How Does Your Garden Grow?

The Storied Garden, Planting the Seeds of Myth:

Entering the Garden, by Susanne Iles

“Balm brings you sympathy and Marjoram joy

Sage is long life...Sweet Woodruff augurs well for health -

A blessing richer far than wealth.

While Lavender means deep devotion,

Herb of sweet omen, Rosemary conveys

Affection and remembrance all your days.

May Heaven and Earth and Man combine

To keep these blessings ever thine.”
— Rachel Page Elliot
April Gorse, Photo by Susanne Iles (Beara Peninsula, County Cork, Ireland)

April Gorse, Photo by Susanne Iles (Beara Peninsula, County Cork, Ireland)

I should have known something would happen that morning. Guests would soon arrive. I had slept in, and storm clouds were conspiring to prove the weather forecaster wrong once again.

Yanking on my jeans in a panic, I realized I hadn't tidied the front garden. I had let my normally manicured yard go au naturel. At least that's what I told the neighbours. The fact of the matter is I am the world's greatest procrastinator. The Persian poet Rumi once said, "This outward spring and garden are a reflection of the inward garden." If that were true, then I was in a heap of trouble.

Long grasses poked their spiky tresses up through the paths. Bright yellow dandelions had found nesting places amid the fragrant thyme and heather. And the blackberry bushes - oh, the blackberry bushes! How often I had tried to confine the thumb thick hydras and their bramble-spined bodies to the perimeter of a trellis. They mocked me that morning, their long, graceless limbs stretching over the walkway to my front door.

Cursing their boldness, I hacked at the wayward branches with my rose clippers. Muttering under my breath, I removed limb after limb, like a questing Jason battling the multi-headed monster. With one eye on the clock and one eye toward my foe, I cut my way through the bushes. This combative attitude was quite unlike me. I usually tend my garden with an observant gentleness. But not that day. I forgot my manners and paid dearly for it.

After a few final grumbles and snips, I was satisfied with the orderly way the blackberry bushes now lined the path to my front door, the sawdust trail smooth and bereft of thorned branches. Scrupulously gathering the spiky cuttings in my arms, avoiding bare skin where possible, I triumphantly dragged the whole mess down toward the fire pit. Then it happened. I tripped. A sole blackberry trailer had been left behind, snaking through the fairy rosebushes and lurking behind the daylilies. Its single, grasping tendril protruded just enough to wrap itself around my bare ankle and throw me, face first into (and onto), my armload of thorns.

BLACKBERRIES

Albert Einstein once commented, "I am a little piece of Nature." In this case Nature had taken many little pieces of me. Every bit of me, from my nose to my toes, had become a scourged blood offering. It was at that precise, painful moment my mind flashed back to a story I had once heard about blackberry bushes and the taboos surrounding them.

The ancient Celts considered the blackberry bush sacred. The fruit represented the three aspects of the Goddess (maiden, mother, crone) and the Christian Trinity. The succulent berries changed colour as they matured, with unripe green signifying birth, the ripening red berry expressing life, and the harvest ripe blackberry depicting the nature of death. The small seeds inside the ripe berry promised the hope of spring and rebirth. Harming such a plant was considered taboo. In fact, to this day, an elderly Irish lady I know won't eat blackberries. Not only were the bushes considered inviolable, she was also taught they belonged to the "faery folk" and were not to be trifled with. Respect is obviously key when considering the thorny blackberry.

Blackberries, original painting by Susanne Iles

Blackberries, original painting by Susanne Iles

THE HUMBLE ONION

Plants and flowers, trees and shrubs, have been our companions for eons. We grow gardens in our backyards, on apartment balconies, rooftops, and windowsills. We use plants not only to feed ourselves  but also to nourish our senses and our connection to the earth. Deep within the roots of every plant dwell the seeds of myth, waiting to be reclaimed and remembered. Most of us know how to water and feed plants, but how many of us know the stories which accompany them?

