By Pete Crawford
400 years ago, Shakespeare died, leaving a legacy of plays and sonnets. He often invoked the natural world and mentioned many plants in his work. Perhaps the best known description is in Act II of “A Midsummer Night's Dream”.Oberon, King of the Fairies, is talking to his messenger Puck about where Queen Titania is sleeping:
“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;”
Musk roses is another name for the field rose, eglantine is sweet briar and woodbine is an old name for honeysuckle.
Act 4 of Hamlet sees poor Ophelia drown:
“There is a willow grows aslant a brook
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream.
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do “dead men’s fingers” call them.”
Crowflowers are thought to be buttercups, or possibly marsh-marigolds.Long purples are early purple orchids, whose fleshy stems were clearly suggestive of other forms.
Meanwhile King Lear, in his madness, has a crown of weeds:
“As mad as the vexed sea, singing aloud,
Crowned with rank fumiter and furrow-weeds,
With burdocks, hemlock, nettles, cuckoo-flowers,
Darnel, and all the idle weeds that grow
In our sustaining corn.”
He is reduced to wearing common weeds. Fumiter is fumitory, whilst darnel is a type of grass which used to infest arable fields and reduce the value of the harvest. The King would be hard pressed to find any of these in a wheat field these days, as herbicide use has all but eliminated any other plants.
In the poem Venus and Adonis, an unnamed plant springs up on the death of Adonis
“A purple flower sprung up chequer’d with white,
Resembling well his pale cheeks, and the blood
Which in round drops upon their whiteness stood."
But this is clearly the now-rare snakes-head fritillary, once common in hay-meadows.
What is clear is that Shakespeare and his audiences were familiar with many native species that today most people would struggle to identify or even find in the daily life. Four centuries has bought much progress, but at the cost of the natural world and our connection to it.