable.
Flamingos tell a different story; the neon pink ornament is in-your-face, projecting a sense of counter culture and flaunting of rules. “By displaying flamingos, people are being transgressive; there’s almost a subversive element that’s less true of gnomes,” said Ott. “They’re socially edgy; the adult version of being a punk rock teenager with colored hair.”
Subversive or subtle, your garden is richer because of these ornaments, so choose them with care and display them proudly.