The History and Significance of Elizabethan Herb Gardens

Elizabethan herb gardens were a vital part of estates and homes during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I in England from 1558 to 1603. Herbs served both practical and symbolic purposes, being used for cooking, medicine, strewing, dyeing, and more. The gardens represented the ideas of order, control over nature, and status. Their designs, with geometric patterns and sections for different plants, displayed wealth and refinement. Understanding Elizabethan herb gardens provides insight into the aesthetics, values, and lifestyles of the era.

The Practical Uses of Herbs in Elizabethan Times

Herbs were essential for everyday life in the 1500s. They provided flavor for cooking, treated illnesses, made dyes and perfumes, helped clean homes, and served other purposes. Some key uses of popular Elizabethan herbs included:

  • Lavender – This fragrant herb was used for strewing on floors to mask odors. The antiseptic properties made it useful for cleaning and disinfecting. It yielded a popular perfume. Lavender’s soothing scent was believed to promote sleep and relaxation.
  • Mint – A frequent ingredient in foods and beverages, mint was also used medicinally to aid digestion. Mint features in recipes dating back to ancient Rome. Its fresh smell made mint ideal for strewing on floors as well.
  • Rosemary – Thought to boost memory and concentration, rosemary appeared in tonics for scholars. It also treated headaches, improved circulation, and freshened breath. Rosemary’s pine-like scent made it a common strewing herb.
  • Sage – Believed to promote wisdom and long life, sage found use in medicines as well as cooking. Like other herbs, it was scattered on floors. Sage kept away moths and other pests too.
  • Thyme – Thyme added flavor to meats, stews, and other dishes. It was brewed into teas to treat coughs and bronchitis. Some believed thyme imparted courage and strength when consumed.

These and other herbs allowed Elizabethans to cook flavorful foods, maintain health, and keep their homes fresh without modern conveniences. Their properties and uses were intertwined with folklore and superstitions as well.

The Symbolic Meaning of Herbs

Beyond their practical uses, herbs carried symbolic meaning in the Renaissance era. Specific plants became associated with different virtues, moods, and ideas. Giving herbs as gifts conveyed special messages. For example:

  • Lavender signified devotion. It was given to express love or commitment.
  • Sage represented wisdom and immortality. It was bestowed on graduating scholars.
  • Rosemary stood for remembrance. It was worn at weddings and funerals.
  • Thyme denoted courage, strength, and good health. Knights would be given sprigs of thyme.
  • Mint signified hospitality. Guests may have been greeted with mint sprigs or mint-flavored treats.

Herbs appear throughout Shakespeare’s works with these symbolic connotations. Ophelia names herbs representing different facets of love in Hamlet. Falstaff jokes about being offered only petty herbs, not tasty meat, in Henry IV Part 1. The rich herb symbolism reflected the botany knowledge and folk beliefs of Elizabethan times.

The Design of Elizabethan Herb Gardens

Elizabethan herb gardens displayed intricate designs meant to impose order and control over nature. They were also status symbols showing off a family’s wealth. Different elements created an aesthetically pleasing space while keeping plants organized by use.

Geometric Patterns

A signature feature was the knot garden – beds of herbs or flowers planted within an intricately clipped hedge maze creating a knot or tapestry-like pattern. Low hedges formed circles, squares, and intricate Renaissance patterns with spaces for herbs and flowers inside the shapes. Knot gardens required careful pruning to maintain their perfection. The orderly, meticulous designs represented the control of nature.

Sections and Layout

Elizabethan gardens had different sections or “rooms” for categories of plants. Vegetables like peas and beans often grew in a separate kitchen garden. Fruits including apples, pears, and plums filled an orchard area. Medicinal herbs occupied their own herb garden, while fragrant herbs for strewing and dyeing grew in a separate garden. Flowers had an area as well. A gravel or grass walkway wound through the garden sections.


Garden structures added sophistication. Sundials measured time’s passage and symbolized the order of the universe. Statues and topiaries depicted figures from myths and nature. Arbors, turf benches, and low hedges provided places to sit and stroll while enjoying the garden’s beauty. Fountains and pools added tranquil water elements. Some gardens even had a maze with hedges forming a puzzle to walk through.

The structured layout, sophisticated ornaments, and meticulous care given to Elizabethan herb gardens displayed the owner’s refinement, discipline, wealth, and power over the natural environment. The gardens stood in contrast to free-growing medieval gardens and wild forests.

Notable Herbs and Their Uses in Elizabethan Gardens

The herbs grown in Elizabethan gardens served both practical household needs and symbolic purposes. Here are some of the most common herbs along with their uses:


  • Uses: Perfume, disinfectant, insect repellent, relaxation
  • Symbolism: Devotion, grace, serenity
  • Appears in: A Winter’s Tale


  • Uses: Sedative, digestive aid, anti-inflammatory
  • Symbolism: Patience, tranquility
  • Appears in: Henry IV


  • Uses: Cooking, medicine, strewing herb
  • Symbolism: Hospitality
  • Appears in: Titus Andronicus


  • Uses: Memory aid, headache remedy, perfume, strewing
  • Symbolism: Remembrance, fidelity
  • Appears in: Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet


  • Uses: Cooking, medicine, strewing, moth deterrent
  • Symbolism: Wisdom, immortality
  • Appears in: As You Like It


  • Uses: Cooking, respiratory treatments, courage enhancer
  • Symbolism: Courage, strength
  • Appears in: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

These and other herbs wove their way into English culture, cuisine, medicine, art, and literature during the Elizabethan period. Understanding them provides insight into daily life and customs in 16th century England.

