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"Libraries: The medicine chest of the soul."
Library at Thebes, inscription over the door
Following the the Persian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman influences on scented gardens, European scented gardens evolved from simple monastery designs and Italian Renaissance gardens to the scented gardens of today.
Roman Scented Gardens in Great Britain
When the Romans invaded Great Britain, during the rule of the Roman Empire, they brought with them many herbs and plants which are common in English gardens today; these herbs and plants included rosemary, sage, thyme, fennel and parsley. Medieval monasteries were often the center of learning and the study of herbs and plants for medicinal uses became popular.
The “cloister” garden, an enclosed, green space within the monastery, was based on the style of Roman villa gardens and provided a place of relaxation amongst the aromatic plants. Water and an orchard were often features of cloister gardens too. The herb garden was split into the “physics” garden, full of healing herbs and plants, and the “kitchen” garden, where herbs were grown for use in culinary dishes.
Aromatic Flower Gardens in Europe
Flower gardens were introduced to Europe through the influence of Islamic religion, which at the time was prevalent in Spain. Located to the east of churches, the flower garden was highly valued by the church for its aromatic and visually pleasing flowers; the flowers and herbs were used to decorate the church, much like today.
The “perfect” flower gardens resembled those of ancient Persia, with water features and a mixture of fragrant flowers and herbs. The rose, however, long revered by the Romans in their gardens and celebrations, was considered to be the most prized flower by the church, as it was said to represent the Virgin Mary and the blood of Christ.
At the end of the Middle Ages, pleasure gardens were common amongst the rich and noble and were designed to stimulate sensual pleasures rather than religious contemplation. Many a lover met discreetly amongst the scented flowers for romantic interludes. Aromatic flowers found in these gardens included roses, chamomile, violets, pansies, wallflowers and carnations; flowering fruit trees and aromatic herbs were often present too.
Italian and French Influence on English Scented Gardens
In the late 13th century, Italy was the first to instigate the influence of the renaissance period which saw grander and more elaborate designs of gardens. Intricate fountains and complex terraces were introduced amongst the fragrant blooms, hedges and walk ways, providing covert places to meet. The Italian influence extended to England where “formal” gardens, symmetrical man-made shapes rather than those of nature, became popular.
France also dictated English styles and many gardens across Europe began to share similarities. As time passed, exotic plants were brought to Europe through discovery expeditions to new lands; scented flowers such as narcissus and tuberose were introduced to gardens, bringing the influence of the “new world” to Europe.
The Popularity of Scented Gardens
By the 18th century, scented gardens almost disappeared from sight, as aromatic flowers gave way to grander designs. The onset of the Industrial Revolution in Britain saw people leaving the country for work in the cities, and the medicinal and aromatic values of plants were forgotten for a period of time. In the 20th century, the value of aromatic gardens was once again “re-discovered” and today herbs and scented flowers are found in many gardens throughout the world.
- Lawless, Julia 2001 The Aromatherapy Garden London, UK: Kyle Cathie Ltd
- Squire, David 2002 The Healing Garden London, UK: Vega
This article was written by Sharon Falsetto and appeared in its original format on Suite101 as Modern History of Scented Gardens
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