I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
with sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
there sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream , act 2 scene 1
For romantics and gardeners – and especially for romantic gardeners – surely Oberon’s description of Titania’s bower is one of the most evocative images ever conjured up.
Wouldn’t a scented arbour in their garden be a lovely present for a bride and groom, or for a couple celebrating a special wedding anniversary? A midsummer nights dream of their own where they could relax together with a glass of wine in the evening.
So I thought I would conjure up a 21st century version of Shakespeare’s fairy realm for you; a garden design inspired by the play.
Now, people’s gardens vary in size and aspect; and not everyone has as much time to spend tending their own garden that they may like to have.
Rather than use all the flowers and plants mentioned in a Midsummer Nights Dream, of which there are many, I decided to focus on those mentioned for Titania’s bower.
Firstly, I should say that this blog is not long enough to give you a complete overview of my Shakespearean inspired garden design, but I have picked out a corner of it to share with you and inspire you. I do consider the flowers and plants mentioned above; how suitable might they be for our 21st century needs; whether some would grow happily in a shady garden, and whether they meet the frequent request for an easy maintenance garden design.
As the playwright, Shakespeare was of course able to control the weather in his plays: as gardeners, that is a skill we might like for ourselves! The reality of living in Britain, however, means we are at the mercy of our variable weather. Lying down on wet grass is not particularly appealing – and certainly not romantic. A sloping bank of meadow turf, dripping with wild flowers and humming with bees is more likely to be dripping with water.
However, a herb seat, set under an arbour in a quiet corner of your garden is another matter. The herb seat itself is built as a raised bed, so can be custom made to fit the leg length of its occupants as well as the space available. Be generous with the bench width; whilst romantic cuddles are encouraged, you may also like room to sit and chat, which is far friendlier when sitting at a slight angle to each other rather than side by side.
The walls / sides and roof of the arbour should be made of trellis, for the convenience of growing scented climbing plants on, but also to give a feeling of seclusion whilst the plants grow. Your herb seat and scented bower could be rectangular or fitted into the corner giving a triangular shape.
You also need seclusion from the front. Take a couple of chairs at the approximate height of your herb seat to be and put them where the bower is planned. Are you overlooked? If so, from where? A quick and easy way to screen is to place trellis in this sightline. Match the trellis style to your arbour trellis and use it for plant support for more scented climbers to increase your pleasure.
If you know you want to sit in your bower after a rain shower, covering your herb seat with plastic will ensure it stays dry; the arbour itself could have a light tarpaulin thrown over it if you’re concerned about flowers dripping water down your neck. The size of our fairy bower makes this a manageable option.
Plants for our Midsummer Nights Dream garden design inspiration.
When Shakespeare wrote Oberon’s speech, he had him list flowers which, certainly nowadays, are not all in flower at midsummer. This may or may not be an issue for you, but I will suggest some options to prolong the season of flowering and scented plants so late spring through to early autumn you would have a romantic bower to enjoy in your garden.
Wild thyme, Thymus serpyllum, is also known as creeping thyme as it naturally grows low to the ground. The evergreen foliage has an aromatic, pungent scent, which is released when the foliage is sat upon or walked over. This makes it an ideal plant for our herb seat, and for the soil in front where our feet will be.
Where thyme grows wild it indicates a wholesome or clean air. Perhaps this is why Fairies were thought to be particularly fond of thyme, as they were spirits of the air.
In the ‘did Shakespeare write Shakespeare?’ debate in the nineteenth century, Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was one of those proposed as an alternative author of Shakespeare ‘s plays and sonnets. This is the Francis Bacon who, in his suggestions for garden plants, says that paths should be planted with fragrant flowers such as “burnet, wild thyme and watermints, which perfume the air most delightfully being trodden upon and crushed”.
An old tradition says that Thyme was one of the herbs that formed the fragrant bed of the Virgin Mary. The bed of thyme referred to in Titania’s bower may, in this sensed, be a reference back to Elizabeth Tudor, the Virgin Queen.
Of course, you may feel that the flowers of wild thyme, which are much loved by bees as well as fairies, is not conducive to your sitting down in a relaxed frame of mind!
Lawn chamomile, Chamaemelum nobile ‘Treneague’, is a non-flowering plant, the perfect herb, perhaps, for a herb seat. It does need a sunny spot if it is to grow well.
Oxlips, Primula elatior, are a European native species, although they have become rare in the UK when its woodland habitats were taken over for agriculture and conifer plantations. Taller, paler and less fragrant than the cowslip, the oxlip grows from spring into early summer. It may well have been included in Oberon’s speech as the oxlip is associated with sleep.
However, there will be a clash between the shade, damp loving oxlip and the sun loving chamomile and thyme.
If you have a herb bench rather than seat, the oxlip could sit quite happily underneath, but you would need to ensure a damp soil as it would miss out on the rain.
Violets, the Latin name for which is Viola, (quick reference to Twelfth Night here for the Shakespeare buffs) have a variety of species which are to be found in the UK. The description ‘nodding violet’ refers to the characteristic downward bend of the flower’s stalk.
