Shakespeare's garden yields floral wonder

June 02, 2002|by Dorry Baird Norris

"This Garden has a world of pleasure in it

What flower is this?"

- "The Two Noble Kinsman'"

William Shakespeare

What flower indeed? Sixteenth-century England was a rural society and during the Tudor period people lived in close contact with the land. Plants growing in the garden and field were used as medicines, food, strewing herbs and magic potions. Poet, ploughman and plantsman were all well versed in the common uses of plants and had a working knowledge of plant lore as well. Even the most casual reading of works written during this period affords a catalog of human traits described in floral terms.

From Spenser to Drayton to Shakespeare, writers were charmed by growing things. At the same time, Thomas Tusser, Thomas Hyll and John Gerard were producing herbals written to engage the attention of a population that was becoming increasingly literate. These books explained and extolled the uses of plants.


Many herb fanciers are familiar with Shakespeare's use of plants and flowers to delineate his characters and move his plots along. The 200 plants mentioned in his writings and 29 scenes set in orchards or gardens reflect his enthusiasm for greenery.

Roses were chief among the flowers admired by the writers of this era. This queen of plants was used to portray aspects of a beloved, wars, dissension at court and problems between lovers. We are all too familiar with poor Juliet's plaint about her family's disdain for Romeo's family:

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet."

In Hamlet, Ophelia was aware of the notion that pansies - Johnnie-jump-ups - were for lovers' thoughts. Also called heart's ease, the name pansy comes to us from the Latin pensare by way of the French pensee. Its English name, love-in-idleness, means love in vain. In "A Midsummer Night's Dream'" Oberon - to Titania's dismay - uses the pansy as a love charm.

The evil that plants might put a spell on the unsuspecting didn't escape the scrutiny of writers either. The witches in "Macbeth" filled their kettle with:

"Gall of goat and slips of yew/Slivered in the moon's eclipse."

This was a double plant whammy. The yew berries were thought to be poisonous and the wood from yew made first rate long-bows.

On the other hand the daisy-like apple scented chamomile was regarded as benign and was reputed to have the power to remove spells. Its symbolism of sweetness and humility may have prompted Falstaff to declare:

"Though chamomile the more it is trodden on the faster it grows, yet youth the more it is wasted the sooner it wears."

The purple violet was held to be a symbol of faithfulness while the white violet betokened purity of sentiment. The shade loving violet was much favored by Elizabethan cooks. Candied, they appeared on all manner of desserts as well as being used for nibbles. Poets used violets to characterize the fleetingness of life.

Each spring when the daffodils bloom, pushing away the memory of winter, who hasn't revelled in their bloom as did Perdita in "The Winter's Tale"?

The gillyflowers, long-time favorites of English gardeners, were used to flavor wine and as a basis for many a medicinal potion.

Rosemary, symbol of faithfulness and remembrance, was used at Tudor wedding feasts as a gift to the bridegroom. The stems of very large old plants were crafted into flutes. Unfortunately the rosemaries that survive in my garden never get big enough to be fashioned into anything more than penny whistles.

Traditionally, thyme has been a symbol of courage and strength. Until driving through Delaware County in New York State one summer, I couldn't envision Shakespeare's "bank where the wild thyme grows." But there baking in the sun I discovered that the roadside was carpeted with enough wild thyme to make even Oberon jealous. However it would take more courage and thyme than I possess to convince me to share the bank with untold swarms of bees transported to ecstasy by the carpet of bloom.

Onions were brought to England by the Romans and were regularly eaten by the English during the Middle Ages to ward off colds and infections. I am surprised that no heroine of Shakespeare's ever tucked an onion under her pillow in order to dream of her future partner.

Salad burnet is less well known than the previous plants but in Elizabethan England it was well regarded as a kitchen herb. The leaves with their pinked edges added a pleasant cucumber flavor to "sallets." In those days burnet must have grown wild, for in "Henry V," Burgendy describes:

"The even mead that brought sweetly forth/The freckled cowslip burnet and green clover."

Now it's your turn to see how many herbal references you can find in Shakespeare's writing. Primroses, poppy, honeysuckle, lilies, iris, "daisies pied" and "cookoo buds" along with columbine, mint, mustard and hyssop and more are among those tucked away waiting to be discovered.

Herbs and plants can truly be our key to the past. Wouldn't it be grand if a garden club or high school English class adopted a plot at a library or school and put in a little bed to pay homage to Shakespeare and his literary heritage? Anyone for a Shakespeare Garden?

Herbarist, lecturer and Hagerstown resident Dorry Baird Norris is a member of the International Herb Association, a member-at-large of the Herb Society of America and author of "The Sage Cottage Herb Garden Cookbook." She welcomes questions about the non-medical use of herbs. E-mail her at or write in care of The Herald-Mail Co., P.O. Box 439, Hagerstown, Md. 21741.

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