Archive for October, 2008

Friday, October 31, 2008

Plants in Medieval Magic

Flower spikes of the beneficent vervain going to seed. Seed capsules of thornapple, Datura metel in the bed devoted to Plants Used in Medieval Magic

Left: The powerful but beneficent vervain (Verbena officinalis) growing in the bed devoted to Plants Used in Medieval Magic in Bonnefont Cloister Herb Garden; Right: Seed capsules of the sinister and poisonous thornapple (Datura metel) growing nearby.

Trefoil, vervain, John’s-wort, dill,
Hinders witches of their will,
Weel is them, that weel may
Fast upon Saint Andrew’s day.

—Traditional rhyme, put into the mouth of the gypsy Meg Merrilies by Sir Walter Scott in Guy Mannering.

Medieval calendar practices, and the plants associated with them, were an amalgam of Greco-Roman and Celto-Germanic observances with Christian beliefs and traditions. Many folk rites performed at the thresholds between the seasons of the year were intended to avert storms, ward off diseases of cattle, and prevent the blighting of crops.  All these misfortunes were attributed to the activities of witches. Read more »

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Golden Quince

Ripe quinces in late October

Above: Ripe quinces in late October.

The famous quince trees that grace the four beds at the center of the Bonnefont Cloister Herb Garden have grown there since the early 1950s. Although the trees are showing their age, they still bear a heavy crop—so heavy that it is necessary to thin the fruits in late summer and to prop up the aging boughs to help them to bear the weight of the fruit. The quinces are not harvested; the fruits are picked up as they fall. Read more »

Monday, October 20, 2008

Arbor Mirabilis: Castor Bean

Stems and leaves of Ricinus communis

Above: Stems and leaves of Ricinus communis

Widely naturalized throughout the tropics, castor bean (Ricinus communis) is commonly grown as an ornamental annual in American and European gardens, but it is also a crop plant of worldwide economic importance. In a tropical environment, the castor bean attains the status of a thirty-foot tree. Even in temperate zones, it can reach a height of fifteen feet in a single season. An ancient medicinal plant of African origin, castor bean was employed by the Egyptians as a cathartic and is among the plant remedies found in the Ebers Papyrus.  Like other members of the Spurge family (Euphorbiaceae), the plant is poisonous. Dioscorides, writing in the first century, refers to the plant by its Egyptian name, kiki, as well as its Greek and Roman names: kroton and ricinus.  The last two names derive from the Greek and Latin words for “tick,”  because of a fancied resemblance of the seed to the parasite. Read more »

Friday, October 10, 2008

Bye Bye, Bryony

Red bryony vine in fruit in October Red bryony vine blooming in June A lusterware albarello or pharmacy jar patterned with stylized bryony vines

Above, from left to right: Red bryony vine in fruit in October; Red bryony vine blooming in June; a lusterware albarello or pharmacy jar patterned with stylized bryony vines

The luxuriant foliage of the bryony vine begins to yellow and fall in September. By October all that is left are the small red berries that hang from a lacy network of slender brown stems.  Although the vine dies back to the ground in early autumn, the root is perennial and will send up new shoots in the spring. Bryonia dioica is graceful even in decline; next May the vine will quickly veil a willow trellis in Bonnefont Garden with bright green leaves and show itself to be one of the prettiest plants in the collection. Read more »

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Fragrant Family of Fennel

Anise (<i>Pimpinella anisum</i>) in flower, Bonnefont Herb Garden Anise (<i>Pimpinella anisum</i>) in seed

Left: Anise (Pimpinella anisum) in flower, Bonnefont Herb Garden; right: Anise (Pimpinella anisum) in seed, Bonnefont Herb Garden.

Representatives of the Apiaceae family are scattered throughout all of the gardens at The Cloisters, but they are most prominent in the culinary beds of Bonnefont Herb Garden. These plants are greatly exploited for their distinct fragrances and tastes. The essential oils, created from a fairly large group of chemical constituents within the plants, are responsible for the incredibly flavorful and aromatic properties of this family. In addition, these properties help to ensure the survival of plants in this family by attracting pollinators to the flowers. Read more »