Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
July, 2007
Regional Report

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Lavender, rosemary, oregano, and thyme intertwine in an Elizabethan knot in the Shakespeare garden outside the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC.

Herbs and Flowers, Elizabethan Style

Is your home free of evil spirits and witches? If Elizabethan superstitions hold, you likely have hellebores and hollies planted near your door. Either alone will do the trick. Is your dog misbehaving or your cat off its food? Hellebore also prevents evil spirits from bewitching animals. Looking to tame lions or tigers? Lavender's your best bet, and it will alleviate your rheumatism as well, offered Frances Owens, docent at the Folger Shakespeare Library Garden in Washington, DC.

In Elizabethan England (1500s to 1600s), herbs and flowers were thought to have magical powers and medicinal benefits before they had culinary appeal, explained Owens. People used plants as protection from spiritual harm, to help solve day-to-day problems, and for herbal healing.

Rosemary, thyme, lavender, oregano, germander, and pinks intertwine in a raised knot in Folger's small formal garden. They form diamonds and triangles that echo the library's design. The knot plants and the holly, ivy, linden, daffodils, roses, and saffron crocus throughout are mentioned in Shakespeare's works or were commonly known in his time. The library collection includes Early Modern works about plants and garden design.

Rosemary was an all purpose plant. Placed under a pillow, it banished nightmares. Worn in the hair, it was said to enhance memory or pledge fidelity. (Recent research shows rosemary does stimulate memory.) The English said, "Smell it oft -- it shall keep thee youngly." The more pragmatic gentleman, however, rubbed rosemary oil on the pate to counter baldness.

One tradition continues: Tapping a fresh rosemary sprig against the finger of a loved one was thought to secure affection. Friends still exchange rosemary as an expression of fondness.

Drawing on Celtic and Irish lore, Elizabethans were fascinated with fairies and resourceful with thyme. In various mythologies, "faeries" in the garden can be mischievous and troublesome or gentle and benevolent. Those who believed rubbed thyme on their eyes for "second sight" to see the faeries. Those wee creatures supposedly laid their babies in the curved petals of thyme blossoms. Legend has it that King Arthur was of Heroic Faerie descent, tended by faerie queens on the island of Avalon.

For the shy maiden or bashful suitor, thyme steeped in beer emboldened. (Not so far afield from today's Garrison Keillor's Powdermilk Biscuit cure a la public radio's Prairie Home Companion.)

Lavender's power ranged from spiritual to medicinal. Worn in the hair, it gave "second sight" for seeing ghosts. Quilted in a cap, lavender comforted the brain, Owens noted in her handout. Lavender boiled in vinegar was sprinkled on blankets to repel fleas. Lavender tea and oil were remedies for epilepsy, palsy, swooning, and hysteria. The essential oil continues to be valuable in alternative medicine as antiseptic, analgesic, and soothing.

Ode to Nature
The Bard himself seemed to think it hard to top Mother Nature:
"To gild refined gold, to paint the Lily,
To throw a perfume on the Violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light
To seek the beauteous eye of Heaven to garnish,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess."

(Shakespeare's King John, Act iv, scene 2)

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