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The Plant-Lore & Garden-Craft of Shakespeare, a non-fiction book by Henry Nicholson Ellacombe

Part 1. The Plant-Lore Of Shakespeare - Oxlips, Palm Tree

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(1) Perdita.

Bold Oxlips, and
The Crown Imperial.

--- Winter's Tale, act iv, sc. 4 (125).

(2) Oberon.

I know a bank where the wild Thyme blows,
Where Oxlips and the nodding Violet grows.

--- Midsummer Night's Dream, act ii, sc. 1 (249).


Oxlips in their cradles growing.

--- Two Noble Kinsmen, Intro. song.

The true Oxlip (Primula eliator) is so like both the Primrose and Cowslip that it has been by many supposed to be a hybrid between the two. Sir Joseph Hooker, however, considers it a true species. It is a handsome plant, but it is probably not the "bold Oxlip" of Shakespeare, or the plant which is such a favourite in cottage gardens. The true Oxlip (P. elatior of Jacquin) is an eastern counties' plant; while the common forms of the Oxlip are hybrids between the Cowslip and Primrose. (See COWSLIP and PRIMROSE.)



(1) Rosalind.

Look here what I found on a Palm tree.

--- As You Like It, act iii, sc. 2 (185).

(2) Hamlet.

As love between them like the Palm might flourish.

--- Hamlet, act v, sc. 2 (40).

(3) Volumnia.

And bear the Palm for having bravely shed
Thy wife and children's blood.

--- Coriolanus, act v, sc. 3 (117).

(4) Cassius.

And bear the Palm alone.

--- Julius Caesar, act i, sc. 2 (131).

(5) Painter.

You shall see him a Palm in Athens again, and flourish with
the highest.

--- Timon of Athens, act v, sc. 1 (12).


The Vision.--Enter, solemnly tripping one after another,
six personages, clad in white robes, wearing on their
heads garlands of Bays, and golden vizards on their faces,
branches of Bays or Palm in their hands.

--- Henry VIII, act iv, sc. 2.

To these passages may be added the following, in which the Palm tree is
certainly alluded to though it is not mentioned by name--


That in Arabia
There is one tree, the Phoenix' throne; one Phoenix
At this hour reigning there.

--- Tempest, act iii, sc. 3 (22).[193:1]

And from the poem by Shakespeare, published in Chester's "Love's
Martyr," 1601.

"Let the bird of loudest lay
On the sole Arabian tree
Herald sad and Trumpet be,
To whose sound chaste wings obey."

Two very distinct trees are named in these passages. In the last five the reference is to the true Palm of Biblical and classical fame, as the emblem of victory, and the typical representation of life and beauty in the midst of barren waste and deserts. And we are not surprised at the veneration in which the tree was held, when we consider either the wonderful grace of the tree, or its many uses in its native countries, so many, that Pliny says that the Orientals reckoned 360 uses to which the Palm tree could be applied. Turner, in 1548, said: "I never saw any perfit Date tree yet, but onely a little one that never came to perfection;"[194:1] and whether Shakespeare ever saw a living Palm tree is doubtful, but he may have done so. (See DATE.) Now there are a great number grown in the large houses of botanic and other gardens, the Palm-house at Kew showing more and better specimens than can be seen in any other collection in Europe: even the open garden can now boast of a few species that will endure our winters without protection. Chamaerops humilis and Fortunei seem to be perfectly hardy, and good specimens may be seen in several gardens; Corypha australis is also said to be quite hardy, and there is little doubt but that the Date Palm (Phoenix dactylifera), which has long been naturalized in the South of Europe, would live in Devonshire and Cornwall, and that of the thousand species of Palms growing in so many different parts of the world, some will yet be found that may grow well in the open air in England.

But the Palm tree in No. 1 is a totally different tree, and much as Shakespeare has been laughed at for placing a Palm tree in the Forest of Arden, the laugh is easily turned against those who raise such an objection. The Palm tree of the Forest of Arden is the

"Satin-shining Palm
On Sallows in the windy gleams of March"--

--- Idylls of the King--Vivien.

that is, the Early Willow (Salix caprea) and I believe it is so called all over England, as it is in Northern Germany, and probably in other northern countries. There is little doubt that the name arose from the custom of using the Willow branches with the pretty golden catkins on Palm Sunday as a substitute for Palm branches.

"In Rome upon Palm Sunday they bear true Palms,
The Cardinals bow reverently and sing old Psalms;
Elsewhere those Psalms are sung 'mid Olive branches,
The Holly branch supplies the place among the avalanches;
More northern climes must be content with the sad Willow."

--- GOETHE (quoted by Seeman).

But besides Willow branches, Yew branches are sometimes used for the same purpose, and so we find Yews called Palms. Evelyn says they were so called in Kent; they are still so called in Ireland, and in the churchwarden's accounts of Woodbury, Devonshire, is the following entry: "Memorandum, 1775. That a Yew or Palm tree was planted in the churchyard, ye south side of the church, in the same place where one was blown down by the wind a few days ago, this 25th of November."[195:1]

How Willow or Yew branches could ever have been substituted for such a very different branch as a Palm it is hard to say, but in lack of a better explanation, I think it not unlikely that it might have arisen from the direction for the Feast of Tabernacles in Leviticus xxiii. 40: "Ye shall take you on the first day the boughs of goodly trees, the branches of Palm trees, and the boughs of thick trees, and Willows of the brook." But from whatever cause the name and the custom was derived, the Willow was so named in very early times, and in Shakespeare's time the name was very common. Here is one instance among many--

"Lambs frisk and play, the shepherds pipe all day,
The Palms and May make country houses gay,
And we hear aye birds tune this merry lay--
Cuckoo, jug-jug, pee-we, to-witta-woo."

--- T. NASH. 1567-1601.


[193:1] I do not include among "Palms" the passage in Hamlet, act i, sc. 1: "In the most high and palmy state of Rome," because I bow to Archdeacon Nares' judgment that "palmy" here means "grown to full height, in allusion to the palms of the stag's horns, when they have attained to their utmost growth." He does not, however, decide this with certainty, and the question may be still an open one.

[194:1] "Names of Herbes," s.v. Palma.

[195:1] In connection with this, Turner's account of the Palm in 1538 is worth quoting: "Palm[=a] arborem in anglia nunq' me vidisse memini. Indie tamen ramis palmar[=u] (ut illi loq[=u]ntur) soepius sacerdot[=e] dicent[=e] andivi. Bendic eti[=a] et hos palmar[=u] ramos, qu[=u] proeter salignas frondes nihil omnino vider[=e] ego, quid alii viderint nescio. Si nobis palmarum frondes non suppeterent; proestaret me judice mutare lectionem et dicere. Benedic hos salic[=u] ramos q' falso et mendaciter salicum frondes palmarum frondes vocare."--LIBELLUS, De re Herbaria, s.v. Palma. _

Read next: Part 1. The Plant-Lore Of Shakespeare: Pansies, Parsley, Peach

Read previous: Part 1. The Plant-Lore Of Shakespeare: Olive, Onions, Orange

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