Elizabethan Herbs, Plants and Their Uses

Written by deborah harding
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Elizabethan Herbs, Plants and Their Uses
William Shakespeare referenced many plants, flowers and trees in his writings. (Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images)

The Elizabethan garden was much different from the gardens from those of earlier Medieval and Renaissance eras, when gardens were primarily intended to grow food or medicine. Queen Elizabeth's interest was in new and exciting plants that her Royal Navy was bringing back from exotic travels. Gardens were used more for pleasure than necessity. William Shakespeare had an influence on gardens during the period, and he mentioned many plants and flowers in his verse and plays. Elizabethan gardens were formal with specific arrangements that were often designed by the architect who built the dwelling.

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Plants Used for Walls

Formal gardens of the Elizabethan time were usually square or rectangular and could be small or take up a large quantity of land. They usually had walls made of stone, earth or tightly spaced plants accessed through strategically placed garden gates. Plants used to make the walls themselves were shoulder high or taller. Holly, privet, yew and hawthorn made dense hedge walls. Climbing plants that were also employed included roses and honeysuckle. Sometimes walls were decorated with fruit trees tied against the wall in a fan shape, called espalier, allowing fruit to be grown even in a small garden.

Plants used for Pathways

Plants that were used in footpaths were intended to be trodden upon to emit their lovely fragrance. Herbs like thyme, watermint, chamomile and burnet provided scent to the garden. They were also used as flavouring for food or as remedies for conditions like sleeplessness.

Plants Used for Shade

Many trees and large shrubs were used to provide a shaded area to sit and enjoy the hot summer day. Willows, privet, hawthorn or whitethorn, maples, sycamores and many other trees offered shade under which stone and wooden benches invited visitors to sit and enjoy the view.

Plants Used for Shelter

It was a common practice to place a mound in a large formal garden. These were circular areas with some elevated up to 30 feet high. Either a rude building or arbor was supplied to offer protection from the elements and provide a place to enjoy a meal. Buildings were called banqueting houses and had vining plants growing on them to supply shade and protection from rain and wind. Bay, rue, ivy, grapes, pomegranates, cucumbers, honeysuckle, roses and anything else that would climb would grace the ceilings of the house or the arbor. Many of these plants were also used to garnish foods.

Plants Used for Edging

Inside the garden, areas were defined using edging plants. These types of plants were also used in the creation of mazes where visitors would strategically make their way from one end of the winding paths to the other. Knot gardens continued to be popular, a type of garden used in prior eras that outlined Celtic knot patterns. Seen from above, it made beautiful geometric shapes and designs. Borders were provided by using lavender, germander, santolina, boxwood or rosemary. Taller borders for mazes made use of yews, holly and other hedge plants. Within the borders were many different flowers and herbs used in the kitchen, for medicine or to banish the foul scents of the day. They included marjoram, savoury, lavender, primrose, daisies, marigolds, violets, roses, columbine, hyssop, calendula and dianthus.

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