Gardening at The Met Cloisters

At the northern edge of Manhattan, nestled atop a hill in peaceful, leafy Fort Tryon Park, is a small slice of the Middle Ages: the Met Cloisters. Beyond its impressive collection of medieval art, this museum is also notable for their gardens, whose varied contents shift with the seasons.

Colonnade at The Met Cloisters: Aloe, Houseleek, Dittany of Crete and other medieval plants are shown potted on the  ledge in the foreground. Bavarian Hops climb to the roof in the background.

Ashley Newby, a current Medieval Studies MA student and extern volunteer in the gardens of The Met Cloisters, writes about her experience:

The three enclosed gardens of The Met Cloisters contain a carefully researched collection of plants either inspired by those featured in medieval art, or historically cultivated in medieval gardens. They are maintained by three full-time horticulturalists and a dozen or so volunteers. I had the opportunity to join the volunteer staff this past March, and for the past four months have spent Tuesday mornings grabbing a quick cup of coffee and walking through Fort Tryon Park to work in the gardens.

One of my favorite aspects of this work has been the opportunity to learn the history of each plant–particularly those grown in the Bonnefont Cloister, which are directly sourced from medieval European varietals. Some historical uses are more entertaining than strictly accurate…Mandrake root, for instance, was thought to resemble a human body and thus to cure all ills except death. It was also rumored to make a terrible noise if uprooted by a human, which could possibly drive the harvester mad and might even prove lethal. (For this reason it was advised to tie one’s dog to the plant and harvest it safely via a third party.) By contrast, the uses of other plants are still appreciable today. Sweet woodruff was regularly used in medieval households to perfume linens, sweeten bedstraw, and make garlands on feast days. Woodruff is low-growing and not especially flashy, but when cut and allowed to dry it produces a chemical known as coumarin which is amazingly fragrant, smelling like spicy new-mown hay.

Sweet Woodruff, Bonnefont Cloister Garden

Working with plants like these has given me a more direct understanding of how life was experienced and rationalized in the Middle Ages. I am especially grateful to the Managing Horticulturist, Caleb Leech, as well as to the two other full-time horticulturists and garden-tour docents who have taken time to share their knowledge with me.

Fermented Woad, compressed into ball and dried, prior to making blue dye

I have also appreciated the opportunity to learn slowly, while working with the plants themselves. In graduate school it can often be tempting to privilege time spent researching in the library above any other kind of “work.” But I have discovered that nothing can replace the knowledge gained through direct manual labor, outdoors in the fresh air. Even the seemingly mindless work of sweeping out a cloister garden (especially, let’s not forget, on a beautiful spring morning in view of the Hudson) becomes a real privilege. I feel incredibly lucky to have had that privilege.

-Ashley N. Newby, MA Medieval Studies