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Ovid’s Garden Party Review

We had a fantastic turn out for Ovid’s Garden Party on Saturday, which featured talks from myself, Miriam BayCultivating Narrative & Composing Landscape, and garden designer and bestselling author Kathryn AaltoCreating Gardens with Narratives, followed by performances of episodes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses by ancient Roman pantomime theatre group Avid for Ovid.

Ovid’s Garden Party marked the official opening of my garden project at Winterbourne House and Gardens, recreating the plantings of Italian Renaissance gardens inspired by ancient botany. Ovid’s Garden is a project that forms part of my PhD research in the Classics Department at the University of Birmingham, exploring the invocation of ancient myth, landscape and botany within Italian Renaissance gardens, transmitted through the writings of Roman mythographer Ovid.

In my talk, Cultivating Narrative & Composing Landscape, I discussed how both my PhD research and Ovid’s Garden were inspired by the idea of landscape as a living link to the past, as conveyed by novelist Margaret Drabble in A Writer’s Britain: Landscape in Literature:

‘The past lives on in art and memory, but it is not static: it shifts and changes as the present throws its shadow backwards. The landscape also changes, but far more slowly; it is a living link between what we were and what we have become.’

I was fascinated by this idea of landscape, and particularly plants, as a living link to antiquity, generating a physical, sensory experience as well as an intellectual, semiotic one. I was particularly drawn by the fact that the same plants cultivated since antiquity are still in cultivation today. This meant they have the potential to be experienced physically, just as they once were, whether for their aesthetic and olfactory properties in a garden setting; or practically, in food, medicine or cosmetics.

I wanted to create a space that could be used as a testing ground to look at the somatic properties of these plantings, in order to explore the sensory experience they generated, alongside their symbolic meaning. The plants grown in Ovid’s Garden represent those cultivated in antiquity, which were also popular features of Italian Renaissance gardens, valued for their aesthetic and practical properties or their symbolic associations.

Lavender lines the front of the garden, its name comes from the Latin lavare, ‘to wash’, as it was used to scent bath water in antiquity. In the two front flowerbeds there’s thyme, rosemary, sage, borage and pennyroyal mint — common herbs used in cooking from antiquity to this day.

In the two flowerbeds at the back of the garden, poet’s narcissus, hyacinths, violets and anemones flower in the spring, as well as saffron crocus in the autumn. The story of Narcissus is well known, the youth who was transformed into a pale daffodil after wasting away with longing for himself, but these other flowers also represent young men who have undergone metamorphosis. From the blood of Hyacinthus, fatally wounded by his lover Apollo’s discus, springs a flower whose petals are inscribed with the god’s mourning cries. In the myth of Adonis, Venus causes an anemone springs to spring from youth’s blood, after he is mauled by a wild boar. Similarly, violets spring from the blood of dying Attis and the saffron crocus appears in place of the body of Crocus. In each myth, flowers signify the youths’ transient masculinity and fleeting lives: in the bloom of youth, their lives cut short before they have transitioned to maturity.

Summer flowering damask and centifolia roses are ancient cultivars, valued in antiquity for their strong scent and abundant petals, their fragrant essential oil was used in ritual, medicines, cosmetics, perfumes and cooking. White Madonna lilies, red poppies and orange calendulas bloom in mid summer — flowers which conjured meadows where girls picking flowers, like Europa and Persephone, were abducted by opportunistic deities. These flowers were used in ritual, medicine and cooking, and the poppy was particularly valued for the opium derived from its sap, as it is today.

Then we have evergreen cypresses, bay laurels and olive trees. According the Ovid, the nymph Daphne, transformed into a laurel to escape the amorous advances of Apollo; whilst cypresses were a symbol of mourning in antiquity, derived from the story of Cyparissus, another unfortunate youth who died in his prime and was transformed into the tree by Apollo.

