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

Reader Contribution by Lemon Verbena Lady
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Because there were so many herbal references in William Shakespeare’s work, and I do tend to get carried away with herbs, I split my blog post about it into two acts. So now I can you the maximum benefit of Shakespeare’s flowers. Here are additional favorites, including the 2012 Herb of the Year, the rose, and an herb that might not be familiar to you. Click here to read Act 1.

Rose: Romeo and Juliet (Act 2, Scene 2) 

“What’s in a name? That which we call a roseBy any other name would smell as sweet.” 

Juliet is on the balcony talking out aloud but unaware of Romeo’s presence. This is a famous passage from this tragic love story about the importance of a name. Shakespeare speaks of the rose most frequently in his plays. He would have known that the dew from the rose petals was highly prized for the making of cosmetics for an Elizabethan lady. The rose is the 2012 herb of the year.  In Elizabethan times, there would have been Provençal or cabbage rose and Lancaster and York rose, a damask rose that is both red and white among others. The Tudor rose was the heraldic floral emblem of England.

My favorite rose in my garden is the Apothecary’s rose.  It is a one-time bloomer, but is very fragrant, shade tolerant and the bees really love it.  It has been in gardens since the 12th century at least and may be earlier.  All roses are edible.  The only caveat to that is that florist’s roses that many of you will receive from your valentine should be used for potpourri and not eaten.  If there is a white tip on the rose petal and if it is bitter, you should remove it before eating it.  Always eat organic grown flowers and if you can’t tell whether they were organically grown, please do not eat them.

Rosemary & Pansies: Hamlet (Act 4, Scene 5) 

“Look at my flowers. There’s rosemary, that’s for remembering. Please remember, love. And there are pansies, they’re for thoughts.” 

Shakespeare did not haphazardly select the flowers and herbs that poor distraught Ophelia carries when she enters a room in Elsinore Castle. Flowers and herbs of all types had meanings associated with them. They provided remedies for sickness and wounds, as well as flavor for the pot. Rosmarinus means Dew of the Sea. If the stem of the rosemary plant is thick and tall when grown against a garden wall, that stem would be used to make lutes to play Elizabethan music. It loves full sun. There are upright and prostrate varieties and in this area, it must come inside for the winter. You must keep it watered through the winter, because a dry rosemary will be a dead rosemary. When I take a whiff of rosemary, I remember all of the wonderful people I have met because of herbs. It is a truly wonderful scent.


Pansies are known as Johnny-jump-ups in this country and as heartsease in parts of England, especially in Warwickshire where Shakespeare lived.  The big faced pansy was produced about 150 years ago.  It had many different common names, “Three faces under a hood,” “Tickle my fancy” or as Shakespeare called it “Love in Idleness or ‘Cupid’s flower.”  That is why I always tell you if you know the botanical name (as long as it is labeled correctly) you will get the right plant.  Johnny-Jump-Ups are easy to grow from seed and are a true spring flower and will continue to grow if given shade from the summer sun.


Rue & Fennel: Hamlet (Act 4, Scene 5)  

“There’s fennel for you, and columbines.—There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me. We may call it “herb of grace” o’ Sundays.—Oh, you must wear your rue with a difference.—There’s a daisy. I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died. They say he made a good end (sings) For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy—“ 

Distraught Ophelia continues to talk about the herbs and flowers and their meanings.

Fennel was paired with eels in an Elizabethan dish called conger and fennel. Its flavor made it ideal to complement fish, either using the bulb or fronds, and it was the emblem of flattery. This is probably why Ophelia offered fennel to Laertes and why she may have been thinking “Sow fennel, sow sorrow.”

“You’ll rue the day” was said for a person who had done something to regret or repent from. Repentance and bitterness were associated together in Elizabethan times. With its strong scent and sour taste, rue was the perfect herb of bitterness. After repentance, there was grace and forgiveness, hence,rue’s other name, herb of grace. Elizabethans were in constant fear of the plague and rosemary and rue are still carried in the processions of the Lord Mayor of London as a traditional preventative against the plague. I love the foliage color and shape of rue in the garden. Even though it was ingested in Elizabethan times, I would not eat rue. Use it as an ornamental accent. It does like full sun. Also, just be careful if you are subject to photosensitivity. Rue is one of those herbs that you should not clip on a hot, sunny day. It may give you a rash.


Samphire: King Lear (Act 4, Scene 6) 

“Halfway downHangs one that gathers samphire—Dreadful trade;Methinks he seems no bigger than his head.” 

Edgar in a disguise and his father, Gloucester, go to Dover to the cliff but not really. Because Gloucester has lost his sight, Edgar, his son, has him convinced that he is near the edge of the cliff describing the villagers picking samphire from the cliff walls. Samphire is a fleshy pungent herb with leaves like small hands. It thrives in the rocks of England’s seacoast and grows just above where the water washes up against the rocks. It also grows in meadows and gardens. In the time of Shakespeare, it was a very popular pickle. The leaves were put in brine and became “the pleasantest sauce, most familiar and best agreeing with man’s body.” It is slow growing, but an attractive wall plant. It would be an annual for the north and a perennial for Zones 8 and the south. I did find samphire seeds from Richters Herbs in Canada.

Thyme: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act 2, Scene 1) 

“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses, and with eglantine.”

Oberon is talking with Puck who, as his servant, is charged with going into the wood to find the place where Titania sometimes sleeps to cast a spell on an Athenian lady and man. Thyme is the perfect groundcover to sleep or rest on. Sir Francis Bacon called thyme a plant that “perfumes the air most delightfully not passed by as the rest, but being trodden upon and crushed” and he recommends it for garden paths. Most thymes are perennial, but even if they are perennial you can lose them if their roots are wet during the winter. You can obtain a long period of bloom, by using several varieties.

Rather than do an 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. Until then I bid you adieu.

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

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