Robin Williams and I were visiting about six weeks ago, on a miserable late February day when all gardeners dream of warm spring days and dirt-caked fingers. I mentioned that she had a lovely space behind her house just crying out for a flower garden. I’ve been gardening forever and I smiled and quoted Oberon from Dream—“I know a bank where the wild thyme grows” – and then winced. Everyone misquotes that line and I’d just joined them (I know a bank where the wild time blows,” blows meaning blooms). But to get us all in the mood, here’s John Geilgud with the full quotation—one of the ten zillion times when it’s obvious that Shakespeare knew gardens and loved them, wild or tame:
Anyway, as we stood there talking, a truly zany idea filled my head— could you create a Shakespeare garden in the arid sand of northern New Mexico?
Well, if it were anyone other than Robin—probably the most dedicated teacher of Shakespeare in the state—she would have patted me kindly on the arm and started talking about ISC projects instead. But she gave me a generous budget and said, “Let’s do it!!!”
Many of you know Robin’s home, called The Mermaid Tavern, but we always rush right in for our various projects—play readings, cast meetings for King Lear, discussing the Upstart Crows, board meetings, movie nights, Shakespeare Suppers, and all the other things going on. But behind the house is an empty plot of land with a magnificent hint as to its possible use—a giant iron beam, upright, bearing the lovely Sonnet 81:
Or I shall live, your epitaph to make,
Or you survive, when I in earth am rotten,
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die.
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombèd in men’s eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read,
And tongues to be, your being shall rehearse
When all the breathers of this world are dead.
You still shall live—such virtue hath my pen—
Where breath most breathes, ev’n in the mouths of men.
The rest was a sandy bank, heavily eroded, with some odds and ends on it.
To be polite, the soil is challenging. Although reached easily from the back yard cistern (there’s the water issue sorted), it was obviously sand and that sad tan color that says there’s not a plant nutrient to be found to save a rose’s life. Obviously, mulch and cow manure and compost and tons of TLC urgently required!
More importantly, what about climate—the deserts of New Mexico bear no relation to the moist green world of English summers. Is it possible anything mentioned by Shakespeare could ever grow here?
If you’re going to research the flowers and herbs mentioned in Shakespeare, don’t ask Dr. Williams unless you want about twenty books delivered on the subject which she just happens to have in her vast library! I happily began to research.
First, I ran into John Gerard, the Elizabethan herbalist, whose 1,400 page book outlining every known kind of plant was a top bestseller in Shakespearean times. His exquisite, careful sketches of plants were easily recognizable as those I’d grown in the twenty-first century. All there on the Internet for the (so-called) taking!
Next, if you google “Shakespeare plants,” you get incredible lists of all the plants referenced in the plays, and links like this one:
And endless lists of the plants, such as those shown here:
Everything from Aconitum (Monkshood) to Wormwood and Yew. Most of them wildflowers; some you would think likely, are not (lilac, for example, was an import from Persia and just too late to interest the Elizabethans). So for Robin’s little “wild bank,” I had more than enough information and kinds of plants to turn it into a bower! If our desert climate lets me.
So this blog chronicles, by an act of faith, how we will try to grow a Shakespeare garden in the high desert country, using only those plants and varieties specifically referred to in Shakespeare’s plays, with John Gerard’s herbal as one guide and books and the Internet for assistance. Along the way, we can explore the meaning of the flowers and herbs because in the sixteenth century, each plant had several common names and was emblematic of thoughts, feelings, hopes, or desires, as Ophelia tells us.
A good garden can take as long as three years to build and bloom; we are just beginning (in Santa Fe it is not safe to plant anything fragile much before mid-May). But if you like Shakespearean gardens, come along and watch as we try!