Five Things to Know About Shakespeare and Plants

By Marsha Mercer, Extension Master Gardener

A rose by any other name . . .

Every year Shakespeare gardens throughout the country and world plan special events around April 23 to honor William Shakespeare on his birthday. Until 2020. This year most gardens are closed to the public temporarily during the coronavirus pandemic.

But anyone can have a Shakespeare garden at home. Just plant some of the many herbs and flowers Shakespeare mentions in his works.

To help you get started, here are five things you may not know about the bard and plants.

I. Shakespeare probably wasn’t a gardener.

Although he mentions plants and flowers more than 200 times in his 38 plays and 154 sonnets, there’s no proof he himself was a gardener.That’s what 19th century author Henry N. Ellacombe concluded after his exhaustive study of plants in Shakespeare’s works. Ellacombe’s The Plant-Lore and Garden-Craft of Shakespeare, first published in 1878, has been reprinted many times and is still considered the Bible on Shakespeare and plants.Ellacombe tartly writes of England’s great gift to world literature:“In all his writings, he exhibits his strong love for flowers, and a very fair, though not perhaps a very deep, knowledge of plants . . . I do not, therefore, believe that he was a professed gardener, and I am quite sure he can in no sense be claimed as a botanist, in the scientific sense of the term. His knowledge of plants was simply the knowledge that every man may have who goes through the world with his eyes open to the many beauties of Nature that surround him.”But Shakespeare was the grandchild of prosperous farmers, so he would have learned about plants as a lad.

II. Whether or not Shakespeare gardened, he would have visited gardens.

Here, according to Esther French at the Folger Shakespeare Library, are 11 plants that would have been found in an Elizabethan garden: thyme, dianthus (pinks), linden, rosemary, daffodils, saffron crocus, hellebore, rose, lavender, ivy, and holly.

Each was thought to have special medicinal, culinary, or folkloric uses.

III. Roses were Shakespeare’s No. 1 flower.

Apis mellifera (European honey bee) on unidentified rose

He mentions roses at least 50 times – more than any other flower.

Everyone knows the quotation by Juliet:

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

(Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene 2)

But roses aren’t always sweet. In Sonnet 54 Shakespeare uses roses as stand-ins for two types of people by comparing wild and cultivated roses.While both are beautiful, have blossoms and thorns, and bob in summer’s  breeze or “breath,” only the cultivated rose has a “sweet odor” or fragrance that adds immensely to its appeal. The “canker” or wild rose is scentless. The beloved to whom the sonnet is addressed is, of course, like the cultivated rose.

Shakespeare’s history plays recount the War of the Roses. At the end of the War of the Roses in 1485, the white rose of the York family and the red rose of the Lancaster family were combined to form the striped Tudor rose.

IV. Shakespeare uses flowers almost as characters in his work.

In his time, everyone understood the symbolism of various flowers. In Hamlet, Ophelia, driven to insanity, hands out herbs and flowers with special meanings in her famous “mad” scene.

 “Rosemary is particularly associated with remembrance of the dead, and pansies      get their name from pensées, the French for thoughts. Fennel represents marital infidelity and columbine flattery or insincerity. Rue, also known as herb of grace, is very bitter and stands for regret, repentance and sorrow. Daisies are a symbol of innocence and the violets, now withered mean faithfulness,” according to the Royal Horticultural Society’s online information page on flowers in Shakespeare. 

V. The garden is more than a garden.

Garden images appear throughout Shakespeare’s plays. The garden represents the state, and the gardener is a king or God figure.  

In Richard II, Shakespeare places a key scene in a garden, a kingdom ruled with care by the Gardener, in contrast to the corrupt King Richard’s rule of the land. 

One of the Gardener’s men asks why they should: 

“Keep law and form and due proportion . . .
When our sea-walled garden, the whole land,
Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers choked up,
Her fruit trees all unpruned, her hedges ruined,
Her knots disordered, and her wholesome herbs
Swarming with caterpillars?”

          The Gardener acknowledges: 

“O, what pity is it?
That he hath not so trimmed and dressed his land
As we this garden!”

(Richard II, Act III, Scene 4)                                                 

Finally, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream comes one of the most evocative passages in all of Shakespeare: 

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.
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight.” 

(A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act II, Scene 1) 

May we all celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday with our own dances and delight!


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