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



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Why Garden?
Pointing to the Rose

Medieval image of a rose

Canon Henry Ellecombe was a vicar (the word comes from the same root as vicarious), a sort of assistant minister, who lived in Gloucester a century ago. He wrote several charming and philosophical gardening books, one of which was called In a Gloucestershire Garden, in which he spoke as often about the nature of life as about the garden. For example,  

They love to point to the rose and its thorns as showing the treacherous character of all earthly pleasures; but they love also to point to the thorns as forming only a part of the rose, and a necessary part, to perfect and protect the rich flower –- and so, while on one side the lesson is that no pleasure is without pain, rosa inter spinas, so on the other side, there is the brighter lesson, that troubles lead to joy – per spinas rosa; per tribulas caelum.

According to a theory of communication based on the notion of homo narrans, “man [human] the storyteller,” all communication is basically storytelling, and the stories we use to frame and make sense of our lives also serve as the lens through which we view our world. A novel called At Ease with Death puts this another way, when the main character says:

You know you’re too old …when everyone you meet reminds you of someone else. When everything you do, you’ve done before.

[To which his friend replies,] No… that’s not what it is. You’re just starting to recognize some of the themes. …Like in a piece of classical music. …The movements reflect themselves, sometimes the same, and sometimes as a variation, an elaboration. It’s the repetition of the parts, and their connection, that creates the beauty of the whole. Unless you recognize the themes, you can’t understand the music.

For me, the garden has become one of the primary themes in the narrative of my life. It’s a theme that takes in Canon Ellecombe's rose, that metaphor for a reality that includes flower and thorn, beauty and pain –- a rose is a rose is a rose, the red red rose of my love, the white rose of innocence and the red rose of martyrdom, the rose that art sick, the rose of Venus and the rose of Mary, the rose we stop to smell along the way. You could fill three pages, single-spaced, with rose metaphors, it is so much a part of the narrative of our thinking.

For most of my life I have been a writer and an editor. Academically, my focus has been medieval literature; professionally, it has been health care. It is an odd pairing – medieval literature and health care writing and editing – that evolved, eventually, into an interest in the history of medicine and in those early pharmacological works called herbals, and to growing many of the plants described in these herbals.

A Greek military man and medic named Dioscorides, who traveled with the Roman army during the 1st century AD, the time of Nero, wrote the best known of these herbals, De Materia Medica, “Of Medical Matters.” The most famous edition of Dioscorides, known for its wonderful drawings of plants, was created by a Greek artist in about 500 AD as a wedding gift for Julia Anicia, daughter of the Roman Emperor of the West in Constantinople.

The herbal of Dioscorides has been a standard reference for some two thousand years. Added to it over time were the works of other herbalists and healers as copies were created in scriptoria throughout the civilized world. In Britain, and in a few other locations in Europe and the Mediterranean basin, herbals were also created in the vernacular, rather than in Greek or Latin, including the Anglo-Saxon Leechbook of Bald and the Lacnunga.

It’s a tradition that has continued well into the modern age. A few years ago we were returning from Minnesota’s Boundary Waters by way of Duluth, and stopped to visit a wayside vegetable stand. There I purchased this booklet: Indian Doctor – Nature’s Method of Curing and Preventing Disease According to the Indians. It turned out to be selections from an English translation of an Anglo-Saxon herbal, long since out of copyright, and given auctoritas by a cover embellished with a drawing of a Native American.

Herbals contained prescriptions – recipes – for treatments for human illnesses. A typical pattern was to have a painting or drawing of a specific plant -- in this case, from Blunt and Raphael’s The Illustrated Herbal, we’re looking at the entry for aristolochia, or birthwort. Its common name tells you one of the conditions it was used to treat. Most herbals first provide a list of a plant’s many names, in Latin as well as other languages – Greek, Arabic, sometimes the native language of the person copying the information. Then the herbal provides recommendations on how to use the plant therapeutically. For example, from an early herbal by way of our “Indian Doctor”:

31. Onions being roasted in the embers, and eaten with honey and oil, do help an inveterate cough. The juice is good for a scald or burn; and used with vinegar, takes away all blemishes, spots, and marks on the skin; and dropped into the ears, eases the pains and noise in them…

A British herbal from the 12th century, the Bury St. Edmund’s herbal (MS Bodley 130) became a favorite of mine, in large part because it was available in facsimile in our university library, which meant I could read it in the original. (One of the first things you learn when studying medieval materials is the importance of going to the original. Translations are always subjective – the process of translation is a process of creative writing, and the resulting text is often very, very different than that of the original.) Copied in Latin at the English abbey in the town that gave it its name, the Bury St. Edmunds herbal provides a sometimes beautifully illustrated list of plants and their medicinal uses.

When I began studying the Bury St. Edmond’s herbal, I immediately ran head on into a conundrum: at times it was very hard to determine what specific plant was under discussion. Names for plants weren’t standardized until Carl Linnaeus developed a formal system of botanical nomenclature in the late 1700s. In the medieval herbals, text and illustrations were not always easy to decipher. Sometimes the illustration appeared to show one plant, while the text seemed to be describing another. Often I wasn’t sure whether the problem was my ignorance about the plant or the manuscript’s ambiguity. The one facet of the problem that I could address most directly was my knowledge of the plants in question, so I decided to try to grow for myself the plants that were most often used in the various treatments, and that was the beginning of a new way of gardening for me.

