Mother Earth Living

Herbal Escape: The Cloisters Museum and Gardens

Experience medieval herb gardens in New York City—and learn how to bring the tradition home.
By Letitia L. Star
June/July 2010
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Potted jasmine in the Bonnefont Cloister Garden. Click on the IMAGE GALLERY to view even more pictures of this gorgeous, historical garden.
All images ©The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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• Online Exclusive: Discover the Unicorn Tapestries. 

• Online Exclusive: Learn more about medieval herbs. 

If you’re ever in New York City, be sure to discover the rich tapestry of colors, textures and fragrances of more than 250 medieval herbs thriving in not one, but three cloister gardens in Manhattan’s Fort Tryon Park. This sacred green sanctuary is part of The Cloisters Museum and Gardens, a medieval art and architecture museum that's a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Unique Medieval Gardens

“There are no other medieval gardens like this in the United States,” says Deirdre Larkin, associate managing horticulturist of The Cloisters. “We grow 250 to 325 herbs, depending on the season. However, we don’t cultivate each herb every year.” The three gardens at The Cloisters (Bonnefont Garden, Cuxa Garden and Trie Garden) are all thriving re-creations of the herbs, flowers and other plants found in medieval life and art. As with the medieval gardens of old, they are carefully designed to appeal to all five senses. Strolling through these peaceful gardens, you can experience solace and renewal, much as monks did hundreds of years ago in the Romanesque and Gothic periods.

“In medieval Europe, the flora is dominated by spring blooming, so the best time to visit the Bonnefont Garden is in late May and early June,” Larkin says. “Another nice time in the medieval garden is mid- to late-October, when plants have recovered from the summer heat and the quince trees are in fruit.”

Herbal Inspiration

We all are greatly indebted to European medieval herbalists who cultivated herbs that have important culinary and medicinal applications in modern times. “Many of the herbs we value today were grown and used in the Middle Ages. There’s been a direct line,” Larkin says.

You might be intrigued by herb lore of medieval Europe. Herbs had symbolic meaning, as well as many household and medicinal applications. For example, lavender was considered to be a chastity preserver in the Middle Ages, Larkin says, and “it was thought that rosemary grew best where the woman of the house dominated.”

All Herbs, No Weeds

Another interesting point: all plants were considered to be herbs. The Middle Ages were “weedless” because no plant was pejoratively labeled as a weed, which is defined as any unwanted plant in a garden, farm or other landscape. “Many plants cultivated as herbs during the Middle Ages are considered to be weeds today,” Larkin says. To authentically replicate the medieval garden, The Cloisters grows several thistles. One stunning example is the common or wild teasel (Dipsacus fullonum), which had various medicinal uses in medieval Europe.

Additional medieval horticultural treasures include legendary plants such as the mandrake (Mandrogora officinarum) and dragon arum (Dracunculus vulgaris), Larkin’s favorite herb. Dragon arum and other members of the Araceae family imitate the smell and color of rotting meat to attract fly pollinators.

Guide to The Cloister Gardens

• Bonnefont Cloister Garden. Offering a delightful view of the Hudson River, this cloister is from the Cistercian abbey of Bonnefont-en-Comminges in southwest France. “This is our teaching garden and home to medieval herbs,” Larkin says. See more than 250 herb species, grouped in beds such as culinary, aromatic, magic, medicinal and artistic around a 15th-century Venetian wellhead. Look for wild arum, also known as cuckoo-pint (Arum maculatum), which is depicted growing in the “The Unicorn in Captivity” tapestry.

• Cuxa Cloister Garden. This cloister re-creates part of the Benedictine monastery of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa in the northeast Pyrenees. The green lawn is divided by crossing paths into quadrants, which are symmetrically bordered by perennials. “This is a typical medieval garden design. We have a mixture of medieval herbs and modern cultivars,” Larkin says. Find lavenders, rosemary, bay and sages, among other herbs.

• Trie Cloister Garden. Representing the final flowering of the late Middle Ages, the cloister’s Gothic carvings are from Trie-en-Bigorre and neighboring foundations in southwest France. “This garden is a field of more than 50 species of herbs and flowers evoked in the famous Unicorn Tapestries series,” Larkin says. “It also provides a home for medieval plants that I don’t know the uses for.”

Take the Tradition Home

Adopt the medieval approach of planning your garden to appeal to the five senses. Create your own vibrant tapestry of color, taste, texture, fragrance and sound. By doing so, you’ll experience a connection with medieval horticulturists who tended their herb gardens centuries ago.

Add visual interest by cultivating rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and myrtle topiaries in globes. These can be grown in pots—both indoors and outside. At The Cloisters, common myrtle (Myrtus communis), which has ivory-white blossoms and blue-black fruit, thrives in pots and is brought indoors before the frost. “Topiaries in the Middle Ages were very simple, and not elaborate as in Roman times,” Larkin says.

Add texture by growing butcher’s broom (Ruscus aculeatus) in pots. This diminutive shrub, regarded as a botanical curiosity, reaches up to 2 feet in The Cloisters’ gardens. Add color on sunlit mornings with chicory’s beautiful deep sky-blue blooms. In the kitchen bed of the Bonnefont Garden, you may find two species of chicory (Cichorium intybus and C. endiva). Contact The Cloisters at (212) 923-3700 or visit their website at www.metmuseum.org/cloisters .

Make Your Garden Medieval

Medieval herb gardening can be easy. In fact, it’s likely that you already grow herbs that were treasured by medieval herbalists. Horticulturist Deirdre Larkin advises starting with mints (Mentha spp.), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) and comfrey (Symphytum officinale). For advanced gardeners, try samphire (Crithmum maritimum). To buy, visit Peconic River Herb Farm ( www.prherbfarm.com ), Richters Herb Specialists ( www.richters.com ) or Well-Sweep Herb Farm ( www.wellsweep.com ).

Discover the Unicorn Tapestries

For close-up photos of The Cloisters' beloved Unicorn Tapestries visit The Metropolitan Museum of Art website. 
• Click here for more information about the famous tapestry, The Unicorn in Captivity.
• Click here to learn more about The Hunt of the Unicorn.
• Click here for a closer look at The Unicorn Tapestries.

Want to Learn More? 

To quickly cultivate your own knowledge of medieval herbs, read Deirdre Larkin's monthly blog, The Medieval Garden Enclosed. She provides a wealth of information on medieval herbs' history, uses and cultivation. You also can review the monthly archives or search the site by herb name. In the future, look for a complete list of medieval herbs, plus what's currently in bloom in The Cloister gardens.

Another great resource is video of Larkin's talk about the Cloisters: http://www.youtube.com/user/metmuseum#p/u/71/8HpQ_saV_hY.


Letitia L. Star writes about food in Chicago.


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