by Matt Gibson
William Shakespeare was a poet, playwright and actor who is widely considered to be one of the greatest and most prolific writers in the history of the English language. The master penned a total of 39 plays, 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems, and perhaps a few other works, though authorship is hard to prove for certain. There are approximately 160 references to plants in all of Shakespeare’s works, namely herbs and flowers. Plants and the gardens that house them play an important role in Shakespeare’s plays, as they did in Elizabethan life in general. Modern gardeners can use Shakespeare’s love of flowers and herbs to inspire their own designs.
Shakespeare used both dooryard gardens and grand gardens as settings in his plays. He wrote of wild gardens in the beauteous fields and lush meadows as well as medicinal plants that grew outside the castle walls.
Armando: I am that flower
Dumain: That Mint
Longaville: That Columbine
- Love’s Labour’s Lost (Act V, Scene 2)
Several different varieties of mint were present in the Elizabethan herbal rotation, including spearmint, watermint, garden mint, horsemint, white mint, and red mint. The perennial herb was used culinarily, as an ingredient in various toiletries, and medicinally, to clear the mind, boost memory, and to energize and refresh the body. Mint flowers in the summertime, producing different shades of white and purple blooms atop one- to four-foot plants.
Perdita: Hot lavender, mints, savory, marjoram,
The marigold, that goes to bed wi’ th’ sun
And with him rises weeping. These are flowers
Of middle summer, and I think they are given
To men of middle age.
- The Winter’s Tale (Act IV, Scene 4)
Savory was grown during Elizabethan times for culinary use. Introduced to Britain by Roman traders, savory is added to meat stuffings, puddings, and sauces. Early Anglo Saxon recipes used the spelling “savorie.” Grown as an annual or perennial, depending on the climate of the area, savory should be planted in the springtime. Plants grow from six to 16 inches high, producing delicate white blooms that are similar to poppies.
Perdita: Here’s flowers for you:
Hot lavender, mints, savory and marjoram
- The Winter’s Tale (Act IV, Scene 4)
Since ancient times, lavender has been cultivated and used in soaps and toiletries due to its refreshing scent and its cleansing and antibacterial properties. Elizabethans would put dried lavender flowers into their laundry to absorb the smell and spread their underthings, which they called smallclothes, over lavender bushes so that they would absorb the scent whilst drying. Lavender essence was often distilled and applied to the temples to relieve headaches and stress. In the Elizabethan home, pots of lavender were placed on windowsills and balconies to freshen the air with its lovely scent.
Symbolically, lavender was known as “the herb of love,” and men would often give the flowering herb to young ladies as a symbol of devotion and true love. Lavender petals placed in bedsheets was believed to help ignite sexual feelings. Lavender should be planted in April or May and will flower throughout June and July. Lavender is grown as a perennial evergreen. Lavender plants grow as high as 20 inches.
In Hamlet, Ophelia gives the king fennel as a symbol of flattery, strength, and praiseworthiness. Because fennel flowers die quickly, they also symbolize sorrow. Surely, the irony of that dual meaning was not lost on Shakespeare.
Fennel is a flowering perennial and a member of the carrot family. It is cultivated primarily for culinary use, though its pretty yellow flowers and leathery leaves give it ornamental value as well.
Oberon: I know a bank where the wild thyme blows.
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act II, Scene 1)
Growing only eight inches tall, wild thyme is a perennial evergreen with a loud, aromatic scent and glorious pink and purple blooms. Francis Bacon wrote that when “being trodden upon and crushed,” flowers such as thyme, burnet and watermints would “perfume the air most delightfully.” Wild thyme differs greatly from common garden thyme, which is much smaller and less fragrant.
Lear: Give the word.
Edgar: Sweet Marjoram.
- King Lear (Act IV, Scene 6)
Clown: Indeed, sir, she was the sweet Marjoram of the Salad.
