Arboretum Offers Slice Of Ancient Life Through Penn State Medieval Garden

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If you missed out on the Renaissance Faire this year, a visit to the Penn State Medieval Garden might be the perfect way to end your semester.

The exhibit aims to show visitors a piece of real-life history, and the plants in the garden originate as far back as the fifth century. Each species served a unique role in medieval societies — people used the plants for aspects of daily life such as decoration, food, and medicine.

Curators document each plant closely on a day-to-day basis. Photographs and written observations provide information for data sheets on each plant, and you can find a description of each online.

Curators referred to ancient documents like Charlemagne’s Capitulare de villis, to get a gauge on the plant types common to the Medieval age. Plants like thyme and rosemary — species valuable to the modern foodie – even show up in such documents.

Not all of the plant species were valuable in daily life, however. In fact, members of the ancient societies regarded many of the plants as weeds. The Medieval Garden is also not meant to be a recreation of one specific garden; instead, it’s simply a dynamic collection.

Curators created the Medieval Garden in 1998. In 2009, they built the exhibit adjacent to the Arboretum. The garden currently include a Contemplation Garden and a Kitchen Garden, as well as an orchard full of plant species common to Medieval Europe.

The Contemplation Garden primarily serves as a place of escape from day-to-day responsibilities. This part of the typical exhibit nearly mirrors the design of the Garden of Eden – white plants symbolized the Virgin Mary and purity, while red plants symbolized the Blood of the Martyrs.

The fundamental purpose of the Kitchen Garden is to cultivate food, but the specific plants grown vary by region. This area of the garden also would have served medicinal purposes in the Medieval age. Thick bushes and hedges protected apple trees, medlar trees, cherry trees, and more from any animals that would have potentially fed on them.

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Derek Bannister

Derek is a junior majoring in Economics and History. He is legally required to tell you that he's from right outside of Philly. Email Derek compliments and dad-jokes at [email protected]

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