The English Hay Meadow

Helmingham Hall, Suffolk May 2018

Meadow planting is enjoying a wave of popularity right now both in private gardens and public spaces.  As well as looking natural and beautiful, the variety of flowers and seeds they produce offer great benefits to wildlife, such as pollinating insects and birds.

But what are the origins of the meadow these modern plantings reference and attempt to re-create?  Broadly, the inspiration is the traditional hay meadow, where grasses and other plants were grown to be cut and dried, supplying winter fodder for cattle.  In today’s decorative meadows the balance between grasses and flowers tends towards the dominance of flowers, but when hay was still a crop, grasses were the most important plants in the meadow.

Benjamin Stillingfleet’s illustrated study Observations on Grasses (1762) gives some valuable insights into the 18th century meadow.  In this brief account, he explains how meadows were planted and managed, and discusses in detail the best  grasses for a good hay crop.  Stillingfleet’s research on meadow grasses is intended to educate the farmer so the most suitable kinds of grasses can be grown.  He observes how, until recently, the study of these grasses has been neglected,

‘The farmer for want of distinguishing, and selecting grasses for feed, fills his pastures either with weeds, or bad, or improper grasses; when by making a right choice, after some trials he might be sure of the best grass, and in the greatest abundance that his land admits of.’

Stillingfleet criticises the imprecise way in which farmers acquire seed, which was generally collected from their own hay stack or from a neighbour.  The disadvantage of sowing this mixture is that weeds are introduced; ‘I have seen it filled with weeds not natural to it, and which never would have sprung up, if they had not been brought there.’  Stillingfleet’s solution is to gather very specific grass seeds, so that the mixture contains the best kinds of grasses for the type of soil and situation, and weeds can be kept to a minimum.  He describes enlisting the help of children to perform this task;

‘I have had frequent experience how easy it is to gather the seeds of grasses, having employed children of ten or eleven years old several times, who have gathered many sorts for me without making any mistakes, after I had once shewn them the sorts I wanted.’

The charming illustrations of ten of the finest hay grasses are a valuable aid to the identification of these plants for the general reader, as grasses are quite hard to tell apart from descriptions alone.

‘Many people having expressed a desire that I should have plates of some of the profitable grasses added to this piece, that most excellent man, the late Mr Price of Foxley, whose extraordinary character I shall always revere, and do intend to give a sketch of on some future occasion, kindly condescended to employ his pencil, which in the opinion of the best judges was equal to things of a much superior nature, in making me several drawings from the plants themselves, and a very able hand has supplied the rest and engraved them all.’

One of the most beautiful grasses to be found in the hay meadow is the meadow fox-tail which grows to around a metre in height, and was also considered one of the best for high quality hay.

‘I am informed that the best hay which comes to London is from the meadows where this grass abounds.  I saw this spring a meadow not far from Hampstead which consisted of this grass chiefly with some of the vernal grass and the corn brome grass. It might be gathered at almost any time of the year from hay ricks, as it does not shed its seeds without rubbing, which is the case of but few grasses.’

Benjamin Stillingfleet (1702 – 1771) was a naturalist and author, accepted as one of the first in England to use the principles of Linnaeus in his botanical studies.  His portrait by Zoffany hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.

The modern meadow is unlikely to be harvested for cattle, and the flowers it contains may well include non-native species.  But meadow plantings using indigenous plants blend so well with the English landscape and its vernacular buildings, and seem to tie these elements together seamlessly.  Mass plantings of ordinary plants like buttercups and cow parsley have a freshness and radiance at this time of year which can stop you in your tracks.

Vernal grass  ‘It is very plentiful in the best meadows about London, viz. towards Hampstead and Hendon.’

Meadow foxtail grass (Alopecurus pratensis)  One of the taller grasses, to approx 1m.

Fine bent grass

Mountain hair grass  ‘It grows in great plenty on Bagshot Heath’

Silver hair grass

Great meadow grass

Annual meadow grass  ‘This grass makes the finest of turfs.  It is called in some parts the Suffolk grass.  ..as some of the best salt butter we have comes from that county, it is most likely to be the best grass for the dairy.’

