The English Cottage Garden
What is a cottage garden?
The traditional cottage garden began in England centuries ago. Today, it's a garden where the flowers and herbs look as if they are placed in random fashion. However, this effect produces a beautiful arrangement of colour, scent and form. The garden is usually planted using traditional materials and plants, with dense coverage of the ground. Many also have lovely meandering paths with benches, flower covered arches, small fountains and other ornaments that are tucked away in secret little corners.
However, in the past the original cottage gardens were planned and used for different reasons.
The original cottage gardens
The original cottage gardens were not used to look or smell nice. They were planned specifically as a resource for the home and family.
Because these gardens began in working people's cottages obviously there was very little space. Every inch available was used to plant herbs, fruit trees, vegetables and medicinal flowers. In addition, since cottage gardens would often have bee hives, then flowers that attracted honey bees would also be used. With the result that flowers, herbs, shrubs and trees grew into one another ensuring that all available space was covered. This was the beginnings of the cottage garden.
What is also interesting is that many of the plants chosen had folklore and long held beliefs applied to them, so giving the cottage garden greater significance.
Choice of flowers
If you were planning a cottage garden what would be your most important consideration
Folklore and uses for herbs and flowers
To write about all the flowers that you can use in a cottage garden would need a full book, so I've Chosen three that are traditional to the very early cottage gardens and still used today.
The Foxglove is a popular garden flower. In centuries past this beautiful plant was known by many different names:
- Folks Glove
- Dead Men's Bells
- Fairy's Gloves
- Fairy Thimbles
- Fairy Caps
- Dog's Finger
- Lion's Mouth
- Ladies Glove
- Finger Flower
The name used today 'Foxglove' is thought to originate from 'Folks Glove' and the 'folks' referred to were of course the fairies who lived all over the countryside - in particular flowery glades and woodlands.
This flower is also one of the the traditional plants of the original cottage gardens. They were used primarily for their medicinal purposes and were believed to help with ailments such as heart problems.
Today of course we know that the species of Foxglove known as 'Digitalis purpurea' and 'Digitalis lantana' are used to manufacture the heart medication 'Digoxin'.
In 1775 a Dr. Withering heard about a 'wisewoman' who used the Foxglove for cases of 'dropsy'. Basically 'dropsy' was the name given to swelling of the lower limbs due to fluid retention in the body. Fluid retention occurs with many conditions in particular congestive heart failure. Although initially Dr Withering had poor results from his experiments, when he took advice from his friend Dr. Ash of Oxford, the tests became more promising.
What I find interesting however, is the fact of the poor, uneducated, village women and men having such indepth knowledge of nature, centuries before medical research took an interest.
This is another flower that was well known to the 'wise woman' of the villages in centuries past. It's scientific name is 'Aquilegia' that comes from the Latin 'Aquila' which means eagle. This was because the spurs of the flowers were thought to resemble the talons of this bird of prey.
The name 'colombine' comes from the Latin word 'Columba' meaning 'dove'. It also had a name dervied from the Saxon language called 'culver' meaning 'pigeon'. Other names that the Colombine had were:
- Grannys' Bonnets
One of its grim uses - although it has not been proven scientifically - was to abort pregnancies. This might be the reason that, symbolically, the flower is thought to signify 'lost love' or 'folly'. It's believed that the seeds were mixed with a specific portion of wine in order to make the potent mixture that would cause a miscarriage.
It was of course used for many other purposes as well. As early as 1580 Colombine was mentioned by a gentleman called Tusser and he described the suitability of this flower for growing in pots and window boxes. In the 17th century, an author named Parkinson, referred to many different species of the flower being grown in gardens.
The Colombine was grown for many reasons - other than a potion to induce miscarriage. The root was believed to be very good for both easing the pain of kidney stones and flushing out the stone. In addition, the leaves, when made into a lotion, were believed to be good for any ailment that caused a sore mouth or throat. Taking a mixture of some Saffron, wine and mixing these with a little of the Colombine seeds was thought to be a cure for any obstruction of the liver and yellow jaundice.
This very old traditional herb is of course not just found in cottage gardens. Lavender has been used for hundreds of years for various purposes. Today it's used for anything from shower gel to insect repellant. In fact to list all the ways that Lavender can be used would require a book - and many good ones can be found on the market. Lavender is also well known - as it was in the past - as a relaxant and promoting a good night's sleep.
The folklore of lavender is also filled with intrigue and mystery. It has strong associations with the old 'healing arts' and in places such as Tuscany it was used for protection against the evil eye. In many countries lavender was burned on certain saints' days as this was believed to ward off evil spirits and demons.
Ladies of the night also used Lavender as a protection against violence or robbery from clients. Interestingly, they also wore lavender perfume to attract customers in the first place.
Young ladies in centuries past would sip potion made up from lavender that would induce a dream, giving her details of the man she would marry. The young men also used lavender - tucked under their pillow - as this would give them courage to ask for their lady's hand in marriage.
Lavender was also believed by many to give some protection against the plague - scientifically of course this can't be verified. Although it's interesting that one of the alternative names for Lavender - ''Four Thieves Vinegar' is believed to have come from a group of thieves who robbed the houses of plague victims, but they themselves never caught the disease.They maintained that they were protected by a potion that contained lavender and other ingredients and agreed to divulge the recipe in return for their freedom.
There are several alternatives to this story and whether any have a basis in fact is unclear. What is fascinating from our modern research is that there are a number of companies working on a similar product to the 'Four Thieves Vinegar' as it could have strong anti-bacterial properties.
It would seem that our ancestors not only loved flowers as much as we do today, but somehow they also gained a deeper knowledge of their various uses. When you next see a cottage garden or pass any of the flowers mentioned, as well as admiring their colour and fragance, take time to remember their history and the folklore surrounding them.