Holly at the Central Park Shakespeare Garden. (Photo: James Adamson on Flickr)
Edmond Bronk Southwick had been the official entomologist of Central Park for almost 30 years in 1913. That was the year he was given an unusually literary task: to create America’s first Shakespeare garden.
The big idea, courtesy a former park commissioner, was to assemble plants that the Bard had mentioned in his works and arrange them in a two-acre plot. This would give young readers a window into the horticultural predilections of the world’s favorite playwright, from the cockles he mentioned in Coriolanus to the cuckoo-flowers of King Lear. (For a more detailed run-down of the plants in Shakespeare’s plays, delve into the Reverend Henry Ellacombe’s 1884 book The Plant-Lore & Garden-Craft Of Shakespeare.)
Southwick, an avid reader of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, took to the job with gusto. When the garden opened to the public, it was an instant hit. More than that, its highbrow nature encouraged even the most rambunctious ruffians to be on their best behavior. A New York Times article published on April 2, 1916 detailed this:
“The fence around the garden is low and can be stepped over in any part, but Dr. Southwick says that no one has ever intruded, and that there has never been any demonstration there of the spirit of destruction which so often reveals itself in the New York urchin.”
So inspiring was the Shakespeare garden that New York Police Captain Edward J. Bourke penned a poem in its honor in 1916. Printed in the Times on October 15, 1916, it tells of an “evanescent, dew-flushed scene” where “fairies lent their magic toil.”
The gruff cop with the heart of a poet was far from the only one stirred by the beauty of the garden. Central Park’s Shakespeare Garden became the model for many more made in the playwright’s honor. The tercentenary—300-year anniversary—of Shakespeare’s death in 1916 provided the perfect opportunity for gardening groups across the US and beyond to establish their own pseudo-Elizabethan plots.
In 1916, Vassar College’s Shakespeare garden in upstate New York, Northwestern University’s Shakespeare garden in Evanston, Illinois, and the Shakespeare garden of Cleveland, Ohio all popped up. After the excitement of the tercentenary had abated, Shakespeare gardens experienced another boom during the mid- to late 1920s. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden established its bard garden in 1925, while San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park built one in 1928. An enterprising group of Shakespeare-loving gardeners in Plainfield, New Jersey created their own version in 1927.
All of these gardens, and many others devoted to Shakespearean flowers, herbs, shrubs, and trees, still exist today. Though they differ in layout and composition, they are united by some common features: a bust of Shakespeare often makes an appearance, as does a sundial, the ubiquitous time-teller of the Elizabethan era. But the most important components of a Shakespeare garden are the plaques or laminated signs quoting the plays from which the plant references hail. To walk among the flowers reading rhyming couplets from the trees is an enchanting experience for any Shakespeare aficionado.
The Shakespeare Garden at Central Park in New York. (Photo: Ingfbruno on Wikipedia)
The Shakespeare Garden at Brooklyn Botanic Garden. (Photo: Courtesy of Brooklyn Botanic Garden)
The Shakespeare Garden in Evanston, Illinois. (Photo: Thshriver on Wikipedia)
An overgrown Shakespeare Garden at Lightwoods Park in Birmingham, England. (Photo: Elliott Brown on Flickr)
A tree at the Stanley Park Shakespeare Garden in Vancouver, Canada. (Photo: Wendy Cutler on Flickr)
The Shakespeare Garden at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. (Photo: Poughkeepsieman on Flickr)