As well as being a testing ground for my own research, I wanted Ovid’s Garden to be a public facing project, accessible to any one. To function as a living museum without glass cabinets, where any one, regardless of academic background or knowledge of antiquity, could experience this living link to the past.

Kathryn Aalto’s talk, Creating Gardens with Narratives, situated the intertwining of landscape and narrative which I discussed within a broader historical and contemporary context. Kathryn explored how physical landscapes are imbued with symbolism and meaning when a literary dimension is added to them:

Adding a literary dimension to the physical landscape imbues it with additional ‘sense of place’. What does that mean? To me, it’s that invisible layer of memories, history and emotions covering the real landscape we see in front of us. It’s like unseen but powerful strata. And it’s different for each of us. It’s important both in writing as well as designing. We are adding a new layer to our sense of Ovid’s work today, and to the sense of place he evoked in his writing.

You can read Kathryn’s talk on her blog.

Theatre group Avid For Ovid performed four inspirational pieces, each a collaboration between the dancers and musician Malcolm Atkins, who composed and performed music which supported the narrative of each piece. The performances were chosen to complement the garden setting:

We chose stories for this event that had outdoor locations which might be echoed by the real garden; thus Medea’s plant gathering, Circe’s herb garden, and the woods in which the nymphs Syrinx and Daphne flee their pursuers and are themselves transformed into plants.

The first performance was Medea Mother of Dragons, by Marie-Louise Crawley. Medea was the sorceress who aided the hero Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece and gave Jason herbs that put the dragon guarding the Fleece to sleep. Ovid recounts how Medea traveled the world in a chariot drawn by dragons, in order to procure a myriad of plants to brew a potion that extended Jason’s life.

Susie Crow performed Pan & Syrinx. Syrinx was a huntress nymph who fled the amorous advances of Pan – half god, half goat – and was transformed into hollow water reeds before Pan could seize her. The haunting sound of the wind blowing through the reeds inspired Pan to fashion the pan pipes.

Ségolène Tarte performed Circe the Enchantress. Circe was another sorceress, who Odysseus encountered on his wanderings. Circe brewed a potion from flowers and herbs that she tricked Odysseus’ men into drinking, transforming them into pigs.

The final episode, Apollo & Daphne was performed by Marie-Louise Crawley. Daphne was a nymph who was transformed into a laurel tree in order to evade the sun god Apollo.

I would like to take this opportunity to reiterate the thanks I gave in my talk at Ovid’s Garden Party and acknowledge those who have supported the project:

First of all, thank you to Winterbourne and the AHRC Cultural Engagement Fund, who funded the opening event. The project itself was made possible by generous funding from the AHRC Midlands Three Cities Doctoral Training Partnership, the University of Birmingham and Winterbourne.

Thank you to all the staff and gardeners at Winterbourne who have helped with the project – particularly curator Lee Hale, events manager Anna Fawcett and gardener Leighanne Keasey.

I also want to thank my wonderful supervisor Professor Diana Spencer, who encouraged and supported me from the project’s inception, when Ovid’s Garden was just another one of my crazy ideas!

Thank you to Joel Mills, for kindly offering to photograph the event and for the fantastic pictures you took.

Finally, I want to thank Kathryn Aalto, for her brilliant talk, Creating Gardens with Narratives, as well as the Avid for Ovid – Marie-Louise Crawley, Ségolène Tarte, Susie Crow and Malcolm Atkins – for their fantastic performances.

The primary purpose of this opening event was to showcase Ovid’s Garden as a space for public engagement. There are already plans to run interactive workshops on the uses of plants in ancient cooking, ritual, medicine and perfumery as part of the schools outreach events run by West Midlands Classics For All, and I’m also liaising with the University of Birmingham School to run workshops for their students.

So if you have an interest in using the garden space for outreach events or as a performance space, do contact me: / @mim_bay.


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Ovid’s Garden Party at Winterbourne House – Saturday 18th June

Ovid's GardenIt’s been almost two years since work first began on Ovid’s Garden and I am thrilled to announce our opening event, ‘Ovid’s Garden Party’, will take place on Saturday 18th June, 2-4, at Winterbourne House and Gardens.

