The text for this blog post is adapted from an article in the Summer 2009 issue of Folger Magazine.
Shakespeare, who grew up in a riverside country town and was the grandchild of prosperous farmers, refers with familiarity to an extraordinary number of plants (including many weeds), often using their folkloric names and alluding to their popular uses. What might be found in an Elizabethan garden?
Elizabethans included thyme in remedies for many ailments, including congestion of the chest. In fact, thyme oil is still used in cough medicines today. Thyme was also a key ingredient in magic ointments believed to give the user the power to see fairies. According to Elizabethan folklore, fairies used thyme blossoms as cradles for their babies.
The precursors of the carnation, this plant got its name from the jagged edge of its flowers; the color pink was, by some accounts, then named for the color of some dianthus. Pinks made in a conserve with sugar was recommended to comfort the heart and mulled in hot wine to prevent the plague.
Laden in season with sweetsmelling clusters of hanging flowers, the linden was called the lime or line tree in Shakespeare’s time. It was especially popular because it attracted bees. Elizabethans loved sweets, and they prized honey. Beeswax also had many uses in the home.
In Shakespeare’s time, rosemary was a symbol of remembrance, friendship, and fidelity, used in weddings—and funerals. When Ophelia says, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance,” Shakespeare’s audiences knew that she was hinting at her own death. It was prescribed for a variety of ills, including baldness, nightmares, tooth decay, and relationship problems.
Elizabethans enjoyed this early spring blooms simply for their beauty; dozens of varieties were sold at the market in Cheapside. Shakespeare’s London neighbor John Gerard, author of the most famous herbal guide of the time, lists more than a dozen varieties of daffodils in 1597.
Saffron was grown mainly as a dye for fabric but also had myriad medicinal applications. The Viagra of the day, housewife’s manuals recommend it both as aphrodisiac “To cause standing of the yard” and on the next page as a remedy “To prevent the standing of the yard.”
In Elizabethan folklore, hellebore had the power to repel witches and evil spirits, so it was often planted near doorways. Alternatively, it was gathered after dark on Midsummer’s Eve, then dried and hung in houses and stables for protection.
Rosewater was an ingredient in countless cosmetic recipes, while Christmas roses were prescribed to treat madness and melancholy. Roses also had symbolic value. At the end of the War of the Roses, the white rose of the York family and the red rose of Lancaster were combined to form the striped Tudor rose.
Elizabethan housewives used lavender (from the Latin for “to wash”) for everything from bathing to laundry. Some also draped wet clothes on lavender bushes to dry, infusing them with a natural moth repellent. It was believed that lavender in your hair allowed you to see ghosts and was also useful for taming lions and tigers.
Many Elizabethan beliefs about herbs began in ancient times. Ivy, for example, was tied to Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, so it’s not surprising that Elizabethans suggested an ivy leaf bruised in wine to cure hangovers. Ivy also had its magical uses—Elizabethan girls put leaves of ivy under their pillows—guaranteed to make them dream of their future lovers.
“Heigh-ho, sing heigh-ho, unto the green holly.” –As You Like It
Holly was planted to protect a house against witches and lightning. A tea made from the leaves was also used to treat fevers.