Bard Yards : Translating the flowery language of Shakespeare’s work is like plucking bouquets of poetry.
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine.
--A Midsummer Night’s Dream
With William Shakespeare as the consultant for your garden, a colorful world can emerge, literally and literarily. Although 15th- century England is a long way from 20th-century suburbia, many of Shakespeare’s floral inspirations can be grown here.
The major Elizabethan gardens in the United States--the Folger Library garden in Washington, D.C.; Golden Gate Park in San Francisco; Agecroft Hall, a restored Tudor home in Richmond, Va.; and the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, where the original Elizabethan garden by Emily Jordan Folger has been restored--illustrate that disparate climates are suitable for Bard yards.
Fortunately for the poetic at heart, the Southland is one of them.
The Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino includes a Shakespearean garden that “is as good as any I’ve seen,” says Thomas Bradac, director of the theater group Shakespeare Orange County and a drama professor at Chapman University in Orange.
Taking advantage of Orange County’s favorable climate, gardeners can grow a simple herbal garden or add to an existing landscape with plants mentioned in Shakespeare’s works.
Bradac and his wife, Anne Berolet, have what she calls “an English country garden with a Southern California natives bent” at their 1954 home in Garden Grove.
Although not all the plants are strictly Shakespearean or Elizabethan, in five years the couple have incorporated elements in the spirit of the playwright, including an ‘Othello’ rosebush with deep red blooms. They also have brought wildflower seeds--including lavender, periwinkle and marigold--from Anne Hathaway’s cottage in Stratford, Bradac says.
“I’ve been gardening a long, long time,” says Berolet, whose east-facing garden has “a lot of [tall] roses mixed in with agapanthus, impatiens, pansies . . . coreopsis.”
Berolet’s garden has a palette of “blues, pinks, and the roses are red, pink and yellow--very little oranges.”
It’s also getting bigger, she says, as they pull out spruce trees and pull up concrete to make room for more yard, a border garden, maybe a white picket fence.
Berolet doesn’t have any kind of quotation markers in her garden--yet--but “What I’d like to get is a Shakespeare flag,” she adds, referring to the colorful outdoor banners that have become so popular.
Though an elaborate knot garden--with its intricate patterns designed to be viewed from a terrace or balcony--requires much planning, it’s easy to grow a simple Shakespearean herb garden without building a manor, or to add plants mentioned in Shakespeare’s works to an existing landscape without traveling to England.
In Shakespeare’s time, plants were important in daily life, not just in rural areas. The gentleman gardener was ubiquitous, Bradac says. Herbs were used in cooking, and people believed certain plants could cure diseases.
Some were thought to have magical properties--belief in spells and enchantments was widespread in Shakespeare’s day, and such beliefs are reflected in his works, especially “The Tempest” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Thyme, introduced to England by the Romans, was a popular ground cover in herb gardens. A thyme-based potion sold in 1600 purportedly enabled the user to see fairies, which are common in “Midsummer.” In fact, those fairies have the names of herbs.
For a fitting addition to a Shakespearean garden, Jackson & Perkins offers the ‘Othello’ rose and one called Fair Bianca. Polyantha is known as the Fairy. The winter-hardy, disease-resistant rose shrub has late-season pink blooms 1 to 1 1/2 inches across.
In Shakespeare’s time, Bradac says, “Language was the entertainment, and many words had double and triple meanings.” Such associations added shades of meaning for audiences then and add an air of romance to gardens today.
Of all flowers/
Methinks a rose is best.
--The Two Noble Kinsmen
A rose by any other name
would smell as sweet.
--Romeo and Juliet
Roses are mentioned more than 70 times in Shakespeare’s works. They figure most importantly in the plays that deal with the War of the Roses--the 15th century struggle for the throne between the Houses of York and Lancaster.
In “Henry VI, Part I,” leaders of the two houses meet in a garden, argue and choose their symbols: Richard Plantagenet of the House of York picks a white rose; the Earl of Somerset, of the House of Lancaster, chooses a red rose. The Earl of Warwick, looking on, predicts long years of bloodshed.
And here I prophesy:
this brawl to-day
Grown to this faction
in the Temple garden,
Shall send between
the red rose and the white
A thousand souls to
death and deadly night.
--Henry VI, Part I
Herbs were used not only to season food but also to make medicine in Shakespeare’s time. Bunches of herbs hung from pegs in the kitchen or storage rooms. Plants were also associated with human qualities, and this manner of discreet communicatiion was known collectively as the language of flowers.
Rosemary, a fragrant Roman import used in stews, was closely associated with fidelity and remembrance because its scent lingers long. A nosegay of rosemary was sometimes handed to the groom at a wedding, and in Elizabethan times, bouquets tied in colorful ribbon and dipped in gold were given to wedding guests as symbols of love and fidelity. On New Year’s Day, friends exchanged rosemary and pomander balls.
that’s for remembrance;
pray you, remember.
And there is pansies,
that’s for thoughts.
