Shakespeare’s Plants and Gardens (4-12-17)
Monday 20th November
Andrew Mikolasjski is a Lecturer by trade and an author by inclination. He has written over 30 books – his latest endeavour acting as consultant contributor to the RHS A-Z of garden plants – a tome of such proportions that it needs its own carrying case!
However, our chosen topic from his extensive repertoire on this evening was the plants and gardens of Elizabethan times and how Shakespeare used them in his writings.
The gardens that Shakespeare inhabited were very different to those of the 21st century. There were limited varieties of plants available – no half-hardy annuals or repeat-flowering roses – and the idea of combination planting was completely alien. So, by the end of July flowering would have ceased and the gardens would be bare until the following spring. But the 17th century was a time of great exploration and the diversity of plants available increased by 20% in Shakespeare’s lifetime.
Gardens came in many shapes and sizes. There were the grand estates of the Royals and their courtiers, the cottage gardens of the peasants where produce was grown for the kitchen and then there were the hedgerows and common lands were medicinal herbs could be gleaned. Also, there were the apothecary gardens where plants and knowledge had been husbanded since the crusaders had arrived back from the holy lands and Arabia over 200 years ago. In Shakespeare’s time there were over 100 Apothecaries in London which then would have been the same size as Leicester. Of course, for the poorer and more rural folk, their medicinal needs were attended to by the village wise woman (or witch) who used common herbs and berries to make their remedies.
Andrew explained that he had been involved in the restoration of Kenilworth castle garden which typifies the Elizabethan approach to horticulture. It seems that in those days conspicuous consumption and luxury were to be flaunted. So it was that Robert Dudley commissioned the quickest garden makeover of the period when he anticipated a 14 day visit by Elizabeth I. Of course, he had an ulterior motive – he wanted to marry her and become even more powerful. The fact that he was already married didn’t seem to signify.
Garden Force eat your heart out because within 3 weeks the area had been transformed. It was laid out according to Islamic principles: an enclosed rectangle divided into four with a central water tank. The space was stuffed with statutory – just like the gardens of the Vatican. In fact, everything was Italianate with an aviary, bowers and beds filled with gillyflowers and edged with miniature strawberries. Even the fruit trees bore fruit – highly unlikely given the season (and in all probability artificial). Anyway, all this expenditure and upheaval was to no avail as it rained every day of her visit, the Queen went home early and Dudley didn’t even plight his troth. You could say it was much ado about nothing!
In Shakespearean times there was no cataloguing of plants, no Latin names simply the common vernacular name which was pretty broadly applied. Many plants were grouped together – Shakespeare’s ‘woodbine’ encompassed any climbing plants, including Honeysuckle. No-one seems to know what ‘gilly/jilly’ flowers were – possibly carnations. Gerard’s Herbal was the go-to guide inn 1636 – some say the frontispiece is a portrait of Shakespeare himself. There are many mentions in his plays of the use of plants for good and evil. For example, Melissa/lemon balm used in Macbeth “the sleep balm of hurt minds”. Sea holly thought to be an aphrodisiac used by Falstaff in his efforts to woo. Hemlock was used by the witches in Macbeth. Mandrake appears in Cleopatra, “give me to drink mandragora” and, of course, Rosemary for remembrance as Juliet said “doth not rosemary and Romeo both begin with the same letter!
Andrew’s style of delivery was very theatrical and the extent of his knowledge extraordinary. He certainly held us as spell-bound as the bard himself and gave us food for thought.