Take the humble onion. Its common presence in the kitchen and backyard garden belies its royal, if somewhat mystical, heritage. Onions are the plants most often depicted in Egyptian tomb paintings, their multi-layered skins symbolizing the universe and strength. During the Middle Ages, the story of the onion's strength lived on. It's possible my European ancestors used slivers of onion to rid the house of evil spirits, as was the custom. The pungent onion slices would have been gathered and burned at the end of the day.

IRIS, GODDESS OF RAINBOWS

Stories bloom in the most unlikely places. A marshy spot near a spring in my yard is inhospitable to animal and man during the winter months. However, the mud becomes transformed in spring with the emergence of a multitude of irises, their elegant, sword-like foliage accented by gently nodding flowers of purple, yellow and blue. According to Greek mythology, the iris was the flower of the Goddess of Rainbows. Iris was, among other things, an emissary between gods and mortals. Angel-like in appearance, the winged messenger was loved by for her kind and tender nature. Humankind also celebrated the lovely and fragrant character of the iris.

The image of the iris grew in popularity well into the early 1500's. In France, designs depicting the purple blooms were used on buildings, royal seals, banners, dresses, vests, curtains, and tapestries. Since bathing was considered unseemly, personal odours were masked with the fragrant root of iris, or orris,  root. Towering wigs, the hairstyles of the day, were liberally dusted with the white powder, so much so the peasants complained of not having enough orris root with which to cook.

THE ROSE

Some say the rose is the oldest garden plant in cultivation. According to Greek legend, as Adonis lay dying when a boar's tusk had pierced his thigh, his lover, Aphrodite, rushed to his side. When she trod on the thorns of the white rose, the blood from her bare feet stained the blossoms red. Another legend holds the rose so cherished Adam and Eve that when they were banished from the Garden of Eden, the plant grew thorns in dismay.

Although roses were depicted in Egyptian tomb paintings long before Cleopatra's time, it was her obsession them that prompted their immense popularity in other nations. It was rumoured she entertained her lover, Marc Antony, in rooms knee-deep with the ambrosial petals. The rose had become the timeless symbol of love and passion as humankind's quest for beauty endures.

POPPIES' POTENT CHARMS

There is evidence poppy cultivation dates back to the Stone Age. Potions to induce sleep, transformation, and ecstatic dreams were probably the source of one of the plant's names, "the flower of forgetfulness". Even the poet Homer was known to succumb to the poppy's potent charms.

In Greek mythology, Hypnos, the god of sleep, created a poppy drink to quell the grief of the corn goddess Demeter whose daughter, Persephone, had been abducted to the underworld. While Demeter mourned, famine covered the land. Hypnos's drink forced Demeter into a state of gentle slumber and healing. She awakened comforted, and the world was made green again. To this day, some farmers sow poppies among the corn plants to ensure a healthy harvest.

It is little wonder then the poppy was used to ease the pain of battle wounds. As long as there has been war, so too have there been stories about the poppy as a symbol of sacrifice and memory. From the raids of Genghis Khan to the heart of Flanders Fields, blood-red poppies nod in silent prayer over the graves of many brave souls.

Poppy Fields, original artwork by Susanne Iles

Poppy Fields, original artwork by Susanne Iles

MOUNTAIN ASH

The mountain ash, or rowan tree, is a beautiful addition to any landscaped garden. Its long branches bear white blossoms in the spring and attractive reddish-orange berries in the fall. A favourite of songbirds, the tree was also a favourite of our ascendants. Hundreds of years ago, it was believed it called lightning to itself, acting as a conductor between heaven and earth. People carried ash wands or sticks in hope of divine enlightenment or intervention.

ELDER TREE

Another backyard favourite is the elder, with its creamy white blossoms and purplish berries. The name elder was likely derived from the Anglo-Saxon word ellaern or aeld meaning "fire" or "kindle", because the hollow stems were used to blow on the hearth fire to ignite it. Although musicians carved elder branches into flutes, superstitious carpenters were loathe to use the wood, especially in cradles, because it was said to be the tree used for Christ's cross.