Sheeps fescue grass

Flote fescue grass

Crested dogs-tail grass  ‘This grass I imagine is proper for parks.’

Meadow foxtail grass Alopecurus pratensis (foreground and against yew trees) in a planting of cow parsley, Kentwell Hall, Suffolk

Cow parsley, Kentwell Hall, Suffolk

Meadow planting with willow edging, Kentwell Hall, Suffolk May 2018

Observations on Grasses from Archive.org

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Tall Bearded Irises from Cooley’s Gardens

Cover of Cooley’s Gardens catalogue of irises 1935.

When Cooley’s Gardens closed its gates in 2011 after trading for over 80 years, this nursery had, in its heyday, been one of America’s leading suppliers of bearded irises.  Their catalogues show dozens of iris varieties for sale that were exported as far afield as Canada, Australia, and Europe, as well as their home market in the US.  Based in Oregon the nursery was the project of Rholin and Pauline Cooley and, as with many nurseries, was a hobby that in time became a business.  Selling herbaceous perennials with a special focus on tall bearded irises, some of their beautiful catalogues are preserved online via the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Like many plants, tall bearded irises go in and out of fashion.  The bearded iris is probably considered by many to be too showy for today’s on trend naturalistic planting, especially as most recent cultivars have frilly edges to their petals, which combined with multicoloured flowers, makes them difficult to associate with simpler flower forms.

In 2007 gardener Sarah Cook was instrumental in reviving interest in the Benton irises, bred by the artist Cedric Morris.  Developed between the 1930s and 1960s  his irises display an elegance of form which modern varieties have lost, but can also be seen in the flowers from some of the Cooley’s early catalogues.  The Benton varieties are grown by Beth Chatto, and seem to integrate well in her garden, amongst the grasses and other sun-loving perennials.

Looking at the Cooley’s catalogues, it’s interesting to observe how tastes in these flowers developed through the 20th century.  The earlier hybrids from the 1930s have the languid look of silk gowns from that period, while by the 1950s the form of the iris flower has become more frilled, and stiffer, like prom dresses.  In the process, the flowers somehow seem to lose the elegance of the earlier hybrids.

Cooley’s catalogues from the 1930s show some very elegant flowers indeed. The large black and white photographs show the spacing of the flowers on the stem, which contributes to their poise, while the colour plates show their astonishing colours from browns and purples, to pinks and pure white.

Pictured in colour Mountain Sunset and Eloise Lapham. Cooley’s Gardens catalogue 1935.

Kalinga from Cooley’s Gardens catalogue 1935.

President Pilkington, lavender blue and pale buff from 1935 catalogue.

Venus de Milo (all white) and Grace Sturtevant from 1935 catalogue

Legend with rich deep claret falls and standards of deep blue 1935 catalogue.

Ethelwyn Dubuar, strikingly pink, according to the 1935 catalogue.

For their stock, the Cooleys teamed up with iris breeders, both professional and amateur, who supplied a constant stream of new varieties.  New introductions were expensive (some priced at as much as $20) and aimed at the serious collector, but this was balanced by ‘Bargains for Beginners’ and ‘Class for the thrifty’ where 12 plants of established varieties could be purchased for two dollars.

Ormohr from 1939 catalogue.

Copper Lustre from 1939 catalogue.

Far West from 1939 catalogue.

Dogrose, Legend and Rameses from the 1939 catalogue.

Itasca from the 1939 catalogue.

Treasure Island from the 1939 catalogue.

Kalinga from the 1939 catalogue.

Ethelwyn Dubuar (pink) with Red Dominion, 1939 catalogue.

Rebellion, 1939 catalogue.

1930s evening gown (Wikimedia Commons)

Irises from 1964 showing a more upright form with frilly petals

Irises from 1965

I’ve grown the deep purple flowered iris ‘Matinata’ for many years and love to see the dark, almost black, buds at this time of year, followed by the spectacular flowers.  This iris was bred by Schreiner’s in the 1960s, another Oregon based iris specialist.  Given the renaissance of interest in the Benton irises, perhaps it’s time to re-discover some more heritage iris varieties for our gardens.