The pansy of Shakespeare’s time was the small variety we know as the Johnny-jump-up. It went by many names, but the name “pansy” is mentioned only once in Shakespeare’s plays, in the tragedy “Hamlet.” The word “pansy” comes from the French noun pensee, a thought--and pansies were associated with lovers’ thoughts.
Before milk-white, now
purple with love’s wound,
And maidens call
--A Midsummer Night’s Dream
People believed that the pansy had magical powers because, according to Oberon in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” an errant Cupid’s arrow once hit the flower: If you slept with a few drops of pansy juice on your eyelids, you would fall madly in love with the first person you saw on waking.
This technique was used by Oberon to make mischief in the forest-set “Midsummer,” which is rich in nature imagery.
And sometimes I lurk
in a gossip’s bowl,
In very likeness of a roasted crab;
And, when she drinks,
against her lips I bob.
--A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Such language may seem strange, but audiences knew what the mischievous fairy Puck was talking about. “Roasted crab” refers to a crab apple; “gossip” was a term sometimes used to refer to an old woman. The tart little fruit of the crab apple tree was used at Christmastime and other special occasions to flavor bowls of ale.
Flowering crab apples today are among the most useful and least troublesome of flowering trees; they live longer than flowering peaches and are more tolerant of wet soil than flowering cherries or other flowering stone fruit trees.
Another tree that gets a passing mention in “Midsummer” is the oak; when the king and queen fight, “their elves, for fear, / Creep into acorn cups, and hide them there.”
Other trees mentioned by Shakespeare include the willow, a tragic figure that watches over the suicide of Ophelia in “Hamlet” and foreshadows the death of Desdemona in a song from “Othello.”
. . . I think the king is
but a man, as I am;
the violet smells to him
as it doth to me.
The violets, cowslips
and the primroses,
Bear to my closet. Fare thee well.
. . . thou shalt not lack
the flower that’s like thy face,
nor the azure harebell, like thy veins.
Violets probably grew wild in the woods around Stratford. One of the first flowers to bloom in spring, it has long been prized for its graceful beauty and sweet aroma. In Shakespeare’s day, it was loved by royalty and common folk, and Shakespeare mentions the flower 18 times in his poems and plays.
Cowslip is a European kind of primrose with yellow or purple flowers. Harebell is a slender, delicate perennial with clusters of blue bell-shaped flowers.
When daises pied and violets blue,
And lady-smocks all silver-white,
And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue
Do paint the meadows with delight.
--Love’s Labour’s Lost
The daisy was also linked with the coming of spring. In England, daisies carpet meadows, lawns and sunny slopes from April through all the warm months with pure white petals and bright yellow centers. Lady-smock, or lady’s-smock, is cuckooflower, a bitter cress that bears white or rose flowers.
And in his blood, that
on the ground lay spill’d
A purple flower sprung up,
check’red with white,
Resembling well his
pale cheeks and the blood
Which in round drops
upon their whiteness stood.
--Venus and Adonis
Shakespeare’s writings indicate he was intrigued by classical references. Greek mythology has instances of flowers arising out of the blood of mortals loved by gods. In the case of Shakespeare’s epic poem, Venus, the goddess of love, falls in love with Adonis but is shunned; the next day the hunter is killed by a boar. The flower that arose out of the blood, according to Greek myth, was the anemone.
The fairest flowers o’ the season
Are our carnations
and streak’d gillyvors.
--The Winter’s Tale
I am the very pink of courtesy.
--Romeo and Juliet
Gillyflower, or clove pink, a precursor of the modern carnation, is one of the oldest garden flowers. The color pink derives its name from this flower; the word “pink” originally referred to its scalloped (pinct) edges. The pink grows wild in England and is commonly seen growing through the cracks of Norman castle walls. It was a frequently used border or accent flower in herb gardens, and it was so popular that 50 varieties were known by the early 17th century.
Here’s flowers for you;
Hot lavender, mints,
The marigold that goes
to bed wi’ the sun
And with him rises weeping:
these are flowers
Of middle summer . . .
--A Winter’s Tale
Heady-scented lavender, a gift of the Romans and a favorite of butterflies, was nearly always included in English herb gardens. Savory might be summer savory, an annual popular in Europe; tiny lavender flowers bloom on the plants. Marjoram is a tender perennial herb. Marigolds, as the verse indicates, are summer annuals.
* The Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino has a Shakespeare Garden that features annuals and bulbs mentioned in the playwright’s works. Plant sales are held regularly. For general information, call (818) 405-2141.
* The South Coast Botanical Garden in Palos Verdes Peninsula, which is open daily, has a thriving herb garden in an area whose climate is similar to that of Orange County. (310) 544-6815. Plants grown by volunteers and seeds are available in the gift shop: (310) 544-1847.
* Jackson & Perkins, a mail-order company, carries a wide variety of roses, including the ‘Othello.’ Jackson & Perkins, P.O. Box 1028, Medford, OR 97501. (800) 292-4769.