Monthly Archives: June 2017

Of the Marigolds of Peru

Gerard Sunflower 01a

from ‘The Herball, or General Historie of Plantes’ by John Gerard (1597)

To discover the range of plants that were available and grown in late 16th century gardens The Herball, or General Historie of Plantes is an invaluable resource.  The book records and illustrates plants known to European cultivation including trees, shrubs, plants grown for the kitchen and garden, herbs, wildflowers and weeds. At the same time the author John Gerard provides insights into contemporary domestic culture, such as the use of plants for medicine, decorating houses and even feeding caged birds, while his travels around London and beyond reveal the places where wild plants can be found.

To give a flavour of the book, here follows a selection of plants commonly known at that time as marigolds. Gerard makes this observation about sunflowers, then known as the Marigolde of Peru, expressing the wonder at their size that we still share today

The Indian Sunne or the golden flower of Peru, is a plant of such stature and tallnesse, that in one sommer being sowen of a seede in April, it hath risen up to the height of fourteene foote in my garden, where one flower was in waight three pounde and two ounces, and crosse overthwarte the flower by measure sixteene inches broade.

Gerard records three other plants that still bear the common name of marigolds. Calendula or the pot marigold appears illustrated in several double forms as well as a single and Gerard observes that, ‘The Marigolds with double flowers especially, are set and sowen in gardens’.  He also says that the marigold is called Calendula because of its long flowering season; ‘it is to be seene to flower in the Calends of almost everie moenth.’

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Gerard describes the African marigold as having ‘verie faire & beautifull double yellow flowers, greater and more double than the greatest Damaske Rose, of a strong smell, but not unpleasant’.

Gerard African Marigold 01a

Both the African and French marigolds described by Gerard are actually from the genus tagetes which originates mostly from North and South America.  The plants shown in these woodcuts are not dissimilar from the tagetes hybrids available today, mostly sold as summer bedding.  The woodcut showing the great single French marigold reminds me of Tagetes patula with single flowers of burnt orange which can grow up to 1m high. They look spectacular in the late summer borders at Great Dixter.

Gerard French Marigold 01a

Of both African and French marigolds Gerard says ‘They are cherished and sowen in gardens every yeere’. Today marigolds (and sunflowers) of all types look great in the kitchen garden or allotment – there is something about the yellow and orange flowers that blend especially well with brassicas.  As well as attracting pollinators it is thought that tagetes protects crops against pests such as whitefly.

Biodiversity Heritage Library









Oranges and Lemons

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Title page

Nederlantze Hesperides was published in 1676 by Johannes Commelin and describes the cultivation of citrus trees in the Netherlands with illustrations of orange and lemon varieties that were grown in the late seventeenth century.  Also illustrated are the magnificent orangeries the trees were kept in over winter, including one at the botanical garden in Leiden, and others belonging to private individuals including the author.

These substantial buildings have rows of south facing windows, and stoves to keep the temperature above freezing in winter.  In the first orangery pictured, at Leiden, a gardener appears to be bringing buckets for watering, while a lady and gentleman admire the trees.  A boy, possibly rather bored with the garden outing, plays with a dog.  Pieter de Wolf’s grand looking orangery is also shown in the summer, with the citrus trees arranged in orderly rows in front of it.

The containers the citrus trees were kept in are shown in detail with handles on either side so that they could be moved by means of poles into their winter quarters in the orangery and then back outside the following spring.

I love the way the illustrator Cornelis Kick has included a section of glossy leaves as well as the fruits and his cross sections reveal fruits with thick rinds, some with thin, some with irregular segments, and some perfectly symmetrical.  The glass container (a wine bottle?) containing the lemon blossom has a simplicity and at the same time locates the image in 17th century Holland.

Johannes or Jan Commelin (1629 – 1692) was a trader in medicinal plants and was invited in 1682 to establish a Hortus Medicus or medicinal garden in Amsterdam.  His father and brother ran a book publishing house.  As well as writing Nederlantze Hesperides, Commelin edited other books about botany.

If you wanted to source citrus trees today, the Citrus Centre in Sussex has 30 years experience of cultivating these plants and a wide choice of varieties including blood oranges, a special favourite of mine.  I’m fascinated by their varigated lemon which looks quite similar to one pictured in Commelin’s book.

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The Citrus Centre

Burncoose Nursery

Wikipedia Jan commelin

Biodiversity Heritage Library