Why not put some Bard in the borders?

Theres more than 100 references to roses in Shakespeares works. Picture by Tom Pattinson.
Theres more than 100 references to roses in Shakespeares works. Picture by Tom Pattinson.

Shakespeare is rightly lauded for his brilliant writing, which remains universally popular 400 years after his death.

Much as this fellow enjoys the historic and human elements in his works, it is the gardening content that fires the imagination.

Had there been a Gardeners’ Question Time in the late 16th century he’d have sat comfortably on the panel, alongside herbalist John Gerard, with a sound knowledge of cultivated plants and wild flowers.

Many of the plants we recognise today were popular in the late 15th and early 16th centuries.

Here’s an idea if you wish to impress visitors to your garden – plant a section of border with species that have a Shakespearean theme, memorise the supporting literature, and you have a culture tour.

A typical walk around the flower section might include columbine, featured in Hamlet, Act 4 Scene 5, and Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act 5 Scene 2.

Planting carnations offers the chance to mention A Winter’s Tale, Act 4 Scene 3, and Perdita’s description as “the fairest flowers o’ the season”. Follow up with cowslip, which pops up in Cymbeline, Act 1 Scene 1, then again in Act 2 Scene 2.

There are several romantic connections to extend the tour.

Pansies were as popular then as now. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 2 Scene 2, there’s a conversation between Puck and Oberon: “Yet marked I where the bolt of Cupid fell: It fell upon a little western flower, before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound, and maidens call it Love-in-Idleness.”

The place where Titania sleeps is described: “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, where oxlips and the nodding violet grows, quite over-canopied by luscious woodbine, with sweet musk roses and with eglantine.”

This is the Bard at his gardening best, offering advice on group plantings, no less.

Ask anyone to give an example of a flower in one his plays and there’s a good chance it will be the rose from Romeo and Juliet, Act 2 Scene 2: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other word would smell as sweet.”

There are almost 100 references to roses in Shakespeare’s works, covering albas, damasks, musks and sweetbriars.

In Henry IV Part 1, Act 1 Scene 3, Hotspur speaks: “To put down Richard, that sweet lovely rose, and plant this thorn, this canker, Bolinbroke.”

Chaucer and Shakespeare were both familiar with Lilium candidum (Madonna lily), and William wove it into Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act 2 Scene 3, King Lear, Act 2 Scene 2, and Troilus and Cressida, Act 3 Scene 2.

By 1592 London-based herbalist John Gerard was acquainted with even more liliums: bulbiferum, chalcedonicum and martagon, the Turk’s cap lily. You can imagine that the Bard was too.