Ovid’s Garden Party will include a drinks reception, with talks from myself, Miriam Bay, ‘Cultivating Narrative & Composing Landscape’, and garden designer and bestselling author Kathryn Aalto, ‘Creating Gardens with Narratives’, followed by performances of episodes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses by ancient Roman pantomime theatre group Avid for Ovid.

This event is an opportunity to showcase Ovid’s Garden as an outreach space, and there are already plans to run interactive workshops on the uses of plants in ancient cooking, medicine and perfumery as part of the schools outreach events run by West Midlands Classics For All.

This is a free event and all are welcome to attend, although admission prices to Winterbourne apply – £6, £5 concession, and free for University of Birmingham staff and students.

Ovid’s Garden is a project that forms part of my PhD in the Classics, Ancient History & Archaeology Department at the University of Birmingham, funded by AHRC M3C, recreating the plantings of Italian Renaissance gardens inspired by ancient botany. My research explores the invocation of ancient myth, landscape and botany within Italian Renaissance gardens, transmitted through the writings of Roman mythographer Ovid.

The ancients inscribed their own myth and symbolism onto the natural world, and in Metamorphoses, Ovid portrays a treacherous landscape inhabited by wandering heroes, powerful enchantresses, mischievous nymphs and malevolent deities, into which mortals ventured at their peril. For many of the flowers, trees, rivers, mountains and natural features which comprised this landscape are victims of metamorphosis – like Daphne, transformed into a laurel to escape the amorous advances of the sun god Apollo (Met. 1.473-552); or Narcissus, who wasted away with longing for his own reflection and became a pale daffodil (Met. 3.402-510).

In my talk ‘Cultivating Narrative & Composing Landscape’, I will explore how Ovidian narrative was recreated in the ideological programmes of Italian Renaissance gardens through lushly storyboarded experiences, which enabled visitors to locate themselves within landscapes of mythic encounter. I will also relate how the plants grown in Ovid’s Garden were imbued with symbolism in antiquity and the Renaissance – like the hyacinth, narcissus, saffron crocus, violet and anemone, which embodied metamorphosed men; or the lily, marigold and poppy that conjured meadows where girls picking flowers were abducted by opportunistic deities; whilst trees like the mulberry recalled the story of doomed lovers Pyramus and Thisbe and the laurel evoked Daphne’s fate.

Avid For Ovid will be performing some of these episodes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses within the garden, and Kathryn Aalto’s talk ‘Creating Gardens with Narratives’ will situate the intertwining of garden and narrative within a broader historical and contemporary context.

Kathryn Aalto is a writer, designer, historian and lecturer based in Devon. For the past twenty five years, her focus has been on places where nature and culture intersect: teaching literature of nature and place, designing gardens, and writing about the natural world. She is the author of The New York Times Bestseller The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh: A Walk Through the Forest that Inspired the Hundred Acre Wood (2015) and Nature and Human Intervention (2011). Kathryn lectures on literary landscapes and garden topics around the world.

Avid for Ovid is a group comprising three Oxford-based artists, dancers Susie Crow and Ségolène Tarte, and musician Malcolm Atkins, as well as Birmingham-based dancer Marie-Louise Crawley. Working on selected episodes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, A4O explore the nature of ancient Roman pantomime through the telling of ancient myths with dance and music. They bring together a rich range of dance knowledge both as performers and choreographers, drawing on experience of ballet, contemporary, mime, mask work and butoh. A recent interview with A4O can be found on the Open University Classics blog.

Winterbourne House & Gardens is situated close to the University of Birmingham’s Edgbaston campus, just 10 minutes from Birmingham city centre. More information on getting to Winterbourne by road, rail, bus or bike and parking at can be found on their website here.

