HOMES & GARDENS: Friends, Romans and Britain's Gardeners; on the Latest in Her Occasional Features on Garden History, Anne Jennings Looks at the Roman Influence

The Birmingham Post (England), April 29, 2006 | Go to article overview

HOMES & GARDENS: Friends, Romans and Britain's Gardeners; on the Latest in Her Occasional Features on Garden History, Anne Jennings Looks at the Roman Influence


Byline: Anne Jennings

Gardeners in the 21st century often consider themselves horti-culturally sophisticated, with elegant water features, artistically crafted topiary and "outdoor rooms".

However, before becoming too conceited about these and other garden related achievements, we would do well to remind ourselves that most of our garden styles and techniques are far from unique to this age.

Many have, in fact, been inspired by the work of our horticultural forebears.

Most people would acknowledge more than a fleeting reference to Edwardian and Victorian gardens, with perhaps even a nod of respect to the Georgian and Tudor periods.

But it is intriguing to learn that some of today's popular garden styles, as well as a range of "modern" horticultural crafts and techniques, were in fact developed and practised by the Romans, even in this cold, northern extreme of their Empire.

The Romans in turn took horticultural inspiration from the ancient gardens of Persia and Egypt and also to some extent from ancient Greece, although the latter was more plant than garden design oriented.

The enclosed, formal gardens of Egypt were architectural delights where columns and pavilions were softened by the foliage of date palms and grape vines. Narrow canals carried essential water through the gardens, but were adapted into decorative features that fed large, ornamental pools.

These enclosed havens were seen to represent paradise on earth - a cool oasis and retreat within almost desert like environments.

The idea of an earthly paradise was also represented in 6th century BC Persian gardens where symbolism and sensory delight played important roles. The rich native flora of the country flourished in these elegant, formal gardens, and the classic quartered designs that were an important element of Islamic gardens remain popular even today.

As the Roman Empire expanded and its emperors and other men of influence became wealthy through the collection of taxes from the lands they had conquered, luxurious pasttimes such as gardening became popular.

Extravagant villas were constructed and in typical Roman style these were built around a central, open courtyard, or peristyle, that was used as an outdoor room for recreation and dining.

Between the villa and the peristyle was a covered walkway, or portico, supported by columns and this provided a shaded place to sit or walk, away from the intense heat of the midday sun.

Other "cooling" elements were used within the courtyard garden such as pergolas or arbours covered with vines to create dappled shade, and pools or small canals of water were essential in providing water for plants and for sensory pleasure.

Planting within the gardens was relatively simple and quite formal in style. Clipped hedges, often box, but sometimes planted with woody herbs like rosemary that thrived in Mediterranean environments were common, and other important ornamental plants included bear's breeches (Acanthus mollis), lilies, and even roses.

Fruit trees like olives, peaches, almonds, pears, and mulberry, were grown either as open trees in orchard settings or, like vines, as formally trained ornamental plants.

Much of the evidence for the formal urban gardens described above has been found at excavations in Pompeii and Herculaneum in the Bay of Naples. …

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