Shakespeare – The Winters Tale – Garden Design Inspiration

flowers -set - the herbal bed

Shakespeare’s play The Winters Tale is the inspiration for a winters tale garden design.

The planting scheme is based around the flowers and shrubs mentioned within the play, but specifically those which will add to your pleasure of a winter garden or winter border.


A winter border can be designed with winter flowers from herbaceous perennials and flowering shrubs. However, a mixed border gives a wider range of interest as it can include colourful stems and foliage.


Winter borders may form part of a larger winter garden, or be a particular area in a garden which caters for all the seasons.

But as with all garden designs and planting designs, that first kernel of inspiration has to come from somewhere.

A winters tale is a story which used to entertain our ancestors during the long dark evenings of this season. In Shakespeare’s play the young prince Mamillius suggests a sad tale as best for winter, and sadness is present in this much loved comedy of the Bard’s.

Melancholy may perhaps seem an unusual starting point for garden design inspiration, but the pathos, tragedy, comedy and romance found in this particular play reflect not only the humanity of people, but their response on quite a basic level to the colours, scent and textures of the cold winter months.

crow in tree, winter, black and white photo

The season of winter is often pictured as monochromatic, white snow, white frost, and the dark branches of leafless trees and shrubs.

Whilst there’s nothing wrong with a monochrome garden design, I perceive winter as being full of colour and texture, sound and scent as any of the other seasons. The emphasis is different; and Shakespeare’s play The Winters Tale provides inspiration for an aromatic Winters Tale Garden of herbs and perennials to be enjoyed in snow, rain and sun.


So which plants have I chosen for my winters tale garden design?

 Act 4, scene 4 gives us a list of flowers and herbs by their seasons as spoken of by Perdita, Princess of Sicillia (although she doesn’t know her heritage at this point in the play).

“there’s Rosemary and rue: these keep
Seeming and savour all winter long”

Of course I have included these two. By ‘seeming’ Perdita means keep their foliage all winter – evergreens in other words. ‘Savour’ refers to the aromatic oils which make these herbs useful for cooking and medicinal use.


Rue –  Ruta graveolens

Rue has blue-green foliage with yellow flowers in summer. it was used as a medicinal herb by the Greeks, the name Ruta is from the Greek ‘reuo’ which means ‘to set free’ as it was found to be effective in ridding people of diseases and infection.

Rue was recommended as an antidote to poison by Hippocrates (don’t try this at home!)

Ruta graveolens, Rue, herb of grace, illustration, Flora von Deutschland, Wikimedia commonsGerard in his Herbal says:

‘If a man be anointed with the juice of rue, the poison of wolf’s bane, mushrooms, or todestooles, the biting of serpents, stinging of scorpions, spiders, bees, hornets and wasps will not hurt him.’


Rue has also been used since ancient times as an insect repellent to ward off fleas and lice. A spray of Rue hung in the doorway and over open windows may help to prevent flying insects coming into the house.


Rosemary – Rosmarinus officinalis

An excellent addition to virtually any garden, Rosemary has culinary medicinal and cosmetic uses. Rosemary wood was also used for making lutes in Elizabethan England; the bush was grown straight against a wall to provide thin boards that would be pieced together to make the lute.

The strongly aromatic dark green foliage enriches winter casseroles of red meats and of lentils. A spray of rosemary infused in hot water creates a warming tisane that can help with cold symptoms.

In the border Rosemary could take pride of place in the centre, as a tall, upright shrub.

rosemary in the snow, evergeen herb

Alternatively, a clipped hedge of rosemary to edge a winter border allows you to keep the remaining plants neatly ensconced – which can be a pleasant contrast to the gentle disarray of many winter gardens with their lax stems carrying half eaten seed heads.


