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.