Friday, October 19, 2012
Seeds of the cornflower (Centaurea cyanus). Photograph by Esme Webb
How Love burns through the Putting in the Seed
On through the watching for that early birth
When, just as the soil tarnishes with weed,
The sturdy seedling with arched body comes
Shouldering its way and shedding the earth crumbs.
—Robert Frost, “Putting in the Seed”
For some, it’s planting fall bulbs and anticipating the explosion of spring color, for others it’s edging out a brand new perennial bed. For me, the most thrilling aspect of being a gardener is sowing a seed and watching it spring to life. It feels nothing short of miraculous every single time, and success depends on exactly the right conditions. This post is a small introduction to my first year as a gardener at the Cloisters, and my adventures in propagation so far.
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Thursday, October 4, 2012
From right to left: A small start of wild or creeping thyme, a native of Northern Europe, in a terra rossa pot; detail of a planting of common or garden thyme, indigenous to the Western Mediterranean, growing in a sunny bed under the parapet wall in Bonnefont cloister. Although these two plants are easily distinguished in the garden, it can be difficult to know which of several species of thyme is under discussion in ancient and medieval sources.
There are hundreds of species in the genus Thymus, and a large and confusing array of hybrids and cultivated forms. Ancient and medieval sources agree on the heating and drying properties of thyme, which is still greatly valued for its antibacterial and antifungal properties, but the species known in the European Middle Ages were not those of the ancients. The attempt to equate the plants discussed by Dioscorides in the De Materia Medica with more familiar species would occupy botanists well into the Renaissance.
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Friday, September 14, 2012
Unlike many of its relatives in the Asteraceae, or daisy family, the golden disk flower of tansy is not surrounded by ray petals. Although both the flowers and leaves are intensely bitter, tansy has a long history as a culinary herb.
Tansy (reynfan) is hot and a bit moist, and is effective against all over-abundant humors which flow out. Whosoever has catarrh, and coughs because of it, should eat tansy, taken either in broth or small tarts, or with meat, or any other way. It checks the increase of the humors, and they vanish . . . .
—Hildegard of Bingen, Physica, Chapter CXI
The old German name reynfan used by Hildegard refers to the effect of tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) on the “reins,” or kidneys. The fifteenth-century herbal Der Gart der Gesundheit differs from Hildegard in classifying tansy as hot and dry in the first degree, rather than moist; it recommends tansy as a diuretic and vermifuge, as well as a treatment for gout and fever. (For more on Hildegard of Bingen, see “Mutter Natur,” October 15, 2010. For more on the humoral theory on which her prescription is based, see “Cool, Cooler, Coolest,” July 27, 2012.) Read more »
Friday, August 31, 2012
A view of Trie garden before the renovation began.
Many years ago, due to a failed drainage system, Trie garden began to show signs of decline. Medieval species struggled to grow within this tucked-away space, which remained untamed until the issue could be addressed. Although when I first encountered Trie it was in visible need of repair, I saw it as a magical, secret garden, whose wild arrangement only added to its allure. Like Bonnefont and Cuxa, Trie is intimate and beautiful, but of the three it is more often stumbled upon rather than sought out. Perhaps what drew me to Trie was its enormous hidden potential.
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Friday, August 24, 2012
Downy thorn apple (Datura metel) growing in a bed in Bonnefont garden devoted to plants used in medieval magic. The common name “thorn apple,” shared with other members of the genus, is derived from the character of the spiny seed capsule. Above: D. metel in bud (left) and bloom (right). This handsome, heat-loving plant flowers profusely from late July until October. Below: Semi-ripe capsule of the downy thorn apple, broken open to show the developing seeds.
The beautiful but sinister thorn apple (Datura metel) is a powerfully hallucinogenic plant employed in medieval magic as well as medicine.
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Wednesday, August 15, 2012
Left: Roses are one of the special attributes of Saint Dorothea, as shown in the detail of this stained-glass panel; Right: Rosa gallica officinalis blooming in Bonnefont garden. Remarkably, the rose has retained its ancient name in dozens of modern languages.
The rose has been known by the same name throughout Europe since antiquity. It began as vrda in ancient Persia (related to the modern Arabic warda) and became known as rhodon to the nearby ancient Greeks. (Oddly, the modern Greek for rose is triantafillo, meaning “thirty leaves,” while rhodon remains in our “rhododendron,” meaning “rose tree”). By the time of the Roman Empire the name had become rosa, immediately recognizable in most modern European languages—rosa (Italian and Spanish), roos (Dutch), ros (Swedish), rosier (French)—and many others, including the Japanese rozu.
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Friday, August 10, 2012
Arbors covered with vining or climbing plants, also called bowers, were a common feature of medieval pleasure gardens, and women are often shown seated in their shade. Maggie Fitzpatrick, summer intern in the gardens, rests from her labors under a fragrant jasmine bower in Bonnefont garden. The jasmine, grown in terra cotta pots, twines up and around a structure of birch poles and birch brush, lashed together with copper wire and finished with barked wire. Photograph by Carly Still
Arbour, arbor, n. A bower or shady retreat, of which the sides and roof are formed by trees and shrubs closely planted or intertwined, or of lattice-work covered with climbing shrubs and plants, as ivy, vine, etc. Forms: ME–15 erber (e, herber(e, ME herbier, erbor, arbre, ME–15 arber, 15 herbor, harber, herbour, arboure (all obs.), 15– arbour, arbor. (The original characteristic of the ‘arbour’ seems to have been the floor and ‘benches’ of herbage; in the modern idea (since 16th c. at least) the leafy covering is the prominent feature.)
—OED Online. June 2012. Oxford University Press: http://0-oed.com.library.metmuseum.org/view/Entry/10234 (accessed August 9, 2012).
Arbors covered with vines or roses are frequently depicted in medieval garden representations, often in conjunction with a turf bench or garden seat. Elegant ladies are shown taking their ease, or the Virgin and Child are shown seated in state, as in Stefan Lochner’s famous Madonna of the Rose Bower in Cologne. (For more on turf benches, see “A Green Place to Rest,” March 15, 2010.) Read more »
Friday, August 3, 2012
Sesame, also known as “benne,” is a tender, large-leaved, Asian annual grown here in Bonnefont garden. Sesame has been cultivated for some five thousand years and was known to many cultures in antiquity. Although the plant is somewhat rangy and coarse in habit, the tubular flower (above, left) is attractive. The immature green pods (above, right), which will split and spill out their seeds when ripe, contain one of the world’s oldest domesticated oilseeds. The seeds also have a long history of use as a seasoning. Photographs by Carly Still.
A cultivated plant of fabulous antiquity, sesame (Sesamum indicum) is known as simsim in Arabic, susam in Turkish, sesam in German, sésame in French, sesamo in Italian, and sesame in Spanish. Called sesemt by the ancient Egyptians, it was also grown in Ethiopia in very early times. Sesame seeds were taken from West Africa to America by slave traders; the name “benne” derives from the West African benni. Sesame had long been grown in India and Persia, and was introduced to China by the end of the fifth century A.D. Read more »