Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Russian Gardens in the Seventeenth Century (and the History of Salad)


The Summer Garden of the Peterhof as engraved by Zubov, c. 1716, via the Russian Museum.

There is very little recorded garden history in Russia prior to the eighteenth century refinements of Peter the Great.  So I was fascinated to stumble across this description from Travels of Olearius in Seventeenth-Century Russia (1634), which documents both traditional agricultural practices and the very beginnings of a new focus on design and decoration.  

"In some places, especially in Moscow, there are also fine garden plants, such as apples pears, cherries, plums, and red currents...there is one [apple] whose flesh is so tender and white that if you hold it up to the sun you can see the seeds...They also have all sorts of kitchen vegetables, notably asparagus as thick as a thumb...they grow good cucumbers, onions, and garlic, in great quantities.  The Russians have never planted lettuce or other salad greens; they paid them no attention and not only did not eat them but even laughed at the Germans who did, saying that they ate grass."

"The Russians have their own special methods of planting and cultivating melons...they soften the seeds in sweet milk, and sometimes in standing rainwater mixed with old sheep dung.  Then they arrange a mixture of horse manure and straw on the ground into a bed two ells deep.  On top it is covered with good soil, in which they make small holes about half an ell wide.  They plant the seeds in the middle so that they will be warmed not only below, but o all sides, from the collected heat of the sun, which helps them along.  At night they cover these mounds against the frost with little roofs made of mica..."

[n.b. an ell is normally a cubit, or about a yard, but that seems too large for this description of melon cultivation.  Windows with panes made of mica came to be called 'Muscovy glass' because of their use in Russia, so it is not unexpected that mica was used as well for what were essentially cloches.]

"Formerly, Moscow had few pretty herbs and flowers   However soon after we were there, the last Grand Prince ordered that a fine garden be planted and that it be beautified with various costs herbs and flowers.  Until then the Russians knew nothing of fine cultivated [double] roses but were limited to wild roses and eglantine, with which they ornamented their gardens.  Some years ago, however, Peter Marselis, a leading merchant, brought there from the garden of my most gracious Prince, in Gottorp, the first double and Provence roses, and they were well accepted...from the foregoing it may be inferred that the absence of certain fruits and plants is to be attributed not so much to the soil and air as to the negligence or ignorance of the inhabitants.  They have no lack of those fruits of the soil essential for the ordinary nourishment of life..."

It points out that just because there wasn't a recorded garden history doesn't mean there wasn't a garden history.  And that the decorative impulse didn't suddenly appear with the arrival of the cultivated roses.  It had been there long before with the wild eglantines transplanted into garden spaces as ornament.  I'm writing about that in the book, at present.  Early garden math, really:  the additions (wild roses) and subtractions (removal of weeds or other unattractive specimens) that were the beginnings of the decorative garden.


4 comments:

treesassociates said...

Hi ...I have just read your recent Russian Gardens entry. very interesting...you mention that you think the ell may be to large for this description of melon cultivation. I think it might be reasonable accurate. The intent would (confirmed in your description) be to produce heat for the melon both during germination and growth. This would come from the heat generated by the decomposing compost...same sort of idea being used for historic pineapple cultivation etc. Great read thank you! I have a horticultural and garden history background hence my comments. Many thanks Tim Rees

treesassociates said...

Hi ...I have just read your recent Russian Gardens entry. very interesting...you mention that you think the ell may be to large for this description of melon cultivation. I think it might be reasonable accurate. The intent would (confirmed in your description) be to produce heat for the melon both during germination and growth. This would come from the heat generated by the decomposing compost...same sort of idea being used for historic pineapple cultivation etc. Great read thank you! I have a horticultural and garden history background hence my comments. Many thanks Tim Rees

College Gardener said...

Fascinating!

Bow Street Flowers said...

I planted an Eglantine whip in my backyard eight years ago because I was told the leaves smelled like apple.
They do, but Eglantne is now a beast with flowers that last only a week.

I loved reading this post.

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