“Hot lavender, mints, savory, marjoram”

Lavender – Lavendula angustifolia

The English lavender, chosen as being more tolerant of lower temperatures then Lavendula stoechas (French lavender). This favourite plant of many offer grey-green foliage to complement the Rue, with narrow leaves that contrast with Rue’s feathery foliage. If not kept well clipped, lavender can look unkempt during the winter. The trick is to cut back part of the stem when you take off the flower stalks to encourage bushiness.

The flowers that you picked and dried in the summer can be used to scent drawers and add flavour to bread and biscuits over the winter. Perdita’s phrase ‘hot lavender’ could be construed as referring to the flowers having a certain spiciness when used in cooking that you may not have expected from their perfume.

Lavender with bee, planting design

Mint – Mentha species

Spearmint, Mentha spicata, is the mint most frequently found in our gardens. It is not evergreen, but it is a perennial so will show signs of life again in the spring. if we are considering a garden for winter interest, I wouldn’t include it.


Savory – Satureja

We are not sure whether Perdita was referring to summer savory, Satureja hortensis or winter savory, Satureja montana. For the purposes of our winter garden, we would need winter savory as this is the evergreen perennial shrub. Summer savory is an annual. Savory is related to both rosemary and thyme and gives off a similar woody, balsamic scent when the foliage is rubbed between the fingers.


marjoram, origanum majoranum, oregano, perennial herb, culinary herb

Marjoram – Oregano

A low growing Marjoram would make a pretty ground cover in a winter herb border.

Origanum vulgare or common marjoram is found growing across much of Europe, green leaved with white flowers in summer, it is a useful plant in the kitchen as well as the garden.

Like rue, marjoram was considered an antidote for certain poisons by the ancient Greeks. More commonly, sweet marjoram was used in Shakespeare’s day as a ‘strewing herb’; ie it was strewn or laid on the wooden and earthen floors to scent the rooms much as we would use air fresheners today. Strewing herbs were also chosen for their insect repellent properties – important when fleas and lice were common houseguests!


Five different types of aromatic herb set out in a geometric pattern would satisfy many people. But are there any flowers to add to the foliage?

Flowers from Shakespeare’s The Winters Tale: –

  • Carnation
  • Daffodils – Narcissus
  • Gilly flower / gillyvors / Dianthus
  • Lilies – Crown imperial
  • Lilies – Flower de luce
  • Lilies of all kinds
  • Marigold – Calendula
  • Oxlips – Primula elatior
  • Primroses – Primula vulgaris
  • Violets – sweet violets – Viola oderata

Of these, we could add sweet violets, which would bloom in February, in time for Valentine’s Day, which is still a winter month. Primroses (small perennials) and daffodils (spring flowering bulbs) would bloom at the end of the winter. The gilly flowers, gillyvors, also known to us as dianthus or clove pinks for their richly scented flowers do have evergreen foliage so could be added; and would flower all summer long.

white dianthus, perennial,scented, edible flowers

However, it is good to sometimes focus on the foliage of plants rather than their flowers. If we are to have this as a purely winter garden, with herbs of different heights, the aromatic soft greens and silver greys of the different shaped leaves give us plenty of interest. The trick is to combine them in such a way that they create a pattern rather than a random mix. The planting scheme should look good sparkling in the frosty sunlight or as snow covered mounds.

Our Winters Tale garden will look good and smell sweet throughout the year.  2016 is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, so I will be considering the flowers and plants in some of the Bard’s other plays; for garden design inspiration and to look more closely at some particular favourites of the Stratford lad.

Oh yes, and Plews Garden Design and Plews Garden Landscaping are jointly creating the show garden at Loseley Park Garden Show in July, with Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary as our theme to create a 21st century courtyard garden.


Related gardening blogs you may enjoy

Herb Garden Ideas

Winter Flowering Shrubs

Winter Evergreens in your Garden and in your Home


Garden Design Portfolio

The Herbal Bed – a stage set in Beckenham for a play about Shakespeare’s daughter


And a trailer from the Royal Shakespeare Company of their 2010 production of The Winters Tale


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