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A Walk Through a Pompeiian Pleasure Garden –
The Day Before Vesuvius
Courtesy of Garden Archaeologist Wilhelmina Jashemski
By Thea Fiore-Bloom, PhD.
Imagine it’s October 23rd, 79 AD and you’re an Italian noblewoman.
The good news is like most of your 1% patrician pals, you have a palace in the city and a sweet little villa on the coast in Pompeii.
You wake up this October morning and smile as you eyeball the shell-pink dawn illuminating your garden overlooking the Bay of Naples.
Ready for the bad news?
The bad news is that October 23rd 79 A.D. just happens to be the day before Vesuvius will crack open; its pyroclastic flow sluicing down the mountain where it will preserve your Pompeiian villa like a mollusk in the amber of time.
But you don’t know that yet.
So you gleefully step out for what most likely will be your last unhurried stroll around your private villa garden.
Did Pompeii Even Have Gardens?
Did Pompeii even have gardens?
In fact, Pompeii was once chock full of jewel box-like private gardens filled with sacred plants and statues.
Aren’t you curious as to what flowers, vines and trees your piece of earthly paradise might have contained?
Would it shock you if I told you there are people alive today who could tell you about your garden in jaw-dropping detail?
People who know that those shafts of wheat that used to tickle your calves as you snuck off on your garden’s back path toward the bathhouse at midnight were not beige.
Your wheat stalks were deluxe and black.
But who are these people who know so much about your damn wheat stalks?
And how do they know which of your plants grew where?
Have they taken one too many “Know Your Past Life” seminars?
They aren’t psychics, they’re mostly scientists (working alongside fresco historians and other scholars.)
How Do We Know What The Gardens of Pompeii Were Like?
We know so much about the villa gardens at Pompeii because archeo-botanists and environmental biologists have made it their mission in life to investigate them.
For example, archeo-botanists were able to identify over 400 plants from bits of preserved pollen, flowers, stems and leaf fragments found tucked into a nearly two-thousand-year-old carbonized Pompeiian hay bale.
I got into all this by reading the books of garden archeologist Wilhelmina Feemster Jashemski. She and other researchers help us be certain what species of vine climbed the pergolas in a past life.
How do women like Jashemski know?
Jashemski and other garden archeologists dug underground in what may have been your very garden to investigate hundreds of subterranean, carbonized root imprints preserved for millennia in the hardened lava belched out by Mt Vesuvius. (To dig into some of Jashemski’s academic papers head over here.)
By studying the detailed “fossils” of your garden’s roots, researchers can say with confidence that your fountain dedicated to the Goddess of love was surrounded by both violets and irises.
Or that your pergolas were draped in grapes not roses.
Scholars, garden directors, and museum heads have not only studied these ancient gardens, they’ve gone on to re-create them.
Where Can I See a Recreation of the Gardens of Pompeii Today?
This is wonderful news for plant or mythology geeks like us.
Because now we can enjoy stepping back in time, into a Roman garden, the day before Vesuvius.
And we can do so without fear that we too will be preserved like a mollusk in amber.
So where can you wander through a scientifically accurate recreation of the gardens of Pompeii (besides those in Italy) in this lifetime?
The answer is, in Los Angeles California.
The Getty Villa garden nestled in the hills of the Pacific Palisades is a great example of archeological garden reconstruction and has been named one of the world’s best gardens created in the 20th century.
Horticulturist Michael DeHart (Supervisor for Grounds and Gardens for the J. Paul Getty Trust) has devoted the last 20 years of his life to making it his business to give visitors to the Getty Villa Museum the pleasure of walking in gardens similar to those that used to flourish at the ancient Villa dei Papiri.
The Villa dei Papiri was located in Herculaneum (an area also tragically buried by Vesuvius.)
So what were the gardens of Pompeii like?
What Were The Gardens of Pompeii Like?
What were the religious reasons certain plants and trees were nourished in those sacred, leafy enclaves?
We’ll be able to find out right now.
Because DeHart was kind enough to give me a personal tour around the Getty Villa’s vast Herb Garden to help me see the plants there through more … Roman eyes.
