From the street, there is no indication that anything special awaits you beyond the tall hedges on the grounds of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. But follow the maze-like footpath around and into the green hawthorn walls and you will suddenly behold a delightful jewel of a garden, designed and planted in honor of the great playwright and poet William Shakespeare.
"Here's flowers for you; Hot lavender, mints, savory, marjoram; The marigold, that goes to bed with the sun" (The Winter's Tale)
The Garden Club of Evanston has maintained the Shakespeare Garden for over 90 years. According to the Garden Club’s website, the 70 by 100 foot plot of land was originally established in 1915 to memorialize the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and to demonstrate American war-time sympathies and ties to Great Britain. Renowned landscape architect Jens Jensen(1860-1951) was persuaded to create a design for a formal Tudor-style garden. At that time the Danish-born Jensen was already responsible for designing the landscape of a number of major Chicago area parks, and had built support for the creation of the Illinois state park system and the preservation of the Indiana Dunes sand dune ecosystem.
"When daisies pied and violets blue and lady-smocks all silver-white and cuckoo-buds of yellow hue Do paint the meadows with delight" (Love's Labor's Lost)
Jensen was a leader in the “prairie style” landscape movement which advocated the use of natural plants and materials, so it may seem odd that he consented to design a formal English garden. He is said to have been inspired to create the formal design after reading Francis Bacon’s essay "Of Gardens" as well as Henry Ellacombe’s 1896 Plant-Lore and Garden-Craft of Shakespeare, in which the author credits Shakespeare with the ability to "communicate to others the pleasure that he felt himself, not by long descriptions, but by a few simple words, a few natural touches, and a few well-chosen epithets, which bring the plants and flowers before us in the freshest, and often in a most touching way”.
"There's rosemary, that's for remembrance, pray Love, remember: and there is pansies, that's for thoughts" (Hamlet)
Shakespeare’s plant and flower imagery shows such a great understanding of horticulture that many believe Shakespeare himself must have been a gardener. Often, he sets pivotal scenes in a garden. The more than fifty different flowers, herbs, shrubs and trees in Jensen's design are all mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. Among the flowers Jensen included in his plan were aconitum, carnation, columbine, daffodil, daisy, delphinium, dianthus, marigold, pansy, poppy and viola. Rue, wormwood, lavender, marjorum and lemon balm are among the herbs tucked into corners of the beds. Shakespeare mentioned roses in his plays more than 100 times, and lilies nearly 30 times, so of course you will find a number of varieties of both. Not all the plants chosen at the garden’s outset proved hardy in the midwestern climate, so the Garden Club has made concessions in selecting Chicago-tough plant varieties while still remaining true to Jensen’s original vision.
"What's in a name? That which we call a Rose By any other name would smell as sweet" (Romeo and Juliet)
A double row of hawthorns surround the garden, like soldiers standing guard. Most of these hawthorns date from the original planting and were grown from seed in France. In Elizabethan times, the hawthorn was associated with fairies, so it makes a fitting enclosure for a garden celebrating the author who created characters like Puck in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and Ariel in "The Tempest". Inside the hedge, eight separate beds encircle a central grass lawn with a sundial serving as the focal point. The four inner beds are themselves surrounded by low boxwood hedges. The concentric arrangement, along with the cool stone paths lining the beds, creates the effect of a labyrinth. In 1929, a fountain and an Elizabethan-style stone bench were added to the entrance of the garden. Above the fountain, a bronze bas-relief sculture of Shakespeare’s head and inscriptions of some familiar lines from “As You Like It”, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Winter’s Tale” beckon the visitor and hint at the magic which lies within. The garden was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.
"I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows, Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine, With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine"(A Midsummer Night's Dream)
A visit to Evanston's Shakespeare garden is an opportunity to view the work of master landscape architect Jens Jensen. It's also an ideal way to view the plants, flowers and herbs that are significant in Shakespeare's plays. You may come away inspired to add a touch of Shakespeare to your own garden. Or you may simply delight in the tranquility to be found in this secluded and (almost) secret garden just outside Chicago.
If you are planning to add some Shakespeare plants to your garden, take a cue from the Evanston Garden Club. Look for varieties that will flourish in your particular climate. Here are sixteen plants mentioned in Shakespeare's plays:
After spending 28 years as a teacher and librarian, Gwen Bruno is now a full-time freelance writer residing in suburban Chicago. As a preschooler, she lovingly tended a small patch of weeds in her backyard. Luckily, her parents supported her budding horticultural endeavors, and she's been gardening ever since.