Posts Tagged ‘Physica’

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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Friday, February 3, 2012

Light and Life

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 Trees Flanking Menorah (small) Byzantine Lamp with Cross (small)

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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Friday, May 6, 2011

Swallow Wort

Greater Celandine Broken Stem of Greater Celandine (detail)

Greater celandine, or swallow wort, has an ancient association with the common European swallow; it was believed that mother birds dropped the juice of the celandine into the eyes of their blind fledglings. The plant and the bird were linked for many centuries, and celandine’s reputation as a sovereign remedy for clearing eyes and sharpening the sight outlasted the Middle Ages.  Photographs by Corey Eilhardt

It seems to be called Chelidonia because it springs out of the ground together with ye swallows appearing, & doth wither with them departing. Somme have related that if any of the swallowes’ young ones be blinde, the dames bringing this herbe, doe heale the blindness of it.

—Dioscorides, De Materia Medica, Book II: 211

The greater celandine, Chelidonium majus is native to Europe and western Asia, but is widely naturalized in waste places in the eastern United States, where it is commonly known as “swallow wort.” For more information, see the U.S.D.A. Plants Database. (Chelidonium majus is characterized as greater celandine, to distinguish it from an altogether different species, Ranunculus ficaria, widely known as lesser celandine.) Read more »

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Grasping the Nettle


Handling Nettles (detail)
Nettles' Stinging Hairs

Leather gauntlets are required when handling the stinging nettles grown in Bonnefont garden. The nettles grow in the middle of a raised bed, where visitors won’t brush against them inadvertently, and are caged with willow and labeled as an additional safeguard (see full image). Photographs by Corey Eilhardt

But this little patch which lies facing east
In the small open courtyard before my door
Was full — of nettles! All over
My small piece of land they grew, their barbs
Tipped with a spear of tingling poison.
What should I do? So thick were the ranks
That grew from the tangle of roots below,
They were like the green hurdles a stableman skillfully
Weaves of pliant osiers when the horses hooves
Rot in the standing puddles and go soft as fungus.
So I put it off no longer. I set to with my mattock
And dug up the sluggish ground. From their embraces
I tore those nettles though they grew and grew again.

—From Hortulus by Walahfrid Strabo. Translated from the Latin by Raef Payne. The Hunt Botanical Library, 1966.

The stinging nettles in Walahfrid’s monastery garden were clearly unwanted, but Urtica dioica is carefully cultivated in Bonnefont Cloister garden. A common perennial weed of moist soil and disturbed ground, stinging nettle is widely distributed throughout Europe, Asia, and North America, having crossed the ocean with the earliest English settlers. (See the U.S.D.A. database for more information). Nettles thrive on the phosphates that are a product of human habitation and animal husbandry, and are often found near long-abandoned settlements and waste dumps. Read more »

Friday, April 1, 2011

Sweet and Low

Sweet Violet under Quince

The sweet-smelling, short-stemmed garden violet (Viola odorata) blooms from late March into April. Prized in medieval pleasure gardens for its color and scent, this violet was also at home in kitchen and physic gardens. Photograph by Corey Eilhardt

Native to woodland margins and damp and shady places throughout Europe, the early blooming Viola odorata was prized for its fragrance as well as its rich purple color. The sweet violet is included in Albertus Magnus’ list of desirable flowers for the pleasure garden, along with the lily and the rose. These three flowers are often linked symbolically as well as horticulturally in medieval sources, as flowers of Paradise and as emblems of the Virgin—the low-growing but beautiful and sweet-scented violet was equated with Mary’s humility. Read more »