November 17, 2011

At The Cloisters: the Medieval Garden

The Cloisters is a magical place, not only for its art and architecture, but also for its plants. The horticulturalists there have established beautiful medieval gardens, the largest of which is in the cloister which came from the Cistercian abbey at Bonnefont-en-Comminges in France. Although the height of the gardening season was past, this garden was still a lovely place, with plants creating lively interactions with the architecture. The museum has a blog for its gardens, full of interesting information on medieval plants and their uses, which you can see here. The plants were used for food and medicine and for dyes.

The ivy presents a soft geometry on the hard stone. The tree is a cornelian cherry (Cornus mas).

In the garden you can see traditional ways of training plants, such as this espalier, now almost leafless, leaving the structure clearly visible. This is a pear tree, and has been in the garden since the 1940s. I learned from the blog that this technique dates from the Renaissance, not earlier.

Behind some sturdy cabbages is a tuteur, a pyramidal structure to support plants. I don't know what was growing on this, or why it is full of small branches, but it is a gorgeously textured object.

One of the garden beds was labeled as "Plants used by Medieval artists", though from a little research, I think they were mostly used for textile dyes rather than pigments. The three plants above are Woad, Our-Lady's-Bedstraw, and Weld. Woad yields a blue dye similar to that of indigo, but not as strong; the tops of Our-Lady's-Bedstraw give a yellow dye, the roots red; weld is also yellow and when overdyed with woad produces a deep green.

I have a special fondness for thistle-type plants, whose form I find very rich with its geometrically ordered parts. This is Fuller's teasel, which interestingly was used in processing textiles, combing wool and raising its nap. Some weavers still use this plant although it was mainly replaced by metal combs.

And lastly, a look from the garden out over the Hudson River to the Palisades of New Jersey. I was so lucky to visit on such a perfect day at such a beautiful time of year.

Previous posts on the Cloisters:
At the Cloisters: Sculpture
At the Cloisters: Architecture


  1. I have been to NYC only twice, each time on my elsewhere. Although I have always hoped to go to The Cloisters I have never had the time. Thank you for your wonderful photos. They were like a mini visit.

  2. Facinating to think about how hard people had to work to get dyes, their food etc. We are quite spoiled in our age.

  3. A., I'm happy that you enjoyed my posts on the Cloisters.
    Lisa, yes, it's really amazing when you stop to think how difficult life used to be. Simpler in many ways, but just surviving was harder for most.