Originally from the Piney Woods of East Texas, Dr. McDonald received a B.S. and M.S. in floriculture and a Ph.D. in horticulture all from Texas A&M University. He teaches landscape horticulture. His area of research is sustainable landscape design and management.

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Shakespeare’s Flowers
by Garry V. McDonald       #Flowers   #History   #Themed Gardens

This modern recreation of an English wildflower meadow at Kew Gardens contains many plant species common in Tudor times.


Here’s flowers for you;
Hot lavender, mints, savory, marjoram;
The marigold, that goes to bed with the sun,
And with him rises weeping; these are flowers
Of middle summer, and, I think they are given
To men of middle age….

A Winter’s Tale
Act IV Scene III


William Shakespeare not only knew his human nature, he also knew his plants. Visual imagery played a prominent role in much of Shakespeare’s work and no more so than his descriptions of plants that would have been instantly recognized by original theatergoers to the Globe Theater in London. Many of our common and beloved garden flowers have been mentioned by Shakespeare in works ranging from comedies to tragedies with so many being listed by name that whole gardens devoted to Shakespeare’s flowers have been built worldwide.

While poets and writers mentioned flowers earlier than Shakespeare, what was it about his writings that brought to light so many of the flowers of his time? Like much in his work, it was a reflection of the times in which he lived. A product of the Tudor period, having lived through much of Queen Elizabeth I’s rein, he experienced the blossoming of English Renaissance and its emergence from a backward, insular island nation to a world power fueled by exploration and trade. Trade and the wealth it generated, along with a greater sense of security following years of war and intrigue created an environment in which English arts thrived. As medieval life gave way to a new prosperity, gardens expanded from strictly food production or herbal medicinal plantings to “pleasure” gardens where flowers were grown for beauty.


Mentioned as furze or broom in Shakespeare’s plays, gorse (Ullex sp) is a heavily scented legume common to English and Scottish moors.


A daisy that Shakespeare would have encountered growing wild on his trips from his home at New Place to London.


As famous as Shakespeare’s works are, very little is known about the man, although he was reputed to been a keen gardener. Unfortunately, most of this gardening reputation is based only on his references to plants and the fact that he was able to retire permanently to his country home in Stratford–upon-Avon in 1613, only three years before his death at age 52. Still, I like to think that anyone who can vividly describe the sight and fragrance of such flowers had to have had a more than a casual acquaintance with those plants.

Tudor gardens during the reins of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I can’t be compared to today’s English flowing perennial borders or naturalistic park-like settings developed by the great 18th century garden designers, but they were a great leap forward from the bare utilitarian monastic cloister gardens or the simple vegetable patches. Tudor gardens were formal, even stiff, in design and contained far fewer plant species than would be found in a typical garden today. The designs were often small square or rectangular plots or “knots” outlined in boxwood (Buxus sp) or some other tightly trimmed evergreen shrub such as the native yew (Taxus sp) with the center of these intimate spacing’s containing some type of objet d’ art such as a sundial or even a wellhead for watering the garden. The middle of the knotted areas were filled with either flowering plants or brightly colored gravel or chipped stone. Bowling greens, fountains, summer bowers, and pleached alleys were also popular. Lead planters or urns were filled with flowering plants. Lead, native to England, resisted the English weather better than Italian stone or terra cotta. I can’t image those lead urns blowing over in the equinoctial gales coming off the North Sea. Of course this was centuries before lead poisoning became a concern.

Shakespeare mentioned specific plants in a variety of ways in his plays. Twenty-nine separate scenes take place in a garden. Rose, an important plant during that period although differing greatly from what we know as modern roses, was mentioned often and used symbolically in Shakespeare’s plays to represent the Houses of York and Lancaster as these two dynasties battled for control of the English throne. The House of York, represented by a white rose, was ultimately defeated by the House of Lancaster, which was represented by a red rose, which in time became associated with the red Tudor rose, a symbol still prominent in decorative carvings of many Tudor buildings.


Shakespeare often mentions roses in his plays. Fragrant rose varieties such as these specimens growing on a Tudor-era building at Windsor Castle would have been familiar to Shakespeare’s audiences.


“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” is arguably the most famous quote associated with a rose and was spoken by Juliet to Romeo. It would be interesting to know which rose Juliet had in mind, although my money is on the sweetbriar or eglantine (Rosa rubiginosa), which smells like fresh apples when the foliage is crushed and is native to Northern Europe.

Shakespeare’s mention of the apothecary shop in Romeo and Juliet shows his familiarity with the herbal pharmacopeia of the time. The late 16th and early 17th centuries were early in the days of plant exploration and introduction, and while the potato might have just been gaining a foothold in England, supposedly introduced by that old sea dog Sir Francis Drake, many other exotic plants such as oriental lilies from Asia or flowering annuals from the New World, were not well known at this time, which may explain why Shakespeare mentions so many commonly grown wildflowers or herbs.

So if you have a hankering to plant after the Bard, what plants should you include in your Tudor garden? The square or rectangular bones or “knots” could be something along the lines of boxwood or maybe a native equivalent like yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria), which lends itself to tight shearing but is more adapted to our climate. Some of the plants most commonly mentioned in Shakespeare’s works include wood’s violet (Viola sp), roses (the previously mentioned eglantine rose, but also musk and damask roses), Pansy, lily (Lilium spp.), poppy (Papaver spp.) and sweet broom (Ulex gallii also referred to by Shakespeare as furz or gorse) a legume shrub with a sweet heady perfume. Also mentioned is cowslip (Primula), found growing in cow pastures from which the common name is derived. Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile), of course, was well known as a soothing tea ingredient even in those days. Marigold is curious because the marigold we know today is from Mexico and wouldn’t have been around during Shakespeare’s day. Shakespeare’s knew what we call pot marigold (Calendula officinalis) and not Tagetes; the old story of common names being carried over to newly discovered species. Daffodil (Narcissus) and carnation (Dianthus caryophyllus) also called gillyflower are both mentioned in A Winter’s Tale. Herbs include hyssop, rosemary, leeks, mint, and oddly enough, garlic. Fruits mentioned include strawberry, blackberry, pomegranate, mulberry, cherry and fig. So as Ophelia said in Hamlet: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray, love, remember and there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.” Remember these when sitting in the garden.


A pocket park in central London is reminiscent of a Tudor knot garden with rectangular beds outlined in tightly clipped boxwood filled with a variety of plants and other garden features such as a stone urn.


A version of this article appeared in an April 2015 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.


Posted: 08/09/16   RSS | Print


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