The most common violet found is the dog violet, Viola canina, Viola riviniana, but this has no scent. Viola oderata the sweet violet, is scented, but both of these plants flower in spring rather than midsummer. For the purposes of extending the romantic season, sweet violets would be flowering for Valentine’s Day.
For midsummer scented flowers that are still Shakespearean, lilies are also mentioned in the play. You could have large pots next to your arbour, containing sweet violets under planted with lilies.
Not that Shakespeare would have known this particular flower, but for your interest, ‘nodding violet’ is also a common name for Streptocarpus caulescens. The Cape primrose is popular in Australia as both outdoor and house plant as it flowers all year.
Woodbine is one of the common names for the scented climber honeysuckle. A British native, honeysuckle, Lonicera is found both as a deciduous climber and an evergreen.
Lonicera periclymenum, the European honeysuckle, is an evergreen and was voted the County flower of Warwickshire in 2002 following a poll by the wild plant conservation charity Plantlife.
This woodbine would most definitely have been flowering at midsummer and twining around Titania’s bower.
Some writers consider that Shakespeare wasn’t referring to the honeysuckle but to another, deciduous, climber. Personally, I feel that they’ve forgotten the other native honeysuckle which would have been well known in Elizabethan England. Lonicera xylosteum, commonly known as fly honeysuckle, dwarf honeysuckle or fly woodbine is arguably more of a deciduous shrub than a true climber, but it will still twine around a support or trellis.
However, “over canopied with luscious woodbine” does to me suggest the evergreen honeysuckle, full of scented blooms which would hang down between the slats of a trellis roofed arbour.
The Musk Rose, Rosa moschata, was adored by the Elizabethans, it has a heavy scent unlike other early roses.
Mentioned in medieval herbals, the original habitat of the musk rose is still under question, it probably originated from the western Himalayas.
It has a long garden history and would originally have been selected for domestic cultivation because of its relative thornlessness and excellent scent. Until European merchants discovered the tea and China roses in the Orient, Rosa moschata was really the only repeat flowering rose known to the Western world.
A white flowered rose, with light grey-green foliage and blooming from late spring to late autumn, and virtually thornless, the musk rose is perfect for covering our scented bower with fragrant blossom.
Originally only in single flowered form, Rosa moschata plena, a double flowered form, can be found in Thomas Jefferson’s garden at Monticello. So still heritage, although later than the Elizabethan age.
White flowers show up well at dusk, so both the musk rose and the honeysuckle would be pretty if yours was mainly an evening romance. You may prefer a colour other than white. For the rose, try one of the hybrid musk roses bred by Rev. J. Pemberton in the early twentieth century. These are very fragrant cluster flowered roses also available in soft pinks and yellows.
‘Moonlight’ – “well met by moonlight, fair Titania” – has lemon-creamy white flowers
‘Thisbe’ – one of the characters in the rude mechanicals’ play – has buff yellow flowers
So both would have links to a Midsummer Nights Dream.
Eglantine is also a rose, Rosa rubiginosa, Rosa eglanteria. Also known as Sweetbriar.
In Tudor times, the use of the name brier or briar (spelling seems to be interchangeable) was not restricted to the sweet briar as it is today. It referred to any wild rose, indeed sometimes any scented thorny plant, for example, hawthorn.
During Elizabeth Tudor’s reign, eglantine became one of the plants particularly associated with the Queen.
Eglantine has a single pink flower, and flowers once only around midsummer. However, its sweetness and the reason for its name of sweetbriar is due to the aromatic foliage, which is apple scented. This last much longer than the blooms which have little scent by comparison.
The flowers are followed by scarlet rose hips in autumn. These make excellent bird food as well as being decorative.
Whilst the hips and its native species lineage give the eglantine a wildlife ‘tick’, the thorny arching stems make it less suitable for being in close proximity to seating areas! This is where the ‘briar’ part of its name comes from. I would suggest planting it near your romantic arbour, perhaps on the screening trellis.
Garden Design Inspiration
Our Midsummer Nights Dream garden design inspiration is at an end, for now at least. We have succeeded in creating a romantic bower for two lovers to sit and relax surrounded by scented flowers and aromatic foliage from February to October. And they will be able to spend most of their time enjoying each other’s company, as very little maintenance will be required once the planting has established.
If you’re reading this on 23rd April 2016, it will be 400 years since Shakespeare died and St George’s Day too – “Cry God for Harry, England and St George!” (Henry V – more Shakespeare) Although there is more to come in June, it is the weekend for many birthday celebrations for our own Queen Elizabeth, who had her 90th birthday on 21st April.
Enjoy your weekend, and if you would like a Shakespearean inspired garden brought up to date for the 21st century – do get in touch, as we would love to create one for you.
Some related gardening blogs you may enjoy
Garden Design Portfolio
The Herbal Bed is a play by Peter Whelan about Susannah, Shakespeare’s daughter. Plews designed and created the herb garden stage set for a local theatre, and won a prize for it.