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A Midsummer night's Flowers

It’s that magical midsummer time of the year, when fairies or “little people” as William Shakespeare, (a.k.a. the Bard) called them come out to play in the moonbeams of the summer solstice. A perfect time to stroll through the Bard’s literary “garden,” – you don’t even have to leave your easy chair. Just get a sampler of the Bard’s plays and sonnets and enjoy a summertime reading tour of his garden, a collage of the plants and flowers of his time, preserved through time in his writings and fertilized by his imagination and vivid imagery.

Did the Bard have green thumbs on those masterful hands that penned his famous 36 plays and 154 sonnets? Did he ever get dirt under his fingernails or dig in the dirt for relaxation or inspiration? We can only imagine or speculate, but we do know that he spent his childhood in the English countryside, surrounded by meadows of wildflowers and simple, utilitarian kitchen gardens as well as formal masterpieces of horticultural design and beauty. He also had a charming and well-manicured garden at his residence in Stratford, where he spent his last years and where he wrote The Winter’s Tale, which includes garden references about such matters as plant care and cultivation.

It was only natural for Shakespeare to include the familiar flowers and plants of his childhood in his writings, even the lowly, “noisome” weeds as he labeled them. In fact, the Bard’s works are an alphabetical listing of plants from aconitum (a member of the buttercup family that is often poisonous despite the family’s innocent reputation) to yew – save for plants representing “q” and “z.” With more than 180 different species mentioned, Shakespeare’s “garden” at times reads like a horticultural text.

Not just window-dressing or a provider of flowery adjectives, each plant had a specific purpose in his prose or poetry. Some became backdrops, others metaphors, while some even played the roles of minor protagonists in his literature. Many plants mentioned, such as carnations, roses, daisies, daffodils, and rosemary, are familiar to modern gardeners, while others like oxlips, elderberries, and stonecrop are lesser-known natives of the Bard’s home country.

Through his poetic words, Shakespeare introduces us to the legends, lore, and uses of the popular plants of 16th century Elizabethan England. Herbs and medicinal plants were accepted remedies for a variety of problems ranging from physical and mental ailments to potions for love sickness. The Bard knew the dual personalities and uses of plants – herbs for flavorful seasonings and healings that could quickly and easily change to evil and bewitchment when used by witches in their brews.

Shakespeare appears to have been fascinated by the ancient traditions and customs of the midsummer and solstice celebrations, which celebrated love, romance, and the fantasy world of the fairy people. Maybe he even participated in some of the rituals. The customs of his time included great bonfires to provide light for the celebrants and to ward away evil spirits. Many young people stayed up all night, even though it was the shortest night of the year. What made them linger? Perhaps it was to see the fairies come out to play or the little people who came forth to stand watch against the evil forces that might intrude on the solstice celebrations.

Flowers played a major role in Midsummer’s Eve celebrations. It was customary to deck the halls and house much as we do now during the Christmas season, only with birch, fennel, St. John’s wort, orpin, and white lilies, which were chosen for their power to repel

evil. Other important flowers and herbs included rue, roses, fennel, and ferns. Lovers often tossed these special flowers to each other across the bonfires.

Was Midsummer’s Eve the magical summer day Shakespeare was thinking of when he wrote Sonnet 18 with its oft quoted “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Was it the legendary magic of the midsummer night, the fairy magic, or the special powers of the summer flowers that inspired Shakespeare to write A Midsummer Night’s Dream?

In this enchanting comedy set in Athens on Midsummer’s Eve, Shakespeare invites us into the magical world of fairies, fantasy, and romance, surrounding the characters with several traditional flowers as well as other popular flowers and plants of his time. In the dream scene, action is set on “a bank where the wild thyme blows, where oxlips and the nodding violet grows, quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine with sweet musk-roses and eglantine.”

Of course, no proper summer garden would be complete without roses, which are mentioned at least 70 times in Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet” from Romeo and Juliet would probably rank as the most familiar quote about roses.

As much as we may prize roses today, it pales in comparison to Shakespeare’s time when even dew from rose petals was highly coveted. Merchants used it to make highly priced cosmetics, such as rose water for Elizabethan ladies. Legends also advise that the dew of Midsummer’s Day is especially powerful, granting any lady who washes her face in it the gift of becoming more beautiful in the coming year.

Fern and fennel also graced midsummer celebrations. Typically hung over doorways to block evil spirits from entering, fennel seeds were also stuffed into keyholes to prevent ghosts from entering the house. Fern seeds, the tiny little brown dots on the undersides of the fronds, were believed to have the charm of making people invisible. That said, you did have to be quick about it, or so the legend goes, because the only time they could be gathered was between midnight and 1 a.m., the only time they ripen. This was a very risky undertaking because it could anger the fairies who were said to be jealous of any mortal who acquired the power of invisibility. How to elude them? Well, wearing your jacket inside out was advised to protect you from dangers such as this.

Cowslips, a wildflower common in Shakespeare’s time and also known as fairy’s cups, were the preferred flowers of the fairies. Members of the primrose family, with bright purple or yellow petals, they once covered entire meadows throughout Europe in Shakespeare’s day. Their numbers, however, have diminished as the meadows have disappeared in the name of progress. In his poem, “Over Hill, Over Dale,” dedicated to fairies, Shakespeare talks of seeking some dewdrops to hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear, possibly a gift for the fairies.

Dianthus, a popular summer plant for gardeners, was also enjoyed by Shakespeare and included in his works. Its botanical name is derived from the Greek words dios, meaning divine, and anthos, meaning flowers, but it is more commonly known as a carnation, pink, or Sweet William. (Shakespeare referred to it as gillyflower). Some legends attribute the name Sweet William to Saint William, whose festival is on June 25, when the flowers traditionally bloom – a true midsummer flower. But other legends claim the name Sweet William is to honor William Shakespeare, the divine poet and playwright – possibly with green thumbs!

Written by: Linda E. Allen

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