The ‘Ophelia’ rose cultivar is a pale, soft pink.
Photo by Flickr/Swallowtail Garden Seeds
William Shakespeare’s scripts and sonnets are strewn with plant imagery — flowers, trees, orchards, meadows, and herbs. In his works, women’s lips are compared to roses; gardeners give political speeches; and herbs are used as symbols of characters’ personality traits.
The Bard clearly knew a lot about plants and horticulture and respected the natural world. Having grown up in the countryside, Shakespeare can be assumed to have had some gardening experience. More than that, during the 16th century — and specifically the reign of Elizabeth I, when he was writing — gardening was the newest craze. The upper-middle classes and aristocracy installed private gardens on their properties and filled them with fragrant flowers, healing herbs, and decorative topiaries, all arranged in elegant, cohesive designs. Shakespeare and his audience understood plants and their appeal, and today, Shakespeare inspires many gardeners.
Shakespeare Garden Central Park, New York City
Photo by Getty Images/johnandersonphoto
Shakespeare-themed gardens are fairly common. Most are public, located in large parks or historic landmarks, and designed to include plants mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays and poetry in Elizabethan layouts. However, using a few simple ideas, you could create a personal Shakespeare garden. Here are a few suggestions to help you design an Elizabethan garden in your own backyard and fill it with plants of which the Bard would approve.
Elizabethan Garden Design
The Elizabethan garden was an intimate space, closed off from the outside world. You, too, can create a wonderful private world of your own with just a few easy additions to the edges of your garden: Use hedges, walls, or trellises with vining plants growing up them to define the garden. Benches and décor can also be placed strategically around the perimeter of your plot to create the feel of a closed-in space.
In 16th-century gardens, balance was key; everything was tidy and symmetrical. Use geometric shapes and precisely placed garden beds to achieve the careful composition of an Elizabethan garden.
Elizabethans loved hedged borders and topiary in their gardens.
Photo by Getty Images/jeangill
Arbors, knot gardens (Love’s Labour’s Lost mentions a “curious knotted garden”), mazes, and topiaries were popular in this era. If you want to plant a hedge maze in your backyard, I encourage you to! If that seems like a little much, a simple arbor and a few rosemary plants pruned into artful topiaries are easy ways to integrate Elizabethan elements into a contemporary small space. And if you like the idea but don’t want to commit to installing a full hedge maze, consider creating a small labyrinth on the ground with flat stones or river rocks for a similar, maze-like feel. (Learn all about personal labyrinths and how to construct your own at Discover the Healing Power of Labyrinths.)
Intricate knot gardens were popular in the 16th century, and were mentioned in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost.
Photo by Adobe Stock/Jill Clardy
Elegant décor elements, including urns, sundials, and fountains, were the trend in Elizabethan England. Choose one or two focal pieces and tuck them into your garden to add some visual interest. Elizabethans had a sense of humor and mischief, too; a popular addition to the garden in this era was a sundial with a hidden hose inside it that would squirt visitors when they bent to look at the sundial’s face.
Ophelia’s Herb Garden
“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray, love, remember. And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.”
One of the most famous moments in Hamlet is when Ophelia enters the scene with a garland of herbs and flowers, giving sprigs to the other characters present. She’s grieving her dead father, experiencing scorn from her lover, and descending into madness, but finds momentary comfort in her bouquet. She also shows her expert knowledge of the flowers’ meanings. A nice tribute to Ophelia would be to create an herb garden that contains some of the herbs and flowers she uses to communicate in the play. Additionally, many flowers and herbs make excellent companion plants, so this is a great way to help them grow better and deter pests. Here’s a list of each plant that Ophelia mentions, and the historical meaning of each:
Columbine: Despite their pretty blooms, columbines symbolized faithlessness, deception, and ingratitude. This is appropriate because Ophelia gives columbines to Claudius, who has murdered his brother and his king, married Gertrude, and taken the crown for himself.
Ophelia offers columbine flowers — symbols of deception — to Claudius.
Photo by Getty Images/ParkerDeen
Daisy: Daisies were generally thought of as a positive symbol, representing purity, innocence, and gentleness. However, Ophelia appears not to hand this flower to anyone, suggesting there’s no innocence in the room.
Ophelia gathers daisies but offers none to those around her, suggesting that there’s no innocence in the room.
Photo by Adobe Stock/ulkas
Fennel: Fennel was considered symbolic of false flattery, and Ophelia gives a sprig to Claudius. Fennel could also be associated with hunger and fasting because the seeds were chewed as an appetite suppressant.
Pansy: Pansies were associated with thinking; the name “pansy” sounds similar to the French word pensée, meaning “thought.” Pansies were also associated with faithfulness and romantic love, and are mentioned in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which recounts the myth that pansies used to be white and changed to purple when Cupid struck them with an arrow.
