Archive for September, 2008

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Honoring Fennel

Fennel in flower Ripening fennel fruits Umbels of dried-up fennel fruits

Above, from left to right: Fennel flourishing in Bonnefont Cloister Garden in July; green fennel fruits ripening in late summer; umbels of dry fennel fruits at the end of the season.

Let us not forget to honor fennel. It grows
On a strong stem and spreads its branches wide.
Its taste is sweet enough, sweet too its smell;
They say it is good for eyes whose sight is clouded,
That its seed, taken with milk from a pregnant goat,
Eases a swollen stomach and quickly loosens
Sluggish bowels.  What is more, your rasping cough
Will go if you take fennel-root mixed with wine.

—From Hortulus by Walahfrid Strabo. Translated from the Latin by Raef Payne. The Hunt Botanical Library, 1966.

The ninth-century Benedictine abbot Walahfrid Strabo was a gardener as well as a scholar and a poet.  He praises the stately and beautiful fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) growing in his monastery garden for its medicinal virtues, but fennel was also an ancient culinary herb, enjoyed both as a seasoning and a vegetable.

Indigenous to the Mediterranean, fennel was brought to England and Germany by the Romans, and to India and China by Arab traders.  The Roman natural historian Pliny, writing in the first century, cites fennel in more than twenty remedies.  All parts of the plant—roots, shoots, leaves, and seeds—have been used both as food and as medicine. Read more »

Friday, September 19, 2008

Jasmine Goes West

Angels offer a basket of jasmine and roses to the Virgin and Child.Jasmine and roses.

Left: Angels offer a basket of jasmine and roses to the Madonna and Child; right: detail of a basket of jasmine flowers and single-petaled white roses.

Jasmine’s significance as a symbolic flower blossoms in the art of the Italian Renaissance, where it appears as a symbol of divine love and heavenly happiness.  In combination with roses and lilies, which have a much longer iconographic history in Western art, it often appears in representations of the Madonna and Child.  Attendant angels offer jasmine to the infant Christ, or are wreathed with crowns of jasmine themselves. (Mirella D’Ancona Levi, The Garden of the Renaissance:  Botanical Symbolism in Italian Painting, 1977.)

Although it was grown in the Islamic gardens of southern Europe as early as the twelfth century, jasmine was not established in northern European gardens until the close of the Middle Ages.  Jasmine and roses scented the garden walks of the mid-fourteenth-century villa (believed to be the Villa Palmieri, two miles southeast of Florence) described by Bocaccio in the Decameron, but the earliest conclusive proof of jasmine’s presence in France is an illuminated border produced by Jean Bourdichon for the Great Hours of Anne of Brittany, c. 1501–1507. (John Harvey, Medieval Gardens, 1981.) Jasmine is intensively cultivated to this day at Grasse, which has been the center of the French fragrance industry since the Middle Ages. The English herbalist William Turner reported that jasmine grew abundantly in gardens around London by 1548. Read more »

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Yasimin, Jessamine

<em>Jasminum officinale</em> <em>Jasminum officinale</em> in the Trie Garden

The potted jasmines that perfume the gardens, and make a paradise of Trie Cloister, are in full flush and will flower for many weeks to come. The jasmines sold as house plants by nurseries and garden centers in the Northeast are often not the true or poet’s jasmine, Jasminum officinale, but a more frost-tender species, Jasminum polyanthum. Sometimes called winter jasmine, it is very heavily scented, but not so sweetly fragrant as the poet’s jasmine.

Jasminum officinale has been at home in a sheltered, sunny position in the bed under the parapet wall in Bonnefont Garden and has wintered over there for some years. The plants grown in terra rossa pots are the same species, but are a distinct form, J. officinale forma affine.

The color of the buds on these beautiful plants is a deep pink, although the flowers, slightly larger than the species, open pure white.  The fragrance is delightful even during the day. (Jasmines are most fragrant in the evening. ) Long prized for its scent, jasmine is still grown in great quantities at Grasse, which was already a center for perfumery in the Middle Ages.

Native to the Himalayas of western China and introduced into European gardens from the East, jasmine was a relative latecomer to those regions not in close contact with the Arab world.  Read more »