- All’s Well that Ends Well (Act IV, Scene 5)
“The lily I condemned for thy hand,
And buds of marjoram had stol’n thy hair”
- Sonnet 99
Closely related to oregano, marjoram is grown as both an annual and a perennial, depending on the climate in your area. During Shakespearean times, the flowering herb formed part of the garland of newly married couples, symbolizing happiness, honor, and love.
Marjoram should be planted in the spring, after all threat of frost has passed. Primarily cultivated for culinary use, marjoram flowers in the summer months and definitely holds strong ornamental value.
Falstaff: For though the camomile, the more it is trodden on the faster it grows, so youth, the more it is wasted, the sooner it wears.
- Henry IV (Part 1, Act II, Scene 4)
Chamomile was popular in Elizabethan gardens due to its enjoyable fragrance and medicinal qualities. The flowering herb was thought to relax the mind and bring balance and health to the human body. Chamomile is a perennial flowering herb that should be planted in early spring. In the summer, small, fragrant, delightful white blooms with big yellow centers appear atop one-foot high stems.
Perdita: The marigold, that goes to bed wi’ th’ sun
And with him rises weeping:
- The Winter’s Tale (Act IV, Scene 4)
Marina: The purple violets, and marigolds,
Shall as a carpet, hang upon thy grave
While summers days do last.
- Pericles (Act IV, Scene 1)
Cloten: And winking Mary-buds begin
To ope their golden eyes:”
- Cymbeline, Act II, Scene 3
The marigold flower has always been a favorite of poets because these flower hold a lot of symbolism. The reason for this is because the flower is nearly always in full bloom, and it follows the sun as it crosses the sky, opening and closing its petals at the beginning and end of each day. The Shakespeare quote that refers to weeping was in reference to the dew that forms on the flowers in the morning. In Tudor time, the herb and flower of the plant was often consumed in salads and soups.
Marigold is an annual that grows from one foot to 30 inches in height. Plant once the soil has warmed to the touch in the spring and expect flowering from springtime to autumn.
Biondello: I knew a wench married in an afternoon as she went to the
garden for parsley to stuff a rabbit.
- The Taming of the Shrew (Act IV, Scene 4)
Parsley was first brought to Britain in 1548 from Sardinia. The herb was used both medicinally and culinarily during the Elizabethan period. The herbalist John Gerard raved about the herb’s taste and medicinal value, saying, “It is delightful to the taste and agreeable to the stomache.” He believed that the plant should be used in its entirety, saying, “the roots or seeds boiled in ale and drank, cast foorth strong venome or poyson; but the seed is the strongest part of the herbe.”
Plant the herb in the spring and enjoy adding fresh cuttings to your meals until late autumn. Parsley will grow from one foot to a foot and a half in height.
Cleopatra: As sweet as Balm, as soft as air, as gentle.
- Antony and Cleopatra (Act V, Scene 2)
In this quote, Cleopatra is referring to the snake’s venom she is using to kill herself being as tasty as lemon balm and bringing her death about softly and without pain or suffering.
Lemon balm is used in teas and as a flavoring herb culinarily. A member of the mint family, this citrusy herb is used widely in aromatherapy due to its refreshingly bright and pleasing aroma. Lemon balm is also cultivated for its medicinal value and is often used in alternative medicine.
Perdita: Rosemary and rue: these keep
Seeming and savour all winter long
Grace and remembrance to you both.
- The Winter’s Tale (Act IV, Scene 3)
Ophelia: There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray, love, remember.
Hamlet (Act IV, Scene 5}
Rosemary has been a fixture in culinary circles throughout history. In Elizabethan England it symbolized remembrance and memory.
The perennial evergreen is a member of the mint family. The leaves are used in cooking and the health benefits include improved digestion, concentration and mental aging.
Othello looked at gardens as a metaphor for how people choose to live their lives, saying, “Our bodies are our gardens to which our wills are the gardeners.” Herbs and herbal flowers to grow in a Shakespearean garden should include: mint, savory, lavender, fennel, wild thyme, marjoram, chamomile, marigold, parsley, lemon balm, and rosemary. Whether you grow them all, choose a selection, or simply reflect on the literary reflections of these flowers and herbs, Shakespeare would be proud.