Eyes that seem to have connected all elements of nature (from a rustling leaf to a clap of thunder) with a Goddess or God.
We’ll discover the eight sacred plants that you as a past life Pompeiian may have prized in your garden.
And we’ll also get tips from DeHart on how to grow all eight of these sacred plants.
Ready? Grab a pencil.
Your Pompeiian Garden Can Be Tiny, You Can Even Make it a Container Garden
First off, know you don’t even need a half-acre of land to grow your Pre-Vesuvian paradise.
It’s easily possible to put together an ancient Italian pleasure garden in a postage stamp size yard or even and assemble all of the following eight plants into pots on a fairly tiny terrace.
As I see it, you just need two sacred trees, three holy herbs a mythic flower and shrub or two and you’re good to go. (Two hundred twenty-five foot long reflecting pools, and ancient marble fountains are, of course, optional.)
And, almost all of the plants DeHart will recommend below are easily bought at a local garden center.
So which eight plants are we talking about here?
What Plants and Trees Were Found in The Gardens of Pompeii?
Let’s Start with Two Trees Sacred to Romans
If you want to recreate an ancient Roman villa garden in modern times, start by planting two sacred trees.
When you enter or exit many of the long rectangular gardens at the Getty Villa you usually will pass between carefully selected pairs of trees.
So, let’s begin with bay. (Laurus nobilis or Grecian Bay Laurel.)
What Bay Meant to an Ancient Roman
To most of us, the scent of bay laurel telegraphs to our passive, blissed-out brain that a roast is warming in the oven.
But to a Roman, bay smelled like victory.
Roman heroes donned bay wreaths at games and festivals.
Apparently, Julius Caesar hardly ever went out in public without wearing a bay laurel wreath.
Not good. Because this laurel crown-wearing thing majorly pissed off Casar’s critics, who viewed it as a pompous display of hubris.
However, Caesar’s defenders claimed Julius did not sport his laurels to boast of battle success, but to hide his big bald spot. *1
Romans also revered the bay laurel for its apotropaic properties.
They believed the bay could ward off evil; evil in the form of curses, plague and lightning strikes.
So can you see why a bay tree is so important to a Roman garden?
DeHart’s Care Tips for Bay Laurel
You could get your Roman Villa garden off to a stellar start by planting two potted Bays.
You’ll need a container at least 12 inches deep and wide.
Or you could go for a wee 6″ pot and keep your Bay tree as a bonsai (under one foot tall) if you are making a Roman container garden on your patio.
“The bay laurel is a tree that wants to be a shrub,” said DeHart. “It responds like crazy to pruning. The Romans shaped bay laurel into little umbrella domes, big mushroom domes, tall columns and even high hedges.”
The Getty has a huge screen hedge of bay laurel at its entrance.
Ensure the loamy potting soil (ideally with compost added) can drain well before transplanting it.
The Bay is hardy to about 20 degrees.
Don’t let your bay laurel get lonely.
Bay laurel was sacred to Apollo so maybe plant Minerva’s favorite tree nearby.
A tree whose leaves glint silver in the sun and give off an ancient glow in moonlight— the olive.
Pompeiian Gardeners Also Adored Olive Trees ( Olea Europa)
The mythic founders of Rome (Romulus and Remus) were said to have been born under a mighty olive tree.
And the twins might have died under that olive tree too if it hadn’t been for the Capitoline wolf, who raised them to manhood.
Growing Instructions for Your Olive Tree
Yes! Olive trees can be grown in pots on patios.
In the beginning, the saplings need lots of water but they can grow to be drought-tolerant if they’re nurtured enough initially to establish complex root systems.
Plant in full sun in dry, alkaline soil. Hardy to about 20 degrees.
“We grow Swan Hill Olives here at the Getty Villa,” said DeHart. “Because they’re fruitless. It prevents visitors from slipping and falling on them as they walk by.”
If you want fruit DeHart recommends you go with Olea Europa.
“But know it’s a tremendous amount of work for a homeowner to produce edible olives. It’s more brining and rinsing than you’d think to get just one olive to plunk in your martini,” said DeHart.
