by Kim Smith
A garden, a small garden especially, is made more intimate when planted with an abundance of fragrant blooms and foliage. The air impregnated with the scents of ﬂowers and foliage imbues a memorable atmosphere in the garden, playing the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, role of strengthening the ambiance we wish to create. Fragrance, elusive, emotionally colored, and so entirely related to experience, welcomes us as we walk through the pathways of our garden.
The idea of creating a fragrant garden is deeply rooted in ancient history. One of the earliest aromatic gardens was the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, built in the 6th century B.C. by King Nebuchadnezzar for his wife Amytes, daughter of the King of the Medes. The Greeks described these resplendent gardens, supported by stone columns with irrigated terraces. The most potently fragrant plants were grown here, and the terraces, which bloomed with lilies and roses, were favored by Queen Amytes for her walks.
The countries of the Middle East abound with an array of scented trees and plants. From historical records dating back to 2500 b.c. we know that the enclosed courtyards of the Persian palaces were planted with jasmine, fruit trees (especially oranges), hyacinth, myrtle, and jonquils. But above all other ﬂowering plants, the rose was held in the highest esteem. The Damask rose grew in nearly every garden in Syria. The country takes its name from the word Suri (a delicate rose), hence Suristan (the land of roses).
From tomb paintings and bas-reliefs we learn of gardens and the use of plants in ancient Egypt. The verdant, fertile ﬂood plain created by the annual rise and fall of the Nile, coupled with the Egyptians’ skill in engineering and irrigation, allowed a wealth of indigenous and imported fruiting trees, vines, and ﬂora to grow in abundance. One of the earliest botanic collections was that of plants and seeds brought back from Syria in approximately 1450 B.C. The images of the plants were carved on the walls of the temple of Thothmes II in Karnak. The Egyptian Papyrus Ebers (written about 1552 B.C.) describes scented plants and remedies and their methods of use. The gardens, enclosed by mud walls, were planted with aromatics and medicinal herbs. Some of the plants described include frankincense, myrrh, saffron crocus, Madonna lily (Lilium candidum), cinnamon, and orchards of pomegranates. The Egyptians were among the earliest peoples to show an appreciation for perfume. Incense and perfume were used extensively for religious and funeral rites. Fragrant oils were used to massage their bodies and concoctions of scented herbs were taken to sweeten the breath. Priests performed the daily ritual of burning fragrant woods as offerings to the gods. The wood was burnt on alters in the temples. The word “perfume,” from the Latin per, “through,” and fumun “smoke,” shows that the origin of the word lay in the burning of incense, both to ‘offer up’ the gratitude of the people to the gods for favors received, and to ask for their blessings in time of trouble. The Egyptians believed their prayers would reach the gods more quickly when wafted by the blue smoke that slowly ascended to heaven.
The Egyptians’ reverence for nature is noteworthy in their use of ﬂoral motifs in decorative ornamentation. The lotus and papyrus were by far the most prevalent, together with the daisy, palm, convolvulus, and grape vine. The ‘Blue Lotus of the Nile’ (Nymphaea stellata coerulea), a member of the water lily family, is the lotus ﬂower depicted in ancient Egyptian decorative ornamentation. The fragrance emanating from the lotus creates an intoxicating atmosphere; they have a scent similar to hyacinths. The ﬂowers are star-shaped and sky-blue with brilliant golden centers and stand several inches above the water. The lotus had an inexhaustible symbolism in ancient Egypt, Daoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism alike.
The lotus is signiﬁcant as it was the symbol of Upper Egypt. When used in ornamentation with the papyrus it symbolized the union of Upper and Lower Egypt, whose symbol was the papyrus. A well-known example of this is the soaring twin pillars that tower over the ruins at Karnak. One capital is decorated with the lotus and the other with papyrus.
The ‘Blue Lotus of the Nile’ had a deeper religious signiﬁcance. Because the lotus blooms each day, withdraws under the water at sunset, and reemerges the following morning, it was closely linked to the daily rhythm of the rising and setting of the sun and thus to the story of the sun god, creation, and rebirth. The blue petals represented the sky and the golden center the emerging sun. The lotus motif was used to decorate pottery, jewelry, clothing, and appears extensively in the decoration of the capitals of pillars and columns. A wide variety of designs using the lotus ﬂower were employed, in repeating border patterns and in alternating patterns with lotus buds or bunches of grapes. The buds ﬁt harmoniously into the curves between the ﬂowers. During the reign of Akhenaten (New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty) the lotus designs become less stylized and more freely expressed.
When thinking about the history of garden design in the context of our own gardens, we are free to determine our own personal preferences while drawing inspiration from what has come before. By following one’s intuitive powers and adhering to nature’s contours speciﬁc to an existing site, the inherent beauty of the garden can be realized. In describing our fragrant path, rather than draw for you a picture of what to grow precisely, as each individual garden setting is unique, the following are suggestions of plants for a well-orchestrated sequence of fragrant ﬂowering plants. The underlying framework would ideally be composed of as many fragrant ﬂowering and fruiting trees and shrubs as are reasonable, including an abundance of aromatic and healthful herbs. And the garden overﬂowing with scented blossoms provides you with armfuls of ﬂowers to cut and bring indoors to scent the rooms of your home.
The Fragrant Path, Part Two, to follow next week! A note about ‘Geranium’: Sweetly scented, ‘Geranium’ narcissus reliably returns year after year. For a list of fabulously fragrant jonquils and narcissus see pages 178-179 in Oh Garden of Fresh Possibilities!