THE LOWLY FERN

Sir James George Frazer, in his book The Golden Bough, speaks of the delights of the lowly fern. In Russia, throwing fern seeds in the air on Midsummer Eve will direct you to a vein of gold or hidden treasure. In Bohemia, it was believed your money would never run out if you hid fern seeds among your holdings.

According to my mother's European family, ferns concealed not treasures, but poisonous snakes. Generations of children on my mother's side were warned to keep away from the "Snake Ferns", which supposedly held such unspeakable creatures no child was brave enough to discover whether the stories were true. My mother laughs at these tales today, knowing they must have been started by a well-meaning elder to keep toddlers away from dangerous, boggy areas. But the last time I visited her west coast home, I noticed all the ferns in her yard had been neatly removed.

PRAYERS AND TOBACCO

Many gardeners today are reclaiming their own stories, myths and rituals regarding the plants they tend. The heart's yearnings to discover itself in form leads people to create their own personal meanings in the ornamental expression of nature, the garden.

My neighbour, a busy man with a well-tended yard, grows everything from vegetables to fruit trees, rose bushes to wildflowers. He also has a plot of tobacco, to some a pernicious weed. For him, however, the large, broad-leafed plant holds a very special place. His heritage is Metis and his spiritual life is intrinsically bound with the legends and nature surrounding him. The tobacco in his garden is gently tended, cut and cured. The dried leaves are then lovingly burned in an open fire, creating smoke which carries his prayers to heaven.

Prayers (tobacco), original artwork by Susanne Iles

Prayers (tobacco), original artwork by Susanne Iles

MYTH MAKING IN THE GARDEN

Children are exceptional mythmakers in the storied garden. Wishes are made on dandelion heads. Puppy-love hopes are counted on daisy petals to the quiet chant of, "He loves me, he loves me not." A little boy I know tells secrets to the miniature fairy roses at the bottom of the mossy hill in my yard. He figures the fairies are listening; it's such a magical place. And why not? Everyone loves a good story.

I remembered these things as I tended my wounds. I should have known something would happen that morning I bullied my blackberry bushes. Something did. I was reminded that the garden is a sacred place grown from the seeds of myth. Greenery and flowers, trees and shrubs shape our experiences in a positive way. It is important to speak kindly, walk softly, prune gently, remember the old stories or create your own, and never, ever, curse a blackberry bush. You never know who's listening!

Sunflower tea, watercolour painting by Susanne Iles

Sunflower tea, watercolour painting by Susanne Iles

INTERESTING PLANT FACTS

- The ancient Celts believed children who died at birth planted daisies to comfort their grieving parents.

- It's believed if you sow catnip seeds the cats will leave it alone. However, if you transplant it cats will go wild for it and destroy your harvest.

- St.John's Wort was thought to contain the power of the sun. It's strength is said to be enhanced if harvested with a bronze knife at midday of the summer solstice.

- In some cultures flowering trees and shrubs are treated as if they are pregnant women.

- The sepals and petals of the Passionflower are said to represent Christ's apostles. Ten in number, the traitor Judas, and Peter the denier, are excluded.

- Planting mint around cabbages and tomatoes is thought to produce tastier vegetables.

- Periwinkle was believed to represent the endless cycle of life and death.

- To grow a bountiful crop of basil, ancient gardeners believed shouting and swearing while sowing the seeds would ensure a healthy harvest.

- Rosehips are more than a hundred times higher in vitamin C than oranges.

- Brushes made of rue, considered an herb of grace, were used to sprinkle holy water in the Roman Catholic Church.

- Thyme was used as the symbol for chivalry in the Middle Ages.

- The word duir in Gaelic means both oak and door. Oak doors offer strength and protection.

- It was once believed oak trees themselves marked the hidden doorways between spiritual realms.

Hibiscus in the Studio, photograph by Susanne Iles

Hibiscus in the Studio, photograph by Susanne Iles