We look forward to seeing you and if you require any more information about Ovid’s Garden Party, please contact:

Miriam Bay:

This event is sponsored by the AHRC Cultural Engagement Fund and Winterbourne House & Gardens

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Ovid’s Garden: Autumn

Autumn brought spectacular colours to Ovid’s Garden: brilliant orange marigolds which lasted through summer to the middle of autumn set in vibrant relief against the copper beech hedge, transformed into a spectrum of yellows, oranges, reds, greens and purples as the leaves changed.marigolds against beechNative to the Mediterranean and western Europe, marigolds are vigorous, fast growing annuals or perennials which thrive in summer, often late into autumn and for this reason has long been a popular garden plant. The marigold got its Latin name calendula because it was thought to bloom on the first day of the month, the day known as calendae in ancient Rome. It can also mean ‘little clock’, referring to the vibrant ring of sun ray-like petals encircling the centre of the flower like a sundial.

In antiquity the marigold was used as a culinary and medicinal herb, its edible petals have a spicy and peppery taste from which a yellow dye is extracted – a thrifty replacement for costly saffron.
marigoldMarigolds are one of the flowers with which Ovid populates his mythical landscapes in Metamorphoses and Fasti, featuring in flower-strewn meadows and settings of erotic encounter. They are among the flowers Persephone and her handmaidens gather before she is abducted by Pluto and taken to be his queen in the Underworld:

‘That one gathers marigolds, this one is concerned with banks of violets, that one cuts off poppy hair with her nail. These girls you attract, hyacinth; those you detain amaranthus. Some like thyme, others wild poppy and clover. Abundant roses are gathered, and there are nameless flowers too.’

– Ovid, Fasti 4.437-43

herbsThe last of the herbs have been planted: thyme, sage, rosemary, spearmint and blue flowered borage are all thriving in the two front herb beds. We have also planted saffron crocus bulbs, which will flower towards the beginning of winter and bring splashes of colour to the garden in the darker months when all the other flowers have died back.

It’s now been a full year since Ovid’s Garden was planted and it has come so far from the muddy plot it was this time last year! There’s lots planned for the garden next year, including an opening event in June which I’m currently in the process of planning – date and time to be posted on my next blog…before and after


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: Spring Flowers

Ovid’s Garden is in bloom! The top layer of golden gravel has been laid in time for the spring bulbs to blossom and their vibrant flowers have brought the garden to life.
Front ViewThe hyacinths were the first to colour the flower beds with their violet-red hues, followed by the bright white poet’s narcissi with their red-tipped golden trumpets heralding the spring.HyacinthsNarcissusThe cornelian cherry trees are growing more densely branched and leafy; the roses are also thriving and covered in buds, promising plenty of blooms come the summer.

There’s no sign yet of the anemone rhizomes planted in early spring, but there’s plenty of time for them make an appearance, and the Madonna lilies are just beginning to emerge in bright green spiral tufts.LilyWe’re waiting for the lollipop bays and olives to be delivered, as soon as they arrive we’ll be potting them in large terracotta pots and placing them around the garden paths.

Still to be planted this month and next are the wood anemones, violets, marigolds and poppies, which are being grown from seed to be bedded in once the threat of frost has passed. We’re also growing thyme, borage, marjoram, sage and mint for the herb bed, so it’s going to be a busy couple of months of gardening!Side View


Ovid’s Garden: Cypresses & Cornelian Cherry Trees

Since the radical transformation the garden has undergone since planting the evergreen box hedging, its greening has continued with the arrival of some new plants and the (frustratingly slow) coming of spring! We now have two slender cypresses (Cupressus sempervirens) flanking the entrance of the garden, its dense sprays of dark evergreen leaves adding another level to the landscaping.Blog UploadFrom ancient times, the cypress was closely associated with death: it was used in funerary rites and to wreathe statues of Hades, god of the underworld; to this day it grows in graveyards and memorial gardens in Italy, and throughout Europe.

