• Maureen Little

I know a bank . . .

24th June. Midsummer. I can’t help but think of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a hugely entertaining production of it at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon back in 2005. I saw it with my daughter and we, along with the rest of the audience, were almost crying with laughter at the Rude Mechanicals. Since then, I’ve never been able to bring myself to see another version of it in case it didn’t live up to that level of enjoyment..

What I do keep revisiting, though, are the lines that Oberon speaks in Act 2:

* Picture 1

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:

There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,

Lulled in these flowers with dances and delight.

(Oberon, Act 2 Scene 1)

One thing that some people comment on, or perhaps ‘are annoyed by’ is a better term, is that oxlips and violets wouldn’t be in flower at the same time as woodbine (honeysuckle) and roses – and certainly not at midsummer. And the conditions that each of the plants need are not exactly the same, so would they really be growing together on a bank? But this is fairyland! Anything is possible.

So, let’s suspend our disbelief for a few moments and have a look at the flowers on that fragrant bank where Titania sleeps sometime of the night.

There is only contender for Shakespeare’s wild thyme. It’s Thymus serpyllum. Its common name is indeed wild thyme and it’s also called creeping thyme and elfin thyme – quite appropriate really, since Titania slept on it and, according to Elizabethan folklore, fairies used thyme blossoms as cradles for their babies. It’s indigenous to Europe and can cope with a wide range of conditions, from poor, uncultivated soil to good garden soil; what it does like, however, is a nice sunny spot. Francis Bacon, writing in 1625 gives us a clue to its prostrate habit and fragrance, since he tells us that wild thyme, ‘perfume[s] the air most delightfully … being trodden upon and crushed’ and that we ‘are to set whole alleys of them, to have the pleasure when you walk or tread.’

The chances of seeing an oxlip (Primula elatior) growing on a bank, or anywhere else for that matter, is pretty slim nowadays, unless you live in Suffolk, Cambridgeshire or Essex where occasionally it can still be found in damp woodlands or on woodland edges. It may well have been more prolific back in Shakespeare’s time but now it is classed as a vulnerable, near-threatened species. Oxlip is quite similar to cowslip (Primula veris) except for a few key features of the flowers: oxlip flowers are a much paler yellow than cowslips; they tend to all face the same direction; and oxlip flowers are more open (like a primrose) whereas cowslip flowers are more bell-shaped. The only thing that makes me wonder if Shakespeare actually meant cowslip, rather than oxlip, is that cowslips have an unforgettable honey-apricot fragrance, whereas oxlips are almost scent-free. Wouldn’t Titania have preferred something with an odour? But who am I to challenge Shakespeare?

I’m going to stick my neck out now and say that, unlike some commentators who believe that Viola canina (the scentless, heath dog violet) or Viola riviniana (the scentless, common dog violet) is the nodding violet mentioned here, I think it is more likely to be Viola odorata, the highly fragranced sweet violet. All three have the typical downward bend of the violet’s stem which makes them look as if they are nodding, but surely Titania would nestle down amongst fragrant violets rather than unscented ones, given the choice? Viola odorata is a native plant which, if you’re lucky and know where to look, you’ll find in places where there is winter and spring sunshine, but shade in the summer. Titania’s overcanopied bower would be just right for it.

Which brings me to what was doing the overcanopying. First, we have woodbine, which must have been the native honeysuckle, Lonicera periclymenum. Gerard in his Herbal of 1597 describes Woodbinde, or Honysuckles as having the same habit and characteristics as Lonicera periclymenum and provides us with a picture to boot.

Second is the musk rose. To Elizabethans, musk rose was undoubtedly Rosa moschata: according to various sources it was introduced from who-knows-where (possibly the Himalayan region) via Italy by Thomas Cromwell during Henry VIII’s reign. It’s quite a modest rose, flower-wise, bearing clusters of small, single, white flowers, but its fragrance more than makes up for its lack of ostentatiousness: Francis Bacon asserts that it is only surpassed by violets when it comes to generating ‘the sweetest smell in the air’. Being a short climber with prickles rather than thorns, it would be just the right choice for Titania’s canopy.

Finally, there is eglantine, the sweet briar, Rosa rubiginosa, which grows to about 3m. It bears soft pink, single flowers with surprisingly little aroma. The grey-green leaves, however, have a distinct fragrance of green apples, a lovely citrus-y contrast to all the other heady scents that surround Titania. Although she would have to be pretty careful of the thorny stems.

So there we have Titania’s fragrant bower – let’s leave her sleeping, dreaming perchance of her true-love ….

Picture acknowledgments:

1. From a print from J. E. Giraud’s 1846 book Flowers of Shakespeare, made available in the public domain by www.albion-prints.com

2. Reproduced with kind permission of www.exclassics.com

3. & 4. The Redouté pictures are free downloads under CC0 License. www.rawpixel.com