Posts Tagged ‘violet’

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, May 25, 2012

Inside and Outside the Garden Walls

Unicorn in Captivity

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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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 »