The Garden Guide

Book: History of Garden Design and Gardening
Chapter: Chapter 1: Gardening in the Ancient World

Symbolic plants

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35. The use of plants for preternatural, religious, funereal, medical, and scientific purposes, is also of the remotest antiquity. Rachel demanded from her sister the mandrakes (Mandragora officinalis W.), whose roots are thought to resemble the human form, which Reuben had brought from the fields; impressed, as she no doubt was, with the idea of the efficacy of that plant against sterility. God appeared to Moses in a bush. Jacob was embalmed, in all probability, with aromatic herbs. Solomon wrote on botany as a philosopher, and appears to have cultivated a general collection, independently of his plants of ornament. Bundles of flowers covered the tables of the Greeks; and were worn during repasts; because the plants of which they consisted were supposed to possess the virtue of preserving the wearer from the fumes of wine, of refreshing the thinking faculty, preserving the purity of ideas and the gaiety of the spirits. Altars were strewed with flowers both by Jews and Greeks; they were placed on high places, and under trees, as old clothes are still sacrificed on the trunks of the Platanus in Georgia and Persia. In the Greek mythology, most of the gods and goddesses had plants dedicated to them. The oak was devoted to Jupiter; the olive to Minerva; the holly to Saturn; the cypress to Pluto; the lily to Juno; and the myrtle and the rose to Venus. The favourites of the gods were sometimes changed into flowers after their death, as Hyacinthus the favourite of Apollo, &c. (Ovid. Met., ix. 219.) Other mortals were also sometimes changed into plants, trees, and flowers; as Myrrha into the, myrrh, Daphne into the laurel, Narcissus into the narcissus, &c. (Ovid. Mat., x. 298.; i. 452.; iii. 346, &c.) Aristotle's materia medica consisted chiefly of plants. In the northern nations, the Druids and other priests employed plants in their religious ceremonies: they offered up their worship in oak groves, and regarded the vervain and the mistletoe as sacred.