Sample Layouts of Elizabethan Herb Gardens

The intricate knot designs, sections, and ornamentation of Elizabethan herb gardens displayed wealth and mastery over nature. Here are a few examples that illustrate the signature features:

A Simple Knot Garden

This layout has low clipped hedges forming a circular knot pattern with spaces for planting small herbs like thyme inside. Four circular hedge knots are connected by straight grass walkways. Statues stand at the corners, and a sundial occupies the center.

An Ornate Knot Garden

Elaborately interwoven square and circular hedge knots create a tapestry-like pattern in this garden. Different herbs fill each section. There are turf benches, fountains, and topiary trees trimmed into shapes along the gravel walkways. A central pond has a statue fountain.

Formal Garden Rooms

This garden is divided into rooms such as the medicinal herb garden, orchard, vegetable garden, and fragrant herb garden. Boxwood hedges outline each room. Gravel paths lead from one room to the next, unified by shaped topiaries throughout. An arbor covered in roses connects two garden rooms.

The neat organization of plants, intricate designs, and sophisticated ornaments in these sample layouts reflect the priorities and aesthetics of Elizabethan herb gardens. The gardens demonstrated mastery of nature and the owner’s refinement.

Common Design Features and Elements

While individual layouts varied, Elizabethan herb gardens shared many key design features:

  • Geometric hedge patterns and knot gardens
  • Sections for different types of plants
  • Sundials, statues, topiary, and other ornaments
  • Turf benches and low hedges for sitting
  • Fountains and pools
  • Gravel or grass walkways between sections
  • Enclosure by walls or hedges
  • Orderly organization representing control of nature
  • Elaborateness displaying wealth and status

Careful planning went into executing these meticulous garden plans and maintaining the designs. The gardens required extensive ongoing pruning and maintenance. This demonstrated that the family had the resources to employ gardeners for continual care.

The Symbolic Meanings and Life Lessons of the Gardens

Beyond displaying wealth, Elizabethan gardens embodied ideas and virtues that 16th century nobility aimed to convey:


The geometric designs represented the order seen in nature, the universe, and God’s plan, as well as order within one’s own household and estate. Disorder was seen as unnatural.


Keeping the intricate designs required discipline and mastery over plants and nature. Wild, free-growing plants were not allowed. The garden discipline reflected personal discipline.


The elaborate gardens with fine ornaments and sophisticated designs showed the family’s refined tastes. Beauty and education were priorities for nobility.


Passing down a well-kept garden over generations continued a family’s legacy. Long-lived herbs represented immortality.

The gardens’ symbolic meanings reminded nobles of virtues they hoped to embody and pass on. The herb garden’s lessons lasted beyond a single lifetime.

Herbs and Plants for an Elizabethan Garden

Those wanting to grow an Elizabethan-style herb garden today can plant heirloom species popular in that era. Recommended herbs include:

Herbs for Medicinal Use

  • Chamomile
  • Sage
  • Mint
  • Fennel
  • Parsley
  • Lavender

Culinary Herbs

  • Thyme
  • Oregano
  • Rosemary
  • Marjoram
  • Savory
  • Bay laurel
  • Sage

Fragrant Strewing Herbs

  • Lavender
  • Rosemary
  • Lemon balm
  • Hyssop
  • Pennyroyal
  • Winter savory

Shakespearean Herbs Referenced in Plays

  • Chamomile
  • Dill
  • Fennel
  • Lavender
  • Mint
  • Rosemary
  • Rue
  • Violet

Choose heirloom species for the most authenticity. Pair them with features like sundials, low knot hedges, turf benches, and fountains to recreate an Elizabethan herb garden. Add a modern touch with signs noting the historical uses and meanings of each herb.

The Legacy of Elizabethan Herb Gardens

While styles have changed over centuries, Elizabethan herb gardens left a legacy still visible today:

  • They set a standard for intricate garden designs and refinement.
  • They advanced herbology and botany knowledge.
  • Their designs inspired later formal garden styles.
  • They showed how to balance beauty with utility in a garden.
  • They created an orderly ideal for taming nature.
  • Their symbolic meanings enriched cultural appreciation of plants.

Elizabethan knot gardens, sections, organization, and attention to ornamentation refined garden design. The era’s herb wisdom remains useful. Above all, the gardens exemplify how cultivating nature ultimately cultivates ourselves as well. Their harmonious beauty continues to inspire gardeners and plant lovers today.

The stately, ornate herb gardens of Elizabethan England remain a defining legacy of the period. Studying their meaning and place reveals much about 16th century life, values, and aspirations. These gardens teach timeless lessons about finding balance, order, and meaning in what we nurture and grow. Their elegance endures as a high point of garden design and a window into the past.

In Summary

Elizabethan herb gardens blended practicality and symbolism, serving needs like cooking and medicine while representing order and status. Key features included knot designs, sections, and fine ornaments that conveyed mastery of nature. Herbs carried symbolic meaning as well, appearing in Shakespeare’s works to reference ideas like devotion, remembrance, and courage. These gardens remain an elegant legacy of the Elizabethan era that still shapes gardening today. Their intricate cultivation reflected virtues of refinement, discipline, legacy, and harmony that noble families aspired to embed in their estates for generations to enjoy.