Shakespeare really knew his onions

Shakespeare's Violet. Picture by Tom Pattinson.
Shakespeare's Violet. Picture by Tom Pattinson.
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How often have you sat through an RSC performance, caught a plant reference and thought, “Ah, that’s Shakespeare the gardener shining through”.

Certain of his plays, sonnets and poems support the theory that he was fully aware of the important role plants played in the lives of people during that period.

Nor did wild flowers escape his attention.

I stoop to admire the groups of little blue flowers that self-set all over the garden and are at their best in early May, knowing that he was also aware of them.

In Twelfth Night that magical phrase, “if music be the food of love, play on”, can be found.

“Oh, it came to my ear like the sweet sound, that breathes upon a bank of violets, stealing and giving odour.”

The Tempest is home to another favourite: “Where the bee sucks, there suck I: In a cowslip’s bell I lie.”

Even the humble clover can be found in Henry V, and there’s mention of monkshood, a plant he knew was deadly poisonous, in Henry IV.

Add a few decorative herbs to your Shakespeare-oriented garden trail.

Lavender, balm, burnet, wormwood, thyme and rue, they all have history just waiting to be discovered with a little effort.

And let’s not forget rosemary for remembrance, as in Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 4 and Act 4, Scene 5.

Should you wish to carry this theme into the fruit and vegetable garden, I’d suggest your search starts with The Merry Wives of Windsor.

There you’ll find mention of apples, pears, plums, cabbages, potatoes and turnips at the very least.

Shakespeare clearly had a good working knowledge of plants, and as evidence in All’s Well That Ends Well, Act 5, Scene 3, suggests, he really knew his onions.