Posts Tagged ‘Pliny’

Friday, April 5, 2013

First Foot

Coltsfoot Blooming

Coltsfoot blooming in a pot in Bonnefont garden. The scaly stems and bright yellow blossoms of this early-spring-blooming member of the daisy family emerge well before the foliage; the hoof-shaped leaves appear only after the flowers have set seed. This notoriously invasive Eurasian species is best grown in a container. Photograph by Carly Still

Tussilago farfara, known in the Middle Ages under the Latin names ungula caballina (”horse hoof”) and pes pulli (”foal’s foot”), is still called coltsfoot, ass’s foot, or bull’s foot in English, pas-de-poulain in French, pie d’asino in Italian, and hufflatich in German. These names all derive from the fancied resemblance of the young leaf to the foot of a quadruped. See an image of the plant in leaf. A slideshow of images of Tussilago farfara in all stages of growth is available at Arkive.org.

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Friday, March 8, 2013

Madder Red

No mader, welde, or wood no litestre
Ne knew; the flees was of his former hewe;
Ne flesh ne wiste offence of egge or spere.
No coyn ne knew man which was fals or trewe,
No ship yet karf the wawes grene and blewe,
No marchaunt yit ne fette outlandish ware.

—Geoffrey Chaucer, The Former Age, ll. 17–22

Rubia tinctorum (detail) The Unicorn Defends Itself (detail)

Above, left: Dyer’s madder, a rough perennial herb native from the Eastern Mediterranean to Central Asia, grows in the bed devoted to plants used in medieval arts and crafts in Bonnefont cloister. The dried and pulverized roots of madder afforded a strong, fast red. Right: Detail from The Unicorn Defends Itself (from the Unicorn Tapestries). A range of colors—from pinks through bright reds, purplish reds, and oranges—could be achieved with madder, depending on the mordant used and the way in which the madder was combined with other colorants. (See Collections for more information about this work of art.)

The antiquity of the dyer’s craft is conveyed by Chaucer’s inclusion of the ignorance of madder, weld, and woad, the holy trinity of medieval dye plants, in his description of a period so remote and so devoid of the arts of civilization as to predate the use of knives, spears, coins, and ships. The use of madder is especially ancient, as demonstrated by this fragment of an Egyptian leather quiver in the Museum’s collection that may date to the 3rd millennium B.C.

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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, March 23, 2012

The Mandrakes Bloom Again…

mandrake_in_bloom_detail_225 mandrake-flowers_detail_225

The mandrake, credited with both medicinal and magical powers over the course of many centuries, has accumulated more lore than any other plant in the Western tradition. Above: One of a colony of five spring-blooming mandrakes in Bonnefont garden. In March, this famous member of the nightshade family produces tight clusters of short-stemmed bell-shaped flowers.

Mandrake (mandragora) is hot and a little bit watery. It grew from the same earth which formed Adam, and resembles the human a bit. Because of its similarity to the human, the influence of the devil appears in it and stays with it, more than with other plants. Thus a person’s good or bad desires are accomplished by means of it, just as happened formerly with idols he made. When mandrake is dug from the earth, it should be placed in a spring immediately, for a day and a night, so that every evil and contrary humor is expelled from it, and it has no more power for magic or phantasms.

—Hildegard of Bingen, Physica (translated by Patricia Throop)

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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, January 27, 2012

Green Victory

Laurus nobilis Madonna and Child with Saints

The evergreen bay laurel (Laurus nobilis), a symbol of victory and eternal life, is not as tender as some other Mediterranean species, but it must be grown in pots and wintered over indoors at The Cloisters. Above, left: Bay laurel topiaries like this one spend the winter in the glassed-in arcades of Cuxa cloister and return to Bonnefont herb garden in May. Right: The magnificent bay tree that flourishes at the center of Girolamo dai Libri’s Madonna and Child with Saints represents Resurrection, and is juxtaposed with the naked limbs of a dead tree.

The laurel itself is a bringer of peace, inasmuch as to hold a branch of it out even between enemy armies is a token of cessation of hostilities. With the Romans especially it is used as a harbinger of rejoicing and of victory, accompanying despatches and decorating the spears and javelins of the soldiery and adorning the generals’ rods of office. From this tree a branch is deposited in the lap of Jupiter the All-good and All-great whenever a fresh victory has brought rejoicing, and this is not because the laurel is continually green, nor yet because it is an emblem of peace, as the olive is to be preferred in both respects, but because it flourishes in the greatest beauty on Mount Parnassus, and consequently is thought to be also dear to Apollo, to whose shrine even the kings of Rome at that early date were in the custom of sending gifts and asking for oracles in return.

—Pliny, Historia Naturalis, Book XV, 133

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Friday, September 23, 2011

Figs and Fig Leaves

fig-in-fruit_225 figs_225

A young fig tree flourishing in a sheltered corner of Bonnefont garden; detail of the ripe fruit (click to see full image)—note the tiny hole in the base of the fig at the lower right, and the milky sap that exudes from the stems when the figs are picked. This latex was a medicament and a rennet; it was also used as a mordant in medieval gilding and as a binder in the preparation of egg tempera.  Photographs by Deirdre Larkin

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate.

Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons.

—Genesis 3:6, 7

Much of the plant lore of the Middle Ages, like many other aspects of medieval culture, was a synthesis of classical and biblical tradition. The Tree of Knowledge is not named in the biblical account of the Fall; more than one species has been identified with the forbidden fruit, and the fig is among them. In Greco-Roman culture, the fig was associated with fertility and with the female genitalia. D. H. Lawrence explores this complex of cultural associations in his remarkable poem “Figs” (listen to a reading of this poem on YouTube).

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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Venus Maidenhair

maidenhair fern maidenhair fern detail

The lovely Venus maidenhair is not quite hardy for us at The Cloisters, and is grown in pots in the medieval gardens. The pinnules of this graceful fern, which flourishes in moist and rocky situations in many parts of the world, repel water.  Photographs by Carly Still

The southern or Venus maidenhair (Adiantum capillis-veneris) belongs to a large genus of ferns that includes two hundred species. The botanical name given to the genus Adiantum is from the Greek for “unwetted,” since any water falling on the foliage of these ferns beads up, leaving the leaf surfaces dry. This species was already known by that name in classical antiquity; the Roman natural historian Pliny marveled that a plant that grew in moist places exhibited such a marked antipathy to water. According to Pliny, the plant was known to some as “beautiful hair” or “thick hair.”  A decoction of the fern, made by simmering it with celery seed in wine and oil, was used both to dye the hair and to prevent it from falling out (Historia naturalis, Book XXII, 62–65). Read more »

Friday, July 1, 2011

Holy Vervain

Verbena officinalis

The medieval vervain was identified with the “holy herb” known to the Greeks and Romans. Despite its unprepossessing appearance, common vervain is one of the great magico-medical plants of the Western tradition.

Many odde olde wives tales are written of Vervaine tending to witchcraft and sorcerie, which you may read elsewhere, for I am not willing to trouble your eares with supporting such trifles as honest eares abhorre to heare.

—John Gerard, The Herbal or Generall Historie of Plants, 1597

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