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Gerit Quealy is passionate about the Bard of Avon.

Her latest book, Botanical Shakespeare: An Illustrated Compendium of All the Flowers, Fruits, Herbs, Trees, Seeds, and Grasses Cited by the World’s Greatest Playwright (HarperCollins), is beautiful proof. She will talk Shakespeare at a lecture and book signing at 1 p.m. Sunday, October 15, at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Honeysuckle illustration by Sumié Hasegawa-Collins for Botanical Shakespeare: An Illustrated Compendium

Honeysuckle illustration by Sumié Hasegawa-Collins

The book’s splendid illustrations are by Sumié Hasegawa-Collins and its foreword is by Helen Mirren—yes, Dame Helen’s an avid gardener. But it is Quealy, the book’s writer and editor, who dug through historical manuscripts from the sixteenth century’s “Elizabethan horticultural boom” to unearth more than 170 plant references in Shakespeare’s poems and plays.

For instance, apples often play a role in the Bard’s works, for as Quealy writes: “Shakespeare finds the apple ripe for metaphor.” Consider the Apple-John variety in Henry IV: “I am withered like an old Apple-John,” says Falstaff.

The mix of history and mystery captivated Quealy, who as a child read every Nancy Drew book she could find. It took 20 years to research and compile the book. “Letters and manuscripts still have not been transcribed because not enough people know how to do it, and it’s costly and time-consuming,” she told us. “And I was like, wow, there’s this secret repository of stuff.”

With no historical photographs to work with, though, Quealy and artist Sumie “had a lot of talks about the color things were.”

Gourd illustration by Sumié Hasegawa-Collins for Botanical Shakespeare: An Illustrated Compendium

Gourd by Sumié Hasegawa-Collins

The book should charm gardeners who might prepare an autumn feast by emulating the Bard’s locavore and organic credentials. Quealy suggests featuring carrots, turnips, potatoes, leeks, apples, grapes, plums, pears, thyme, or marjoram. Shakespeare, as noted in Quealy’s book, can provide conversation starters for each of these ingredients.

Potatoes: “Let the sky rain potatoes; let it thunder to the tune of Greensleeves…” (Falstaff in Merry Wives of Windsor)

Apples:  “I will make an end of my dinner. There’s Pippins and cheese to come.” (Sir Hugh Evans in Merry Wives of Windsor)

Grapes:  “The tartness of his face sours ripe grapes.” (Menenius in Coriolanus)

Leeks: “His eyes were green as leeks.” (Thisbe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

Plums: “There’s no more faith in thee than in a stewed prune.” (Falstaff in Henry IV)

Quealy has been in love with the Bard since a traveling troupe performed Twelfth Night for her third-grade class. “I just think the story and the way the story unfolded, maybe the rhythm of the language, is something that I responded to,” she says.

Grapes illustration by Sumié Hasegawa-Collins for Botanical Shakespeare: An Illustrated Compendium

Grapes illustration by Sumié Hasegawa-Collins

Born in Virginia, raised in Florida, and now living in New York, Quealy has been an actor (theater, television), a journalist (newspapers, magazines), and an author. A television project is in the works (FLOTUS: Playing the Woman Card in the White House); as is a project on Shakespeare’s kitchen.

The Garden event will include a lutenist and a soprano, who will perform during the free October 15 program (preregistration required). Quealy hopes the event and the book will help people connect with Shakespeare. “Shakespeare is all around you.”


Guest blogger Judith Hevrdejs-King is a freelance writer.


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