Cooley’s Catalogue 1935

Cooley’s Catalogue 1939

The quest for the Benton Irises (The Telegraph)

Wordsworth House and Garden

On a damp, grey day in early April it’s not every garden that tempts visitors to linger. But when I visited the walled garden at Wordsworth House in Cockermouth, Cumbria at the beginning of the month there was much to see of interest, as well as providing some welcome shelter from cold winds.

Although early in the season, signs of spring were evident.  Daffodils were flowering, with tulips not far behind them; new shoots visible on the roses and perennial plants were starting to emerge from their  long winter dormancy.

Wordsworth House is the birthplace of William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850), who lived here with his family in the 1770s.  The National Trust, which acquired the house in the 1930s, has designed the garden in late eighteenth century style, with plant varieties that would have been available in the period.   Attractive slate labels show the names of these plants, information about their uses and introduction to cultivation in the UK.  The apples Greenup’s Pippin (1790) and Acklam Russet (1768) are cultivated with the the dual purpose pear Williams Bon Chretien (1770), Morello Cherry (pre 1629) and the Gargarin Blue Grape.  The garden also has a collection of Orpington and Silkie hens.

Beans and peas and other household vegetables are grown in open beds at the centre of the garden and the traditional supports for these made out of local materials such as birch are already in place for the coming season.  Supports for flowers like peonies are also constructed using poles and string.

The garden backs onto the river Derwent, which looks tame enough today, but in 2009 William Wordsworth’s ‘beauteous stream’ burst its banks.  Both the house and gardens were damaged by flooding (as were other buildings in the town) with many garden plants swept away by the waters, and even the heavy wooden gates at the front of the building (now replaced) were wrenched from their hinges.  The force of the water must have been immense.

Today the re-planted garden with its fruit trees, roses, flowers and herbs looks well established, which is a tribute to the efforts of head gardener Amanda Thackeray and the National Trust’s team of volunteers.  It’s also a good reminder that it is possible to create a garden with a sense of permanence in a relatively short period of time.

Wordsworth House and Garden, Spring 2018

new shoots of lovage (Levisticum officinale)

Back home, whilst considering the old fruit varieties I was delighted to come across a catalogue of fruit trees from the relatively local grower William Pinkerton, based in Wigan, and dating from 1782.  Despite its fragile looking state it’s available at the Biodiversity Heritage Library via the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Library.  The comprehensive list includes a surprising number of peaches, nectarines and apricots as well as apples, pears, plums and cherries.  Although not individually named, Pinkerton offers a staggering 74 varieties of gooseberry.  It would be fascinating to know how many of these varieties are traceable today – the Green Gage and La Mirabelle plums certainly sound familiar.  The catalogue is reproduced below.

William Pinkerton’s Catalogue of Fruit Trees, Wigan, Lancs 1782

I wonder if this nectarine variety is anything to do with Thomas Fairchild?

William Pinkerton’s Fruit Catalogue 1782

Wordsworth House and Garden

William Wordsworth

Bernwode Plants  masses of information about heritage fruit trees

Cuckoo Flowers

Lychnis flos-cuculi from Flora Londinensis by William Curtis

The arrival of the cuckoo in April remains a popular sign of spring, even for the majority of us now living in towns or cities who might not actually hear the call.  The unmistakable sound of the cuckoo is embedded in our creative culture – in music, poetry and in the common names of some of the UK’s native wild flowers, all of which help us preserve a link with the natural world and the changing seasons.

Flora Londinensis, written by William Curtis and published in six volumes between 1777 – 1798 is an illustrated survey of all the wild plants that could be found within a ten mile radius of London.  Curtis sheds some light on the reason why Lychnis flos-cuculi is known as the cuckoo flower observing that, ‘from the earliest ages’ people have made a connection between the flowering of certain plants and ‘the periodical return of birds of passage’.

