Wyrtig

For gardeners with a sense of history
 

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

  

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Crop marks

 


Iron Age round house,
St Fagans, Wales

 


Celtic round houses (National Museum of Wales)

Gardens in Iron Age Britain

Long before the arrival of the Romans, forests had been cleared from most of Britain to make way for grazing land and fields. During the Iron Age, from about 800 BCE to about 100 BCE, the British Isles were home to many different, complex societies. We know very little about their gardens, but crop marks and other remains show us where crops were raised and homes built.

Houses were often round, though rectangular dwellings are also known. A farmstead might have a single house with outbuildings clustered together within each enclosure, or several houses within a single enclosure. A farmstead was typically delineated as well as protected by an encircling ditch. Dirt dug out of the ditch was piled between the ditch and the enclosed land to create a dike, and this dike was often topped with a wooden palisade or hedge. You can see this in the recreated Celtic round houses shown at left, below.

Gardens (think, “guard-en”) and fields were likewise marked and protected by ditches, dikes, and hedges. Larger fields were cultivated by hand or by plows pulled by cattle. Seeding was done by hand, and the seed was then covered by raking or harrowing.

Though not recorded until Anglo-Saxon times, this 10th century prayer reflects an earlier tradition of reverence for the earth mother.

erce . erce . erce .

earth mother give you
the all ruler eternal lord

acres growing and flourishing
increasing and strengthening

high shafts, shining harvest .  
and there broad barley harvest
.
and
there white wheat harvest
.
and all earth’s harvest
.

erce . erce . erce .

eoran modor geunne e
se alwalda ece drihten

cera wexendra and wridendra
eacniendra and elniendra 

scafta hehra scirra wstma .
& ra bradan bere wstma
.

& ra hwitan hwte wstma .

& ealra eoran wstma .  

Anglo-Saxon invocation, 10th C,
British Library
Cotton Caligula A. vii

Early Gardens

Gardens in Iron Age Britain

Gardens of Roman Britain

Gardens of Post-Roman Britain

Continental sources on gardens

Church and monastery gardens

Castle and manor gardens

Charter landscapes Early Medieval England

Gardens in the Domesday Book

Gardens of toft and croft
 

 

The difference between farming and gardening is sometimes blurred. Farming -– agriculture -- involved livestock as well as plants, and its goals were utilitarian. Gardens -– horticulture –- did not involve raising animals, and the goals might be utilitarian, recreational, or ornamental, singly or in combination.

Low lying fields along streams and rivers provided meadows for hay and pastures for grazing. Woodland was carefully managed, sometimes for timber but more often for slender, flexible withies, or branches. Trees were coppiced (cut as “stools,” close to the ground, so that the stump would send up shoots) or pollarded (branches pruned back above the reach of grazing animals and allowed to send out shoots). Trees that respond well to such management include beech, hazel, hornbeam, linden, maple, willow, and yew.

 
 

Coppicing Pollarding Pollard tree in Bayeax tapestry

The time allowed between harvests depended upon the size branches needed. Coppiced trees were harvested about every 5 years; pollarded, about every 15 years. Small side branches and leaves were used for fodder (“pollard hay” or foliage), for wattle used  to construct the walls of buildings, for fences, for fuel, and also for containers such as baskets and panniers. Carefully managed, these trees continued to produce for centuries because they remained in a juvenile state, never growing old.

Although our focus here is gardening rather than farming, it is interesting to consider the crops growing in the fields of Iron Age Britain, among them grains such as barley (two varieties, one for beer and the other for flour or porridge); oats, rye, and several varieties of wheat.

Other field crops included legumes, like beans and peas; lamb’s quarters (AKA fat hen, Chenopodium album); wild carrot, Daucus carota; and nettles (Urtica spp). Flax (Linum usitatissimum) was raised for linen, and dye plants like madder (for red dye), weld (yellow), and woad (blue) were widely cultivated and highly valued.

 

[Britain] bears grain, cattle, gold, silver, and iron. These... are exported from the island...

Strabo

Iron Age livestock included dairy and meat animals -- cattle, hogs, sheep, and goats. Chickens, ducks, and geese were also domesticated, but not always for the table (eating these animals was sometimes taboo). Cats, dogs, and hares were kept as pets.

In addition to the crops listed above, archeologists have found remains of each of the plants below at British sites dating to before the Roman invasion. Nearly every plant listed also appears in later herbals as a seasoning, medicinal, or cosmetic; many are still grown today.

That these plant remains were found in Iron Age contexts in Britain means only that they were present in the environment. Were they grown in Iron Age gardens, or gathered from the wild? How were they used? We don’t know. But these familiar plants have been part of the human experience for millennia.

 
 
Plants found in Iron Age Britain

Fruits

  • Apple/crab apple, Malus sylvestris

  • Blackberry/bramble, Rubus fruticosus
  • Bird cherry, Prunus cerasus, P. avium

  • Cloudberry, Rubus chamaemorus

  • Dewberry, Rubus caesius

  • Elderberry, Sambucus nigra

  • Grape, Vitis vinifera

  • Hawthorn, Crataegus spp.

  • Sloe, Prunus domestica insititia, P. spinosa

  • Raspberry, Rubus idaeus

  • Rowan, Sorbus aucuparia

  • Strawberry, alpine, Fragaria vesca

Vegetables

  • Bean, Vicia faba minor

  • Carrot, Daucus carota

  • Pea, Pisum sativum

  • Turnip, Brassica rapa

Grains

  • Barley, Hordeum vulgare

  • Rye Secale cereale

  • Wheat, bread, Triticum aestivum

  • Wheat, club, Triticum aestivo-compactum

  • Wheat, einkorn, Triticum monococcum

  • Wheat, emmer, Triticum dicoccon

  • Wheat,  spelt, Triticum spelta


Fiber and dye plants

  • Flax, Linum usitatissimum

  • Hemp, Cannibis sativa


Herbs

  • Poppy, Papaver somniferum


Nutsts

  • Hazel nuts, Corylus avellana

 

 
 

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Botanists are among those who know that, in spite of the rude shocks of life,
it is well to have lived, and to have seen the everlasting beauty of the world.
F.D. Drewitt

 

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