No one in my immediate family had gardened in a serious way, nor did anyone in Lee’s family. But Lee and I had done the hippy thing for the first 15 years of our marriage, building our own home and producing nearly all of our own food for ourselves and our three youngsters, which meant raising a large vegetable garden.

Mystery writer Dick Francis once described a character as having a

…Scots habit of finding sin in comfort,
and virtue in thrift, and believing that
morality grows exclusively in a cold climate.

That could have described me; I was, in fact, a very Calvinist gardener. So this notion of gardening primarily for pleasure, for the fun of experiment and novelty and just to learn -- well, that was a very new thing for me.

My first herb garden was small, quartered by stone paths that met at a tiny central pond. It was basically, I later realized, a chahar bagh, or “four-quartered garden,” a design that goes back at least 2,000 years to Persia. While the early Persian gardens were divided into four quarters by flowing water (in that desert climate, water was as important an element in the garden as the plants), mine was divided by paths. It was modest, and manageable, and I filled it with the plants of the Bury St. Edmund’s herbal.

Being a word-person, a writer and an editor, I loved learning the names of the plants: their common names, their names in the medieval herbals, their modern, botanical, Linnaean names. In a wonderful book called Mapping the Farm, John Hildebrand says,

Walking through a meadow calling the plants by name is like entering a room full of friends instead of strangers.

And that was how it felt to me.

Many of the plants I wanted were only available as seed, so I began growing plants under lights, learning their names as I worked:


Betonice, betony, Stachys betonica – It took me two years to find the seed for this, but it was important, because while most plants rate a page (or less) in the medieval herbals, Betony got three or four, and was considered a miracle cure-all. I am still growing it today, and it is a lovely little plant.


Nepte -- Nepenthe as in Poe; Nepeta, catnip


Foxes glof, foxglove or Digitalisglof probably having to do with a musical instrument using a series of bells, rather than with a glove; Digitalis (from digit, finger)


Dweorge dwostle, pennyroyal, Pulegium


Harhune, horehound, Marrubium. This is the only plant remedy I use. About 70% of our modern medicines are derived from plants or synthesize plant products. Some plants are potent (and sometimes dangerous) medicinals so, not being a physician, I don’t self-prescribe herbal remedies, except for the cough syrup I make from horehound and honey.


Solsequium, sigelworfe, heliotrope -- all of which mean sun follower; Mary’s gold (not our modern Mexican “marigold”), Calendula

bullet And, of course, the rose, and the wonderful “Apothecary rose,” Rosa officinalis

That first garden was home to all of these, and to 20 or 30 other plants named in the medieval herbals.

Since beginning that garden, we have launched our three children into an unsuspecting world, moved back to Iowa City, welcomed three grandchildren and await the fourth, begun retirement -- and turned our front lawn into a garden.

As you heard in the reading for meditation, garden designer Russell Page wrote,

In the days when people could live their lives out on their own acres, they [gardened] with another rhythm of awareness… Now the habits and patterns of our civilization impose a …more shallow comprehension. …It is a gardener's pleasure... to change and break the rush of time, and make the garden a quiet island in which each moment has a new meaning.

Education of a Gardener

“It is a gardener's pleasure... to change and break the rush of time, and make the garden a quiet island in which each moment has a new meaning.” This was especially important to me when I was working, because my work centered on childhood disability, sometimes devastating disability. It could be a heartbreaking job. I suspect my interest in gardening to some degree paralleled my need for gardening’s “quiet island.”

When we moved from the country back into town a decade ago, we first tried to garden in our back yard, but that is surrounded by trees, many of them walnut trees. All parts of the walnut -– leaves, bark, nuts, roots –- secrete a substance called juglone that retards the growth of broadleaved plants, especially the solanums like tomatoes and potatoes  -- and that walnut-shaded backyard garden just didn’t thrive.

After the first year, we began looking at our front lawn. Lots of grass, lots of mowing, two large walnuts to the east there -- but only two. One of those has since died, which was wonderful -- I know that’s a terrible thing to say, but nonetheless we were really glad to see it go. So we decided to turn the front yard into a garden. We started by covering the entire lawn with black plastic, held in place with bricks and two-by-fours.

Well, let me tell you, if you want to meet your new neighbors, just cover your front lawn with black plastic! They came to warn us that it would kill the grass and, luckily, that is exactly what happened. But we did understand their concern; after all, we’ve all seen gardens launched with great enthusiasm in May and ready to mow in July.

This being a college town, it is full of people on their way to somewhere else, but as the garden grew, we were able to practice what another garden writer, Vita Sackville-West, called “a gardener’s courtesy”: the casual conversation that takes place over the garden fence with passers by. It’s interesting that joggers, and even walkers, who meet on the sidewalk may smile and nod, but they rarely talk. When you walk a dog and meet someone, you’re bit more likely to have a conversation, however brief, with the dog as the icebreaker. But a garden conversation, over the fence, is likely to go on for several minutes, and to cover much more than the garden. It’s a rare day that I don’t have a chance to visit with neighbors while I’m working in my garden.

