Tall stoneware pot with pink foxglove


OE wyrtig, adj: Garden-like, full of plants;
On anum wyrtige hamme, Homl. Skt. ii. 30:312



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Gardens in post-Roman Britain

The Roman wall near Housesteads
Roman wall near Housesteads

When the Roman garrisons left Britain around 445 CE, a period of slow decline set in for the great villas. What did this mean for the gardens that were left behind? In other areas of British life, it appears that change came slowly; Roman buildings, including villas, were slowly adapted to a variety of uses.

The rectangular architecture of Roman homes continued to be used in later structures; there is ample evidence for the overall assimilation of the Romans, Romano-British, and those in the employ of Rome who remained behind. This is probably true, as well, for gardening practices. Gardening tends to be very conservative; practices continue because they work.  

In the rural areas, the evidence suggests that the spread of Romanization in the first century was very gradual; likewise, when the Romans departed in the fifth century, the changes that resulted were gradual. So long as they produced good yields, gardening techniques learned from the invaders continued to be used, long after the departure of the soldiers, bureaucrats, and Roman elite.

Although large, geometric ornamental gardens may have become rare, utilitarian kitchen and physic gardens would have continued to be planted much as before, because the old ways were the ways that produced reliable supplies of foods and medicinals. If you visit a variety of gardens today, some reconstructed and others part of a continuing tradition -- for example, the reconstructed villa gardens of Fishbourne and Cirencester; the enclosed gardens of Levens Hall, Broughton Castle, or Kentwell Hall; or the reconstructed garden of a Carthusian brother at Mount Grace Priory -- you cannot help but be struck by the continuity of gardening practice.

By 800 CE, four kingdoms had emerged in the south of England: East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria, and Wessex. In 793 CE, the Vikings began raiding England; within two centuries they had been assimilated into the local populations. In 1066, with the victory of William the Conqueror, himself of Viking descent, we see the end of this era in British history, a period variously labeled as post-Roman, Anglo-Saxon, early Medieval or (though less frequently now as scholars have revealed the richness of this period) the Dark Ages.

In Aelfric's Latin primer, the Latin locus amoenus is,  in Old English, luffendlic stede, lovely meadow";  and viridarium, "pleasure garden," becomes wyrrtun.

Much of what we infer about British gardening between the departure of the Romans and the arrival of the Normans 600 years later is derived from continental sources. But some of the plants that were known -- and quite likely grown -- in Britain in the 10th century are known thanks to a grammar, a glossary, and a colloquy compiled in 995 CE by Aelfric, abbot of Eynsham, for use by young scholars just learning Latin. Aelfric supplies the names more than 200 plants and trees; their inclusion in this list of common words suggests that they would have been familiar to the gardeners of manor and the monastery -- and probably those of toft and croft as well.

Archeology is also expanding our knowledge of the plants that were raised by British farmers and gardeners in the years after the Romans departed. Among the plants identified on post-Roman sites are:


  • Asparagus, asparaga officinalis

  • Bean Faba/field bean, Faba vicia

  • Beet root, Beta vulgaris

  • Beet, foliage beet

  • Cabbage, Brassica oleracea

  • Carrot Daucus carota ssp/D. sativus

  • Celery/Wild celery Apium graveolens

  • Corn salad, Valerianella locusta

  • Leek, Allium ampeloprasum, var porrum

  • Lentil/Medicus lentil, Lens culinaris

  • Parsnip/wild parsnip, Pastinaca sativa

  • Pea, Pisum saativum

  • Rape/cole/Swede, Brassica napus

  • Turnip, Brassica rapa var. rapa


  • Apple/crab apple, Malus sylvestris

  • Bilberries, Vaccinium sp.

  • Blackberry/bramble, Rubus fruticosus

  • Cherry, sour, Prunus cerasus, includindg P. avium, P. cerasus

  • Crowberry, Empetrum spp

  • Currant, Ribes spp

  • Dewberry, Rubus caesius

  • Elderberry, Sambucus nigra

  • Gooseberry, Ribes uva-crispa

  • Grape, Vitis vinifera

  • Peach, Prunus persica

  • Plum, Prunus domestica spp

  • Raspberry, Rubus idaeus

  • Rowan, Sorbus aucuparia

  • Sloe, Prunus spinosa

  • Strawberry, Fragaria vesca

  • Watercress, Nasturtium officinale

Herbs -- Medicinals, seasonings

  • Angelica, A. sylvestris

  • Bog rosmary, Andromeda polifolia

  • Catnip, Nepeta cataria

  • Comfrey, Symphytum officinale

  • Coriander/cilantro, Coriandrum sativum

  • Corn mint, Mentha arvensis

  • Dill, Anethum graveolens

  • Fennel, Foeniculum vulgare

  • Garlic, Allium sativum

  • Germander, Teucrium chamaedrys

  • Horehound, Marrubium vulgare

  • Mayweed, Anthemis arvensis

  • Mint, Mentha sp

  • Mustard, Erysimum cheiranthoides

  • Parsley, Petroselinum crispum

  • Pepper, black, Piper nigrum

  • Pot marigold, Calendula officinalis

  • Rose hip, Rosa sp

  • Rue, Ruta graveolens

  • Savory, summer, Satureia hortensi

  • Savory, winter,  Satureia christi

  • Selfheal, Prunella vulgaris

  • Skullcap, Scutellaria baicalensis

  • Sorrel, Rumex acetosa

  • Sweet vernal grass, Anthoxanthum odoratum

  • Sweet woodruff, Galium odoratum

  • Tansy, Tanacetum

  • Viola sp


  • Hazelnuts, Corylus avellana

  • Walnuts, Juglans regia



Gardens of Iron Age Britain

Gardens of Roman Britain

Continental sources on gardens

Church and monastery gardens

Castle and manor gardens

Charter landscapes of Early Medieval England

Gardens in the Domesday Book

Gardens of toft and croft


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F.D. Drewitt


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