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Plant a Literary Garden

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For the bookworms among us, one of the best things about a garden on a quiet day is having a calm and relaxing place to sit and read. But, here’s an idea: take the story out of the pages and put it in your landscape.

The Secret Garden, beloved novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, tells the story of a downtrodden little girl that discovers the key to a locked and mysterious garden. Through the garden, she becomes close with her cousin and a boy from the village, and together they bring the long abandoned place back to life. The book is filled with wonderful descriptions of flowers left to grow wild, creeping up sun dials and walls, and filling the air with fragrance. She mentions roses, columbines, delphinium, poppies, larkspur, crocus, daffodil, and snowdrops—unfortunately, illustrations can’t do it justice. But, Burnett gives you everything you need to try and recreate at least a little piece of the magic of the story.

Try reading through your favorite books, plays, and poems, and consider planting a literary garden. You can try to replicate a particular place in literature, or simply plant an array of plants that occurs in a body of work from your favorite author. Bring the imaginary to life with your own unique interpretation.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

Greek Myth

From trees to flowers to edibles, plants played a crucial role in the histories and explanations of the pantheon of gods and goddesses that ruled over the ancient Greek world. The mythology of these deities served as a tool for Greek civilization to make sense of the world around it, and the plants in these stories are often important tools in the interactions between mythological characters. Greek myth also simply explained why certain plants with which Grecian society was familiar existed in the first place.

  • The myth of Persephone was an incredibly important story that ancient Greeks used to explain the passing of the seasons. Persephone was the only daughter of Demeter, the harvest goddess, and had unknowingly captured the affection of Hades, god of the underworld. As she was out collecting a bouquet of rose, delphinium, crocus, violet, iris, and lily, she was coaxed into Hades’ clutches by a beautiful daffodil. When Persephone came close, a hole opened underneath her, and Hades carried her to the underworld. Demeter frantically searched the world above for her daughter, halting all growth and vowing angrily to keep the world in a barren state until her daughter was returned. Hades was ordered to give up Persephone, but not before feeding her a single pomegranate seed. By swallowing the seed, Persephone was bound to return to the underworld as Hades’ wife and queen for the third part of every year, and it is during this time that the world experiences winter.
  • The titan Prometheus, friend and creator of man, angered Zeus, king of the gods, by stealing meat and, more importantly, fire from the gods to give to mortal man. Prometheus hid it inside of a fennel stalk, and humans had access to fire from that time forward. For his insolence, Prometheus was chained to a mountain only to have his liver eaten daily by an eagle.
  • Beautiful youth Adonis was the lover of Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty and love. When he was killed by a wild boar, Aphrodite mourned terribly, and to commemorate his death and her sorrow, she poured the drink of the gods onto his spilled blood, and from the ground sprang the first red anemones, significant in their short-lived beauty.

Shakespeare

William Shakespeare employed plants frequently in his plays and poetry, particularly those that he would have seen readily in his native England. Literary scholars have paid particular attention to Shakespeare’s use of plants during specific scenes or lines—plants or flowers often signify a deeper meaning about a person or event. The mere mention of a flower could conceal an insult, joke, or could foreshadow the ultimate fate of a character involved in the scene. Shakespearean gardens can include any of the more than two hundred plants mentioned by Shakespeare in his work. Shakespeare gardens have been installed in Central Park in New York City, Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, and in the Cultural Gardens in Cleveland.

“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts. There’s fennel for you, and columbines. –There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me. We may call it “herb of grace o’ Sundays. –Oh, you must wear your rue with a difference. –There’s a daisy. I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died. They say he made a good end.” — William Shakespeare, Hamlet.

Ophelia, having succumbed to madness after the murder of her father and rejection by her lover, Prince Hamlet, passes out flowers (either real or imaginary) to her brother, Laertes, Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude, and the queen’s husband, Claudius (Claudius is the brother of Gertrude’s dead husband, and Hamlet’s uncle). Though she seems to be speaking nonsense, the symbolic meanings of the flowers she passes around may be expressing her true feelings toward each character. Rosemary and pansies symbolize remembrance and thoughts, which may represent her thoughts on her father. She presents Gertrude and Claudius with fennel and columbine, which may symbolize ingratitude, adultery, flattery and cuckoldry—perhaps a comment on Gertrude’s marriage to her brother-in-law or disparagement of Claudius. Rue symbolizes repentance or sorrow, possibly Ophelia saying that they should repent or speaking on her own sorrow (and foreshadowing her eventual death—rue can be poisonous). Daisies represent innocence and failed love, and violets, faithfulness, which she does not have or pass out since her father’s death. What Shakespeare actually meant when using these flowers remains unclear, and Ophelia’s flower speech is still up for interpretation.

Poetry

The mention of plants in poetry is as old as poetry itself. Pastoral and romantic poets, in particular, valued the beauty and simplicity of nature above all else, and plants are found in much of their imagery. Plants are used in poetry to invoke mood or emotion in the reader, to allude to past works, people, or places, and to add symbolism where a specific plant carries cultural significance.

  • “The modest Rose puts forth a thorn, / The humble sheep a threat’ning horn: / While the Lily white shall in love delight, / Nor a thorn nor a threat stain her beauty bright.” — William Blake, “The Lily.”
  • “”You gave me hyacinths first a year ago; / “They called me the hyacinth girl.” / --Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden, / Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not / Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither / Living nor dead, and I knew nothing, / Looking into the heart of light, the silence.” — T.S. Eliot, “The Wasteland.”
  • “Of asphodel, that greeny flower, / like a buttercup / upon its branching stem-- / save that it’s green and wooden-- / I come, my sweet, to sing to you.” — William Carlos Williams, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower.”
  • “Her divine skill taught me this, / that from every thing I saw / I could some instruction draw, / And raise pleasure to the height / Through the meanest object’s sight.” — William Wordsworth, “To the Daisy.”
  • “I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree, / And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk / Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more, / But dipped its top and set me down again.” — Robert Frost, “Birches.”
  • “Much can they praise the trees so straight and high, / The sailing pine, the cedar proud and tall, / The vine-prop elm, the poplar never dry, / The building oak, sole king of forests all, / The aspin good for staves, the cypress funeral, / The laurel, meed of mighty conquerors / And poets safe, the fir that weepiest still, / The yew obedient to the bender’s will, / The birch for shafts, the sallow for the mill, / The myrrh sweet-bleeding in the bitter wound, / The warlike beech, the ash for nothing ill, / The fruitful olive, and the platane round, / The carver holm, the maple seldom inward sound.” — Edmund Spenser, “Faerie Queene.”
  • “Never such an ambuscade / As of brier and leaf displayed / For my little damask maid. / I had rather wear her grace / Than an earl’s distinguished face; / I had rather dwell like her / Than be Duke of Exeter / Royalty enough for me / To subdue the bumble-bee!” — Emily Dickinson, “My Rose."