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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 - Corn, Cowslip, Crow-Flowers

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(1) Gonzalo.

No use of metal, Corn, or wine, or oil.

--- Tempest, act ii, sc. 1 (154).

(2) Duke.

Our Corn's to reap, for yet our tithe's to sow.

--- Measure for Measure, act iv, sc. 1 (76).

(3) Titania.

Playing on pipes of Corn, (67)

* * * * *

The green Corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attained a beard.

--- Midsummer Night's Dream, act ii, sc. 1 (94).

(4) K. Edward.

What valiant foemen, like to autumn's Corn,
Have we mowed down in tops of all their pride!

--- 3rd Henry VI, act v, sc. 7 (3).

(5) Pucelle.

Talk like the vulgar sort of market men
That come to gather money for their Corn.

--- 1st Henry VI, act iii, sc. 2 (4).

Poor market folks that come to sell their Corn.

--- Ibid. (14).

Good morrow, gallants! want ye Corn for bread?

--- Ibid. (41).


I trust, ere long, to choke thee with thine own,
And make thee curse the harvest of that Corn.

--- Ibid. (46).

(6) Duchess.

Why droops my lord like over-ripened Corn
Hanging the head at Ceres' plenteous load?

--- 2nd Henry VI, act i, sc. 2. (1).

(7) Warwick.

His well-proportioned beard made rough and ragged
Like to the summer's Corn by tempest lodged.

--- 2nd Henry VI, act iii, sc. 2 (175).

(8) Mowbray.

We shall be winnow'd with so rough a wind
That even our Corn shall seem as light as chaff.

--- 2nd Henry IV, act iv, sc. 1 (194).

(9) Macbeth.

Though bladed Corn be lodged and trees blown down.

--- Macbeth, act iv, sc. 1 (55).

(10) Longaville.

He weeds the Corn, and still lets grow the weeding.

--- Love's Labour's Lost, act i, sc. 1 (96).

(11) Biron.

Allons! allons! sowed Cockle reap'd no Corn.

--- Ibid., act iv, sc 3 (383).

(12) Edgar.

Sleepest or wakest thou, jolly shepherd?
Thy sheep be in the Corn.

--- King Lear, act iii, sc. 6 (43).

(13) Cordelia.

All the idle weeds that grow
In our sustaining Corn.

--- Ibid., act iv, sc. 4 (6).

(14) Demetrius.

First thrash the Corn, then after burn the straw.

--- Titus Andronicus, act ii, sc. 3 (123).

(15) Marcus.

O, let me teach you how to knit again
This scattered Corn into one mutual sheaf.

--- Ibid., act v, sc. 3 (70).

(16) Pericles.

Our ships are stored with Corn to make your needy bread.

--- Pericles, act i, sc. 4 (95).

(17) Cleon.

Your grace that fed my country with your Corn.

--- Ibid., act iii, sc. 3 (18).

(18) Menenius.

For Corn at their own rates.

--- Coriolanus, act i, sc. 1 (193).


The gods sent not Corn for the rich men only.

--- Ibid. (211).


The Volsces have much Corn.

--- Ibid. (253).


We stood up about the Corn.

--- Ibid., act ii, sc. 3 (16).


Corn was given them gratis.

--- Ibid., act iii, sc. 1 (43).


Tell me of Corn!

--- Ibid. (61).

The Corn of the storehouse gratis.

--- Ibid. (125).

The Corn was not our recompense.

--- Ibid. (120).

This kind of service
Did not deserve Corn gratis.

--- Coriolanus, act iii, sc. 1 (124).

(19) Cranmer.

I am right glad to catch this good occasion
Most thoroughly to be winnow'd, where my chaff
And Corn shall fly asunder.

--- Henry VIII, act v, sc. 1 (110).

(20) Cranmer.

Her foes shake like a field of beaten Corn
And hang their heads with sorrow.

--- Ibid., act v, sc. 4 (32).

(21) K. Richard.

We'll make foul weather with despised tears;
Our sighs and they shall lodge the summer Corn.

--- Richard II, act iii, sc. 3 (161).

(22) Arcite.

And run
Swifter then winde upon a field of Corne
(Curling the wealthy eares) never flew.

--- Two Noble Kinsmen, act ii, sc. 3 (91).


As Corn o'ergrown by weeds, so heedful fear
Is almost choked by unresisted lust.

--- Lucrece (281).

I have made these quotations as short as possible. They could not be omitted, but they require no comment.



(1) Burgundy.

The even mead that erst brought sweetly forth
The freckled Cowslip, Burnet, and green Clover.

--- Henry V, act v, sc. 2 (48).

(2) Queen.

The Violets, Cowslips, and the Primroses,
Bear to my closet.

--- Cymbeline, act i, sc. 5 (83).

(3) Iachimo.

On her left breast
A mole, cinque-spotted, like the crimson drops
I' the bottom of a Cowslip.

--- Ibid., act ii, sc. 2 (37).

(4) Ariel.

Where the bee sucks there suck I,
In a Cowslip's bell I lie.

--- Tempest, act v, sc. 1 (88).

(5) Thisbe.

Those yellow Cowslip cheeks.

--- Midsummer Night's Dream, act v, sc. 1 (339).

(6) Fairy.

The Cowslips tall her pensioners be;
In their gold coats spots you see;
Those be rubies, fairy favours,
In those freckles live their savours;
I must go seek some dewdrops here,
And hang a pearl in every Cowslip's ear.

