My Purple Rain Trauma & Gardens Inspired by Classic Album Cover Art

Gardens and music connect us

Riverbanks’ horticulture team planted flowers to match iconic album cover art. When Tom and I walked the gardens today, we laughed, talked about our favorite old music, and lingered longer because of this exhibit. He even taught me something; Andy Warhol took the famous zipper-bulging crotch photo for the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers. The color theme there is denim and lipstick red. 

Another garden is my favorite. Bluedaze flower makes for low waves. There’s a dusting of sand for a beach. A brilliantly elegant trellis planted with blue morning glory makes head-high waves. The little lifeguard chair could be a step too far into kitsch. But we don’t all see things like that the same. I admit I did kind of want to climb into that lifeguard chair and do a selfie.

We Don’t All Hear the Same Either

I’m happy this fun display didn’t go overboard with technology. They could have had tiny speakers or a music app playing. But without that, the music springs from our head, and our soul.

Bent pvc pipe makes for an elegantly curved trellis design that I’ll definitely copy as a great way to show off vines.

For me, Purple Rain brings a tense moment. Was it 1999 or so that I was sitting in a dark movie theatre watching the purple Prince. A middle-aged woman moved next to me and started rubbing her panty-hosed toe up my calf. And singing, toward my ear, in a low whisper.  I’m sure she never meant to cause me any harm.  But I was a 17-year-old gay boy. And I was freaked out. I haven’t thought of that in decades — thanks, horticulture staff. 

The Process Started a Year Ago

In teams of two, gardeners shuffled through album covers. With four artworks for inspiration, they designed summer gardens to match. They analyzed the color scheme and color ratio of the art. I know the toughest part was editing down the list of great plants. They brainstormed for iconic items to include, to further the references to the music and artist.  Like Beach Boys Endless Summer includes a topiary-like wave of Blue Daze flowers and a lifeguard chair. 

As a gardener who wants my gardens to speak, to touch people, I gotta say, they’ve done it.  Does everything work? Nope – portulaca got fungus, Springsteen’s jeans got soggy. But overall, I think this is a fun, creative way to engage people, to bring joy, and to bring different forms of art into a garden without spending a ton of money. 

Melodie Leach, Curator of Horticulture, turned this into a team-building exercise too. “Over the past year, we had to rearrange budgets and reduce staff. We used to have two distinct teams; zoo horticulturists and botanical gardens horticulturists. The skills, plants, and styles are very different.  Now we’ve combined and some of these people who’ve never worked together formed a team.  We discussed music and how album covers used to be serious art. Andy Warhol, Keith Herring, H.R. Geiger did album covers. We took advantage and inspiration from people who know about color schemes and pop art.” 

Remember the Pleasure of Unsleeving an Album?

But it’s about more than the cover art. “We needed covers that inspired memories and song. We needed a vivid color scheme. But that had to be achievable with plants that thrive in our long hot summers. That’s the tough part. But don’t you remember when you’d unsleeve that brand new album, drop the arm on the vinyl, lean back against the bed, and pour over the photos and messages from the bands? From cover to inner sleeve? And a double album like The Wall? That was an afternoon of contemplation and days of conversation? The cover was a connection to that band or singer.”  

The visuals of album art and the memories music makes for a fun easy addition to the summer garden. The rest of the garden looks great too with tons of pollinator plants, amazing crinum, of course, and that doesn’t even touch on the jungly plantings just across the river in the Zoo.  The loose and wild plantings and the bits of pop art in Garden and Zoo are playful, joyous, and, as the Beach Boys said, “fun, fun, fun!”

It’s a simple plywood painting but what memory does it bring back for you?



Riverbanks Botanical Garden Album Art Gardens, planted in late March, will reach maturity in June and grow through the summer. 



  1. Lynn Moredock on July 6, 2021 at 12:28 pm

    Thanks for your interesting overview. Looks like fun for sure! (Sorry about “Mrs. Robinson” accosting you . . .)

    • Karis on July 9, 2021 at 9:45 am

      Love the concept!

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