A Reader’s Request: The Herbs of Shakespeare, Act One

Reader Contribution by Lemon Verbena Lady
1 / 7
2 / 7
3 / 7
4 / 7
5 / 7
6 / 7
7 / 7

You can check out the Lemon Verbena Lady at her blog Lemon Verbena Lady’s Herb Garden

I always ask you for blog suggestions, and a reader from Texas came up with a couple that I think you will find interesting. Because Valentine’s Day is near, I’m going to post about William Shakespeare’s herbs. Shakespeare arguably wrote one of the most poignant love stories for the ages, Romeo and Juliet. He also sprinkled herbs and flowers throughout some of his other plays, including The Winter’s Tale and A Midsummer Night’s Dream

The Pittsburgh area where I live is lucky to be the home to the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation on the campus of Carnegie-Mellon University. I mention this because one of the books I used in researching this project is Shakespeare’s Flowers, written by Jessica Kerr and illustrated by Anne Ophelia Dowden, who is one of my favorite botanical artists. If you are going to visit the Pittsburgh area or you live here, you should visit the Hunt Institute. Beginning in March, they will feature an exhibit that explores the wildflowers of Pennsylvania.

Pittsburgh also has a charming Elizabethan herb garden and Shakespeare garden that is maintained by the Western Pennsylvania Unit of the Herb Society of America. It was highlighted in my post called The Herb Channeler’s Adventures with Jekka McVicar. It contains flowers, vegetables, wildflowers and herbs mentioned in his plays. There are approximately 160 plant references in all of Shakespeare’s works.

I have been trying to decide on a new theme for my herb garden and the plants of Shakespeare may inspire me to plant a Shakespearean-style garden. First, here is a brief history of the Elizabethan garden: The Elizabethan garden was balanced in design and following the design of the Tudor house. The gardens had hedges or borders with paths that led the visitors near the plants. Flower beds formed knots that were edged with box, thrift, thyme, santolina or hyssop. Eglantine roses were mixed with privet to form a fragrant but private hedge to surround the entire garden. The combination even kept out the livestock! 

Shakespeare had both grand gardens and dooryard gardens in his plays. He talked of wild gardens in the fields and meadows and medicinal plants outside the castle walls. Herbs for strewing the stone floors were necessary from the medieval times up to 1800 because of the unpleasant smells. The use of a stillroom, a working part of every medieval household that produced essences and medicines continued into the Stuart era. The still house was placed in the garden for practicality and beauty. The herbs were distilled, washing waters made, aromatic perfumes produced and medicines compounded that would protect against the sickness of winter. Scents were important not only because of poor sanitation, but also because there was a sense that it brought great benefit to the overall well-being of the patient. So herbal flowers and herbs were an essential part of the daily life in Shakespeare’s time; he used that knowledge to enhance his audience’s experience. Here are just some of the choices both in herbal flowers and herbs, as well as quotes from his plays.

Lemon Balm: Antony and Cleopatra (Act 5, Scene 2)

“As sweet as Balm, as soft as air, as gentle.”

Cleopatra speaks of the poison as sweet as lemon balm as she kills herself. Sometimes I feel like killing myself when the lemon balm takes over!  Lemon balm is one of my favorite lemon herbs, though. (Really!) It makes a wonderful addition to your herbal tea blend. It is easily grown from seed and is a rampant self-sower! Cut it down by a third throughout the summer to keep it from flowering.

Chamomile: King Henry the Fourth, Part One (Act 2, Scene 4)

“For though the chamomile, the more it is trodden on, the faster it grows, yet youth, the more it is wasted, the sooner it wears.”

Falstaff is talking to Prince Henry, his supposed son, about how stepping on chamomile will make it grow faster. That’s Roman chamomile because it is used as a perennial groundcover. Also, if you grow German chamomile (an annual for us) it will keep producing flowers when you harvest them over the growing season. Both chamomiles grow best in full sun and give a wonderful apple scent if you brush them or trod on them.

Garlic: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act 4, Scene 2)

“And, most dear actors, eat no onions nor garlic,
For we are to utter sweet breath”

This was Bottom’s request to Quince when they were getting ready to perform for the Duke. I’m sure they smelled enough without having garlic and onion breath! Sweet breath would make for a sweet smelling play! Garlic is very easy to plant using the individual cloves around Columbus Day in the northern half of the United States. It will start to send up green shoots by January and you will be ready to harvest your garlic in July. It sends up a scape that should be cut off so the energy goes into bulb production–around May or early June for the north. Once the tops start to turn brown, you can dig them up and let them cure for a time before using the bulbs. I have used the bulbs right away without any curing and they taste just as good. You can even plant the garlic from the grocery store. You aren’t supposed to be able to grow it from grocery store garlic, but it works. I never knew that garlic has different intensities and flavors. If you are able to eat it, it really is a delicious vegetable/herb.

Lavender, Mint, Savory, Marjoram and Marigolds: The Winter’s Tale (Act 4, Scene 4)

“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.”

Perdita is talking with Polixenes about breeding flowers and talks of the marigold (pot marigold or calendula) that closes its petals with the sun. Marigolds are sometimes called Mary-buds after the Virgin Mary. Hot lavender refers to the taste of the flower being spicy; the flowers were used to perfume cupboards where linens were stored. Mint was long used to perfume the air, to season food and to clear the head. Grow orange mint for good appearance and spicy fragrance, pineapple mint for variegated leaves, peppermint or spearmint for tea and apple mint for its wooly leaves. Marjoram was used as a strewing herb; a lot was needed to keep houses smelling fresh. Savory came with the Romans to England. They used it in spicy sauces. Today, it is known as the bean herb and can be a substitute for pepper. Summer savory is an annual and is easily grown from seed, and has a little pink or purple flower. Winter savory is a hardy perennial with white flowers.  I will have photos of the other herbs in this play on my blog at Lemon Verbena Lady’s Herb Garden

Pink: Romeo and Juliet (Act 2, Scene 4)

“Mercutio: Nay, I am the very pink of courtesy.
Romeo: Pink for flower.
Mercutio: Right.”

Mercutio is speaking to Romeo about his perfect manners. There are many varieties of pinks or dianthus, and they are edible. They are an herbal flower that grew in the knots of the Elizabethan garden. Some pinks have a clove scent like their cousins the carnation. They are a short-lived perennial in my gardens. I love them on my rock wall, and the chipmunks love to dig up the roots and make them very short lived!

Rather than do additional posts on seed catalogs, I will give you several links on posts I did on my blog that will link you with additional seed catalogs that have come my way. They are entitled More Herb Seed Catalogs in the Mailbox, GERD and Herbs, I Forgot I Had This One and A Few More of My Favorite Catalogs. As always, if you have a comment or question about any of my posts, please write to me here with a comment or my email at lemonverbenalady@hotmail.com and put in the subject line “Herb Comment or Question.” Talk to you soon. Please do not miss Act Two of my post!

Need Help? Call 1-800-456-6018
Mother Earth Living
Mother Earth Living
The ultimate guide to living the good life!