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The Gardens of Shakespeare's New Place: January

Jane Shaw takes us through this month's account of the Shakespeare's New Place gardens, including historical context, gardening tips, and the plant of the month.

Jane Shaw

Allow us to take you on a filthy, floriferous journey. A tale of twelve acts told at Shakespeare’s New Place from January to December in the year of 2018. We are confident that this will be a vegetative roller-coaster ride where youthful emergence will lead to a seed-case splitting climax, and then to a shuddering fall.

For we gardeners — probably all of us — it is always a cold-handed end, of sorts...

Jane Shaw Snow
A cold-handed end in The Great Garden

I. January 2018

In between the howling winds we have an ear, and an eye, to the ground — a gentle moan, a bulbous vibration, can be heard from beneath. Throughout November and December 2017, amid snow storms and chilly sun-dawns, we planted 9604 bulbs. In the autumn of 2016 we planted 4500 tulips alone. Now, old and new green-fuses are ignited. Tiny sword-like shoots pepper the earth. Winter aconites, snowdrops and cyclamens rise above them, splash colour here and there. New Place’s first vegetative salvo against the dark cave of winter.

NP Snow Melt

Last year New Place delivered a great display of Narcissus ‘Geranium’, a multi-headed daffodil, white with an orange throat. Good enough to eat, perhaps? Folklore suggests otherwise:

A crusader, impressed by the beauty of plants during his religious travels in southern Europe and the Middle East, sent a casement of bulbs to his sweetheart. On his return, the bulbs were presented at a feast organised by the lovers. Unfortunately for the intrepid crusader, his lover lacked culinary skills and mistook the daffodil bulbs for onions. They both died of alkaloid poisoning, specifically lycorine.

Their guests are not mentioned. As this is a blog related to Shakespeare, let us imagine they were also poisoned to death, lingering awhile to splutter shocking secrets to one another before releasing their final breath.

The wild daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus), once a widespread woodland bulb in Shakespeare’s time, is now rare due to habitat loss. Although toxic to some degree the roots were used by physicians in the sixteenth and seventeenth century as a purgative:

"Yellow Daffodils are under the dominion of Mars, and the roots thereof are hot and dry in the third degree. The roots taken in posset drink (a hot drink of milk curdled in wine or ale) cause vomiting and are used with good success at the appearance of approaching agues." –Nicholas Culpeper (1616-54): astrologer, herbalist, physician, and botanist.

Daffodils are mentioned in two of Shakespeare’s plays: The Winter’s Tale and The Two Noble Kinsmen.

Aside from blistering our palms planting thousands of bulbs (see January’s Top-Tip), we have been busy wisteria pruning. It suffered quite a battering during the renovation works at New Place and the recent storms (Dylan and Eleanor), yet still it clings to the wall of Nash’s House. Every time I pass by its twisted branches, it reminds me of Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens's novel Great Expectations — there she sits, stubbornly clinging to her place of anguish — Satis House. Our wisteria would not look amiss on its walls. It has suffered, it has a marvellously warped character, and it cannot move.

Meanwhile, back in the office, plant orders are close to being confirmed for the top two Long Border beds. Over the next five years we aim to re-design and plant the remaining 10 beds hugging the yew hedge bordering Chapel Lane. That covers approximately 300ft. There is a lot to accomplish.

But, as they say in Spain (and occasionally in the taverns of Stratford-upon-Avon): mañana mañana! There is a time to work and there is a time, a most important time, to drink the fruits of your labour–in our case, New Place Mulberry Gin Liqueur (available in our gift shop), infused with the berries from our two illustrious Black Mulberry trees (the oldest reputed to have been grown from a cutting taken from a mulberry tree originally planted in the garden by Shakespeare). This tree was hacked down by the Reverend Francis Gastrell over 250 years ago, fed up with groupies of the Bard clamouring to see it. The second tree was planted in 1969 by Shakespearian actress, Dame Peggy Ashcroft.

January’s Top-Tip(s)

For those of you with delicate palms, place a handkerchief or any soft padding in your gloves before wielding a trowel to plant thousands of bulbs in a snowstorm. It will prevent chafing of the skin.

Thank you to the visitor who mentioned that her daughter lives in Norway and spends most of her time outdoors with her young family despite temperatures knocking at -17C. As a gardener who suffers from cold feet, I asked how they managed to keep warm. She replied by doubling-up on woollen socks. Our Head of Gardens, Glyn Jones, is fond of Naturally Selina Scott’s range of mohair socks, which are fashioned from the ‘super thick fleece’ of the Angora Goat. According to Selina: they wick away moisture and keep odour at bay (some may speculate that her passion for natural fibres was born in the 1980s when she spent most mornings sitting next to Frank Bough on a red leather couch presenting the BBC’s Breakfast Time programme…) Or change cheap, non-wicking socks at regular intervals throughout the day.

Plant of the Month

Cyclamen coum ‘Alba’ (Wild Bank): at dawn their twisted white-flowers, splashed maroon at the base, illuminate the wild bank. They glow through the inky-dark, through the gloom, to the onset of daylight — tipsy disco-divas, though still standing tall with hardly a petal out of place.

It is hard not to pass by without revealing a gentle smile.

John Gerard’s Herbal, Historie of Plants, published in 1597, noted the "vertues of cyclamen, in particular Cyclamen vernum: Being beaten and made up into trochisches, or little flat cakes, it is reported to be a good amorous medicine to make one in love, if it be inwardly taken".

Cyclamen Coum "Alba"
Wild Bank: Cyclamen coum ‘Alba’

All our best wishes for February from the Gardening Team at Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust. If you have any suggestions for preventing cold feet and hands, please let us know.