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




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A 9th Century Garden
Walafrid Strabo's Hortulus

Imagining the Hortulus
The plants of Walafrid's garden
Medicinal uses of plants in the Hortulus





Walafrid Strabo (808-849 CE), is remembered in large part because he has given us one of the very few first-hand descriptions of an early medieval garden.


Walafrid was sent as a child to the monastery of Reichenau (at  left), located on an island in Lake Constance, just north of the border between Germany and Italy. A remarkable student and writer, at the age of 18 Walafrid went to Fulda to study with renowned scholar Rabanus Maurus. From there, he was called to the court of King Louis, son of Charlemagne, to tutor 6-year-old Prince Charles. When Charles reached adulthood, Walafrid returned to Reichenau as its abbot.


Walafrid's Hortulus
Though he authored a number of scholarly works, Walafrid is best remembered for his Hortulus, or "Little Garden." Written in Latin verse, it begins with an explanation of how Walafrid  gained his knowledge of gardening:

I myself learned this, not solely from opinion, common report, nor from searches of books and early writings, but by work and hands-on study to discover proven methods -- which considerably postponed my leisure at the end of each day!

Hortulus begins in early spring, when Walafrid is dismayed by rampant nettles "pushing up everywhere in my small plot."  After hours of weeding, he carefully "surrounds the oblong beds with planks, slightly raised" to keep the rain from washing away the soil. He grows some plants from seed, some from cuttings. He hauls water in a bucket, pouring it "drop by drop, careful not to float the seeds away."

One part of his garden is beneath the edge of the roof where it gets little rain; another is deeply shaded by a high wall. But even so, "the garden traps no plant beneath its soil" and soon new growth pokes through.

What did his garden look like? Walafrid lists the plants he cultivates in his little garden, and perhaps -- we don't really know -- his list reflects the layout of his garden. A drawing in the  Plan of St. Gall, a manuscript created at Reichenau at about the time that Walafrid arrived there as a boy, shows two monastery gardens. One, the physic garden, lies just beyond the door of the monastery infirmary. It is laid out in orderly rows of rectangular beds, each labeled in the manuscript so that we know what plants would be cultivated there.


Plan of St Gall physic garden

St. Gall Physic Garden


The physic garden as shown in the Plan of St. Gall, which gives the names of the plants in each bed. Here is a schematic version of that garden, not to scale, which shows the plants grown in each bed.     







































In the Hortulus, Walafrid describes some 25 plants, nine more than the physic garden at St. Gall.

Walafrid kept a notebook, or Vademecum, in which he documented his lifelong interest in the medicinal uses of plants. For every plant in his garden except the rose, he provided at least one therapeutic use, and it may be that his "little garden" was a physic garden, laid out along the same lines as the garden we see above in the Plan of St. Gall. Drawing upon that, we can imagine Walafrid's garden, taking into account the plants themselves, companion plant strategies, needs for sun or shade, and plant height.


At the end of Hortulus, Walafrid dedicates the poem to Father Grimald, one of his childhood teachers at Reichenau. He envisions his old mentor

...seated there, surrounded by your green garden,

shaded by the lofty, leafy apple branches,

by the peach tree whose leaves blow back and forth,

in and out of bright sun…




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