So, our black plastic approach to sod extinction worked. When the grass was completely “solarized” – we didn’t actually learn that term several years later -- we tilled soil and discovered that, under about 4 inches of topsoil and 6 inches of clay you could use to make bricks, there was a hard-packed layer of gravel. Later, a neighbor told us that our place was once the site of a horse barn and graveled yard adjoining the big Victorian house two houses  west of us. It turned out to be a great site for a garden. We add to the topsoil every year with compost, the underlying clay holds moisture through the hottest months of summer, and the gravel keeps the clay from becoming waterlogged.

For the past several winters, after our children and grandchildren return to their homes following the holidays, I start plants in the basement. This began with just a few pots, 50 or 60, but now I’m up to about 400-500. This lets me garden through the worst of the long dark Iowa winter, especially gray and endless February. I use fluorescent lights, and my spouse built me an amazing system of shelves (he warns me that the DEA’s thermal imaging surveillance will probably pick up our place one of these days).

Starting seeds lets me try unusual plants and play around with vegetative propagation as well. Yard sales have provided heating pads and other equipment; my brother gave me a light meter; I am learning about the nuances of soil temperature, day length, and light levels. Come spring, these plants go into a cold frame in the back yard, and then into the front garden.

But nearly half my garden plants itself now, with volunteer seedlings coming up everywhere, and this has prompted me to reflect on the simple elegance of evolution. There was a time when I believed that evolution meant progress, some sort of steady movement toward improvement, but my garden has taught me that evolution really much simpler: If something can survive, it does. This year, it was hollyhocks.

Hollyhocks are mallows, like marsh mallows (which originated as a medicinal treatment for sore throats). They -– hollyhocks -– were brought to Europe from the Holy Land by the Crusaders, hence the name Holy hocce. In my garden hollyhocks don’t survive most years; the combination of heat and humidity leads to a fungal disease, “rust,” that does them in. But a cool spring has produced beautiful hollyhocks, all the more surprising because they are biennials that survived a winter with -30 degree nights. They are flourishing right now in my garden because they could. If next year is hot and humid, they’ll die. There is a lesson there for human survival, in this era of climate degradation -– we better understand what we need to survive, and nurture that, or we won’t be here next season.

The garden also reminds me that what lies at the heart of so many of the world’s religions -– birth, death, rebirth -– arises as a metaphor for spring seed, summer flower, winter decline. It’s a story retold through the stories of Horus, Mithras, Jesus, Adonis, Tammuz, Persephone. It occurs to me to wonder, humanist that I am, whether any “resurrection religions” have arisen in a tropical culture whose climate precludes this cycle.

I plant a seed, see it sprout, grow, flower and fruit, wilt and die. Winter and its endless gray days _– will life will ever be bright again? Then, at long last, the drifts of dirty snow begin to shrink as the days lengthen. Thoreau by all accounts was not a warm or affectionate person; someone once commented that you’d as soon hug Thoreau as hug an oak tree. And yet it was Thoreau who said,

We are affected, like the earth,

and yield to the elemental tenderness;

winter breaks up within us.

For me, it is the daffodils. It happens every spring -- suddenly there they are, first one, then a huddle, bright green noses poking up through the last late snow. It is always a relief, always a surprise.

For me, it is the process of gardening that is so engaging, a process that is in the most fundamental way beyond my control, and though nothing ever returns exactly as it was before, something always does return. The garden demonstrates time and time again that the rose will open, whether or not I’m here to witness it. A scientist (in fact, a rocket scientist), Werner von Braun, once made a very poetical statement: “Nature does not know extinction; all it knows is transformation.”

I have a number of passions in my life, and gardening is one of them, at the simplest level because it is constantly engaging, at a more profound level because it is a paradox: A changeless process of endless change.

So our garden remains a work in progress, a transformation, a giant experiment. A town garden, it has the shape of a sun circle, and if you use Google Earth to get a bird’s eye view, you can see it as plain as day. We know this because a friend called from South Dakota during the flood of ‘08 to tell us he had used Google Earth to see if we were under water. He said that when he saw the circle of the garden in the front yard, he knew he’d found the right house. I don’t know why, but it tickles me no end to know that you can see our garden from half a mile up.

If you do a keyword search on “garden proverbs,” you'll be amazed at how much of our mental mapping, our species “narrative,” includes metaphors from the garden. I did, and came up with some found poetry, a quick sampling of the richness of the metaphors we tap:

Let us start from the ground up;

  as we sow, so shall we reap,

  and knowing that from tiny acorns come mighty oaks,

  we will keep a green tree in our hearts,

  even if some days we can’t see the forest for the trees.

Let us make hay while the sun shines,

  and get up early to do it,

  for the early bird catches the worm,

  especially if it’s in the apple

  that didn’t fall far from the tree.

Let us scatter with one hand and gather with two,

  knowing that to everything there is a season,

  and that having the wind in our face

  will make us wise.


Susan Eberly, 2011





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F.D. Drewitt


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