Decorative Plants from a Medieval Garden

Spring is here, and it’s time to start thinking about what to plant. I’m fascinated by everything from the Middle Ages, and recently got to visit the recreation of a medieval monks’ garden at The Cloisters, part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This post focuses on some of my favorite plants that today would be grown primarily for decoration. If you’re looking to learn more about plants and herbs used in medieval times, the Cloisters has a lot of great information and photographs on its blog, The Medieval Garden Enclosed.

Scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis)

Scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis)

Scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis)

Scarlet pimpernel is an annual flower that spreads over the ground, making it one of the prettiest groundcovers you can grow if you live in the right climate. Fans of the novel by the same name by the Baroness Emmuska Orczy will remember that the elusive Scarlet Pimpernel left one of the flowers when he rescued a member of the aristocracy from the horrors of the French Revolution. The flower petals will curl in every night and before thunderstorms—any time the sky gets dark—earning it the nickname “poor man’s weather glass.”

Seedville sells a pack of 100 Scarlet pimpernel seeds. The flowers will bloom in mid-summer to early fall, making it a great choice to add some color to your garden late in the season. Plant in sun or partial shade, in well-drained soil.

USDA Hardiness Zones: 6-10

Columbine (Aquilegia)

Columbine (Aquilegia)

Columbine (Aquilegia)

There are so many beautiful varieties of the perennial Columbine. A few highlights are the blue-and-white Rocky Mountain Columbine, the state flower of Colorado; Wild Columbine, a bright red-and-gold favorite of hummingbirds; and the exotic-looking Western Columbine. All are available from Everwilde Farms. Red Star Columbine is a surreal flower, and Black Barlow Columbine is a striking deep purple.

Columbine is a mountainous and woodland flower, so plant it in partial shade after starting from seeds. Do some research before starting seeds, however, as Columbine needs cold weather or refrigeration to germinate. They won’t bloom the first year, but after that will self-propagate. The wait will be worth it, as the Columbine is a very hardy perennial.

Zones: 3-9

Bistort (Persicaria bistorta)

Bistort (Persicaria bistorta)

Bistort (Persicaria bistorta)

Bistort can be hard to find, but the flowers are so pretty that it’s worth seeking out and giving it a try. It has a long history as an Easter plant, since it’s a main ingredient in a traditional English Easter dish called Dock Pudding (or Easter-Ledge Pudding). The leaves and young shoots are edible and can be cooked and eaten like vegetables. Bistort root can be dried and powdered, then mixed with boiling water for medicinal uses (mostly bowel issues).

It’s best to start seeds indoors, a month before the last frost, then transition to full sun or partial shade. Bistort can do well in dry soils, and will produce early summer and fall blooms. Another great reason to try Bistort: It’s a perennial, and the foliage will stay evergreen even in cold winters.

Zones: 4-9

Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium)

Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium)

Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium)

Feverfew is a great choice for gardeners since it’s easy to grow. You can simply toss seeds in your garden or yard, and chances are they’ll germinate and bloom if they have close to full sun. If you’re looking to do some gardening late in the year, Feverfew is a great choice to start in late summer or early fall. It’s used to maintain normal blood vessel tones, for headaches, menstrual cramps, and inflammation diseases like arthritis. The flowers can also be dried and used in potpourri.

Organic heirloom Feverfew seeds are available from Seeds of Change. These are best started indoors about a month before the last frost, then moved to a location with sun and moderate water. Feverfew will mature in 90 days, so by late summer the flowers can be cut for arrangements.

Zones: 5-9

Rue (Ruta)

Rue (Ruta)

Rue (Ruta)

Rue is an herb that can grow to be a very large and bushy plant. If you’re growing an old-fashioned herb garden, it’s one of the must-haves, although it’s rarely used medicinally these days. It has bright yellow flowers, which will attract butterflies, while its strong smell will help keep animals out of your garden.

Plant rue in full sun, with moderate water, and look for blooms in mid-summer. Just be sure to wear your gloves when handling the plants: Like Molesley in Downton Abbey, it can cause severe rashes. Look for “common rue” or “yellow rue” on the label, such as these seeds from Seedville.

Zones: 3-11

Angelica (Angelica archangelica)

Angelica (Angelica archangelica)

Angelica (Angelica archangelica)

Angelica is a perennial herb with a religious history. One legend says that an angel revealed it to a monk as a cure for the plague, and it’s said to always be in bloom on May 8, the feast day of the archangel St. Michael. It has several noted healing properties (it’s often dried and used as a tea): for digestive problems, inflammation, and to help colds and fevers. It also can be used as an herb in salads, soups, or garnishes, and the stem can be steamed and eaten.

Plant Angelica in partial shade, and leave some room for it to grow, since it can reach up to six feet tall. If you want to keep one plant alive year-round, trim the heads of the plants. Otherwise, seeds will fall off, starting new plants, and the original will die. You can purchase organic Angelica from David’s Garden Seeds.

Zones: 5-11

Common bugle (Ajuga reptans)

Common bugle (Ajuga reptans)

Common bugle (Ajuga reptans)

Bugleweed is a perennial groundcover or border plant that has the added benefit of attracting both butterflies and bees. It’s fast-growing (though can be invasive) and can be used for erosion control. The late spring will bring violet blooms. Foliage will remain evergreen in milder winter climates, and there are varieties with many different, even tricolor, leaves.

Bugle can be grown in poor soils, and with little sun, so it’s a good choice for wooded areas. It can also be used to choke out weeds. Seeds are available from Outside Pride. Burgundy Glow Bugle has gorgeous tricolor foliage.

Zones: 3-10

Dropwort (Filipendula vulgaris)

Dropwort (Filipendula vulgaris)

Dropwort (Filipendula vulgaris)

Dropwort used to be a “famine food,” since although the young leaves can be added to salads or stews, they’re awfully bitter. It will have ivory-white blooms in early summer.

This hardy perennial grows in sun to partial shade. It can grow in clay, sandy, or moist (even boggy) soil, and will tolerate drought. Available from Hirt’s Gardens.

Zones: 3-9

Italian arum (Arum italicum)

Italian arum (Arum italicum)

Italian arum (Arum italicum)

Arum of Italy grows wild in not only Italy, but also southern France and Spain. It has a variety of looks throughout the year: ranging from lily-like flowers in late spring, long spikes of red berries in the summer, and green patterned leaves throughout the winter.

Grow Italian arum in partial shade. Seeds can be purchased from Hirt’s Gardens.

Zones: 4-9