Hello, my name is Anne-Karoline Distel and I want to continue talking about Tudor gardens and plants. Today, I want to tell you a bit about trees.
Let’s start with one that everyone is familiar with – the apple tree. Apples were of course grown in orchards before, during and after the Tudor period. Often, we still have the field name Orchard on farms in the country. The apple plays a role in mythological and religious Irish stories throughout the centuries. Often a land of promise is travelled to and described as being full of apple trees. The navigator Saint Brendan was one of the beneficiaries of one such travel. Some saints had the ability to turn barren apple trees into fertile ones. A useful gift to have indeed.
Kilkenny merchant John Rothe grew several varieties in his garden on Parliament Street. Today, you’ll find Blood of the Boyne, Kerry Pippin, Irish Peach and Lady Finger to name but a few.
I have quoted John Gerard before and I will do so again. He was a botanist in London who grew local and exotic plants in his garden and published a Herbal in 1597, just three years after the first Rothe House was built. It is however not his original work, but mainly a translation of an earlier Dutch plant book. I will quote from the 1633 enlarged and amended edition: “The fruit of Apples do differ in greatness, form, colour, and taste; some covered with a red skin, others yellow or green, varying infinitely according to the soil and climate, some very great, some little, and many of a middle sort. Some are sweet of taste, or something sour, most be of a middle taste between sweet and sour, the which to distinguish I think it impossible.” John Gerard is very systematic in his Herbal, describing the plant in its appearance first, then goes on to name the countries or location where it grows, sometimes mentioning that he grows it in his garden and sometimes mentioning another gentleman growing it. He gives the time of the blossom and harvest, before he describes the medical virtues. For the apple tree, he says: “Roasted apples are always better than the raw, the harm whereof is both mended by the fire, and may also be corrected by adding unto them seeds or spices.” Still to this day, apple is often combined with cinnamon or cloves which would have been considered of a hot humor according to Galen’s theory of the four humors and bodily fluids.
A lesser known, but very Irish tree is the strawberry tree or arbutus. It is very common still in the Killarney area. It does not actually grow real strawberries, but their fruit resembles alpine strawberries in its shape and colour. The latin name arbutus unedo means “eat me once”, because the taste is not very pleasant, at least not in Ireland. Visitors to Rothe House garden from mediterranean countries have assured me that the taste is indeed very pleasant.
The arbutus fruit is another fruit growing in the mythological land of Promise, as mentioned in the story of The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne.
John Gerard says “The Strawberry Tree groweth in most countries of Greece, in Candy, Italy, and Spaine.[…] They grow only in some few gardens with us.” Of its virtues, he says “The fruit of the Strawberry tree is of a cold temper, hurting the stomack and causing headache, wherefore no wholesome food, though it be eaten in some places by the poorer sort of people.”
The third tree today is the Holm Oak, an evergreen tree of which there are seven in Rothe House Garden. The oak tree of course was of huge importance in Ireland since ancient times. Many placenames and even the whole county of Derry are named after the oak. In Kilkenny, there is of course Kilderry out the Johnswell direction and oak trees are still quite common in that area. Gerard’s chapter about the Holm oak is quite short, because “the fruit is not fit for any man or beast to eat, neither any property known for the use of physicke or surgery”. He does mention one use in passing. “this tree bears of brings forth oft times a certain smooth kind of gall not altogether unprofitable.” Gall was of course used to make ink. So, for people who could write in Tudor times, it was a useful tree.
People in Tudor times grew many more different types of trees, a few of which are only being rediscovered now.
- Niall Mac Coitir: Ireland’s Trees, 2016.
- John Gerard’s Herbal, 1636 and 1666 edition.