Summer is here and the season’s scents are filling Ovid’s Garden: sweet-smelling roses in full bloom, aromatic herbs mingling with lavender, fragrant bay and olive, smells that never fail to remind me of Italy.The olive and bay trees have finally arrived and been placed around the perimeter of the garden in front of the copper beech hedge, which at present is covered in a vibrant display of crimson, burgundy and purple-hued leaves, dramatically contrasting the silvery olives and glossy green bays.
Native to the Mediterranean, the olive tree has been cultivated for thousands of years, predominantly for olive oil and the olive fruit, and used by the ancient Greek and Romans in all aspects of daily life, including food, medicine, cosmetics, and ritual.
The olive was sacred to Athena, and Ovid tells of its role in the godesses’ contest against the sea god Poseidon for the patronage of Athens: Poseidon creates a salt water spring from his trident, but Athena triumphs with her gift of the olive tree and the city is named after her:
‘…the earth had been struck by the goddess’ spear to produce the olive tree covered with berries and grey-green foliage’
– Metamorphoses, book 6
The bay tree also had many uses in the ancient world, it’s fragrant leaves were used as a seasoning in cooking, as they are today and laurel wreaths were given as prizes at games to honour the victor.
Sacred to Apollo, Ovid recounts the story of the beautiful nymph Daphne who is pursued by the god and transformed into a laurel tree to escape from his clutches:
‘…a heavy numbness came over her body; her soft white bosom was ringed in a layer of bark, her hair was turned into foliage, her arms into branches. The feet that had run so nimbly were sunk into sluggish root; her head was confined in a treetop; and all that remained was her beauty.’
– Metamorphoses, book 1
The damask and centifolia roses are in bloom, both ancient cultivars, valued since antiquity for the strong fragrance of their abundant petals – see my April post Ovid’s Garden: Rosa damascena and Rosa centifolia for more information about the cultivation and uses of these roses in antiquity.