--- Midsummer Night's Dream, act ii, sc. 1 (10).[65:1]

"Cowslips! how the children love them, and go out into the fields on the sunny April mornings to collect them in their little baskets, and then come home and pick the pips to make sweet unintoxicating wine, preserving at the same time untouched a bunch of the goodliest flowers as a harvest-sheaf of beauty! and then the white soft husks are gathered into balls and tossed from hand to hand till they drop to pieces, to be trodden upon and forgotten. And so at last, when each sense has had its fill of the flower, and they are thoroughly tired of their play, the children rest from their celebration of the Cowslip. Blessed are such flowers that appeal to every sense." So wrote Dr. Forbes Watson in his very pretty and Ruskinesque little work "Flowers and Gardens," and the passage well expresses one of the chief charms of the Cowslip. It is the most favourite wild flower with children. It must have been also a favourite with Shakespeare, for his descriptions show that he had studied it with affection. The minute description in (6) should be noticed. The upright golden Cowslip is compared to one of Queen Elizabeth's Pensioners, who were splendidly dressed, and are frequently noticed in the literature of the day. With Mrs. Quickly they were the ne plus ultra of grandeur--"And yet there has been earls, nay, which is more, pensioners" ("Merry Wives," act ii, sc. 2). Milton, too, sings in its praise--

"Now the bright morning star, day's harbinger,
Comes dancing from the East, and leads with her
The flowering May, who from her green lap throws
The yellow Cowslip and the pale Primrose."

--- Song on May Morning.

"Whilst from off the waters fleet,
Then I set my printless feet
O'er the Cowslip's velvet head
That bends not as I tread."

--- Sabrina's Song in Comus.

But in "Lycidas" he associates it with more melancholy ideas--

"With Cowslips wan that hang the pensive head,
And every flower that sad embroidery wears."

This association of sadness with the Cowslip is copied by Mrs. Hemans, who speaks of "Pale Cowslips, meet for maiden's early bier;" but these are exceptions. All the other poets who have written of the Cowslip (and they are very numerous) tell of its joyousness, and brightness, and tender beauty, and its "bland, yet luscious, meadow-breathing scent."

The names of the plant are a puzzle; botanically it is a Primrose, but it is never so called. It has many names, but its most common are Paigle and Cowslip. Paigle has never been satisfactorily explained, nor has Cowslip. Our great etymologists, Cockayne and Dr. Prior and Wedgwood, are all at variance on the name; and Dr. Prior assures us that it has nothing to do with either "cows" or "lips," though the derivation, if untrue, is at least as old as Ben Jonson, who speaks of "Bright Dayes-eyes and the lips of Cowes." But we all believe it has, and, without inquiring too closely into the etymology, we connect the flower with the rich pastures and meadows of which it forms so pretty a spring ornament, while its fine scent recalls the sweet breath of the cow--"just such a sweet, healthy odour is what we find in cows; an odour which breathes around them as they sit at rest on the pasture, and is believed by many, perhaps with truth, to be actually curative of disease" (Forbes Watson).

Botanically, the Cowslip is a very interesting plant. In all essential points the Primrose, Cowslip, and Oxlip are identical; the Primrose, however, choosing woods and copses and the shelter of the hedgerows, the Cowslip choosing the open meadows, while the Oxlip is found in either. The garden "Polyanthus of unnumbered dyes" (Thomson's "Seasons:" Spring) is only another form produced by cultivation, and is one of the most favourite plants in cottage gardens. It may, however, well be grown in gardens of more pretension; it is neat in growth, handsome in flower, of endless variety, and easy cultivation. There are also many varieties of the Cowslip, of different colours, double and single, which are very useful in the spring garden.


[65:1] Drayton also allotted the Cowslip as the special Fairies' flower--

"For the queene a fitting bower,
(Quoth he) is that tall Cowslip flower."--Nymphidia.






There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of Crow-flowers, Nettles, Daisies, and Long Purples.

--- Hamlet, act iv, sc. 7 (169).

The Crow-flower is now the Buttercup,[67:1] but in Shakespeare's time it was applied to the Ragged Robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi), and I should think that this was the flower that poor Ophelia wove into her garland. Gerard says, "They are not used either in medicine or in nourishment; but they serve for garlands and crowns, and to deck up gardens." We do not now use the Ragged Robin for the decking of our gardens, not that we despise it, for it is a flower that all admire in the hedgerows, but because we have other members of the same family as easy to grow and more handsome, such as the double variety of the wild plant, L. Chalcedonica, L. Lagascae, L. fulgens, L. Haagena, &c.; In Shakespeare's time the name was also given to the Wild Hyacinth, which is so named by Turner and Lyte; but this could scarcely have been the flower of Ophelia's garland, which was composed of the flowers of early summer, and not of spring. (See Appendix, p. 388.)


[67:1] In Scotland the Wild Hyacinth is still called the Crow-flower--

"Sweet the Crow-flower's early bell
Decks Gleniffer's dewy dell,
Blooming like thy bonny sel,
My young, my artless dearie, O."

--- TANNAHILL, Gloomy Winter. _

Read next: Part 1. The Plant-Lore Of Shakespeare: Crown Imperial, Cuckoo-Buds And Flowers, Currants

Read previous: Part 1. The Plant-Lore Of Shakespeare: Coloquintida, Columbine, Cork

Table of content of Plant-Lore & Garden-Craft of Shakespeare


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