Ovid recounts how the cypress became a symbol of mourning. Grief transformed Cyparissus, beloved of Apollo, into the tall evergreen tree after he killed his own tame stag in a tragic accident:

 ‘Though Apollo consoled him as far as he possibly could and implored him not to distress himself overmuch, Cyparissus kept sobbing away and asked, as a final gift from the gods, to mourn to the end of time.
‘He wept and wailed till his blood drained out and the whole of his body started to turn the colour of green. The hair that was hanging over his creamy forehead was changed to a shaggy profusion, which stiffened and rose to the starry sky in a slender point. The god sighed deeply and sadly exclaimed,
“You’ll be mourned deeply by me, you will mourn for others and always be there when they mourn for their loved ones.”’

Metamorphoses 10.106-142

In the beds either side of the garden we have also planted two cornelian cherry trees (cornus mas) which in late summer they will bear glossy, ruby-red berries that can be eaten raw (although they are a little sour!), used to make jam or to infuse alcohol to make liqueurs. Over autumn its leaves will turn from green to shades of crimson and purple before falling, then in winter its bare branches will be covered with clusters of brilliant yellow, star-shaped flowers. Some of these flowers still clung to the branches of the trees we planted.
CornusThe fruits of this cherry tree were associated with the Golden Age when man lived in harmony with nature and the earth brought forth its fruits in abundance:

‘Content to enjoy the food that required no painful producing, men simply gathered arbutus fruit and mountain strawberries, cornel cherries and blackberries plucked from the prickly bramble’

– Metamorphoses 1.102

Work will continue as the weather gets warmer, next we’ll be planting anemones (anemone coronaria and anemone nemorosa) and potting lollipop bays and olives. Meanwhile, we are beginning to see the fruits of our labour as the spring bulbs start to emerge, promising the garden’s first flowers!unnamed


Ovid’s Garden: Box, Lavender & Lilies

After months of looking at empty garden plots with a prevailing mud-brown colour scheme, it was such a joy to plant some greenery which has brought some much-needed structure and colour to the garden. I also now have four fantastic students from the University of Birmingham working with me on the garden as part of a Liberal Arts & Sciences project I am running, who are helping to bring the garden to life.

The beds have been lined with box and we’ve planted lavender along the front border, which is looking very modest now, but will spread out in front of the box hedging as it grows to give a stepped effect. Like box, lavender is an evergreen, which will keep its silvery hue even in the dull winter months, and when its spikes of violet flowers appear in summer, their beautiful, distinctive scent will create a welcoming wall of perfume for visitors to walk through as they enter the garden.FINALThe name Lavandula comes from the Latin lavare ‘to wash’, as it was used to scent bath water and it was used by the Romans, as it is today, for its floral scent in perfumes and oils, and was also used for its medicinal and therapeutic properties.

We’ve also planted lilium candidum (Madonna lily) bulbs in the ornamental flower beds. Like lavender, this was a plant which was highly prized in antiquity and even grown in greenhouses to ensure availability all year round. Its strong, sweet fragrance made it a popular flower for use in oils and perfumes and ancient writers emphasised its medical attributes, listing numerous remedies that could be derived from both flower and bulb.

In narratives from Metamorphoses Fasti Ovid depicts Persephone, daughter of the goddess Demeter, picking these brilliant white lilies when she is abducted and taken to the underworld by Hades:

Proserpina, Ceres daughter, was there in the woodland, happily picking bunches of violets and pure white lilies’

– Metamorphoses 5.394

‘Abundant roses are gathered, and there are nameless flowers too. She herself gathers delicate saffron and white lilies’

– Fasti 4.443

An ancient fresco from the House of the Golden Bracelet in Pompeii depicts such lilies in bloom:
A Upload!It’s so exciting to see the garden take shape after all the work undertaken in the winter to implement the hard landscaping elements and create the plots. The rest of the plants for the garden have been ordered and will be planted soon, so the garden will continue to transform over the next couple of months and start to bloom come the spring!