Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Upper South
August, 2006
Regional Report

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Creating a labyrinth in your yard is not only a creative outlet, it adds dimension and texture to the area.

Experiencing the Twisted Path

Mazes and labyrinths can be filed under that category of "everything that's old is new again." Up until a decade or so ago, the only mazes one heard much about were in centuries-old gardens in Europe. Then U-pick farmers trying to draw in visitors discovered the entertainment value of mazes, usually constructed of corn, but also using sunflowers and other crops. Somewhat simultaneously, people became aware of the use of labyrinths through the centuries as a means of meditation. Perhaps you've visited some form of a maze or labyrinth and thought about adding one to your yard. The experience of a friend showed me the possibilities, but first some history.

Maze or Labyrinth?
To some extent the terms "maze" and "labyrinth" can be used interchangeably, but over the years people have drawn distinctions. Generally, a maze is multicursal puzzle, offering a choice of paths, often walled with tall hedges, with a center and exit that are difficult to find due to a number of dead ends. Prior to today's corn mazes, they were most often found in formal European gardens of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Hampton Court Palace in London being one of the most notable. The Hampton Court maze is the oldest surviving hedge maze; it was planted between 1689 and 1694 and covers one third of an acre.

Labyrinths, on the other hand, are considered to be unicursal, with one well-defined path, usually leading to the center and back to the exit. The word is derived from "labrys," an ancient word for a double axe, as the labyrinth is often symmetrical, with both halves being a mirror image. A fascinating aspect of labyrinths is that evidence of them has been found from as long ago as 3,500 years and from regions and countries that would have had no direct contact with one another when the labyrinths were created, including Iceland, Peru, Egypt, India, Europe, Scandanavia, and North America.

Some Well-Known Labyrinths
One of the most famous labyrinths is from Greek mythology, where Minos, king of Crete, concealed the fearsome Minotaur, who was half bull, half man. Young boys and girls were fed to the Minotaur until it was killed by Theseus, who was able to master the complex path. In the third century B.C., coins from Crete were struck with the spiral labyrinth symbol, often in the simple seven-circuit style known as the classical labyrinth.

Through the centuries and cultures, labyrinths have tended to be connected with spiritual pursuit. They were particularly popular during the twelth and thirteenth centuries and often created in the pavement of cathedrals, most notably Chartres and Amiens in France. The Middle Ages was a time of pilgrimage. Since most people could not make the journey to Jerusalem, they would, instead, go to a great cathedral, with the pilgrimage ending by walking or crawling the labyrinth to its center, then circling back to the "outside world." Most of the cathedral labyrinth patterns were based on twelve rings, with four distinct quadrants and 28 loops leading to a center rosette.

A Journey For Many Reasons
Much of the present-day significance of labyrinths continues to focus on them as a symbolic means of a pilgrimage or journey, where people can use the meditative walk along the path to reach toward salvation or enlightenment, balance or centering, healing, connection to a higher self, awareness, or simply relaxation and enjoyment of the intricate patterns.

Fortunately, there are no set rules for creating a labyrinth, as neither the shape nor the materials are dictated. The paths might be defined with earthwork, rocks, sticks, or plants. It can be on flat ground or on a hillside. It doesn't even have to have a center. All of which brings me back to why I was drawn to this topic.

Earlier this year a friend of mine, Lea Marlow, excitedly told me that she had created a labyrinth with her riding mower in an flat area of lawn between her home and a pasture. There were a few plants near the pasture, but, basically, this area was rather uninteresting. Originally, she had drawn up a traditional circular design but found it difficult to execute in the given space, so, instead, she just started mowing, leaving a strip of lawn uncut as she drove around. Periodically this summer, the strip between the path has been mown to a height of 5 inches so that the pattern is not obscured.

The result? Uninteresting was transformed into fascinating. The planting beds at the rear of the yard take on a new focal importance. Overall, the area now has a textural feeling that adds impact to the rest of the yard. Even without walking the path, the area invites contemplation, which gives rise to the thought that maybe many of us would enjoy making a labyrinth. Although my friend is inherently imaginative, this example shows what we can create if we're not afraid of trying, and that as much can be learned about ourselves by the process of making the labyrinth as by using it.

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