Before the return of the seasons was exactly ascertained by Astronomy, these observations were of great consequence in pointing out stated times for the purposes of Agriculture; and still, in many a Cottage, the birds of passage and their corresponding flowers assist in regulating “The short, and simple Annals of the Poor.” 

Curtis points out that  ‘we have several other plants that, in different places, go by the name of Cuckow Flower’ including cardamine, arum, orchids and wood sorrel.  He talks about a double form of the lychnis flower being cultivated in gardens.

Gerard’s Herball, or, Generall Historie of plantes (1597) contains many examples of local plant names.  He confirms that cardamines are commonly known as Cuckow flowers, while noting that in Norfolk they are called Caunterburie bels and in Cheshire (his place of birth, in Nantwich), Ladie smockes.  

Another cuckoo flower mentioned by Gerard is the common woodland plant Arum maculatum.  He lists the plant’s common names:

The common Cockow pint is called in Latin Arum: in English Cockow pint and Cockow pintle, wake Robin, Priest’s pintle, Aron, Calfes foote, and Rampe, and of some Starch woort.

According to Wikipedia, ‘pint’ is a shortening of the word ‘pintle’, meaning penis, derived from the shape of the spadix. 

from The Herball, or, Generall historie of plantes John Gerard 1597

from The Herball, or, Generall historie of plantes John Gerard 1597

Cardamine pratensis from Flora Londinensis by William Curtis

from The Herball, or, Generall historie of plantes John Gerard 1597

Arum maculatum from Flora Londinensis by William Curtis

A double form of Lychnis flos-cuculi ‘Jenny’ (photo Wikimedia Commons)

In the eighteenth century it was understood that cuckoos left the country to overwinter in warmer places, but not known that they travelled as far as Africa.  While we know more about the cuckoo’s migratory patterns now, fewer of us experience the cuckoo first hand, so may not know about the changing call of the cuckoo over the season.  Gerard talks about the time in April and May when ‘the Cuckowe doth begin to sing her pleasant notes without stammering’.  In his poem The Cuckoo John Clare also observes a loss of voice, but in summer:

When summer from the forest starts
Its melody with silence lies,
And, like a bird from foreign parts,
It cannot sing for all it tries.
‘Cuck cuck’ it cries and mocking boys
Crie ‘Cuck’ and then it stutters more
Till quick forgot its own sweet voice
It seems to know itself no more. 

This alteration in the cuckoo’s call is described as a ‘change of tune’ in Jane Taylor’s poem, memorably and beautifully set to music by Benjamin Britten in his collection of twelve songs entitled Friday Afternoons.  Do listen on the link below.

Cuckoo, Cuckoo!
What do you do?
“In April
I open my bill;
In May
I sing night and day;
In June
I change my tune;
In July
Far far I fly;
In August
Away I must.”

Jane Taylor, 1783-1824

from History of British Birds by Thomas Bewick 1797 – 1804

Cuckoo! by Benjamin Britten

Flora Londinensis

Arum maculatum entry Wikipedia

(images from the Biodiversity Heritage Library, unless otherwise stated)

Ribbon Grass

Still Life with Flowers in a Decorative Vase 1670 – 75 Maria van Oosterwijck  (Wikimedia Commons)

We tend to think of grasses used as decorative garden plants as a new development in planting design.  Pioneered by Karl Foerster in Germany in the 1930s, his naturalistic planting schemes used grasses and late flowering perennials, a style which has been embraced and developed by Dutch designer Piet Oudolf, and many others, and remains very influential today.  So it may come as a surprise that long before the current fashion for prairie style planting, grasses were grown in European gardens as far back as the sixteenth century.

At the front of the arrangement in the painting above by Maria van Oosterwijck (1630 – 1693) there is a strand of boldly striped green and white ribbon grass, contrasting with the dark background and the pink flowers of a hollyhock.  The long leaves make contact with marble surface upon which the vase of flowers stands and seem to be reaching out further, almost to the edge of the canvas, inviting us to touch them.  One of a pair of beetles is starting to climb a leaf.

