naso's song

that naso’s song may flower for all time


Ovid’s Garden: Summertime

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 1The 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

photo x2The 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

photo 2The 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.

There are still summer annuals and herbs left to plant, as well as the autumn-flowering saffron, but the garden is flourishing under the summer sun and looking more abundant than 5


Ovid’s Garden: Rosa damascena and Rosa centifolia

Planted in early spring to allow their buds to grow before bursting into bloom come the summer, the roses planted in Ovid’s Garden, Rosa damascena and Rosa centifolia, will soon be filling the air with their sweet, musky scent. Both are ancient cultivars, valued since antiquity for the strong fragrance of their abundant petals.


From ancient times, Rosa damascena and Rosa centifolia have been two of the most highly prized flowers because of their fragrant essential oil, used in ritual, medicines, cosmetics, perfumes and cooking. Ovid describes the famous ‘gardens of sunny Paestum where roses abound’ (Metamorphoses 15.708) where both Pliny (HN. 21.20) and Virgil (Georgics 4.119) claim the roses would bloom twice a year, accounts which identify the Paestum rose as the twice-blooming Rosa damascena.

The vocabulary used in these descriptions (rosaria, ‘fields of roses’) and the emphasis on productivity indicates rose cultivation on a grand scale and a perfumery uncovered at Paestum, which was equipped to produce perfume on a near industrial level, bears further testament to this. These gardens (or fields) of roses would have not only been a remarkable sight, but the smell in summer would have been phenomenal, when one considers that 10,000 pounds of roses were required to make 1 pound of essential oil and approximately 5,000 rose bushes could fit into one acre of land: their perfume would have been strong enough to scent the air for miles around!

In excavations from Pompeii, carbonized remains of roses were found in the garden of the House of the Chaste Lovers, and roses featuring on numerous frescoes at Pompeii, such as the one from the House of the Golden Bracelet.

Rose detail from Garden Room, House of Livia, Prima Porta 500 BC - 1st century AD

Rose detail from Garden Room, House of Livia, Prima Porta
500 BC – 1st century AD

Rose Detail, Garden Fresco House of the Golden Bracelet, Pompeii 1st century BC – 1st century AD

Rose Detail, Garden Fresco House of the Golden Bracelet, Pompeii
1st century BC – 1st century AD

They also have numerous culinary uses: distilled rose water is used to flavour and perfume dishes, petals can be dried, crystalized, caramelized or simply left fresh to produce delicate flavourings and create floral decorations; even the rosehips can be made into jelly.

In Renaissance Italy the use of roses in cooking was prolific and Scappi has over a hundred recipes which incorporate roses in their various forms (see Flavouring the Garden for some of these). As yet, I have been using a bought rose oil for these recipes, but once my roses are in bloom I intend to make my own rosewater from the petals harvested in the summer, so watch this space!


‘Madame Hardy’ Damask, planted in my own garden last year