Your Pompeiian Paradise Would Benefit From These 3 Holy Herbs
Let’s leave our treed entrance behind and walk on the garden’s central path toward its
gurgling fountain and pool.
On either side of this path, lay symmetrical pairs of herb beds overflowing with sweet basil.
Sweet Basil (Ocimum basilicum)
I see basil and think… bruschetta.
But Romans saw basil and probably thought – royalty.
The word basil comes from the word Greek basilikon, which means “kingly.”
“Basil was an imperial herb in antiquity,” said DeHart.
Romans may have revered basil but apparently, ancient Greeks had a complex relationship to it, because they believed to grow lush, ritually powerful basil – you needed to shout obscene curses at it as you were planting it. *2
When Greeks weren’t cursing at their basil, they used it to heal nasty bites.
Dioscorides and Pliny the Elder wrote that to survive the bites of rabid dogs, poisonous snakes and sea scorpions one should administer a basil-infused tincture made of wine and vinegar.
Basil will flourish in anything from partial shade to full sun in moist, well-drained soil.
It can survive year-round in places where the temperature doesn’t dip below about 35 degrees.
A Pompeiian Garden Also Needs Mint (Mentha)
If you were going to attend a formal banquet in Pompeii this evening you might stroll into your garden to gather mint for your wreath.
Mint was fashionable headgear at banquets since the herb was thought to both stimulate the appetite and calm the emotions.
In fact, mint was believed to be so calming Roman soldiers were forbidden to eat or wear the herb for fear it would do too good a job of tamping down aggression. *3
Mint was a major player in ancient meat sauces,” said DeHart, who recommends anyone interested in ancient lifestyles/cookery check out Marcus Gavius Apicius’ cookbook here.
“Apicius was the Martha Stewart of the first century,” said DeHart. According to Apicius, all meat sauces had oregano and mint in them (and practically every other herb in existence.)”
There was no refrigeration then.
“So Romans probably needed complex herb sauces to mask things going off,” said DeHart.
But fish was a different story.
If you wanted truly fresh fish, you need not have gone further than your garden pool, which DeHart says was like a live fish refrigerator for some Romans.
And those fish often benefited from the cool shelter that parasol-like water lilies provided there.
Now Add 1 Mythic Lilly for Your Central Reflecting Pool
Cleopatra’s Blue Nile Water Lily (Nymphaea, sp.)
“Cleopatra grew a gorgeous violet-blue hued water lily species in ancient Egypt, which we grow here at the Getty Villa and think Romans too may have enjoyed in their pools,” said DeHart.
The scientific name for water lily is Nymphaea, which comes from the Greek word for nymph.
In myth, nymphs were semi-divine spirit beings that guarded springs, pools and waterways.
Water Lilly 101
“The colorful tropical varieties like the blue don’t tolerate the cold winters of even warmregions like California and are replaced every Spring,” said DeHart.
(But apparently, there are a few heartier, simple-hued, hybrid species you can grow that can last longer than one season, with proper care.) Plant your blue water lily in full sun in a pond with rich humic soil. Top with an inch of sand to keep the roots in that humic layer.
Don’t Forget This Divine Flower To Hug Your Fountain
Romans probably enjoyed flowers not only in their fountains but around them as well.
And their favorite flower might have been the rose.
Damask Roses Were Probably Big in the Gardens of Pompeii
Rosa damascena semperflorens (‘Autumn Damask’)
Imperial Rome was mad for roses.
And the silky bomb of a flower was sacred to the divine trifecta of Venus, Bacchus, and Flora.
Vast quantities of rose petals were strewn on banquet floors and used to make rosewater to bathe in.
Roses were tossed on Roman roads prior to victory parades. Their petals gave off a memorable scent when crushed under the wooden wheels of passing chariots. *4
“It is absolutely plausible the Damask rose we grow at the Getty was in Pompeiian gardens. Because these roses originally hailed from Damascus, Syria. They travel easily and root easily,” said DeHart.
Before my day with DeHart at the Getty, I’d never smelled a damask rose.