If we believe that the blooms depicted in the Dutch flower paintings of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries represent those most valued by horticulturalists and collectors, it is interesting to see this grass given such a prominent place among the roses, carnations and poppies.

The RHS lists ten common names for Phalaris arundinacea var. picta including gardener’s garters, bride’s laces, and lady grass as well as the more familiar ribbon grass. The number of names would seem to indicate that the plant has a long history of cultivation and was well known in the UK.

John Gerard in The Herball, or, Generall Historie of Plantes (1597) describes the grass as being, ‘like to laces of white and greene silke, very beautiful, and faire to behold’ and explains it is ‘kept and maintained in our English gardens, rather for pleasure than for vertue’, (meaning that ribbon grass had no known practical or medicinal qualities).  We know that ribbon grass was cultivated in ordinary gardens in the nineteenth century as it is mentioned by John Clare in a list of cottage garden plants alongside wallflowers, pinks and lavender.

Ladie Lace Grasse from The Herball, or, Generall Historie of Plantes 1597 (Biodiversity Heritage Library)

Ribbon grass is quite tall (approx 60cm) so too high to fit into the standard rectangular illustration frame size for the Herball.  In the 1597 version the whole plant has been shrunk to fit the frame, but in the updated Herball of 1633 the artist has indicated scale more accurately by cutting the grass stem and placing the roots, stalk and flowering head together.

Lady-lace Grasse from The Herball, or, Generall Historie of Plantes 1633 (Biodiversity Heritage Library)

Ribbon grass is a very easy plant to grow.  An ideal site would be sunny with a damp soil; it will tolerate some shade and a dry soil, but the seedheads will not form unless it receives a few hours of sun each day.  At its best in spring and summer, the stems collapse in winter, so it doesn’t make good winter structure like miscanthus or calamagrostis.

It would be good to see more ribbon grass grown in historical planting schemes, as it was clearly a valued garden plant in the past.  It associates well with herbaceous plants and creates pools of brightness next to evergreens.  Rachel Ruysch (1664 – 1750), a contemporary of Oosterwijck, also uses ribbon grass in her compositions –  the National Gallery and the Fitzwilliam Museum have examples of her paintings in their collections.  Well worth checking out on their websites (or better still, visit the galleries if you can).

Garland with blossoms 1683 Rachel Ruysch (Wikimedia Commons)

Phalaris arundinacea var. picta or Ribbon grass

Further Reading:

The Herball, or, Generall Historie of Plantes

Maria van Oosterijck

Rachel Ruysch

Rachel Ruysch at the National Gallery

Alistair Sooke on Dutch Flower Paintings

A Cottage and Garden

from An Account of a Cottage and Garden in Tadcaster. Sir Thomas Bernard, 1797 (Wikimedia Commons)

Picturesque cottages might be so disposed around a park, as to ornament and enliven the scenery with much more effect, than those misplaced gothic castles, and those pigmy models of Grecian temples, that perverted taste is so busy with: but it is the unfortunate principle of ornamental buildings in England that they should be uninhabited and uninhabitable.

This impassioned call for landowners to reject the fashion for ornamental garden structures and build cottages on their estates instead, to address a rural housing shortage caused by inclosure, comes from the social reformer Sir Thomas Bernard’s fascinating text An Account of a Cottage and Garden in Tadcaster (1797).  It was published for the Society for Bettering the Condition and Increasing the Comforts of the Poor, a charity which Bernard helped to found.

The picturesque cottage garden is a powerful motif in English garden history.  The cottage garden represents a modest beauty, simplicity, a place of domestic production, supplying fruit, flowers and vegetables to the owners; perhaps some eggs, or honey.  It is unpretentious, a sanctuary, in harmony with nature and its surroundings; it possesses an essential integrity born out of hard work and self-reliance.  All these qualities are attractive, of course, and the cottage garden style is one many aspire to re-create today.