Rosemary: Rosemary is associated with memory, both in terms of grieving a lost loved one, and in the literal ability to remember facts. Scholars and students in ancient Greece used to wear crowns of rosemary on their heads when studying and taking exams to help them remember what they learned. Ophelia hands out rosemary to remind those present of their losses.
Rue: With its bitter taste, it’s not surprising that rue is connected to feelings of bitterness and sorrow. However, the plant is also an abortifacient, and was often used as a symbol of adultery. Although Ophelia gives a sprig of rue to the unfaithful Gertrude, it’s difficult to determine the exact intent of the gesture, as she also keeps some for herself.
Violet: An edible flower with a delicate, pleasant taste fit for an herb garden, violets were often given to a lover to symbolize one’s devotion to that person, and in general symbolized faithfulness and affection. In Hamlet, Ophelia suggests that she would give such flowers to Claudius, but they’d all withered when her father died.
Plan an herb garden based on the plants Ophelia gathers.
Photo by Getty Images/goodmoments
“The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem
For that sweet odour which doth in it live.”
Elizabethan gardeners paid close attention to scent, not just aesthetics, when designing their plots. In fact, the scent of flowers was considered more important when planning a garden than their color or beauty. This is because floral scents were believed to be beneficial to health, and powerful enough to prevent plague. Of course, we now know that smelling a flower won’t heal any physical illnesses, but strolling through a fragrant garden can improve mental health, and it’s simply a wonderful feeling! Devote a bed in your Shakespeare garden entirely to fragrance by planting flowers with heady scents, such as roses (which the Bard praises in “Sonnet 54,” above), lavender, sweet alyssum, hyacinths, gardenias, lilies of the valley, lilacs, and sweet peas.
Elizabethans believed that floral scents were beneficial to their health.
Photo by Getty Images/shimikenta
“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.”
The fairy world of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of beauty, pleasure, and wildness. The fairies don’t live in an immaculate Elizabethan garden, but rather in forests and meadows sprawling with wildflowers such as eglantine (sweet briar rose) and woodbine (honeysuckle). Create a little ode to the fairies with a wildflower bed in your Shakespeare garden. If you choose flowering plants native to your area, you can feel good about planting a garden that’ll benefit local birds, bees, and other insects (oh, and fairies too) while it gives you a lovely display.
Plant wildflowers as an ode to the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Photo by Adobe Stock/Altin Osmanaj
A Rose by Any Other Name
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.”
Roses show up in many of Shakespeare’s plays and poems. They were generally popular in British society, with the infamous Wars of the Roses being called such because the rival houses were each symbolized by a rose — red for the House of Lancaster, and white for the House of York. Shakespeare wrote two history tetralogies representing those civil wars.
The ‘Falstaff’ rose, named after the character first appearing in Henry IV, has a deep-red hue.
Photo by Flickr/Patrick Nouhailler
His most famous reference to the flower, however, appears in Romeo and Juliet, where it represents beauty, youth, and romantic love. While Shakespeare taught us that roses are the same no matter what we call them, the names can be a lot of fun. In fact, there are quite a few young rose cultivars named after Shakespeare’s characters, and after the Bard himself. Here are some Shakespeare-themed roses to add to your garden:
- Pale-pink ‘Cymbeline’
- Dark-red ‘Falstaff’
- Pale-pink ‘Ophelia’
- Bright-red ‘Othello’
- Peach ‘Sweet Juliet’
- Crimson or dark-red ‘William Shakespeare’
- Dark-red or purple ‘William Shakespeare 2000’
- Bright-pink or mauve ‘Wise Portia’
- Deep-red or purple ‘Prospero’
Historic Chamomile Lawn
“Though the camomile, the more it is trodden on the faster it grows, yet youth, the more it is wasted, the sooner it wears.”
What Shakespeare describes in his history, Henry IV, Part 1, is referred to as a “chamomile lawn.” Chamomile lawns were extremely popular in Elizabethan England, because when you step on chamomile, it releases a lovely fragrance and makes a stroll through the garden even more pleasant. In addition to being aromatic, chamomile lawns have some benefits for the modern gardener. Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) requires less watering and mowing than the average grass, plus, if you let the chamomile flower, it will help local pollinators. If you don’t want to commit to an entire lawn of chamomile, try planting a garden path with the spreading herb instead.
Photo by Getty Images/katatonia82
You don’t need a large, sprawling space ready to decorate with the plants of Shakespeare; a small fairy garden, or even a dedicated container, will do. And if these examples don’t appeal to your sense of garden style, examine whichever of his plays and poems you love most to discover plant references you might replicate. When you let your imagination run wild, you can bring your very own literary garden to life.
Rose Morris is a writer and editor living in Vancouver, British Columbia. You can find her on Instagram @Rosalie_Morris.