History in the garden

I can tell summer is nearly here because I’m disappearing historic down cul de sacs without a second thought.  Today’s post is about plants – it’s easy to think that  historical figures trotted around gardens that looked very like our own but it was only in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that many of the plants we think of as typical of an English country garden were introduced thanks to people like the Tradescants.

However, that aside -and this is my horticultural rhetorical question of the evening- what did the Romans do for us? to quote a certain well known film. The answer is that they gave us ground elder, that’s what they did and quite frankly I rather wish they hadn’t.  This garden nightmare is currently making my life slightly difficult because it does not matter what I do to get rid of it, the ground elder keeps coming back. Ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria) was introduced by the Romans, to supply their soldiers with fresh vegetables – think of it as a sort of centurion version of spinach.  I shan’t be trying any of my harvest given that having failed with hand weeding I have turned to chemicals. Rather amusingly it is also known as bishop’s weed because it was used by medieval monks as a cure for gout.

Further research revealed that the Romans also gave us the celandine. Rather than being edible like ground elder the celandine offered a cure for warts and corns when its juice was applied.  Even more surprising it turns out that before the Romans arrived on the scene the British countryside lacked foxgloves, walnuts and nettles – and here was me thinking that the Romans only introduced dock leaves to ease the tired tootsies of the marching masses.  The nettles were a form of central heating – i.e. thrash yourself with a nettle and you will soon warm up.  It’s also a cure for rheumatism and sciatica – please don’t try rolling in nettles at home.

Jumping forward to Elizabeth I, lauded as the Empress of Flowers, a garden just wasn’t a garden unless it had an artificial mound where folk could sit and watch other folk hunting deer in the deer park.  It was a time of mazes, fountains and patterned parterres created by borders of box hedge -another Roman offering.  You might even want to smell the roses which were you’ve guessed it, another Roman introduction.  Elizabeth would have been able to walk along gravelled paths looking upon the order and feeling calmed after a hard day yelling at her councillors and boxing their ears as she was prone to doing when she flew into a rage.

The thing about the knot garden though is that it requires a high level of maintenance so not only is it a garden delight, it also has the benefit of  showing off its owners wealth.  The most famous of this kind of  knot garden has been recreated at Kenilworth.  It was originally created in 1575 when Elizabeth visited Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester on one of her progresses.  Dudley turned the visit into an extended marriage proposal  – which is quite a long way from trying to rid one’s garden of ground elder which is what prompted this post.

In addition to all of the above if you were a truly dedicated Tudor garden lover you would require a lawn on which to play bowls; a banqueting house in which to enjoy pudding and other intimate entertainments (yes – you can raise your eyebrows); of yes and lets not forget that all important deer park.

Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire boasts a rather impressive walled herb garden and although it was established in the twentieth century it’s a reminder that the wealthy didn’t just use their gardens for entertainment and to show off their wealth, they formed a part of the larder as well as offering medication for all kinds of ailments.

So you might be wondering why I started this post with an image of Elizabeth I- it’s the Hardwick Portrait.  The dress was probably a New Year’s gift from bess of Hardwick to Elizabeth.  As well as all kinds of sea monsters – there are also a number of different flowers including irises.  It’s a reminder that flowers had meaning.  The blue and white of the iris had once been associated with the Virgin Mary.  It’s meaning goes back even further though, the goddess Iris was the personification of the rainbow – the link between Heaven and Earth.  So Bess was saying with her use of the lovely flowers which can still be seen at Hardwick Old Hall that the queen was  as chaste and innocent as the Virgin Mary and that the queen was her people’s conduit to Heaven.


4 thoughts on “History in the garden

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this account of early gardening but in my humble opinion, there are several inaccuracies which I would like too draw attention to. The earliest roses in England were the ROSA ALBA ( introduced in 1250 ) and ROSA GALLICA ( Introduced in 1279 ). Box hedge was used by the Romans as hedging and edging but not by the Tudors or Elizabethans as they used lavender or hyssop instead. During the 16th century, box was used for topiary only. Celandine ( Greater & Lesser ) both contain toxins. Other well known plants introduced by the Romans are Potmarigold, Christmas Rose, Garden & stinking iris, common mallow, mandrake, peony, opium poppy, periwinkle, costmary and alexanders.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post Brigitte. The rose date is an interesting one. We know that the Romans grew them for all sorts of purposes from medicinal via honouring the dead to showering folk in petals so it’s not unreasonable given the time they were here to think that the Romans did bring them although obviously the written primary sources aren’t terribly helpful – if only some wife on Hadrian’s Wall had written home demanding several bare root roses be delivered immediately! Several secondary sources state that Rosa Alba was probably introduced by the Romans. I’m trying to think if there’s any archeological evidence of roses in England during this period. I shall have to keep an eye out during my reading. In the meantime I feel another post coming on based on roses in general. The information about the toxins in the celandine demonstrate your far superior knowledge of plants to mine and it’s absolutely fascinating. The list at the end is fascinating as well – I’m think I might even opt for a small Roman garden if i ever get rid of the ground elder. On a personal note I have no luck with hyssop at all.

  2. yes that held me reading. I think summer has been here for at least a month at 109f all day everyday being black in the work in my English designed landscaped as the sun is unmerciful I had grown hedging in the garden to work in peace. Cool fountains are included in design. and Roman statues hold the eye. Plants I import too. I brought many from England but some are not hardy enough and just wither in the sunshine. Roses do very well and I have some 500 varieties. Long walk borders to the lake are being filled now and rain so much needed is in September only for two weeks of down pour. Monsoon really.England now in fat has no seasons just mild all year. I would freeze if I returned after feeling a real summer at its very best.Days you do not have to wonder about all the same jolly hot but not moist as in UK. Here is the garden of Eden heavens gate on earth.

    • I could do with some rain as the wind has been rather drying here and some of my new plants are looking very sorry for themselves.

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