It’s so deliciously complex with a vanilla base note, a violet mid-note and a kind of cinnamony-lemon top
note. I now understand why perfumers have secretly included it in cologne for centuries.
And the wild thing is this complexly scented rose is simple to grow.
“Everyone Should Try To Grow Damask Roses!”
“Damask roses are so easy to grow, because they’re on their own root, they aren’t even grafted. It’s such an original, unfettered, unhybridized rose— everyone should try growing them,” said DeHart.
Plant in full sun in fertile, moist, well-drained soil. Hardy to about -10 degrees.
If you keep walking beyond the fountain, you’ll pass through another long set of symmetrical herb beds and pairs of fruit trees.
Perhaps if this was your villa, you’d pick a few pomegranates, lemons, figs or peaches before scooting under your grapevine-covered pergola to head back in for ientaculum (breakfast).
But what’s a Roman garden without grapes?
The Gardens of Pompeii Often Had a Holy Roman Vine For the Perimeter
Rogers Red Grape (hybrid of V. californica and V. vinifera ‘Alicante Bouschet’)
Vine-draped pergolas like those at the Getty Villa doubled as personal exercise paths in Pompeii.
They often hugged along the interior walls of a garden and provided dappled shade.
But grapes and grapevine were more than sources of wine and shade for Romans.
A grape variety popular in Sonoma called Roger’s Red covers the pergolas at the Getty Villa. This vine produces a delicious, purple, cabernet grape.
If you visit the Villa in Autumn, you’ll see Roger’s Red has leaves that flush a Pompeiian crimson before falling.
Did You Know It’s Not Hard To Grow Your Own Grapes?
“You don’t need a pergola, an arbor, or even any structure with a roof to grow your own grapes,” said DeHart. “You just need a post, another post, and some wire strung in between.”
The post holds up the woody cane and the wire holds up the lightweight vine.
You prune it back every winter.
You could even set that up on a patio.
Grapes need full sun and fertile well-drained soil to thrive.
Hardy to about 10 degrees.
Let’s hook you up with one other sacred shrub option before we go.
It’s my favorite shrub of love.
Oh, And Keep Some Myrtle Around For Love Crowns (Myrtus)
If you had a moonlit, wine-fueled tryst for two in a quiet field in 1st century Rome, the only things you and your partner might be found wearing come morning were your myrtle crowns.
“Venus, a very early Latin goddess of Spring, was also known as Myrtea, goddess of myrtles,” said D’Andrea.
Did you know the groves where the Eleusinian Mysteries took place were Myrtle groves?
Initiates were thought to wear and carry sprigs from myrtle plants during the seminal ritual.
Check out this orange blossom and myrtle flower crown Queen Victoria rocked in her 1847 wedding portrait.
Queen Victoria also set the current fashion for having myrtle in one’s bridal bouquet.
One last touch of botanical romance though before you go.
Extra Credit: Plant The Flower That Rambles the Ruins
Alyssum (Lobularia maritime)
Until recently, I could never figure out why on some days when I walk the gardens at the Getty Villa I get instantly transported back to my visit to the ruins of Pompeii; but on other Getty walks, I don’t.
I finally realized it depends on whether or not the Alyssum is in bloom.
The ruins of Pompeii slept under a carpet of alyssum when I last visited.
Alyssum is a ground-hugging plant with tiny white flowers. Are you familiar with it?
It’s an easy plant to overlook. But it gives off a show-stopping scent reminiscent of neroli and honey.
How To Grow Your Alyssum in Your Pompeiian Garden
To bring a bit of Pompeiian Italy home with you, grow your own Alyssum.
Butterflies love it.
Plant it months before the first frost.
Make sure to give Alyssum water daily in hot weather.
Just generously sprinkle the seed of the white, pink or purple variety on top of turned soil and gently press in.
You want the seeds close together so that you can recreate the scattered, wild, white carpet effect you may have seen, or will one day see when you visit Pompeii.
Have you been to Pompeii? Do you want to go? Let me know in the comments below!
Want more posts about Italian history or Gardening? You might like the following Charmed Studio posts: