Friday, November 30, 2012

Wallflower

Wallflower (Erysimum cheiri) Detail from The Hunters Enter the Woods (from the Unicorn Tapestries)

Left: A wallflower in Bonnefont garden shows a cheerful yellow in late November. Wallflowers require a cold period to bloom, and generally flower in spring. Our plants were started indoors from seed and planted out in the garden this summer; the autumn chill spurred them into bloom. Right: Detail of a wallflower blooming above a hunter’s head in The Hunters Enter the Woods (from the Unicorn Tapestries).

The stalks of the Wall floure are full of green branches, the leaves are long, narrowe, smooth, slippery, of a blackish greene colour, and lesser than the leaves of stocke Gillofloures. The floures are small, yellow, very sweete of smell, and made of foure little leaves; which being past, there succeed long slender cods, in which is contained flat reddish seed. The whole plant is shrubby, of a wooddie substance, and can easily endure the colde of winter.

—John Gerard, Of wall-Floures, or yellow Stocke-Gillo-floures,” Chap. 119, The Herball, or Generall Historie of Plants, 1633

The sweetly perfumed common wallflower (Erysimum cheiri) belongs to the mustard family, or Brassicaceae, along with such pungent vegetables as cabbage and horseradish. It is in no way related to the sweet violet, Viola odorata, or to the spicy-smelling clove pink (Dianthus caryophyllus), but it bore ancient and medieval names associated with both, to the confusion of plant and garden historians. The name “violet” was applied to more than one sweet-smelling species by the ancients; the French girofle and the English “gillyflower” given to the pink derived from the Latin name for clove, but in England a number of fragrant garden flowers in the mustard family, including stock (Matthiola incana), dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis), and wallflower, were all known as “stock gilliflowers.” John Harvey, an authority on medieval plants and gardens, identified the sweet-smelling kheiri mentioned in medieval Islamic sources with this same group of closely related plants. The fourteenth-century Dominican friar and horticulturist Henry Daniel didn’t regard the yellow wallflower, a native of Southern Europe, as a well-known plant in England, although he admired it and thought it easy to grow. While Daniel notes that the plant was called keyrus by the Saracens, it was known to him as Viola major, or “great violet.”

The Greek herbalist Dioscorides had discussed several plant forms under the single name of “Leukion,” or “white violet.” He noted that there were white, yellowish, blue, and purplish varieties of leukion, and that the yellowish variety was best for medicinal use. Medieval herbalists followed Dioscorides in regarding all these forms as varieties of a single plant, but Renaissance botanists and plantsmen like William Turner and John Gerard distinguished between the white or purplish-flowering “stock gilliflowers” and the yellow-flowering “cheiry,” or wallflower, in their reading of Dioscorides.

The history of the common English name “wallflower” is less convoluted: Gerard says that the wallflower grows on brick and stone walls, in the corners of churchyards everywhere, and on rubbish heaps and other stony places, flowering all year long, but especially in winter.

—Deirdre Larkin

Sources:

Anderson, Frank J., ed. “Herbals through 1500,” The Illustrated Bartsch, Vol. 90. New York: Abaris, 1984.

Gerard, John. The Herbal or General History of Plants. The Complete 1633 Edition as Revised and Enlarged by Thomas Johnson. New York: Dover, 1975.

Gunther, Robert T., ed. The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides, translated by John Goodyer 1655. 1934. Reprint: New York: Hafner Publishing, 1968.

Harvey, John H. “Gilliflower and Carnation.” Garden History, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Spring, 1978), pp. 46-5

____Medieval Gardens. Beaverton, Oregon: Timber Press, 1981

Turner, William. The Names of Herbes, A.D. 1548. Edited by James Britten. London: N. Trübner & Co., 1881.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Weathering the Storm

Quince

Afternoon sun shining on the quince in Bonnefont cloister garden, which weathered last week’s “super storm” without damage. The Venetian wellhead at the center of the garden has been provided with a wooden shelter to protect it from the elements; the cover will be removed in the spring.  Photograph by Carly Still

The veteran quince and espaliered pear in Bonnefont garden, the pollarded crab apples in Cuxa cloister, the lady apple orchard, and the mature oaks and hollies outside the Museum walls have all come safely through the storms of the past two weeks, despite considerable damage in Fort Tryon Park.

On Halloween morning, staff were relieved to see that the gardens had come through unscathed. In the Middle Ages, as in antiquity, violent storms and the consequent destruction of crops were among the events attributed to the malice of witches. For a translation of the ninth-century bishop Agobard of Lyon’s rebuttal of the superstitious attribution of hail and thunder to human agency, visit the Medieval Sourcebook on the University of South Alabama website.

—Deirdre Larkin

Friday, October 19, 2012

Putting in the Seed

Seeds of the cornflower

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

Thyme, Wild and Tame

Creeping Thyme Common Thyme

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 21, 2012

Rue

Rue

The blue-green fronds of rue were admired for their beauty in the Middle Ages, and the intensely aromatic leaves were prized as a condiment, a medicament, and an amulet.  Photograph by Carly Still

Here is a shadowed grove which takes its color
From the miniature forest of glaucous rue.
Through its small leaves and short umbels which rise
Like clusters of spears it sends the wind’s breath
And the sun’s rays down to its roots below.
Touch it but gently and it yields a heavy
Fragrance. Many a healing power it has —
Especially, they say, to combat
Hidden toxin and to expel from the bowels
The invading forces of noxious poison.

—Hortulus, Walahfrid Strabo, translated by Raef Payne

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Friday, September 14, 2012

Tansy

Tanacetum vulgare

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, September 7, 2012

Rock Samphire

Crithmon, some call it Critamon, is a little shrubbie herbe, thick of leaves, the height of it is about a cubit, growing in rockie and maritime places, being full of fatt, and whitish leaves, like unto those of Purcelane, yet thicker & longer & salt to ye tast.

—Dioscorides, De Materia Medica, Book II: 157

Rock samphire is one of several maritime species grown in Bonnefont herb garden. This edible plant was foraged rather than cultivated in the Middle Ages; it also had medicinal uses. Below, left to right: Samphire in bloom; the flower structure is typical of the Apiaceae, a large family of aromatic plants. Ripening seedheads; the name “crithmon” by which the plant was known in antiquity is thought to derive from the Greek word for barley, as the seeds resemble the grain.

Crithmum maritimum in Flower Crithmum maritimum Seed Heads

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Friday, August 31, 2012

Adventures with Buckwheat

Trie Garden before Renovation

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

Dangerous Beauty

D. metel D. metel

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.

D. metel Seed Capsules

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

By Any Other Name

Saint Dorothea Rosa gallica officinalis

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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