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A gardener’s perspective on Shakespeare’s flowers

Here's flowers for you;

Hot lavender, mints, savoury, marjoram;

The marigold, that goes to bed wi' the sun

And with him rises weeping…”

 — Perdita in William Shakespeare’s, The Winter's Tale, 1609

One of my favorite Shakespeare plays is “The Winter’s Tale,” written later in The Bard’s lifetime when he was a popular playwright and poet. By this time, Shakespeare was spending much of his time at New Place, his house in Stratford-upon-Avon, which was the market town he grew up in about 100 miles from the bustling streets and theaters of London.

Shakespeare kept gardens and an orchard at New Place, so it’s not surprising that he interwove a lot of plant symbolism in “The Winter’s Tale,” particularly in Act IV. In this scene, Perdita offers flowers to important guests at the village’s sheep-shearing celebration (one of the guests is her lover’s father, King Polixenes, in disguise).

At first, Perdita presents rosemary and rue, telling Polixenes and his attendant, “Grace and remembrance be to you both!” In this line, Shakespeare drew upon common knowledge at the time that rosemary signifies remembrance — the herb was often used for funerals — and rue was sometimes called “herb-of-grace.” No doubt, Shakespeare used the fact that rue was also associated with repentance and regret (as in, “He’ll rue the day”) as a double meaning in this passage.

However, the masked King Polixenes isn’t happy with Perdita’s offering of such “flowers of winter,” which he considers a subtle disparagement about his advancing age. So, instead, Perdita attempts to flatter the visitor’s vanity by selecting flowers of middle summer.

In referring to lavender, mint, summer savory and sweet marjoram as “hot,” Shakespeare used a gardener’s knowledge that all of these herbs would be flowering and full of aromatic oils under the warm summer sun. In fact, these herbs were recommended for strewing about the floor inside one’s home; when stepped on, the fragrant oils would be released to the olfactory pleasure of all.

The marigolds Perdita speaks of in “The Winter’s Tale” are English (or pot) marigolds, Calendula officinalis, with vibrantly colored petals that open and close with the rising and setting of the sun. In Shakespeare’s day, pot marigold flowers were valued for their medicinal properties, resulting in associations with health and healing. Dried petals were used for skin irritations, bites, stings, and treating fevers and infections. Tinctures were concocted as a remedy for bubonic plague, a bacterial disease that shut down Shakespeare’s theater in London several times during outbreaks.

The Bard employed spring-blooming flowers to symbolize youth. Perdita mentions “daffodils, that come before the swallow dares … violets dim, but sweeter than the lids of Juno’s eyes … pale primroses that die unmarried … bold oxlips and the crown imperial; lilies of all kinds, the flower-de-luce (iris) being one!”

As a gardener, Shakespeare would have known it was the sweet-smelling Viola odorata, native to England, that blooms in the springtime, rather than the “summer violet,” or dog violet, V. riviniana, which is scentless. He would have also known the primrose, Primula vulgaris, another common flower in the English countryside, as a pale yellow-white flower that lasted only a short while. “Bold” oxlips are Primula elatior, the species name meaning “taller” in reference to the plant’s long stem. Crown imperials, Fritillaria imperialis, as well as other flowers in the lily family, were then novelties in England, having arrived from Turkey and Syria sometime after 1580.

The house where Shakespeare probably wrote “A Winter’s Tale” is long gone, torn down by a spiteful reverend who despised the disruption caused by visitors wanting to see where the great playwright once lived. However, the garden space is still there, transformed into a 21st-century landscape by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

It’s not difficult for me to imagine The Bard wandering among the flowers that once grew in this garden, noting which ones to include in the play that is still enjoyed more than 400 years later. Can there be any doubt that Shakespeare was a gardener? After all, it was he wrote, “Flowers are like the pleasures of the world.”

— Rhonda Nowak is a Jackson County Master Gardener and teacher. She can be reached at rnowak39@gmail.com.