Archive for July, 2008

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Another Thistle


Left: Silybum marianum, the Marian thistle, is also known as milk thistle, because of the milky-white streaks on the spiny leaves; right: The thistle appears outside and below the enclosure of the captive Unicorn, near the Madonna lily (Lilium candidum), another plant associated with the Virgin. Visit the Collection Database to see the detail in context and learn more about The Unicorn in Captivity.

While thistles were a thorn in the farmer’s side, then as now, virtually all plants were accorded medicinal value in the Middle Ages. Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) was eaten as a vegetable, and is grown in a bed devoted to pottage plants here at The Cloisters, but it has a rightful place in the medicinal collection as well. Read more »

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Thistle Tribe

Cotton thistle flourishing in Bonnefont Garden. The leaves of the cotton thistle are thickly felted with white down.

The most imposing of the several thistles we cultivate at The Cloisters, the stately cotton thistle has a presence that appeals to modern sensibilities. The silvery-white leaves are deeply cut and very handsome: the species name acanthium denotes their resemblance to the foliage of the acanthus. Some value cotton thistle as an ornamental in contemporary gardens, although others consider Onorpordum acanthium to be a weed. (A weed is a plant you don’t want, while an herb is a plant with a use. Many of the plants we grow in the gardens of The Cloisters are considered weeds in our time and place, but were herbs in the Middle Ages.) Once the purplish-pink flowers of the cotton thistle have withered, it is important to remove the heads so that the many seeds do not disperse to the four winds and colonize the world. Read more »

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

St. Swithun’s Day

Garden Day, 2003

Above: A rainy Garden Day at The Cloisters, 2003. Visitors to Bonnefont Herb Garden were undaunted by the downpour.

Today, July 15, is the feast of St. Swithun, or Swithin; of all the saints’ days traditionally used as weather prognosticators, St. Swithun’s is the most famous and the most long-lived:

St. Swithin’s day if thou dost rain,
for forty days it will remain;
St. Swithin’s day if thou be fair,
for forty days ’twill rain nae mair.

Read more »

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Fragrance of Lavender

True or English Lavender (L. angustifolia subspecies angustifolia growing in Bonnefont Herb Garden.

Above: Lavandula angustifolia in Bonnefont Cloister Herb Garden

The scent of lavender has always represented the quintessential fragrance of the herb garden to me. This sweet, full-bodied aroma has the magical ability to conjure up special memories and associations with the past and present. Although this fragrance may seem magical, it also serves a very important biological function for the plant and the ecosystem in which it exists. The aroma of the flower attracts insects that share a symbiotic relationship with the plant. Bees—the most important of these insects—are integral in the pollination of lavender. They serve as pollen vectors between male and female flower parts.

Read more »

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Lavenders, Lavandin

Lavandin (Lavandula Xintermedia \"Grosso\" growing in Cuxa Cloister Garth Garden.

Above: Lavandin (Lavandula x intermedia) flowering in Cuxa Garden.

Lavenders in The Middle Ages

Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia ssp. angustifolia) was used to scent linen and to keep moths and insects from woolens, as it still is. According to the fifteenth-century herbal Hortus Sanitatis, or the Garden of Health, this virtue of protecting clothing from vermin endeared lavender to the Mother of God, who also loved the herb as a preserver of chastity: “If the head is sprinkled with lavender water it will make that person chaste so long as he bears it upon him.” (Margaret Freeman, Herbs for the Medieval Household, 1943.)

Lavender had a number of medicinal applications as well as household uses, and could be employed against pains in the heart, fainting spells, and sleeplessness; it was applied to the forehead for headache and included in antidotes, such as a plaster for scorpion bites. It was used internally as well as externally, and a decoction was drunk for epilepsy and kidney ailments and as a preventative for apoplexy. (Frank Anderson, German Book Illustration through 1500: Herbals through 1500, 1983–4.) Read more »

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Watering the Gardens and the Gardeners

Part-time gardeners Ted Pender and Enrique Mendez. Photograph by Barbara Bell, a volunteer in the Gardens.

We are out busily soaking the gardens on a very warm day, in anticipation of a long, hot, holiday weekend. We do not have drip watering at The Cloisters, for a number of reasons. They did have drip watering in the Middle Ages. More anon.

—Deirdre Larkin

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Welcome to The Medieval Garden Enclosed

The covered arcades of the Cuxa Cloister surround a garth, or enclosed yard, open to the sky.

Welcome to The Medieval Garden Enclosed, a blog dedicated to the plants and gardens of The Cloisters, a branch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Enter and explore the role of plants and gardens in medieval life and art, learn how to find and grow medieval herbs and flowers, discuss the long histories of many familiar garden plants, discover which roadside weeds were once valued medicinals, and encounter legendary plants like the mandrake (Mandragora officinarum.) Read more »