The first garden Bernard discusses belongs to Britton Abbot.  At the age of 67 Abbot is still working as an agricultural labourer.  The interview with Abbot takes place on a Saturday afternoon – his wife is sent to fetch him from a field where he is working a mile or so away.  Abbot’s fortunes had nearly collapsed when his previous house and land were enclosed.  He appealed to a local landowner, who gave him a strip of land upon which he was able to build his current house and establish the garden.  Without this generous assistance, it is likely Abbot and his family would have faced ruin.

Abbot’s garden is about a quarter of an acre and has a hedge enclosing the garden.  Cultivated by his wife and noted for its neatness, the garden contains, ‘fifteen apple-trees, one green gage, and three winesour plum-trees, two apricot-trees, several gooseberry and currant bushes, abundance of common vegetables, and three hives of bees’.

The produce the Abbots would expect to harvest annually from the garden amounts to, ‘about 40 bushels of potatoes, besides other vegetables; and his fruit, in a good year, is worth from £3 to £4 a year.  His wife occasionally goes out to work; she also spins at home, and takes care of his house and garden’.

Bernard appeals to other landowners to give land to working people to be used in the same way:

The quarter of an acre that Britton Abbot inclosed was not worth a shilling a year. It now contains a good house and a garden, abounding in fruit, vegetables, and almost every thing that constitutes the wealth of the cottager.  In such inclosures, the benefit to the country, and to the individuals of the parish, would far surpass any petty sacrifice of land to be required.  FIVE UNSIGHTLY, UNPROFITABLE, ACRES OF WASTE GROUND WOULD AFFORD HABITATION AND COMFORT TO TWENTY SUCH FAMILIES AS BRITTON ABBOT’S.

The second case study, contained in an Account of the produce of a Cottager’s Garden in Shropshire (1806) features Richard Millward’s garden.  Millward is a collier, and his wife Jane cultivates agricultural land, and a garden, which together amount to just over an acre.

The wife has managed the ground in a particular manner for thirteen years with potatoes and wheat, chiefly by her own labour; and in a way which has yielded good crops, and of late fully equal, or rather superior, to the produce of the neighbouring farms, and with little or no expense; but she has improved her mode of culture during the last six years.

Jane Millward has introduced the new cultivation method after becoming frustrated waiting for local farmers to have the time to plough the larger part of the garden for her.  Now she and her husband do all the work themselves.  In October, she sows wheat straight into the ground where potatoes have been, so the wheat over-winters in the ground.  Then the ground which has grown wheat in the previous year is dug for planting potatoes the following spring.  This excerpt gives an impression of the sheer hard work involved planting the potatoes:

The ground is dug for potatoes in the month of March and April, to the depth of about nine inches.  This digging would cost sixpence per pole, if hired.  After putting in the dung, the potatoes are planted in rows, about twelve or fourteen inches distant.  The dung is carried out in a wheelbarrow and it takes a great many days to plant the whole, generally ten days.  Her husband always assists in digging, after his hours of ordinary labour.

In the vegetable garden Jane plants peas, beans, cabbages and early potatoes for the family plus turnips which she boils for their pig.  Both accounts give us an unusual amount of detail about the gardens and the way they were arranged and used.

Sir Thomas Bernard (1750 – 1818) spent much of his working life on social projects to improve conditions for the poor.  He helped to establish the Society for Bettering the Condition and Increasing the Comforts of the Poor and was treasurer of the Foundling Hospital in London.  He also established a school for the blind.  He was an advocate of vaccination, rural allotments and was instrumental in obtaining consents for the building of the Regent’s Canal.

Below is a link to the 1806 version of Bernard’s text which is very short and well worth reading.  Also some contemporary images of rural scenes and cottage gardens and a link to Margaret Willes’s The Gardens of the Working Classes – an extraordinary survey of gardens belonging to ordinary working people in the UK.

