Friday, July 27, 2012
Both edible and medicinal plants were classified by their qualities in the Middle Ages. A given plant might be heating, cooling, moistening, or drying in its action on human bodies; the intensity of this action was expressed in degrees. An herb or foodstuff that was a little cooling was “cold in the first degree,” while a very cooling plant was classed as “cold in the fourth degree.” Above, left: Strawberry (Fragaria vesca) was a mildly cooling fruit, being cold and moist in the first degree. Pear (Pyrus communis) was more refreshing, being cold in the second degree and moist in the first.
The medicinal model inherited by the Middle Ages, based largely on humoral theory, was essentially a “cure by contraries” rooted in the idea that illness was the result of an imbalance of the humors—blood, choler, bile, and phlegm—within an individual. Plants and other substances were either warming, cooling, moistening, or drying in their action on human bodies, which were sanguine, phlegmatic, melancholic, or choleric in complexion. Read more »
Monday, July 16, 2012
The courtyard, as seen from the portcullis gate entrance in 1938, at left, and in 2012, at right. Photograph on right by Andrew Winslow
Visitors to The Cloisters may have spied the top of a large oak tree just above the wall at the postern gate entrance. This white oak grows in a courtyard enclosed by the ramparts, which also include maintenance passages, storage, an education workshop area, and garden workspaces.
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Friday, June 15, 2012
The Cloisters offered its annual Garden Days program on June 2 and 3. We had splendid weather and a great turnout. Deirdre Larkin, familiar to all of our regular readers, led garden tours in which she explored the theme of wild and cultivated plants in the Middle Ages. Instructors from our Education Office led workshops for children and their families.
Deirdre Larkin, at center, discussed wild and cultivated plants in the Bonnefont herb garden. Some of the plants in the garden are considered weeds today but were highly valued in the medieval world. Most of the beds in Bonnefont are planted according to use; nearly every bed was completely replanted this spring. Photograph by Nancy Wu
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Friday, May 25, 2012
The Unicorn in Captivity, 1495–1505. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1937 (37.80.6). The profusion of flowering plants that springs from the millefleurs meadow on which the unicorn rests includes both garden plants and wildflowers. An iris and a clove pink are prominently placed outside the unicorn’s enclosure; both were intensively cultivated in the Middle Ages, but the purple orchis silhouetted against the unicorn’s body depends on a special relationship with microorganisms in its native soil and would not have grown in gardens.
Roses, lilies, iris, violet, fennel, sage, rosemary, and many other aromatic herbs and flowers were prized for their beauty and fragrance, as well as their culinary and medicinal value, and were as much at home in the medieval pleasure garden as in the kitchen or physic garden. These plants were carefully cultivated, but many useful plants of the Middle Ages were found outside the garden walls, or admitted on sufferance.
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Thursday, April 5, 2012
A colony of lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) growing in the orchard below the south wall of Bonnefont garden.
The shining yellow flowers of lesser celandine star the grounds below Bonnefont garden in March and April, but the blossoms and the heart-shaped leaves of this spring ephemeral will disappear altogether by summer. The tuberous roots, which lie just beneath the surface of the soil, will remain dormant until the following spring. This invasive medieval species is not grown within the walls of The Cloisters, but has long been at home throughout the northeastern United States. (See the Ranunculus ficaria page of the Invasive Plant Atlas of New England website.)
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Friday, February 24, 2012
The ‘evergray’ santolina is cold hardy in our climate, but dislikes our wet winters. We prefer to grow this aromatic herb in pots and bring it indoors in autumn. Above, left: Santolina is also known as cotton lavender, because of its dense, whitish-gray foliage and strong fragrance; Right: A santolina topiary made from a dwarf form of the species.
A compact, woody plant of dry ground and stony banks, the Mediterranean santolina (Santolina chamaecyparissus) is cold hardy in our USDA Zone 7 gardens, but dislikes wintering over in wet soil; we prefer to grow it in pots and bring it indoors in autumn. Santolina’s slender stems are densely covered with short, thick, cottony leaves. This low-growing evergray species lends itself to shaping and shearing, and was widely used as an ornamental edging plant in Renaissance knot gardens. It’s also an excellent subject for topiary work, especially the dwarf form of the species, S. chamaecyparissus ‘Nana.’
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Friday, February 3, 2012
The trees went to anoint a king over them: and they said to the olive tree: Reign thou over us
And it answered: Can I leave my fatness, which both gods and men make use of, to come to be promoted among the trees?
—Judges 9: 8-9, Douay-Rheims Bible
Olive oil provided fuel for sanctuary lamps throughout the Mediterranean world in antiquity and the Middle Ages, as well as holy oils for religious purposes. Above, left: A menorah flanked by two olive trees, as depicted in the Cervera Bible, recently on view at the Main Building. The brimming vessels used to fill the lamp appear at the top of the menorah. Right: A fifth-century standing lamp decorated with a cross; bronze lamps of this type were common in the early Byzantine world.
The olive was held to be the first of trees in both classical and biblical antiquity, prized above even the grapevine and the fig. A gift of the goddess Athena, the sacred olive symbolized the arts of peace and prosperity; the ruthless destruction of an enemy’s olive groves in wartime was held to be sacrilegious act. The Roman natural historian Pliny, writing in the first century A.D., attests that Athena’s olive was still venerated on the Athenian acropolis in his day (Historia naturalis, XVI 239–40). Although slow to bear, the tree is very long lived, surviving for hundreds of years. (The SpiceLines blog features an illustrated post about a Spanish olive estimated to be eighteen hundred years old.)
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