It was April and the Hortus Conclusus team were faced with doing something slightly unusual – an invited lecture based on their research to a group of Bio-Science students – this was truly an interdisciplinary case of “When the Old meets the New”.
Using numerous images to bring the hidden Hortus Conclusus to life the team explained how their research was covering thousands of years as we outlined the range of sources we were using to understand the origins of gardens and their continued importance today. As we chased gardens through millennia the lecture touched on the evocative description of the imaginary garden in the creation story of Gilgamesh, one that reaches back into the mists of time, to later-medieval manuscript evidence of the traditional medicinal use of plants. The following day the lecture was followed-up with a trip to one of our favourite places the National Botanical Garden of Wales. The last time we paid a visit to the site it was wet and overcast (when it wasn’t raining) with most of the plants hibernating for the winter months but this time the sun shone and that indefinable sense of springtime and growth was in the air.
While being taken on a guided walk by one of the staff it was pointed out that cowslips growing in another part of the garden had, this year, begun to colonise the grassy verges of the main walkway leading into the gardens from the main entrance.
Many of the primrose family are reputed to have medicinal value and Cowslip (Primula veris LINN) is among them: from treating the complexion to being made into a soothing and slightly narcotic drink for the nerves its reputation is widespread. It appears in Anglo-Norman in one thirteenth-century manuscript (MS London, British Library, Royal 12 C XIX) where it claims that the remedy is one that was used and created by ‘Count Richard’ (Ref: Tony Hunt: Popular Medicine in 13th-century England , p. 68). As this remedy is for a boil or abscess that occurs in a very awkward place on the body it’s tempting to think that someone was having fun in attributing the origins of this remedy to the poor unfortunate, as yet untraced, Count Richard! Cowslips are also referred to by Shakespeare. In the voice of the Fairy, he had something to say about enchanting cowslips in a Midsummer’s Nights Dream:
The cowslips tall her pensioners be/In their gold coats spots you see
Those be rubies, fairy favours/In those freckles live their savours:
I must go seek some dewdrops here/And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear.
Farewell, thou lob of spirits; I’ll be gone: Our queen and all our elves come here anon…
We would like to thank the Bio-Science students’ lecturer Aditee Mitra for inviting us to share our work with them and also for allowing us to share their trip to the NGW and have an insight into the work of the third-year biological science students.