Potted plants too tender to spend the winter in Bonnefont garden are trucked inside and brought up to Cuxa cloister, which is glazed in mid-October. Mediterranean plants such as bitter orange, myrtle, and bay laurel spend the cold season in the sunny arcades and are brought back out to the herb garden when the glass comes down in mid-April. Left: A wagonload of maidenhair fern in the arcade of Bonnefont garden. Right: oranges and pomegranates en route to Cuxa cloister. Photographs by Carly Still
While the medieval plant collection at The Cloisters includes a good number of northern European species, a great many of the plants grown in the Bonnefont Cloister herb garden are Mediterranean in origin. Not all of these southern European plants are hardy for us here in New York City. The garden is a sheltered U.S.D.A. Hardiness Zone 7, and the fig tree (Ficus carica), poet’s jasmine (Jasminum officinale), and lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) do just fine outdoors, but more tender species like bitter orange (Citrus aurantium), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), bay laurel (Laurus nobilis), and dittany of Crete (Origanum dictamnus) must be brought inside and protected from the cold.
An olive flanked by two standard bay laurels basks in the sun on the south-facing side of Cuxa cloister.
In October, the arcades of Cuxa cloister are glassed in, and the interior walkway becomes a winter conservatory filled with orange, jasmine, rosemary, bay, santolina, and other fragrant herbs. In late February and March, bulbs are forced into early bloom and add to the display.
There were no glass houses or conservatories in the Middle Ages. Greenhouses were not developed until the Renaissance; the Romans had only a primitive type of mobile cucumber frame, made with sheets of mica, for forcing cucurbits. [For more on these specularia, see horticultural historian Jules Jannick's article "What the Roman emperor Tiberius grew in his greenhouses" (PDF) on the Purdue University website.] There is evidence that tender plants were grown in pots and brought into shelter in northern Europe, and Albertus Magnus, the great thirteenth-century philosopher and natural scientist, is said to have astonished visitors to his cloister in Cologne, where flowers and fruits flourished in January.
Bayard, Tania. Sweet Herbs and Sundry Flowers: Medieval Gardens and the Gardens of The Cloisters. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1985
Harvey, John. Medieval Gardens. Beaverton, Oregon: Timber Press, 1981
“Figs and Fig Leaves” (September 23, 2011)
“Bitter and Sweet” (February 18, 2011)
“Right Dittany, White Dittany” (August 6, 2010)
“Rosemary in Winter” (January 30, 2009)
“Yasimin, Jessamine” (September 11, 2008)
“Lavender, Lavandin” (July 8, 2008)
Tags: Albertus Magnus, bay, Citrus aurantium, cucumber, cucurbit, dittany, fern, ficus carica, fig, jasmine, Jasminum officinale, laurel, Laurus nobilis, Lavandula angustifolia, Lavender, maidenhair, myrtle, orange, Origanum dictamnus, rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis, santolina, winter