Here are some plants commonly found in Shakespeare's plays and tips on how to grow them:
• Primrose: Its early blooms and rich colors bring cheer to the spring garden, but it will also quickly fade and wither. The "primrose path of dalliance" in "Hamlet" is Ophelia's image of a carefree life of indulgence. Primrose favors part sun and a moist location.
• Violets: Like the primrose, violets are a frequent metaphor for youth and fleeting beauty. Their perfume is ephemeral but haunting, and the flowers are sturdy spring perennials. Violets will spread rapidly in moist, light shade.
• Daffodils: In "A Winter's Tale," daffodils "come before the swallow dares, and take/The winds of March with beauty." They're a welcome and reasonably deer-resistant addition to any garden. Plant in clusters or intersperse early blooming varieties such as 'February Gold' in a green lawn for a wildflower meadow effect.
• Pansy: Shakespeare's pansy is not the large hybrid we know today, but the smaller, frequently self-seeding Johnny jump-up (Viola tricolor). Also called hearts-ease or love-in-idleness, this may have been the flower whose potion enchanted Titania in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Pansies prefer cool, moist weather and will fade with summer's heat. Tiny, resilient Johnny jump-ups are true to their name and will return year after year, frequently forming colonies.
• Iris: Also known as flower de luce or fleur de lis, the iris has long been a symbol of French royalty. When courting the French princess Katherine, Henry V appropriately addresses his future bride as "my fair flower de luce." Tall iris is a sturdy backbone plant in the perennial garden. Set iris rhizomes just below the soil surface and divide them every few years.
• Carnation/dianthus: Dianthus, or gillyflower, is disdained by Perdita in "A Winter's Tale" for its tendency to self-hybridize, making the color difficult to predict. Its pungent spicy smell (its name is thought to derive from the Latin word for cloves) made it a favorite for Elizabethan nosegays. In any of its many variants, this plant is a colorful addition to a sunny, well-drained garden.
• Marigold: Shakespeare's marigold was most likely not our modern Tagetes genus but pot marigold (Calendula officinalis). A feature beloved by the poet was this flower's ability to close at night and reopen in the morning. Pot marigold is a vigorous sun lover. Although perennial in warmer climates, it is best treated as an annual in our region. It readily self-seeds.
• Honeysuckle: Due to its habit of entwining itself around any support, honeysuckle is the emblem of affection. It was popular in Shakespeare's time for bowers, trellises and covered paths. Intensely fragrant, even a single honeysuckle on a trellised wall or arbor can perfume an entire garden in early summer.
• Lily: Like the rose, the lily is sacred to the Virgin Mary, and Shakespeare uses it as an emblem of perfection. "To gild refined gold, to paint the Lily/ ... is wasteful and ridiculous excess." ("King John," 4.2.11-16) Shakespeare's lily was most likely the white or Madonna lily (Lilium candidum). Purchase these already in bloom at a spring market, or plant the bulbs in late summer to bloom the following spring.
• Rose: Emilia in "The Two Noble Kinsman" may have been speaking for her author when she declared "Of all flow'rs/ Methinks a rose is best." If you are a fan of the histories, then a white rose of York and a red rose of Lancaster are right for your garden. If you prefer the comedies, opt for a less formal sweet briar (eglantine in Shakespeare's day) or a climbing musk rose.
• Crabapple: If your Shakespeare garden needs a tree, make it a crabapple. Crabapples were an essential feature of Elizabethan punches, where the roasted fruit was cast sizzling into a heady mix of ale, spices and sugar. Crabapples are a compact tree that will not overwhelm a small space and will provide delicate flowers, followed by colorful fruit that is extremely attractive to birds.
• Herbs: Shakespeare's herbs could be the subject of their own garden. Be sure to include thyme, for Titania's bower, rue for Queen Gertrude, rosemary for remembrance, and lavender for sheer beauty and bracing fragrance. Marjoram was an important salad herb in Shakespeare's day and fennel a popular accompaniment to fish.
Kate DeSimone is a Penn State Master Gardener.