An Account of a Cottage and Garden in Tadcaster. Sir Thomas Bernard, 1797 (Wikimedia Commons)

Account of Britton Abbot’s cottage and garden : and of a cottager’s garden in Shropshire : to which is added Jonas Hobson’s advice to his children, and the contrast between a religious and sinful life. 1806 (Biodiversity Heritage Library)

The Natural History of Selborne 1789 (The Wellcome Library)

Hanging Washing with Pigs and Chickens 1797 Thomas Bewick (Wikimedia Commons)

Wheat, beans, peas

published by Yale University Press

Account of Britton Abbot’s Cottage and Garden 1806

(from the Biodiversity Heritage Library)

Sir Thomas Bernard

The Gardens of the British Working Class

Some English Trees

from The Herball, or, Generall historie of plantes John Gerard 1597

Early March is when we anticipate blossom and the unfurling of new leaves, marking the arrival of spring.  With snow now covering the trees and the landscape, spring is some way off.  But as trees begin their new cycle of growth, it still feels like a good time to revisit John Gerard’s Herball, or, Generall Historie of Plantes (1597), to renew our acquaintance with our native trees and appreciate their place in England’s cultural history.

According to the Woodland Trust more than four fifths of us can’t identify an ash tree from its leaves and almost half cannot recognise an oak, underlining our profound disconnection from the natural world.  The close connection between plants and people is inescapable in  Gerard’s Herball.  Pre-industrial society’s knowledge of local plants is linked to dependence on them for immediate needs, such as building materials, technology, food and medicine.

Amongst Gerard’s entries for trees we discover the wood of the alder tree was used for guttering because it is slow to rot and elm was used for making arrows and wheels.  The boughs of the common willow were brought into the sick chamber for those suffering from fevers and oak apples were ‘read’ to divine the future.

Gerard’s Herball is a survey of the plants known in England in the late 16th century and is quite unlike a scientific book published today.  Gerard’s commentary on each plant is delivered in a personal, anecdotal manner, mentioning plants growing in his own garden and reporting observations of other plant enthusiasts and growers.

The stylised illustrations generally show a branch of each tree with detail of the leaves, flowers and fruits, representing the tree in all the stages of its growing season.  The overall shape of the tree is not usually depicted, although some illustrations show a trunk with roots, and one over-large branch as the canopy, which is actually a twig, showing detail of the plant.  The rectangular illustrations are without a border, but are filled to their corners with a profusion of closely observed foliage, flowers and fruits.

Here are Gerard’s observations of some of our most common tree species.  I’ve included the elm tree which was once common in the UK, but now largely absent as a result of Dutch elm disease.  Recently I read the elm has returned to London as a street tree in Bond Street, so perhaps one day this tree will once more take its place in the English landscape?

The Birch Tree  Betula

from The Herball, or, Generall historie of plantes John Gerard 1597 (images via Biodiversity Heritage Library)

The common Birch tree waxeth likewise a great tree, having many boughes beset with many small rods or twigs, very limber and pliant: .. the rinde of the body or trunke is harde without, white, rough, and uneven, full of chinkes or crevices: under which is founde another fine barke, plaine, smooth, and thinne as paper, which heeretofore was used insteede of paper to write upon, before the making of paper was knowne; in Russia & those colde regions, it serveth insteede of Tiles and Slate to cover their houses withall:

in times past the magistrates rods were made heerof: and in our time also the scholmasters and parents do terrifie their children with rods made of Birch.

The Common Oke  Quercus vulgaris.

from The Herball, or, Generall historie of plantes John Gerard 1597

Gerard records oak apples being used as a means of predicting events in the coming year:

The Oke Apples being broken in sunder about the time of their withering, do foreshewe the sequell of the yeere, as the expert Kentish husbandmen have observed by the living things founde in them: as if they finde an Ant, they foretell plentie of graine to insue; if a white worm like a Gentill or a Maggot, then they prognosticate murren of beasts and cattle; if a Spider, then (saie they) we shall have a pestilence or some such like sicknes to followe amongst men: these things the learned also have observed and noted; for Mathiolus writing upon Dioscorides saith, that before they have an hole thorough them, they conteine in them either a flie, a spider, or a worme; if a flie, then warre ensueth, if a creeping worme, then scarcitie of victuals; if a running spider then followeth great sicknes or mortalitie.

The Beech Fagus.

from The Herball, or, Generall historie of plantes John Gerard 1597

The Beech is an high tree, with boughes spreading oftentimes in maner of a circle, and with a thick body, having many armes: the barke is smooth; the timber is white, harde, and very profitable: the leaves be smooth, thinne, broad .. the catkins, or blowings be also lesser and shorter then those of the Birch tree, and yellow: the fruite or Maste is contained in a huske or cup that is prickly, and rough bristled; .. the rootes be fewe, and grow not deepe, and little lower then under the turfe.  

The Beech flowereth in April and May, the the fruit is ripe in September, at what time the Deere do eate the same very greedily, as greatly delighting therein, which hath caused forresters and huntsmen to call it Buckmast.

The Alder Tree  Alnus

from The Herball, or, Generall historie of plantes John Gerard 1597

The Alder tree or Aller, is a great high tree having many brittle branches, and the barke is of a browne colour, the wood or timber is not hard, and yet it will last and endure very long under the water, yea longer than any other timber whatsoever: wherefore in the fennie and soft marrish grounds, they do use to make piles and posts thereof, for the strengthening of the wals and such like.  This timber doth also serve very well to make troughes to convey water in steade of pipes of Lead.

The Ash Tree  Fraxinus

from The Herball, or, Generall historie of plantes John Gerard 1597

The Ash also is an high and tal tree; it riseth up with a straight body, and then of no smal thicknesse, commonly of a middle size, and is covered with a smoothe barke: the woode is white, smooth, hard, and somewhat rough grained:

The fruite .. is termed in English Ashkeies, and of some Kitekeies.  The seede or Kitekeies of the Ash tree provoke urine, increase naturall seede, and stirreth up bodily lust, especially being powdred with nutmegs and drunke.

The common Willow  Salix

from The Herball, or, Generall historie of plantes John Gerard 1597

The common Willow is an high tree, with a body of a meane thicknes, and riseth up as high as other trees do if it not be topped in the beginning , soon after it is planted; the bark thereof is smooth, tough, and flexible; the wood is white, tough and hard to be broken: the leaves are long, lesser, and narrower, than those of the Peach tree, somewhat greene on the upper side and slipperie, and on the neather side softer and whiter;

The greene boughs with the leaves may very well be brought into chambers, and set about the beds of those that be sicke of agues; for they do mightily coole the heate of the aire, which thing is a woonderful refreshing to the sicke patients.

The Elme tree and the Elme with broad leaves Ulmus, Ulmus latifolia.

The first kinde of Elme is a great high tree, having many branches spreading themselves largely abroad: the timber of it is hard, and not easie to be cloven or cut in sunder.  The leaves are somewhat wrinkled and snipt about the edges .. This tree is very common in our countrie of England: the leaves of this Elme are pleasant fodder for divers fowerfooted beasts, and especially for kine and oxen.

The second kinde of Elme groweth likewise unto a great stature, with very hard and tough timber, whereof are made arrowes, wheeles, mill pullies and such other engins for the carriage of great waights and burthens.

The common Elder tree  Sambucus.

from The Herball, or, Generall historie of plantes John Gerard 1597

The common Elder groweth up now and then to the bignes of a meane tree, casting his boughs all about, and oftentimes remaineth a shrub;  .. little berries, greene at the first, afterwards blacke, whereout is pressed a purple juice, which being boyled with Allom and such like things doth serve very well for the Painters use,

The Hawthorne tree Oxyacanthus.

from The Herball, or, Generall historie of plantes John Gerard 1597

The Hawthorne groweth in woods, & in hedges neer unto high waies almost everie where.  .. many do call the tree it selfe the May bush, as a chiefe token of the comming in of May:  .. the fruite is ripe in the beginning of September, and is a food for birdes in winter.

Herball, or, Generall Historie of Plantes  via the Biodiversity Heritage Library  (Trees begin at around page 1146)

Wikipedia John Gerard

The Woodland Trust tree identification quiz